By Sven Mikulec
A stylish American thriller knee-deep in paranoia, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is a neatly packed, thrill-ridden film executed on a level far beyond average filmmaking. The story of a sound man working on a sleazy exploitation horror, who accidentally catches a recording of what his gut is telling him is a covered-up murder, offers the star of Pulp Fiction and Grease an opportunity to shine in all his talent. And what talent it is. Not only does Travolta give what is probably his finest performance, he does it in a film that we remember as solid proof of De Palma’s utter brilliance. Patiently building the tension, relying on a truly wonderful script, on the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond’s phenomenal photography, on impressive acting by the protagonist as well as John Lithgow and Nancy Allen, wisely steering clear from underestimating the audience at any point, De Palma creates an ambiance so nerve-shattering, a ride so downright exciting that, as we observe how the plot develops on the screen, we can’t help feeling a part of the conspiracy ourselves, terrified and adrenaline-pumped at the same time. We’re talking about a classic of the eighties, a film Travolta himself called one of his top three favorites, a thriller that stands among the very best conspiracy movies Hollywood has ever produced.
Moreover, Blow Out can be seen as a genius meta-film about the process of filmmaking. As we watch the main character studiously examining the sound and trying to connect it to the photographs of the crime scene, he engages in a process of creating a narrative in a way that echoes the very production of films. De Palma is obviously a huge fan of Hitchcock, as the old master’s spirit undeniably floats around all throughout the film, but little homages like this don’t seem pretentious at all because Blow Out has the required cinematic power, and is made by a pair of hands so talented and self-confident, that it would be far from crazy to compare it to Hitchcock’s work. Addictively engaging, intelligently conceived and very passionately brought to life, Blow Out is, according to all relevant criteria, the best conspiracy film we’ve seen. Please make the most of this opportunity to check out the extremely rare copy of Brian De Palma’s screenplay we’ve chosen to share with you.
Some of my most controversial movies, or even my most unsuccessful at the box office, are some of my best. Blow Out was a catastrophe when it opened, but everybody constantly talks about it as one of my best movies, and I find it a movie that I am really very proud of. Did it get decent reviews? A couple. Pauline liked it, and a few other people, but that was about it, and it died. You’ve got to remind yourself all the time that you’re being measured against the fashions of the day, and if your work truly has any kind of staying power, well, people will be talking about it in 20, 30 years. —Brian De Palma
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Brian De Palma’s screenplay for Blow Out [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection in a new, restored digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Brian De Palma, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“De Palma has been learning how to make every move of the camera signify just what he wants it to, and now he has that knowledge at his fingertips. The pyrotechnics and the whirlybird camera are no longer saying ‘Look at me;’ they give the film authority.” First published in the July 27, 1981, issue of The New Yorker, long-time Brian De Palma supporter Pauline Kael’s review of Blow Out, praised the director and his cast—“Travolta finally has a role that allows him to discard his teenage strutting and his slobby accents”—for at long last finding his and their sweet spots. The review is available in Criterion’s packaging of the genre-bending thriller-cum-melodrama, and is worth reading for no other reason than to re-experience Kael’s capacity to pair snarky jabs with eulogizing hurrahs. —The Sound and the Fury: Blow Out is Back
Brian De Palma discusses the production history of Blow Out, its characters, how and why certain sequences were shot (for example, the film’s unique prologue), other films he made before and after Blow Out.
Here is an hour-long interview with Brian De Palma, conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach in 2010.
PAUL HIRSCH ON ‘BLOW OUT’
“Blow Out reflected the feeling of distrust that began to pervade American life in the aftermath of the Kennedy and King assassinations,” Hirsch says. “The Zapruder film was considered too graphic for viewing by the public, but Life magazine published many, but not all, of the frames as stills.” In a brilliant scene, Jack pairs his audio with magazine stills, which document the accident. He takes scissors to the stills as he recognizes that he can recreate the accident by re-photographing the stills and yoking the resulting film to his audio. “John had to learn how to handle editing equipment in a believable way, and Brian sent him to me for lessons,” Hirsch explains. “I showed him how an editor would scrub the sound to find the exact perf where a sound would start, and how to mark the film and sound to put them into sync with each other.” Travolta was a quick study, but after De Palma shot the sequence, Hirsch had the slightly surreal experience of editing it. He likens the experience to being inside a print by M.C. Escher. “I would be editing a piece of film showing Jack’s hand making a mark on the film with a grease pencil, and I would be looking at my own hand marking it with a real grease pencil,” Hirsch recalls. —Paul Hirsch on ‘Blow Out’
Nancy Allen shared three pics from the set of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out on her Facebook page. Allen then added a comment to her post, writing, “Wonderful reunion yesterday with John Travolta, Vilmos Zsigmond and Paul Hirsch. We were filming part of a documentary about the extraordinary talent and career of Vilmos Zsigmond.”
The Projection Booth’s three-hour podcast centered around De Palma’s Blow Out, including new interviews with Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, producer Fred C. Caruso, and Bill Mesce Jr.
A Split Focus Diopter is half convex glass that attaches in front of the camera’s main lens to make half the lens nearsighted. The lens can focus on a plane in the background and the diopter on a foreground element. In the 1970′s and 1980′s, Brian De Palma championed the use of this tool to enhance the visual and emotional experience of his films. The Split Diopter allows for Deep Focus cinematography but requires much less light. It also delivers a distinctive look that blends sharp and out-of-focus imagery all in one frame. Subjects in both foreground and background can be kept in focus. In the video below are all 15 Split Diopter shots from Brian De Palma’s film Blow Out, courtesy of Vashi Nedomansky.
Award-winning Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown talks about his experience on Brian De Palma’s Blow Out.
At the 2012 New York Film Festival, Brian De Palma and Noah Baumbach appeared on stage together, along with moderator Scott Foundas, to discuss their films.
Brian De Palma with writer Jay Cocks visit Martin Scorsese, New York, 1988.
VILMOS ZSIGMOND, ASC
Vilmos Zsigmond shares some thoughts about the art and craft of motion-picture lighting.
Why every film fan should know and remember Vilmos Zsigmond, one of cinema’s greatest artists… This is a found-footage documentary exploring the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond who died on the 1st January this year. Courtesy of Phil Whitehead.
“Read it carefully and you will find De Palma having the ‘Eureka’ moment for Blow Out. I am not kidding.” —Guillermo del Toro
One of the perks of managing this website is definitely the challenge of finding rare treasures. This delightful discovery, a Filmmakers Newsletter interview from May, 1974, conducted by Brian De Palma, illuminates the process of this little masterpiece’s creation. And who’s more qualified to conduct such an insightful conversation with Coppola than a passionate fellow filmmaker. Filmmakers Newsletter was a well-respected magazine with articles abounding in technical information, as well as extensive analyses of both contemporary films and those who played significant roles in the historical development of the art and business.
This particular article can be classified as an impressive read thanks to the sheer quantity of interesting details regarding the development and production of The Conversation, but also to Coppola’s honest answers to De Palma’s perceptive questions. The fact that we’re talking about a piece of journalism virtually lost to the rest of the world only enhances the value of the interview, a six-page exploration of Coppola’s filmmaking technique, personal preferences, inner motivations and desires both before and after he steps onto the film set.
If you care to find out the nature of the connection between The Conversation and Henry VIIIth, why Coppola’s not in awe of Hitchcock’s artistry or why the acclaimed director admits the commencement of shooting often finds him in a “pants down” position, we urge you to read this wonderful interview as soon as possible. You can download the PDF version: ‘The Making of THE CONVERSATION: An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola by Brian De Palma.’
Director Brian De Palma, John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and DP Vilmos Zsigmond during filming of Blow Out. Photographed by Louis Goldman & Chuck Nolen © Cinema 77, Geria Productions, Filmways Pictures, Viscount Associates. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below: