Brian De Palma is facing another rough passage. In a career of storms and tempests, his latest film, Redacted, a multi- format examination of US soldiers' savage behaviour in Iraq, has inevitably not proved popular back home. "In America, you cannot criticise the troops," he says. "So now it's all over the web that I'm a left-wing wacko traitor who should be horsewhipped." But then what would you expect from a film-maker who has courted controversy right back to the early 1980s when he made the coked-up gangster classic Scarface? "I hardly think of myself as a safe director," he says, baring his mouldy teeth like a decrepit shark.
Far more raw than other recent Hollywood examinations of the conflict, say Lions For Lambs or Rendition, Redacted is closer in tone to Nick Broomfield's Battle For Haditha. Shot for just $5m, using a cast of unknowns, Redacted is a fictionalised account of an abhorrent real-life event, concerning the rape of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her family by US troops. "I couldn't use too much of the real material," De Palma explains. "I had to fictionalise it, because there are continuing prosecutions. You get a large book of things you can't do from the lawyers."
Filmed on High-Definition Video in Amman, and made to look like a "dossier" of internet uploads and camcorder footage, Redacted, says De Palma, is meant to echo the way he found the real-life event on the internet. Much of the material in the film originates from a soldier named Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who is hoping to make a documentary to get him into film school. In part, this consists of conversations with other members of the unit, including the two men who lead the night-time raid on the Iraqi home in question.
According to De Palma, the pent-up anger of the US forces in Iraq is worse than that of the troops who served in Vietnam, there, he says, at least US soldiers had brothels to visit in order to let off steam. "This is not the way the army likes to see itself portrayed," he adds. "They want to be seen the way the administration portrays them: valiant people over there creating democracy – all that mumbo jumbo." More importantly, De Palma sees the film as a critique of how American audiences are fed propaganda by the US news media. "They sit there and watch their television screens, and see these embedded reporters and infomercials from Iraq, and how well things are going over there, and they think that's the truth."
The end result won the 67 year-old De Palma the Silver Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, one of just a handful of awards he's won across a 40-year career that has frequently irritated the Moral Majority. In content at least, Redacted recalls his 1989 Vietnam film Casualties of War, which starred Michael J Fox as a soldier who looks the other way as his fellow grunts perpetrate a brutal rape. "The similarities are striking," De Palma notes.
As far as Redacted goes, De Palma claims there's nothing in the film that you won't find in cyberspace "if you are curious". Yet De Palma encountered opposition from an unlikely source. At a heated debate after a New York Film Festival screening of the movie last October, he expressed his dislike of the decision by the film's production company to edit certain images for legal reasons. Specifically, De Palma is referring to the film's final montage of "actual" photos from Iraq, many of which now show the faces of war victims blacked out. "I'm very unhappy with the way the photographs have been redacted [altered]," De Palma says, arguing the images are already in the public domain on the internet. "I think it's a crime to make these people – who are suffering – faceless."
Watch a clip from 'Redacted'
Arguably as a result of this spat, the film was given a limited release in the US, where it took a measly $65,000, echoing the other poor box-office showings of recent feature films about Iraq. De Palma sees his problem as a mirror of what US war correspondents face. "If you talk to journalists who have been covering the war you always get their frustration because they can't tell the story that they see. Nobody really wants to hear it. You can't take pictures of any fallen GIs. You can't show funerals. We don't want to see any of the collateral damage at all. It doesn't get into the mainstream American media."
De Palma cites "the effectiveness of the Bush administration" in keeping the true horror of the Iraq war away from the American people. "This is why you haven't felt this huge surge in anti-war protests," he says. "The pictures are what got everybody into the streets in Vietnam. There'd be these huge pictures in Life magazine and you'd go, 'My God, what are we doing over there?' We don't have that now." That said, Redacted is following a well-worn path: Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah also features soldiers capturing brutal acts on a camera-phone.
The film is nevertheless a welcome change of direction for De Palma. For the past decade, he has turned out a series of ineffectual genre films – action-thrillers (Mission: Impossible; Snake Eyes), sci-fi (Mission to Mars) and film noir (Femme Fatale; The Black Dahlia). By contrast, Redacted takes him back to the days of his early low-budget films, such as Greetings – a satire on free love and Vietnam – and Hi, Mom! – about a Vietnam veteran. (A then-unknown Robert De Niro starred in both.)
De Palma himself never served in the military, though his father was a navy surgeon. "He used take the bodies off the beaches and sew them back together. I heard many stories of the horrors of the Pacific." Born in Newark and raised in Philadelphia, De Palma studied physics in New York, before he switched to read theatre and then cinema. After making a series of shorts, he shot Greetings in 1968, though it was another eight years before he had his first hit, the Stephen King adaptation Carrie.
By this point, the mid-1970s De Palma was one of the so-called movie brats, hanging out with the likes of George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Like his peers, he's had a turbulent private life, having been married three times, never for more than four years. De Palma now lives in New York near where the Twin Towers once stood (his birthday is 11 September).
It would be pleasing to think that making Redacted had convinced De Palma to return to his low-budget origins for good. In truth, the film rather feels like a one-off, not least because he hopes his next film will be Capone Rising, a prequel to The Untouchables, his 1987 film about Chicago gangster Al Capone.
Capone Rising sounds like it's going to need big money. Does De Palma think the disastrous commercial showing of Redacted will harm his ability to raise funds? "Not really," he sighs. "I've made pretty wild movies before. You should have been around for Scarface..." And with that, Brian De Palma battens down the hatches for another squall.
'Redacted' opens on 14 March
Five films that landed De Palma in hot water
De Palma's account of the rise and fall of Cuban refugee Tony Montana took flak from the Cuban community for depicting them as gun-toting gangsters
Body Double (1984)
Cinemas showing this voyeuristic Hitchcock homage were picketed by feminists, and the film was widely condemned for its apparent misogyny
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Psycho gets the De Palma treatment, emerging as a transsexual-murder tale which faced censorship battles in the US
Casualties of War (1989)
Veterans' groups were up in arms about the veracity of this Vietnam war film and De Palma's right to criticise the US military
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Dogged by fights with the studio, at least De Palma didn't face the wrath of the public over this Tom Wolfe adaptation: nobody went to see itReuse content