Toronto Film Festival Q&A: Brian De Palma and Rachel McAdams on 'Passion,' 'Carrie' remake (he approves!)

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With his white hair, oeuvre, and stature, Passion director Brian De Palma can come across as fairly intimidating, until you realize how open and affable he is — and surprisingly vulnerable.

De Palma, whose Scarface (1983) and Carrie (1976) have long been considered classics, has had some pot shots thrown his way over the years, and hasn’t put out a movie since 2007’s Redacted. A year before that, his neo-noir crime film The Black Dahlia was greeted with lukewarm reviews. His latest effort, Passion, is a hyper-stylized office thriller starring Rachel McAdams as red-lipped, brutal, blonde viper of an advertising boss Christine (think Mean Girls meets All About Eve meets De Palma’s 1992 psychological thriller Raising Cain), and Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo juggernaut Noomi Rapace as her dark-haired assistant-competitor-play thing Isabel.

The film is based on Alain Corneau’s French 2010 thriller Love Crime (which featured Kristin Scott Thomas in McAdams’ lady superior role), and premiered Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Passion is McAdams’ second movie at the fest, along with her role in Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

“I was intimidated by Brian at first,” said Toronto native McAdams by phone, newly arrived at the festival. “People have certain kinds of movies, and I thought he would be a certain way, but he wasn’t. Brian watched everything Noomi and I did. I think he does that with everyone. He’s really interested in his actors. He obviously loves film.”

McAdams, such a doe-eyed romantic film leading lady (what woman hasn’t gushed during 2004’s The Notebook – come on), thought she was playing the part of Isabel, with Rapace as Christine, but she’s glad she took on the spicy, less likable role. Oh yeah, and any sort of kinkiness between her and Rapace has already snapped audiences who’ve watched the trailer to rapt attention, though she denied the sexuality being that overt. She already felt comfortable around Rapace, her costar in last year’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

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“Playing Christine was a challenge. She’s kind of wickedly delicious, but not too too much,” McAdams said. “Those characters can be more fun than the ingénue, the leading lady, where there’s the expectation of having the audience like you. I saw the film not too long ago, and I found the sexuality quite restrained, even for Brian De Palma. I found it more about possession, and not about wanting to have sex with each other, and be physical, but wanting to possess the other. I think he’s dealing a lot with vanity, and narcissism. You want the other person to reflect what you want to be. I felt like the only person I could do this with was Noomi. It certainly made it easier. I was nervous!”

De Palma, a big fan of McAdams (he loves her as the queen bee mean teen in Mean Girls!), chatted with EW at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, musing about casting and filming gorgeous women such as McAdams and Rapace, dealing with aging and the difficulty of getting things financed, and how Kimberly Peirce, already a friend, reached out to him about her remake of Carrie (“I think the still coming out of her Carrie looks fantastic!” he shouted).

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace go head-to-head in Passion. I know you made the decision to make the characters the same age, instead of one older, one much younger. Were Rachel and Noomi your first choices?
BRIAN DE PALMA: No! … I happened to run into a director friend of mine [Steven Shainberg]. I live in [New York City's] downtown Greenwich Village. He had been Skyping with Noomi about a picture he was doing called The Big Shoe. He said, “You should look at this girl’s DVDs. She’s something.” He gave me all her Swedish DVDs, and I started to look at them. There’s some really wild stuff in there. He said, “This is a really bright girl, and you should talk to her.” That’s what I did, last October, a year ago. Then my producer reached out to her manager, and found out that Rachel’s also represented by her, and called me, and said, “What do you think of Rachel McAdams?” I said, “Rachel McAdams, are you kidding? YES!”

I’m a big fan of her in Mean Girls. She’s so ruthless.
Exactly what I remembered! I hadn’t seen [last year's] The Vow, which is now making a lot of money. I had seen Mean Girls, and she had done an indelible job there.

There’s an intensity to Rachel McAdams, even with all her romantic film work. She’s sharp, and Noomi Rapace too. Even their faces. With the decision to make them the same age, why do that?
They came with their own dynamic. They worked together on Sherlock Holmes 2, they knew each other extremely well, and they had this thing between them, that you could see them kind of vying, and they just brought it right into the characters. When we went into rehearsal, I had to watch what they were doing, and they did all kinds of things that surprised me. Like that mafia kiss that Noomi gives Rachel, when Rachel goes up to her, after she just annihilates her, and says, “Why don’t we just kiss and make up?” Noomi grabs her, and gives her the kiss of death [he laughs].

You haven’t done a feature film in five years, since Redacted. Why so long?
I worked on a couple of projects, based on the same kind of techniques as I used in Redacted, about our involvement in our wars, and I basically couldn’t get them financed.

But you’re searching for a distributor for Passion, which has big names attached, sexiness. Do you have high hopes?
Yeah, because I think it’s very commercial. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a good mystery, the girls are terrific. I haven’t done a movie like this in a while. Raising Cain was very successful. We made it for about $10 million. The budget on Passion was $25 million. I made more money on Raising Cain than I made on Mission: Impossible. I think Passion is going to be very successful because it’s fun. I saw it with the Venice audience. You know when they’re watching a movie, this [mimes typing on a cell phone] did not go on. I only saw one cell phone light go on. It was always the same person, who was obviously texting.

You used the same cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine, that Pedro Almodovar uses in many of his movies. His style fits with yours, very visual, stylized.
He was fantastic. I worked with him because he knows how to photograph women, which I feel is very important. We have a lot of beautiful women in this movie.

What’s the challenge of that? Can beauty overpower nuance sometimes?
Are you kidding? In contemporary cinema?? I was looking at Rust and Bone, and there’s this gorgeous woman, Marion Cotillard, in a dark corner, and maybe you see the edge of her nose, with no makeup. I made a movie about a stylish business world, and I want the women to look good! … Rachel looks magnificent, and Noomi is the black pariah, she’s always in black, with these bangs.

NEXT: De Palma on how Passion differs from Love Crime

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