HOLLYWOOD - For over three decades now, director Brian De
Palma has won international acclaim with his highly-stylized use of camerawork
and moody imagery in such thriller-chiller films as Dressed To Kill, Body
Double, Carrie and Scarface, films that also earned him the distinction of
being the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock.
Now De Palma, whose credits also include The Untouchables,
Mission: Impossible and The Bonfire of the Vanities, is back with another film
noir thriller, The Black Dahlia. For a director who built his reputation on
intricate and flamboyant camera moves, his new film once again showcases some trademark
complex sequences. "My favorite is the crane shot over the building to the
death scene, and then all the way around to the guys in the car," he notes.
"That took days to work out."
But if De Palma loves constructing and shooting carefully
choreographed sequences, he also loves the freedom he gets later in post to
"experiment and try out different things" with the color and tones of a film.
And the color of The Black Dahlia, he says, "was extremely important to me and Vilmos [Zsigmond, the DP] because he
likes to play around with the saturation of the color, and in this present day
of technology you can shoot something one way and then later adjust it in the digital process of making the final
negative of the movie."
How important is the post process for De Palma, and does he
like it? "Of course it's vital for how a film turns out, and all the digital
editing and visual effects advances have made the process a lot easier," he
says. "I'd never go back to the old way of editing and posting a film, and on
Black Dahlia we were able to do a 4K DI [at LaserPacific — see Post's July
issue for the full DI story] and really emphasize the rich colors and deep
shadows Vilmos and I wanted. But then I also feel that so many of the decisions
have been made so long before that it's more of a refining, shaping process for
me, by the time I get to post," he states. "I'm not one of those directors who
has seven cameras running and then you have to make the film in the editing
room and post. It's all pre-planned and you're making very subtle changes. In
post you can only dress the corpse up — you cannot bring it to life,." he
Although it looks like the quintessential Los Angeles noir
film, Dahlia was actually largely shot in Sofia, Bulgaria, for budget reasons.
"There's not a lot of visual effects in this film," he says. "Obviously the
guys falling down [several stories to a lobby] are on wires that we had to
remove. And we had problems making the palm trees burst into flames in the Zoot
Suit riots, but that was because of our Bulgarian special effects crew. I think
the funniest thing was that I was doing this incredibly complicated crane and tracking
shot and they have to throw someone through a window, and it takes me hours to
lay it all out, choreograph it and then we do it. Then I come back and they
said, 'Is that it?' I said, 'That's it? Are you kidding?! That was take one.'
They said, 'We only have one window.'"
Visual effects were done by LA's Custom Film Effects. The
visual effects supervisor was Mark Dornfeld.
The film was edited by Bill Pankow, who's cut most of De
Palma's films. "We've made so many movies together now that we go through and
select the takes together and then he sort of puts it together," says De Palma.
"He's not on the set. He's in the editing room, but he is there. I would go
into the editing room everyday, and visual editing is where you can adjust the
movie as you're shooting it."
They used two Avid Film Composer XL systems and Avid Unity
MediaNetwork. Going back and forth to Bulgaria, LA and Toronto, they used Avid
Xpress Pro on a Mac G4 laptop.
And what about sound? "Music and all the audio is also a
very important part of the post process for me, and I like to spend quite a bit
of time on that," he says. "So much of what an audience sees and feels is
actually created by the music and all the sound effects."
Sound design and editorial was done at MHZ Sound Design, and
the re-recording was all done at Deluxe Postproduction.
So what's next for De Palma? "I'm working on a prequel to
The Untouchables," he reports.
De Palma cites "David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles
and Fellini" as "big influences" on his work. "There's stuff to be learned from
all the great directors and the way they approach their particular aesthetic,"
As for being called the heir apparent to Hitchcock, De Palma
says, "I still feel very close to Hitchcock, and I understand the kind of
grammar he developed and I used a lot of it in my films. In fact, as far as I'm
concerned, it's still the best text-book that's available on moviemaking,