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Though he scored minor roles in independent films throughout the mid-to-late ’90s, Mark Ruffalo’s powerful turn as a screwed-up drifter in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 drama You Can Count On Me put him on the map, even earning him comparisons to young Marlon Brando. In the decade since, Ruffalo has bounced around between indie projects and major studio films, with prominent roles in My Life Without Me, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, 13 Going On 30, Just Like Heaven, Zodiac, The Brothers Bloom, and Shutter Island, among others. His charismatic supporting turn as the biological father of two children raised by a lesbian couple inThe Kids Are All Right earned him his first Oscar nomination.
For his directorial debut, Sympathy For Delicious, Ruffalo gives himself a minor part as a priest in Los Angeles’ Skid Row who tries to convince a paraplegic DJ, played by screenwriter Christopher Thornton, to see the spiritual benefit of his newfound healing powers. Ten years in the making, the film reflects Thornton’s own experiences in coming to terms with a rock-climbing accident that left him paralyzed. The first-rate cast also includes Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis as the members of a rock combo that makes Thornton’s healing powers a part of their act, and Ruffalo’s You Can Count On Me co-star Laura Linney as a ruthless manager who tries to exploit the situation. Ruffalo recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Sympathy’s extended gestation and how far he’s had to go to defend his movie.
The A.V. Club: Sympathy For Delicious is about as personal as movies get, and it’s very much a product of your friendship with Christopher Thornton. What was the genesis of this project and what was your collaboration like?
Mark Ruffalo: I’ve known Chris for 20 years, and 16 years ago he had a spinal-cord injury from a climbing accident and that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Shortly after that, he decided he should write for himself if he’s ever going have a great part. Most great parts for guys in wheelchairs tend to go to actors who walk. So he set out to come up with a story that [incorporated his experiences]. He went to some faith-healings early on in what he was dealing with. And it’s such a crazy, wild world that he was like, “I would like to do something about this world.” Tragedy gives people such longing and vulnerability, and faith-healings take advantage of that. And so he came out with this idea about a guy who gets the ability to heal but can’t heal himself, so he pitched that to me. And I said, “That’s a great logline. I think that’s the one you should write.”
Then about a year or so later, he shows up with a 197-page draft. [Laughs.] It was sprawling and fantastical and wholly original and really captured a lot of pretty profound ideas. And I’d been directing quite a bit of theater with Chris and another group of friends, and I wanted to direct. The world of his script was one that I had a lot of personal contact with. I was living in downtown L.A. as a poor actor, on the edge of Skid Row. I was volunteering to feed the homeless and I was working at a guitar store with a bunch of very eccentric and over-the-top rock-’n’-rollers. And then I grew up in an evangelical household, too, so I felt I have a pretty fair understanding of all these disparate elements in Chris’ script. I thought, “This is about as impossible a project as I could ever hope to want to wrestle down.” But I felt like if it fit my sensibilities in a lot of ways, and I wanted to throw my hat in the ring as a director.
AVC: You talked about the script he turned in as being initially 190 pages long…
MR: With cheated margins, by the way.
AVC: What was there and what was the process of whittling it down like? What had to go?
MR: What it really was was a novel or novella in screenplay form. He had many different subplots being intertwined. Trying to find the story within the story was hard. Filmmaking is such a reductive process in a strange way and you keep whittling away to what is essential. And it’s pretty simple compared to a novel. You have to do it in a short amount of time. First, we found what thematically we’re trying to say. And the theme started to really make itself apparent, which is that in life sometimes you get what you need, not what you really want. Not to say that Chris needed to have this terrible tragedy happen to him, but I had seen him grow as a human being so immensely. And I had seen him go to healers, and really looking for this external kind of healing to fix him. But really, in the end, it was more of just coming to terms with and accepting what he had. And so Chris started whittling away to certain ideas: Does healing really exist in the way these people talk about it? Does charity exist in a capitalist society? Can you really have charity when everything’s commodified? And you know, it was so big and broad what he was after, that it took a long period of time trying to get the script into a shape that was manageable.
AVC: Once it was done, what was involved in actually getting it produced? Where did you take the project? Did you always envision it as being something on a pretty small scale?
MR: The first budget we had was around $12 million. And that was 10 years ago, when some independent movies were being made for that much. But it quickly became evident to us that no one was going to give us $12 million, especially with me as a first-time director and [Chris] as a relatively unknown actor and this totally oddball, original script. So a lot of it was setting out to do two things: Get the budget down and get talent attached to it that would help attract investors and then find the money, find those investors. And that brought us to Lebanese loan sharks, mortgage scammers, European arms dealers slash industrialists. [Laughs.]
We were meeting with all these totally crazy people, and the funny thing was, the really crazy ones were trying to convince Chris Thornton that he was going to walk before the end of the project. We then would have big actors sign on and fall out, and it was a really crazy, ridiculous, and at turns heartbreaking journey in those 10 years. Meanwhile, we were refining the script. I thank God that we didn’t get the money to do it back in the day, because it wasn’t ready. It just wasn’t ready. We had so many drafts of the script, and there were so many elements to try and weave together in a credible way. It wasn’t until about three years ago that we finally cracked the draft, and I said to Chris, “Now we’re going to get this movie made, you watch.” And it was pretty shortly after that we had somebody come in with a million dollars. Then the rest of the money started to trickle in and actors attached themselves, but it really was the script. The script wasn’t ready. We didn’t know what we were doing yet.
AVC: A little over a million dollars is certainly a lot less than 12. What did that mean for you as a first-time director?
MR: We got the script down to basically a $3 million movie, a $2.7 million movie to be exact. As a director, that’s like, suicidal. That means you’re going to shoot in 23 days with 17 locations, and a cast of 50, and two concert scenes. It was crazy. A smarter director would’ve walked away from it at that point. So everything was rushed. There was never enough of anything. Days, people, extras, equipment… you had to make do with what you have in the moment, and in a way, if you’re lucky, that can help a project. I think a lot of the limitations that I experienced because of the budget ended up helping me. It didn’t make it easy. [Laughs.] It was pretty hairy, the shooting of it, but also really, really exciting.
AVC: It seems like the concert scenes especially would be pretty tough to manage. What were they like to shoot?
MR: You know, one of the things that kept getting cut was the size of the band’s fame and how long they were on tour, because that was the really expensive stuff. It went from these big concerts into these smaller and smaller venues, but in the end I knew that I had to have, in that last concert, a fairly sizeable group of people to make it credible. I had one day to shoot all of the concert stuff, and all of the stuff that happens backstage before the concert. It was a crazy day. I decided that I really wanted a live feeling for the movie, especially the music stuff, because that can just be disastrous.
When I was assembling my cast, my band members were musicians, so what I did was block out the concert with them onstage before we shot. I had five cameras that day. I had 200 extras, and I billed it as a concert that a band was playing with Orlando Bloom as a frontman and Juliette Lewis in the band, and opened that up to the public. They knew how to play two songs, and I basically had them all onstage before we were going to shoot and I said, “Listen, we’re going to do a concert. The background is going to come in and you guys are going to come onstage and go through your set, and I’m going to have cameras following you. We’re going to do it two times in its entirety, and you’re going to play the whole sequence. These next 10 pages of script you guys are going to do in real time, like we’re doing a play.” And they’re all freaking out, and I said, “Shit is going to go wrong, expect it, but don’t stop. We’ll use it somehow, and I really want this to be raw and gritty. And I know Juliette’s going to pass out here, and you guys are going have your fight over here. I’m going have security come in and break it up.” So that’s what we did. We made a little concert film.
AVC: Did both takes give you enough to work with?
MR: Yeah, yeah. I got really great stuff. It was really exciting. The audience didn’t know what was coming. They were background people, and all of a sudden there’s this performance. They were all pumped up. And the band, I had them playing to a beat track, so I could come into it. And my drummer was one of the best drummers in the business, The Mars Volta’s drummer. And so he could keep perfect time. So the band played the song. And Orlando sang it. He had a live mic. And Juliette was doing some vocals. And after that, I cut everyone free. I cut all the extras free, and then I moved in for the connecting pieces I knew I needed. My DP and camera people—some were in the audience, and some were onstage, just grabbing things as we went through it. I wasn’t sure because there were six cameras going, so I wasn’t exactly sure what we got as it was happening. I had a monitor wall in front of me. I was hoping. Because I’m piecing the whole thing together in my head while we’re doing it. But yeah, we had plenty. I could have cut a lot more from what I had; it was just a matter of time. But there was plenty there, though.
AVC: Did being this close to the material present any difficulties for you in the writing or editing stages? Was it harder to get a distance from it, in a way?
MR: I became really aware that when you’re making a movie, you’re making it three times. You’re making it when you’re writing it. You’re making it when you’re shooting it. And then you’re remaking it again when you’re editing it. I became really aware of that, and I also started becoming aware how a little goes a long way. My first cut was three hours and 17 minutes. [Laughs] And then I just became very shrewd about the editing. There were things that I loved. Some of my favorite scenes aren’t in the movie. Because you, at some point, realize that your responsibility as director is purely to the story. It’s not to your pleasure.
So I became very brutal with it, knowing that I could always put stuff back. It was a long process and I held onto some stuff for a long time. Beautiful performances that were standouts from the movie but unfortunately didn’t fit, and the story was rejecting them. And so I had to sit down with Chris Thornton and say, “Listen. We’re making this movie three times. And sometimes it’s different than anything you or I ever imagined it to be. And we have to let all that go now. We have to do what’s right for it as a whole other entity.” And once we agreed upon that, then the preciousness of it started to loosen up a little bit.
AVC: Having worked for so many good directors before, did you look to any one as a model for how to get this one done?
MR: I was pulling bits and pieces from a lot of people along the way. Jane Campion was somebody who was really influential. There was a point early on when I was getting close to making it and I was working with her. I really like her style on set and for this type of movie. So I sat down with her and I said, “Jane, I’m thinking about directing this movie. Would you mind reading it and just sitting down with me and going over your process?” And she did that, and it was a very pure, and good, and concentrated little master class I had with her. Then there’s [David] Fincher, who directs with such detail and commitment to story. I ended up cutting it at Fincher’s editing facilities in his office, and he sort of became my godfather for the piece. As I was assembling some of my final cuts, I brought him in and he sat with me for five hours, and we went through scene by scene, basically shot by shot, for the whole movie. He would give me praise and criticism, and he really was influential that way, in being very generous with his facilities but also with his critique.
AVC: What was your experience like at Sundance? What has it been like to bring this movie out into the world?
MR: It’s kind of like having your children go out into the world. I’m very protective of them, and I love them. At Sundance, there were some pretty hateful reviews that came out early on. And they were really mean-spirited, especially to some of the actors. I’ve been critiqued a lot. I can handle it. It’s part of what I do. But there was a mean-spiritedness that I just couldn’t abide by. I said something to the effect of, “You’re messing with my kids, and it makes me want to punch you in the mouth,” or something like that, and everyone got all bent out of shape. But it prompted a discussion with one of these reviewers, who came up to me and said something to the effect of, “You’re Mark Ruffalo, you get to do whatever you want. You want to do a little movie? Fine, people give you money.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me, man? It took me 10 years to make this movie. No one’s doing any favors in Hollywood, buddy. They’ll eat their own there.” [Laughs.]
I realized that he was a frustrated filmmaker, and a lot of his bitterness was, I’m sure he didn’t like the film, but it was also exaggerated. He had a bone to pick with Hollywood in general. But shortly after that, a bunch of reviewers came to my rescue. I’d never seen anyone do a rebuttal review to some of the reviews. USA Today’s reviewer came in and said, “This movie doesn’t deserve this, doesn’t deserve the mean-spirited reviews that it’s been getting.” Then Manohla Dargis came out with a nice review. Then all of a sudden, a wave of really positive stuff happened. So it was a real rollercoaster for me. And in the end, we ended up winning the jury prize. But Sundance was where I started my acting career, and I was hoping that it would be where I started my directing career as well, in a strange way. It’s a really special festival to me. I’ve a lot of sentimental connections to it. So it ended up being really quite a great trip.
AVC: Do you see directing as something you’re going to move more into now?
MR: Yeah. It was really something that I took to with a fair amount of ease and confidence, and I got a lot of adrenaline from doing it. I’m hoping that this will afford me enough to keep doing it. I’m not giving up my day job quite yet, though.
AVC: Do you have a general philosophy in terms of how you go about navigating your career? When you left L.A. did that mark a break in your professional ways, too?
MR: I try to do the things that speak to me in one way or another, and sometimes I’m even drastic. I like extremes. I like to change things up and keep from getting complacent or stale. I moved away from L.A. [to upstate New York] because it was feeling empty and it didn’t feel like Los Angeles was a fertile place for me as an artist anymore. I didn’t like the distance between my family and myself that I was experiencing from having to work all the time. I let my heart sort of guide me on that, and I turned out okay. It was a bit of a gamble, but it’s turned out pretty good. But mostly it’s just trying to keep it fresh and new and exciting for me and hopefully for everyone else.
AVC: Do you have a performance that’s particularly meaningful for you that you’ve done?
MR: Every five years or so, there’s some great thing that I’m really proud of, an experience that I’m really proud of. I stopped long ago putting too much emphasis on the results of how a film was going to be reviewed or what kind of money it makes. Those are important things, but as far as to my satisfaction, I’ve really focused on the experiences. The Kids Are All Right is a special one; My Life Without Me; In the Cut. What Doesn’t Kill You is a really great movie that was little seen, but I think is one of my personal favorites. You Can Count On Me, of course, and probably Zodiac. Those are my top picks, as far as things that I’ve done. Another one, We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Not the most beloved of movies, or widely known, but they’re the ones I’ve had a good time making.
AVC: Something like We Don’t Live Here Anymore gives you a whole lot of room to act. These are big character-driven movies.
MR: Yes. I get to do my stuff. I get to run the gamut. One foot on the banana peel and the other in the grave is my motto.