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Brian De Palma’s Terrordome

How the director of ‘Scarface’ and ‘Carrie’ became the greatest turntablist in movie history

Getty Images
Getty Images

Chuck D needs to catch his breath. After the relentless first verse of Public Enemy’s 1990 mindblower “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Flavor Flav swoops in, strafed by interlocking Instant Funk and JB hooks, to lighten the chorus. Channeling Al Pacino’s brooding kingpin Tony Montana, he cackles the famous “Who I trust?” bathtub rant from Scarface, Brian De Palma’s 1983 gangster masterpiece.

In the new documentary De Palma, the eponymous filmmaker addresses the embrace of Scarface by the “hip-hop generation.” Over clips of Scarface-themed videos like “The World Is Yours,” featuring Nas chain-deep in suds, De Palma merely shrugs. When asked by phone this week what he thought of the rap culture that exploded in his adopted hometown of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, the line went quiet while he surveyed midday Manhattan traffic.

“It’s not something I know much about,” he finally says with a laugh. “I’m more interested in orchestral music. It’s the kind of music I need in my movies.”

Despite his aversion, De Palma remains cinema’s greatest turntablist, a master of weaving the most arresting moments of other artists into his own films and reinterpreting them for unsuspecting crowds. My junior high friend who stared up at the Untouchables poster taped to his bedroom ceiling had no idea who Sergei Eisenstein was, but he understood the underlying power of the Odessa Steps sequence that De Palma repurposed for his Union Station shootout. Likewise, De Palma’s oft-cited (and occasionally derided) remixes of Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard provide a crash course for young viewers still finding their footing, just as impressionable listeners were absorbing snatches of funk breaks and protest speeches stratified throughout tracks like “Terrordome,” only to rediscover and appreciate the source material later, in their original context.

And what cinematic technique is more akin to turntablism than the split screen? A De Palma signature since his earliest experimental films of the ’60s, the split screen allows the eye to flick back and forth between two concurrent sets of images, creating a new timeline in the mind. Even the documentary made in his honor feels more akin to a beat album. For over 100 deliriously entertaining minutes, De Palma unspools like a mixtape of the master’s most arresting flourishes and set pieces. All killer, no filler.

Even self-referencing is part of the game. In “Terrordome,” Flav swoops back to crash the second verse. “Oh Chuck, they out to get us, man,” he cautions, exhibiting both Montana’s self-professed paranoia and his need to self-mythologize. The line is, after all, a sample of Flav’s own voice, from “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” recorded three years earlier. De Palma is also prone to shouting-out his own catalog, as in the 1984 erotic thriller Body Double. When a peeping tom strolls into Tower Records on Sunset to skim the porno section, the camera follows him down the aisle, gliding past a cardboard cutout of Pacino slinging Scarface on VHS.

Def Jam
Def Jam

I still remember encountering the Welcome to the Terrordome 12-inch maxi-single at that same Tower in late 1990, around the same time De Palma was in production on his own New York bacchanal, The Bonfire of the Vanities. The arresting cover art features Public Enemy posed in front of a New York highway sign, similar to the one that eluded Bonfire’s Sherman McCoy and his Southern mistress, played by Melanie Griffith, as they leave JFK. Sherman takes a wrong turn and ends up in the birthplace of hip-hop. Griffith rides shotgun, shrinking in her fur coat. When they finally flee to the supposed safety of the Manhattan-bound highway, a sign above points to Long Island, the home of Public Enemy.

“Terrordome” represented the creative peak of the Bomb Squad production team, who packed the track with more samples and stabs than the flying cutlery that impaled Piper Laurie in Carrie. What’s especially striking is that every sample was laid in by hand. Likewise, Paul Hirsch, the editor of Carrie and several other De Palma classics, including the 1996 blockbuster Mission: Impossible, has always valued the tactile, pulsing nature of film editing. “I try to approach my editing from a musical sensibility,” Hirsch says by phone from London. “Editing is all about rhythm and tempo and pace. It’s as if there’s a virtual rhythmic structure that exists somewhere and you try to pace the film to an imaginary beat.”

The roadside cover portrait on Terrordome is framed by the group’s iconic crosshairs logo, creating a frame within a frame. It echoes De Palma’s repeated use of optical effects to turn passive audiences into snipers sizing up targets through gun sights, telephoto lenses, and surveillance binoculars. There’s always an interface of some kind, a venetian blind to peek through, a window to fog up. Hirsch says they often used to speculate about the origins of De Palma’s voyeurism. He was an incubator baby, for one, and his formative days were spent looking at the world through a window.

Before a screening of De Palma at the New York Film Festival in September, the moans and sizzle of “Telescope,” a striptease theme from Body Double by longtime collaborator Pino Donaggio, filled the Alice Tully Hall, bringing a hint of seediness to the proceedings. It was thrilling to hear samples of De Palma’s murderers’ row of composers, including Ennio Morricone, John Williams, and Giorgio Moroder, occupy the concert hall for a night. But no sound resonated more than the strains of Bernard Herrmann, who first worked with De Palma on his 1973 Siamese twin–shocker Sisters.

While cutting Sisters, Hirsch says he felt the footage was somewhat plain. After watching a static driving sequence in Psycho on mute one night, he realized it was Herrmann’s strings that created the tension. He went to Colony Records on 49th Street to special-order a Herrmann record, which was long out of stock, and waited a week. Once it arrived, he synced the Psycho strings over Sisters. De Palma said the cues “breathed a new emotional force” into the film. Herrmann was promptly summoned from London to write an original score. Hirsch remembers his growls and snarls at the first screening. De Palma recounted Herrmann’s boredom during the unscary first act. “I remember Benny saying, ‘You’re not Hitchcock. They’ll wait for Hitchcock. They’re not gonna wait for you.’ So he said he’d compose something for the titles that would basically scare the shit out of them. They’d be on their toes, waiting for something to happen.”

Herrmann used metallic instruments, like bells and anvils, to simulate the sounds of knives, which played over stills of intrauterine photography. He also made the theme reminiscent of playground taunting. “He wrote a [different] theme that consisted of two lines of music, one descending chromatically and one ascending chromatically,” Hirsch said. “Halfway through they crossed in the middle. He took great pleasure in pointing out that if you lay this music out on a single line of music, it would be like Siamese twins. There’d be a big X joined in the middle.”

Hirsch and De Palma were overjoyed by Herrmann’s revival. “At that point we were deep into the Henry Mancini era — jazz, big band,” Hirsch explained. “Symphonic orchestral scores had been abandoned. Sisters was the first one to reverse that. A couple years later there was Jaws, where John Williams wrote a Herrmann-esque score. The violins were sound effects.” Hirsch and Herrmann became friends. When they shopped for records together during their next collaboration, De Palma’s Vertigo-inspired Obsession in 1976, Hirsch noticed stores now had bins of Herrmann’s records.

At the NYFF screening of De Palma, after an introduction from the stage by the program director, the spotlight swiveled to an opera box, where De Palma emerged from the shadows to rapturous applause. It felt like a moment from his 1974 phantasmagoria Phantom of the Paradise (a Daft Punk favorite) in which a slighted songwriter fights a ruthless record industry for creative control, as well as a moment in the spotlight at his own premiere. It also remains cinema’s greatest cautionary tale about uncleared samples.

The Phantom — masked and draped in black, a box of gadgetry blinking on his chest plate — predates Darth Vader by three years. During post-production on Star Wars, De Palma famously offered constructive criticism to his friend George Lucas after watching a rough cut. (The scrolling text, for one, was “gibberish.”) De Palma has long advocated for camaraderie and ruthless honesty among directors. His ’70s circle — Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola — created a body of work that will never be matched again, as he mic-drops in De Palma. And they did so in part because of their open dialogue, their feverish revisions, their endless hangouts.

De Palma on the set of ‘<em>Bonfire of the Vanities’</em> (Getty Images)
De Palma on the set of ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ (Getty Images)

Decades later, De Palma carries on the tradition, with a coterie that includes Wes Anderson and the two directors behind De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, both of whom flanked their subject in the opera box that night. Afterward, De Palma’s 1981 conspiracy thriller Blow Out screened at the Walter Reade Theater around the corner, the same block where De Palma shot the opening frames of his 1968 curio Murder à la Mod, the same movie Dennis Franz watches in a scene in Blow Out. The wheels within wheels keep spinning, quite literally, in the celebrated, two-minute-long 360-degree shot in Blow Out, where the camera simulates a reel of magnetic tape being erased. The tape contains nature recordings gathered by a sound technician (John Travolta, never better) who inadvertently captures a Chappaquiddick that silent assassins want scrubbed. The hypnotic shot is also the closest any filmmaker has come to imagining the world from a turntable’s point of view. Perhaps the film’s most vocal advocate, Pauline Kael, once said, “I’d say among the things I get rapped for the most that’s probably number one and number two is my praise of Brian De Palma.” (Kael on the ones and twos!)

Biographical details in De Palma are scant, but fascinating. The director cops to snooping and following strangers as a kid, even secretly recording a girls’ sex-ed class at his Quaker school in Philadelphia. A self-professed “science nerd” from a young age, he takes pride in the circuit board that the equally sneaky teen in 1980’s Dressed to Kill is seen soldering, which he based on one of his own inventions. “I used to design computers,” De Palma says. “I won second place in two national science fairs, in ’56 and ’57. The first time I went to Los Angeles was for a national science fair. It was all downtown. I never saw Hollywood.”

Hollywood remains an elusive location for the New York mainstay. While much of his James Ellroy–inspired noir The Black Dahlia was filmed in Los Angeles, it was the reimagined Hollywood landscape in Bulgaria where De Palma seemed most comfortable. With the exception of working in Jordan for Redacted, another study of wartime atrocities like the ones he explored decades earlier in Casualties of War, most of De Palma’s work in the wake of the big-budget studio misfire Mission to Mars was filmed on modest budgets across Europe.

He describes the film he’s currently developing as “a combination of Mission: Impossible and Wait Until Dark,” with a plot revolving around a blind Chinese girl. The subject of vision and perception prompted a question about virtual reality, perhaps the ultimate voyeuristic medium. The technology is too young, De Palma explained. He finds the “fantastic environments” of point-of-view games intriguing, but it’s hard enough to make something work in reality. “You’ve gotta know too much,” he laughs. “This stuff is really complicated.”

Even in his late 70s, De Palma can still supply classic two-dimensional thrills. Perhaps the resurgence of interest from Baumbach and Paltrow’s documentary portrait will signal greater opportunities, more flexible budgets, more latitude for an artist already six decades deep into moviemaking. There’s still time to dip a knife into the perfect pool of light, to put another needle on the record.

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Slate, The Atlantic, Victory Journal, and Film Comment.