On Brian De Palma | The Movie Brats - Part 1


Over the course of the next few weeks we are going to look into five different filmmakers and how their community helped them develop. We are talking about Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola.


As young filmmakers they formed a clan, working at Warner Brothers, passing around scripts, giving feedback, supporting one another, they were like a cinematic brotherhood. And in the words of Brian De Palma, who we will be deep-diving into in this blog post, atypical to what business-driven cinema usually comes out to be, “We were able to get into the studio system and use all that stuff [money] in order to make some pretty incredible movies.”



Born September 11, 1940, Brian De Palma, the baby of three boys, was born in Northern New Jersey and raised in suburban Philidelphia from the age of five. His mother, a stay-at-home mom, was very close with her children. On the contrary, De Palma recalls not having much of a relationship with his father, a highly successful orthopedic surgeon. Brian attended Friend’s Central, a Quaker school, for his entire kindergarten through twelfth grade. There, he was a huge science nerd, entering into every school science fair, and deeply loving the math, science, and engineering path of education. So much so that after high school graduation he was admitted to Columbia University to study physics, mathematics, and Russian. But, it wasn’t until late into his undergraduate experience that he found a passion for film.


This time in film history, the late 1950’s, marked the French New Wave movement, bringing with it films by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. This interesting new style of film intrigued De Palma so much so that he decided to venture into the world of filmmaking. As there were no film courses at Columbia, De Palma joined a society called Cinema 16, put on by Amos Vogel. Vogel curated an independently made short film festival for cinema lovers to watch, and for amateur filmmakers to participate in. De Palma submitted a short every year, and in his third year he finally won with Woton’s Wake, starring one of his Columbia classmates and future collaborators, William Finley. After this, with Finley, he started exploring darker themes in a feature they made together called Murder Al Amode. When it was released, he and Finley would literally pull people off the street and beg them to go see it.



After finding some success in filmmaking while at Columbia, De Palma decided to pursue the craft more seriously and went to graduate school for film at Sarah Lawrence in New York. It was here that he met a young Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh, and Jennifer Salt, all who would later feature prominently in his films. While studying at Sarah Lawrence, De Palma’s tuition was paid for by Universal Pictures, and he started making his own way by shooting documentaries. This was a fantastic opportunity and helped him realize that he had a natural instinct for where to put the camera.



Following his graduation from Sarah Lawrence, De Palma was invited to be a part of the Universal Studios New Talents Program. He spent a considerable amount of time coming up with stories and things he wanted to make, but he could never get any of his work read let alone made. Fed up with the lack of progress, De Palma and a fellow New Talents Program member, Chuck Hirsch, left Universal and just started making films themselves. And with that partnership came a feature starring Robert De Niro called Greetings. De Palma’s film ideas were often inspired by political events and the moments in his real life where he would think to himself “are you kidding me?” One such scenario that De Palma played out in Greetings was in regards to the draft for the Vietnam war. When he was worried about being drafted, De Palma went to his doctor, pretended to be psychotic, and had homosexual inclinations. This was a process that actually worked for De Palma, allowing him to be excused from the draft, so he gave his story to his characters. Although, the film wasn’t successful at first. Considered a complete flop, it wasn’t until Pauline Kael wrote a glowing review of the film a while after it opened that it became more commercially acceptable.



With a somewhat triumphant feature film to his name, this is the point in time when Brian De Palma found his gang. Around 1970, De Palma, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg all joined Warner Brother’s studios and thus began the magical building of a community. And, had they not come together in some kind of synergy, who knows if any of their films would be as rich and as full of life as they are, in my opinion I don’t think they would be.


While working at Warner Brothers, De Palma set out to direct a film that somewhat exemplified his feelings about the studio system and the corruption of life and creativity by money. This began the making of Get to Know Your Rabbit. De Palma, in his twenties, hired Orson Welles to play a main character. Unfortunately, and to the shock of De Palma, thee Orson Welles, one of the most well regarded auters of all time, couldn’t remember his lines to save his life. Whether this be the reason, or something else entirely, once he had a final cut, De Palma knew that the movie wasn’t working. So. he suggested to his studio heads some things that would make it work. When they refused to change it, De Palma said “it’s either my way or the highway” and he “got on the highway the next day." Back to New York.



But, as this is not a story of failure, De Palma didn’t stop there. While in New York he began working on the film Sisters, which was one of his first films that fully encapsulated his Hitchcock inspirations. Additionally, this was the film that helped to establish who he wanted to be as a filmmaker. He determined that instead of trying to change a script when it was handed to him, he preferred to interpret the material as is, finding other ways to add his own unique voice. This film was also one of his first to heavily include the split screen shot, a camera and editing style that would go on to be one of his most notable stylistic choices.



Backed by a tremendously supportive group of fellow young artists, De Palma was a persister. Time and time again he was knocked down, hit roadblocks, worked his hardest, only to realize potential failure. But, he never once gave up. And even better, he took each failure as a learning opportunity and he grew and got better. Here in this Swila community of ours, we all have each others’ backs. In the spirit of Brian De Palma, I challenge you all to start taking more risks. Whether that be finally making the decision to take your screenwriting ambitions seriously, or taking a risk in one of your projects, not knowing how it will be received. Knowing that we are all here to support you, back you up, and help you learn and grow, take the risk. Make mistakes. Fail. Learn. Grow. And never stop fighting for your dream.

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1 comment

  • Kole

    This is so awesome. It’s always so interesting to read about how the greats got started. It’s such motivation knowing the shit he went through to gain the wisdom to make the amazing films he’s made. Thanks, Hannah!

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