Brian De Palma Remembers Kicking Oliver Stone Off Set, Feeding De Niro His Lines Ahead of 'De Palma' Doc

Brian De Palma - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Brian De Palma - Getty - H 2016

The suspense master recalls Orson Welles and Robert De Niro refusing to learn their lines, and the time he and Jay Cocks rewrote the opening scroll in 'Star Wars.'

No, Brian De Palma didn't hate Star Wars when his good friend George Lucas showed him an early cut — but he did help to improve the iconic first entry in the blockbuster franchise.

The real story "has been not reported correctly,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter of the episode. “We all thought the movie was fantastic. I thought certain things didn’t make any sense, especially the crawl. And Jay Cocks and I rewrote it so it seemed to make a little more sense.”

This is not a story you'll find in Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach's new documentary, De Palma, a chronological accounting of the filmmaker’s blood-soaked career, in theaters June 10, but viewers will hear about the time he kicked Oliver Stone off the set of Scarface, as well as the time he had to spoon-feed Robert De Niro his lines while filming The Untouchables.

Coming from New York, De Palma arrived in Hollywood amid a revolutionary new wave driven by names like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. In the mid-'70s, he was casting Carrie, the movie that vaulted him to A-list status, followed by thrillers like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, the first a variation on Psycho, and the second based on the Michelangelo Antonioni classic, Blow Up. In 1983's Scarface, inspired by the 1930s classic by Howard Hawks, became a cult sensation among hip-hop fans to the extent that Universal offered to rescore the movie with a hip-hop soundtrack, an idea De Palma passed on. Oliver Stone wrote the script and was present during filming, until one day he wasn’t.

“He was talking to the actors on the set. You can’t have two voices on the set. I said to the producer, you have to have him leave cause there can only be one eye on the set, and that’s mine,” De Palma said of Stone who, at the time, had directed the horror movie, The Hand, with his breakthrough, Platoon, still a couple of years away. After the release of Scarface, De Palma recalls Stone circulating a four-page single-spaced critique of the movie that was something less than flattering.

“Most actor-directors are very easy to work with because they know the problems the director is having. And they’re usually on the set basically because they’re making money in order to put into their own movie,” observes De Palma, which was the case with both John Cassavetes in The Fury, and Orson Welles, with whom he worked on Get to Know Your Rabbit in 1972, a demoralizing experience from which De Palma was fired.

“He never read the script," said De Palma. "He wasn’t interested in the lines. He was basically just trying to skate his way through it. I wouldn’t let him do it. I just kept on shooting until he got the line.”

The same problem occurred on The Untouchables starring Robert De Niro as Al Capone, according to De Palma. The actor got his first screen credit at the age of 25 in the 1968 De Palma comedy, Greetings, and worked with the director on the aforementioned The Wedding Party as well as Hi Mom! And yet, 20 years later De Palma had to coax him into playing Capone, and even then he showed up unprepared.

“Sometimes actors, when they get to a certain level, they don’t do the things they used to do when they’re starting off. Having had this experience with Orson Welles, I just kept on doing it until he had it down. I used to go over his lines when he was putting his makeup on,” he says of De Niro before recalling a similar experience Coppola had with Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now. “When you watch Brando looking for his lines, they paint them on paper and on walls. You can see him looking for them. It’s not a magic moment.”

De Palma is currently in pre-production on Lights Out, a thriller (independently financed with money from China) about a blind girl and a ring of assassins starring Chinese actor Christina Wu. He doubts he’ll be working for the studios any time soon. “If you can make those movies and make a billion dollars, you can sort of do whatever you want. But you’re being forced into duplicating yourself, which is something I never wanted to do.”