NYFF: Brian DePalma's Blowup
It’s not often that a press conference becomes an actual news event, but that’s what happened last Monday at the New York Film Festival. Though his film Redacted screened the week before for the press, Brian DePalma took the stage before assembled members of the press that afternoon. It’s probably no surprise to say there were some hostile questions—DePalma has courted controversy throughout his career. One woman, sitting defiantly in the front row, asked “Did you intend to make a hipster horror film?” and looked unmoved when DePalma responded, simply, “No.” Another accused him of helping to create a culture desensitized to violence—and that was even one of the nicer questions. Most of the festival’s press conferences have been a series of complimentary questions, long digressions about camera style, or totally oddball questions; nothing quite matched the level of criticism being lobbed at DePalma that day.
But nothing the critics had to say came close to what happened about 10 minutes into the conference, when Magnolia Pictures representative Eamonn Bowles spoke up from the back of the room to dispute DePalm’s claim that his film has, ironically, been redacted because of executive producer Mark Cuban’s opposition to some images. A little background: DePalma based his film on a true incident, the gang rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl by American soldiers. Because several of the soldiers are still in trial, though, DePalma fictionalized his account, based largely on YouTube clips, blog posts, and other sources from the “new media.” At the end of the film, however, he included real photographs—graphic photographs, the kind he claims were available to the public during Vietnam but have been, well, redacted during the Iraq War. Remember how this administration won’t even let us see the coffins of dead soldiers? Because it was impossible to secure clearance rights to show these photographs—many of dead soldiers and Iraqis—Cuban and Todd Wagner’s production company HDNet, which financed the film, demanded that black bars be placed over the eyes of the photograph subjects. Without clearance rights, they have said, the company could be sued by family members of anyone represented in the photographs.
The argument between Bowles and DePalma sheds some light on the battle that’s been going on between DePalma, Cuban, and the film’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures. The Walter Reade Theater in which the press conference takes place seats over 200 people, and with Bowles in the back row, DePalma onstage and the press in-between, it felt a little like getting trapped in an argument between your parents: you don’t know where to look, what to do, or whether or not you should be taking notes (I did). Below is a full transcript of the exchange, which begins when panel moderator J. Hoberman asks DePalma about the film’s contentious history. Note that DePalma often shouted, despite the fact that he had a microphone, and cut Bowles off several times.
Hoberman: Could you explain to us how Redacted is itself now in danger of being redacted?
DePalma: Redacted is in fact redacted. The montage of photographs at the end—I had nothing to do with that. The film was submitted to all the film festivals un-redacted, but because Mark Cuban, the man who financed this movie, was disturbed by the photographs--
Bowles: That's not true
DePalma: Excuse me?
Bowles: That’s not true.
DePalma: Who is that?
Bowles:Eamonn Bowles from Magnolia Pictures
DePalma: Well I’m sorry Eamonn, I have direct testimony to that. In any event, I am protesting it. I am protesting it, and I'm trying to get the pictures unredacted.
Bowles :It’s a legal issue, but that’s OK.
DePalma: it's a legal issue that we're going to resolve. In any event, I felt that my cut was violated and I'm seeking to have those pictures unredacted.
Hoberman [to Bowles]: Are you saying that there’s not a problem with the photographs?
Bowles: The problem is that none of the people in the pictures had legally signed off to have the pictures--.
DePalma: How do you get releases for war photographs, Eamonn?
Bowles: The problem we’re in an untenable legal situation. If anybody, someone’s parents-- I really like the film, I appreciate it greatly. It’s a legal issue. You cannot have people--
DePalma: A specious legal issue.
Bowles:It’s not specious. There would be no legal recourse if someone put a case in. No legal recourse whatsoever. Brian, the photos are extremely disturbing as—in fact, I think, thematically, if even works better. On a thematic basis I really like that.
DePalma: That’s not your judgment to make
Bowles: Who else would have made this film? What company?
DePalma: I made the film.
Bowles: OK, but what company would have made this film?
DePalma: A lot of companies would have made this film.
Bowles: That’s not possible. We’re actually letting the film go as is, with the only incident being the legal ramification of this.
Hoberman: I think we get the position of the distributor. Let’s see if there are any questions.
The press conference went on quite normally after this, if you can believe it, and at the end one of the film’s producers, Ryan Kliot, took the stage to explain things a little further:
Kliot:I think what has to be understood here: Brian absolutely tried to indemnify Magnolia, Mark and Todd, so did myself and the other producers of the film. We were willing to put ourselves on the line. […] Ultimately that is their decision whether or not they want to take that risk. What's really horrible here… There's coming in the press a Cuban vs. DePalma silly debate. Errors and omission insurance has been incredibly difficult to get. The fair use laws in America are completely unfair. They set it up so we cannot use images of our own culture to tell the truth about our own culture. This is a much larger issue. Mark and Todd could take the risk. They think it's a much larger risk than Brian thinks. They're worried about not just financial concerns, but people associating them with unredacted images, and people saying they're showing massacres onscreen. Brian has been working incredibly hard to make a film that was as real as this.
Hoberman: It's apparent, yes, that there are tremendous problems with fair use in this country, but the only way that will change is if this goes to the court.
Since Monday even Bill O’Reilly has weighed in—he, of course, took it as an opportunity to call DePalma “the worst Hollywood person I have ever come across.” When asked during the junket to say who he’s voting for President DePalma declined, saying “I don't think I'm going to let the right-wing bloggers have that”; turns out he’s the talk of the right-wing regardless.
It’s worth reading the rest of the press conference transcript, though none is quite as explosive as the above. DePalma has made an interesting film, a film that is getting people talking and thinking; I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s a good or bad thing. It’s just one more element of the body of evidence this fall that the Iraq War has made it into the entertainment world; whether that can help us figure out what to do about it is anyone’s guess.
Was the impulse behind the film a matter of expressing your personal outrage at the situation, or to raise public awareness?
It was a kind of unique sequence of events. Obviously I've been observing what's been going on with the selling of this war for quite a while. I lived through Vietnam, I made some pictures about it—I made Casualties of War. Being a film director, you're very sensitive to the way that propaganda is presented. Having watched the Bush propaganda about the war for five, six years, [I've been] going wow, what a sell job this is. I was in Toronto last year going to see some movies and someone from HDNet came over to me and said 'Would you be interested in making one of our movies?' They give you $5 million and you can make it on anything you want, you just have to make it on Hi Def. Certain images come to mind. I don't know if you ever saw Baghdad E.R. on HBO—that left quite an impression on me. It was because it was shot in Hi Def that it had such a direct hold on the audience. It wouldn't have been as effective on film. l read about an incident which was almost a carbon copy of what happened in Vietnam that was the basis of Casualties of War. I said 'This is happening again.' I always felt that Casualties of War was the best metaphor for that, and again it would work for Iraq. Then I proceeded to try to figure out how to tell this story. In the process of researching it, I found all these unique ways of expressing what was going on in Iraq that were on the Internet. Blogs, postings on YouTube, montages of casualties. I said, well, this is the way to tell this story, and that's what I did.
Could you say something more specifically about the research that you did?
I wanted to use real news stories. I wanted to mix the material on the web with my fictionalized material. The problem was that these soldiers were all being prosecuted—you have to fictionalize everything. I was developing material, trying to use real material. I found out anything I wanted to use that was real suddenly had to be fictionalized because it was so close to the real case.
The difference between now and Vietnam is that violence doesn't have the same impact. Young people have electronic things that desensitize them. Who is this film speaking to?
It's more experimental than that. I basically found these methods of expressing what the soldiers felt, and the pictures that existed. This is all stuff I discovered. If you go on the Internet and search for the various things that are in my movie, you will find carbon copies of what I did. I'm sort of interested in the way that the new media is finding ways to tell stories in these fragmented ways. It's very interesting to me. I don't know where it's going. In a year or two years from now it could be more different from what I've been showing. Watching my daughters on their computer, they look at these things in little pieces. I don't know where it's going, I just found it kind of amazing. The whole murders were illustrated in Legos on one site, called Legofest. I said if I put this in the movie, no one will believe this. Unfortunately I couldn't put it in the movie because of the copyrights having to do with Legos.
Talk about the casting. To what degree did the presence of the actors alter their roles?
I originally wanted to give them the structure of the scenes and let them improvise their way through it. I found I had to have material for them to audition with. In the process of auditioning, they would of course improvise off the scenes, and they would get very much into their characters. The scenes would go may different ways. It's kind of an exciting way to do things. [DePalma’s cell phone rings—his ringtone is Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons-Spring’]. The shooting went quite quickly. Eric Schwab shot the barrage sections […] in four days, and I shot the rest of the movie in 14.
The different cameras in the film become characters, different observers. This seems to tie into your past films and their recurring themes of voyeurism.
It was important to figure out where the camera should be in every scene and at the same time make it look lie this was documentary assemblage of material having to do with this case. Obviously there's Salazar's diary, where you move around the camera like Salazar would. Then there's the French documentary, because I had to get all this information about what happens at checkpoints. […] Then there was the surveillance cameras. You can't smoke inside the barracks, so I figured out we’d have a surveillance camera at the gate. Then we had the interrogation cameras where they're going to the psychiatrist or being deposed by one of the Army guys. Then of course the hidden camera that Salazar puts in his helmet to record the actual incident. I had to come up with various things that one would conceivably believe actually had happened. We're in a new era of reality TV, so if you can believe two people on a beach […]are discussing how to scheme against two other people on Survivor, I think you can practically believe anything.
When you were thinking of the screenplay did you think you’d intentionally use the cameras to disconnect the audience?
I knew what the structure of the story was; now the question was how can I put that in some kind of reality TV world.
What black metal is on the soundtrack? Also, did you set out to make a hipster horror film?
What is black metal? Besides some background music in the poker game, there's only two uses of music in the movie, [Regarding the “hipster horror film question]No.
You have a special following among Cuban exiles because of Scarface. Is there a sense in which Redacted could have a comparable, particular appeal to a certain group?
That was not in my mind when I made the picture. I had the idea and I found a way to tell the story. I was amazed at the things I came up with.
You've got a lot of political controversy coming down on you with this film. From your position, which kind of controversy is harder to deal with? [DePalma has been accused of misogyny in some of his previous films.]
You mean being a misogynist or a traitor? Articles have been written about me, the man they love to argue about. I just sort of see it as it is. I've hardly ever been in step with much. To me, especially this war has been so misrepresented in the major media, and it was consciously done by the Bush administration. I keep saying all the time, where are the pictures, where are the pictures? If we're dropping bombs and occupying countries and killing innocent people and I'm paying for it, can you please let me see the pictures? The pictures that I saw in Vietnam got me out into the streets. You know when this administration's over all the things they did are going to come out. […] We basically just want to sort of end this war, and by trying to show what the reality of this war is, to stop sugarcoating it.
One of the things most disturbing to people in the movie is the soldiers themselves, and how callous they appear, we know this event happened, we know it's not imagined. I was curious on the one hand how you felt, whether you thought this was characteristic of our soldiers there. Also, where does the responsibility lie.
The problem is that the language and the way the soldiers are truly reacting are in their blogs and in the videos they make and in the documentaries you see that are made from those videos. When you see these guys on television they're nothing but giving talking points from whatever they're supposed to say, the one specific image of how the war is going is supposed to be projected. The characters are very much like the characters that were in Casualties of War. You're on a mission that basically makes no sense. It's the Bruce Springsteen song now, ‘The Mistake. You're in a country you don't understand, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. It's like one of the characters says, it's those kids out there, you don't know if one of them is planting a bomb that you're going to step on. A tremendous amount of paranoia. You keep on getting redeployed and redeployed. The living conditions are horrendous. The heat—the thing in Vietnam, there were some beaches, some tropics, something. This was just a gritty environment to live in. […] You don't know who's an insurgent and who isn't and all this frustration and anger erupts. I tried to make something extremely clear: this never would have happened if there wasn't a wild card. These soldiers don't do something unless there's somebody who strikes a match. The one guy who's a little crazier than everybody else and drives them into doing this horrific act. It tries to be as even-handed as possible. Then the big question is, why are we there? Then there's the McCoy character, which is very much how I feel—I can't stop this. I can't stop George Bush. He keeps on putting more soldiers up there, and we vote, and it's still going on. The thing that all the soldiers say, is they come back with these horrible images in their brains. ‘I can't communicate them to you. I've seen things and I've done things and I don't know who else to talk to except my buddies.’ We're going to be living with those soldiers for decades and decades.
How do you deal with making films for a public that’s desensitized to violence?
I don't necessarily agree with that. I think the films we were making the 60s and the 70s, just in terms of the ratings board, we could never get these films past the ratings board now. I think the whole clamping down of the censorship has been going on for quite a few decades. In terms of what you see on television in relation to what's going in Iraq has been completely sanitized. You feel it’s so horrible because you didn't see all these pictures we saw in Vietnam.
Who are you supporting for President?
I don't think I'm going to let the right-wing bloggers have that. I'm still viewing the field. We have many months to make up a decision.
If it's no longer possible to release the film unredacted, what will you do? DePalma: It’s a dilemma. The reason the film is being seen now with the black bars, is there was nothing to do in time to prevent it. Unredacted photographs: that's my alternative.
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