Why Brian De Palma Is My Cinematic Hero (Guest Column)

Brian De Palma's 'The Untouchables'

'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' helmer Alfonso Gomez-Rejon reflects on the director's legacy as A24 expands the documentary 'De Palma' this weekend to 40 theaters.

Earlier in my career, I’m in an editing bay in East L.A., drowning in studio notes, watching the original cut of my feature be methodically dismembered one shot at a time. I was fighting, but losing. The ending was a new mandate. The same goes for the new voiceover. My favorite scenes: gone. Insert shots of film projectors: too weird. Making movies was all I’d ever wanted; how would I ever recover from this? The first cut worked. Was I the only one who could see that the notes were hurting the film? An exec once sat next to me sneering over the Avid, pointing out shots he/she didn’t understand. “What’s that?” “It’s a split diopter,” I answered. “I don’t get it.” “You know, De Palma …?” “It’s confusing. Cut them all out. You don’t need them?”

I did my best to explain the power and psychological effect of a split diopter. The paranoia I was trying to convey in this particular scene. How the entire film was an homage to the movies. How a film had defined a town and fictionalized it’s pain — how those particular shots were an homage to my hero, Brian De Palma, and Blow Out, specifically. You can’t approach a split diopter shot intellectually; it’s a feeling. If the new ending was already going to spoil my film for audiences and send me to therapy, then why not let me keep some of the texture in the off chance that De Palma would go to the theater opening weekend, see my “ambitious failure” of a film and catch one of his disciples winking back at him with this homage? Maybe he’d also notice that the dead body laying on the railroad track was dismembered and splayed out to look just like Saul Bass’ poster of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. He would certainly catch that, then track me down, invite me for a drink and welcome me to the club, “You’ve suffered enough, kid?” Would all the episodes of American Horror Story that I’d directed, with Jennifer Salt writing many of them (who I annoyed with questions about her Sarah Lawrence College classmate) and so many online critics affectionately calling me the poor man’s De Palma, finally lead to a meeting?

No. But I’ve been patient.

Filmmaking has been my obsession since growing up in Laredo, Texas. I woke up thinking about movies. I fell asleep at night watching them. For me, De Palma was the apostle of cinematic technique. Delivering his sermons through the VHS tapes in my video store church. Pointing me in the direction of my own projection light. Bridging the gap between my cinematic fantasies and cinematic reality. This is how I watched Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface and Body Double. De Palma’s camera was a character; he embraced it — these were works of art that were defining the medium and moving it forward. He was breaking and reinterpreting the form. There was constant strategic and spectacular movement. There was color, sexuality, absurdity. He was literally directing you, telling you where to see. Everything seemed to be at the service of the movie. The images were alive. Iconoclastic works of energy that inspired cinematic curiosity. This first film of his that I watched in the theater was The Untouchables. I was 14 or 15 and went back with my father half a dozen times. I found myself mesmerized by the production design, the lighting, the score — the great spectacle. Another monolith arose from the ground and I realized that cinema was also a collaborative enterprise.

My first week at NYU in the fall of 1990, while walking in the Village, I saw Brian De Palma walking on the opposite side the street. We were on Sixth Avenue. He turned on to 8th Street towards Fifth Avenue. And I did the natural thing: I followed. There he was, walking like a regular person. Propelling himself forward, one foot in front of the other, like any other mortal. Movies stars always looking smaller in the flesh, but De Palma was even bigger. I felt like a small-time mobster casing a target, or a De Palma steadicam shot. This was my secret, privileged moment.

Here was the man who taught me about storyboarding in a Premiere Magazine article that published his early Macintosh boards for Casualties of War. He opened me up to the actual craft. The engineering. The planning — skills that would later lead to a tiny career of me boarding my way through college for extra money, working on independent and graduate thesis films.

Once in New York, I practically lived at Bobst Library, going through their video library, discovering films my local video store didn’t carry. Dionysus in '69, Sisters, The Fury, Blow Out and Phantom of the Paradise. And then, of course more Hitchcock — and then there it was, De Palma’s playful relationship with the past and nod to the masters that shaped him. Studio films with a Hollywood scope that defied and maybe even played the system. He was exploring the past but remaining a trailblazer that energized me in the present. Although I was an intensely shy kid, I found myself in full-on attack mode when a classmate would dismiss one of his films. The Untouchables and Scarface could never be contested. But if someone would dismiss Blow Out, I’d pounce. There was an innate sense that I needed to protect the masters and their extraordinary vision, especially those who I felt were underappreciated. It was my duty.

A couple of years later, he was shooting Carlito’s Way down the street from my dorm in the West Village. They were working nights and I would just watch from the sidewalk — as close as a PA would let me get. Pacino. De Palma and Stephen Burum. Fake rain. The biggest set I had ever seen. It was quite literally the realization of my dreams; an extraordinary sensation that overwhelmed me and cemented that I had chosen the right career ... however long and however painful that journey might be. This search for an identity that had always plagued me because of the nature of where I was from, went away. I only needed to be defined by my dreams and hopefully, resilience, not unlike what — from the outside — De Palma has shown throughout his career.

Which gets me back to the editing room and the split diopters. After months of recutting, everyone lost their way, from the suits to the apprentice editors — all confused as to which of the dozens of cuts was the strongest, so much so that half of my obstinate little split diopters found their way back into that scene. I still couldn’t find the words to describe their effect to the exec that wanted them out; words just don’t apply. De Palma’s images move from the mind to the heart, and then they linger there forever. The more I study his work, the more that it is clear that movies are his life. A singular man with a singular vision where nothing seems impossible.

Not even an extreme close-up in the extreme foreground sharing the frame with a sharp focused deep background. An impossibility that can only exist in one of his movies.

Many of my colleagues have the same connection to De Palma that I do. He feels like a phantom member of our inner circles. Watching his films, we revisit old friends and mentors. The man has jeopardized his career with every movie he has made. But he has held his ground. Hell or high water. And the rewards have always proven to be far greater than the risks.

What amazes me the most about De Palma is his courage to remain De Palma.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is the director of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Town That Dreaded Sundown.