Iain Blair
Issue: October 1, 2006


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 laughs.

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," he adds.

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, period."