Interview with Brian De Palma and review of Blow Out (1981)
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
In August 2022, I had the opportunity to interview legendary independent director of the New Hollywood generation Brian De Palma in New York. The following review of his classic Blow Out (1981) includes snippets from this interview and my thoughts on the film:
"The position of the camera is as important as what you're photographing"
- Brian De Palma
The premise of Blow Out is inspired in part by the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination and also by De Palma's own experience with his sound technician Dan Sable on movies like Dressed to Kill (1980) where De Palma was unsatisfied with reused audio samples of wind and sent Dan out to collect more. This conceit of a sound man tasked with recording affects in the outdoors for a schlocky horror film sets the stage for Travolta's discovery of the murder conspiracy's inciting incident and his accidental capture of audio and visual evidence of its true happenstance.
What takes place next is what many consider to be De Palma's masterpiece, a cerebral, polychrome, and smartly self-reflective thriller praised equally for its wildly inventive technical filmmaking like the use of split diopter and Steadicam shots as it is for its meta narrative elements that show within a movie the real process of constructing a film by syncing up rushes (film rushes are the unedited, raw visual and audio footage from a shoot).
When I spoke with De Palma, I asked him about his use of the split diopter shot. He said it was inspired by the deep focus shots of Citizen Kane where Orson Welles (and cinematographer Gregg Toland) held things in the foreground and far background in equal focus, granting the film these epic and vast spaces captured in a single frame. Shot on 35mm celluloid with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, these deep focus shots were often used to place symbolic value on characters like the famous blocking of the young boy outside in the window frame while his family discusses his fate inside (This shot is studied in Film 101 classes all over the world).
De Palma, meanwhile, wanted to juxtapose two images in striking contrast in the same frame, and collaborated with his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to use a technique called the split diopter shot to pack the frame with bursting color and multiple, deep focus-like layers of composition. An example of this can be seen when Travolta stands on a bridge listening to an owl in a far away tree top and yet they are sandwiched side by side, their heads occupying equal halves of the frame.
Another example is when a woman walking alone at night through the back door of a supermarket is thrust together with a shot of a man far behind her pulling an ice pick out of a seafood display next to a fish head.
These kinds of inventive visuals are why De Palma is so often concerned with the position of the camera as much as the subject. In a 2011 interview, De Palma said, "A dirty word to me is coverage... two-shot, over-the-shoulder. You know, stuff you see all the time drives me crazy because this to me is not directing." This is a common critique you'll hear from auteurs, like when Michael Mann criticized the kind of passive filmmaking where an action is going on and someone just happens to be there in the room to shoot it. Real directing, real filmmaking — if it exists — is this kind of brilliant visual storytelling that actively organizes and manipulates the interplay of striking images to evoke something from a viewer.
In terms of the meta elements, New York Times film critic Ben Kenigsberg summarized it best when he said that Blow Out is a movie about movies and the contradictions they contain. "On one hand, movies offer the promise of capturing the truth. Jack... turns increasingly to film to prove his case... [to] create a mini-documentary of the crime scene... On the other hand, movies are inherently constructions, with the capacity to fabricate. 'Blow Out' has already lied to us by opening with an elaborate fake-out." De Palma pulls a similar fake-out in the opening scene of Body Double (1984); he seems to have a knack for these postmodern subversions that show us the processes of "real" film production in his fictional movie universes.
A whole review could be written on John Travolta's performance in this film alone; Tarantino claims it's one of the best performances of all time. Here, I will simply say that it's more reserved than the swaggering sensuality of Saturday Night Fever (1977) yet burns with an emotional vulnerability and later a tragic apathy unique to this point in Travolta's early career where he had only collaborated with De Palma once before in his breakout role in Carrie (1976). He has the light of a young actor in his eyes, and we feel every expressive quality with sensitive emotion.
When asked about his three desert island movies in that same interview, Tarantino picked Blow Out, referring to it as "Brian De Palma's finest film... " He went to argue that De Palma is the greatest director of his generation, a generation that includes Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Allen, Lucas and Friedkin. In my mind, while I would have liked to see more dimensionality to John Lithgow's Burke, the emotionless assassin antagonist, Blow Out remains one of the most uniquely shot neo-noir mystery thrillers I’ve seen. 4/5 stars, I recommend it for its special visual storytelling, meta intrigue, psychological thriller elements, and for Travolta's poignant performance.
To learn more about my interview with Brian De Palma read my story here from the 2022 East Hampton Author's Night.