What Brian DePalma can teach you about life

Brian De Palma says, “Most of us don’t know what we’re doing; we go from one thing to the next. Something gets delayed, and we do that.”

De Palma, the film, is Brian De Palma, the filmmaker talking about his films. Brian sits in front of a camera for an hour and fifty minutes. While Brian talks we get cutaways to the films that he talks about.

This may not sound entertaining, but it’s a captivating watch. Brian is open and honest as he looks back over his life’s work. De Palma pulls back the curtain and lets the viewer in on what makes him tick and how his life fueled his films.

I like De Palma’s films but am not a huge fan. I was hoping for a scandalous tell-all about what went on behind the scenes on his films. The documentary isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about a man who can look back and be objective. There are a few lessons not only for wannabe filmmakers but all of us. Hidden within the film are lessons that you can apply to your own life.

You have to keep at it.

I was mistaken in thinking that Carrie was his third film. De Palma had made ten feature-length films by the time he got to making his breakout hit Carrie. The industry has changed since then. When I was growing up the nineties, it was Tarantino who was the one that you had to emulate. Now with the nature of the industry directors have to make a masterpiece straight out of the gate.

A director’s trajectory goes as follows: make your indie microbudget film (Safety Not Guaranteed, Kings of Summer, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). After that, you do a big-budget summer movie (Jurassic World, Kong: Skull Island, Thor: Ragnarok). After that who cares, either it’s a hit or a bomb.

De Palma was coming to Carrie a veteran of his craft; he had developed his style by then. DePalma had made a good deal of mistakes by the time he made the adaption of the Stephen King novel.

Film directors don’t have the chance to develop. Tarantino has said that he is going to retire once he has made ten films, that’s when most are hitting their stride.

In life, like in film, you work with what you got. You keep plugging away with what you have. What you’re doing may not be perfect, but by working more, you increase your chances of creating perfection.

Know as much as you can

De Palma says himself that he was a science nerd who wasn’t interested in film. He had to learn a lot of aspects of filmmaking himself. He did this so he would know how to pick up the slack if someone let him down. The expression about “Jack of all trades” is only half the expression. In full it is “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often better than a master of one”.

De Palma had a talent stack. He was a good camera operator, could write scripts and work with actors. Brian was able to combine his OK talents to become a brilliant director.

Even if you are average at a couple of things that is better than being amazing at one discipline. If you ever notice how people who aren’t particularly good rise to the top of their field. That could be because they have a stack of talents.

Look at Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Tesla was the more clever of the two, but that’s all he had, and he died a pauper. Edison wasn’t a great inventor, but he was good at business and PR. That’s why you associate Edison with more inventions.

In my case I can sing OK, comfortable with public speaking and, while I’m no Arnie, have strength and endurance. This led to me, a non-musical person being able to front a comedy band. That band headlined several gigs, released an album and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Think about some of the skills you have; they add up.

“Be healthy.”

De Palma advocates for physical fitness if you are going to be a director.

Filmmaking is a gruelling process. Directors are working on a project for the guts of two years. David Mamet and Sydney Lumet write in their respective books about how as soon as a film is complete the director gets sick. Their immune system collapses after months of twelve hour days and food from the craft cart.

I’ve started taking my health seriously within the last few years. I am beginning to feel the benefits. Fitness does not just make me feel physically stronger, but I am starting to reap the mental benefits.

You have to remain strong. “I’m old” or “I deserve it” is the battle cry of the person who will die of a heart attack.

I used to be cranky and snappy with people. Don’t get me wrong I still am like that, especially if I have a load of white bread, but I recognise that I get into moods. I avoid sugar when I can although I will always love chocolate. Once I get into lifting more, I know that my energy levels are going to go through the roof.

Lying to yourself about how you are in the short term comforting. Long term you are killing yourself. I call it, passive-aggressive suicide. You can’t bring yourself to kill yourself outright. Do the next best thing. You do it slowly over several years. You have so many problems. Physical, emotional and mental that could be avoided if physical health was maintained.

Take Brian’s advice, stay healthy.

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