The writer and director talks about the world of independent films, art imitating life, and his new movie, the real blonde.
Tom DiCillo first found success after NYU Film School, when he worked as cinematographer on classmate Jim Jarmusch's first two features, Permanent Vacation and 1984's award-winning Stranger Than Paradise. Unsatisfied with his subordinate role, DiCillo tried to make a name for himself as an actor, but was soon drawn back behind the camera. His promising first film, 1992's Johnny Suede, helped introduce the world to Brad Pitt, but it was his second movie, Living In Oblivion, that in 1995 made DiCillo among the most watched of a new wave of high-profile independent directors. The quirky Box Of Moonlight solidified his reputation, and DiCillo's new The Real Blonde—the story of an idealistic, out-of-work actor (Matthew Modine) and his relationship with a successful make-up artist (Catherine Keener)—could bring the writer/director's films their greatest exposure yet. DiCillo recently spoke to The Onion about his new movie, New York City, actors, and the perils of independent filmmaking.
The Onion: Do you think living in New York, as opposed to L.A., alters your approach to filmmaking?
Tom DiCillo: I do, having never lived in L.A. for that very reason. Everywhere you go, there's someone who's involved in the business. I was going to the airport, and the old guy driving the car starts chatting, and he says to me, "What do you do?" I told him I was a director, and he stops the car, opens his trunk, and pulls out a script that he wants me to read! Just simply because I politely said, "All right, I'll take it"—because, you know, I wanted to get to the airport—he goes, "Will you pay me for it? Now?" And he really wanted me to give him money for the script! The New York sensibility is much more private. You get a lot of people there who are working very hard to just do their next project. There isn't a lot of schmoozing, there isn't a lot of appearance—you know, driving around, going to this and that. It's a very democratic place. You can't walk down the street without bumping into people from every strata of life. And I think it affects the way films are made there.
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O: To what extent are your films taken from actual encounters and experiences?
TD: Almost everything in my films comes from something I've gone through. From Johnny Suede to Living In Oblivion to Box Of Moonlight, even. But The Real Blonde is, I would say, very pointed in some of the references. When I got out of film school, I struggled for eight years to make it as an actor. I started studying acting, and the teacher said to me, "You should be an actor." Well, I took him literally, and I tried to make the rounds and do all that stuff. I really thought I would go to my first audition and get the job. That's how stupid I was! Many of the auditions I went on were exactly like the ones [Matthew] Modine goes on. I worked as a waiter, along with a lot of other actors. I painted apartments. But this film is really about a period of my life when I was sort of in the middle of this paralyzing storm. It was like a tornado: I couldn't go backward, I couldn't go forward, I was broke, I couldn't make a movie. But at the same time, I was trying to figure out how I was going to break free of this inertia. I didn't know what to do other than keep walking forward, inch by inch. It was a tough time. My girlfriend was amazingly supportive, but after a while this whole image of the starving artist becomes really tedious and has very real repercussions for the other person. It was very tough, and I didn't really stumble out of it until I made Living In Oblivion. It was a movie that was made only through the generosity of the cast and my absolute fixation that if I didn't make a movie I would never make another one. Saying that, I tried to make a film about New York that shows my affection for it but at the same time reveals a little sarcasm, and makes some comments about some of the idiocy going on. Like the fashion industry… Just look at some of these people! When you talk to a model, or someone in the fashion industry, and listen to them talk about the importance of what they do, I just think it's the funniest thing I've ever heard. It's very difficult to make fun of it, because they take themselves so seriously.
O: Were you ever concerned with maintaining your integrity, like Matthew Modine's character?
TD: Oh, yeah. I've had a couple of pretty significant moments in my life. When I got out of film school, I was waiting tables and painting apartments. Every now and then I would shoot a film, and that was an accidental profession I stumbled into. I never studied cinematography, but just out of film school, I shot Stranger Than Paradise for Jim Jarmusch. There's something about shooting films for people: I don't like it. There were many things I didn't like about it, mainly because it wasn't what I wanted to do. One dreary day, I was in a bathroom in this sleazy apartment, and I was using some newspaper to mask off this mirror I was painting, and I just happened to look twice at the newspaper. It was the announcement from the Cannes Film Festival that Stranger Than Paradise had just won [the Palme d'Or]. It was a moment for me, because I caught sight of myself in the mirror, covered in paint. I had to really take stock in what I was doing.
O: Did you immediately think, "Hey, I'm the guy who shot Stranger Than Paradise. I should be doing…"
TD: No, it wasn't like that. What I said was, "Tom, if you're going to do something, you'd better do it now. Painting apartments may seem to you less destructive than shooting a film for someone else, but it's not directing a movie." It was a big moment for me.
O: Is that "Do it now" mentality still the way you approach filmmaking?
TD: It is. It's a business of tremendous risk, so if you get to the edge of the cliff and you stand there, the longer you stand there, the harder it is to jump. My tendency is, if there's a cliff, just jump off it. It's a business of risks, especially if you're making films that aren't formulaic, mass-market things; there's no guarantee how the film is going to do, and there's no guarantee that someone's going to give me money to make another film. I take it very seriously. Every rejection has an effect. There's a scene in Living In Oblivion, at the end, where [Steve] Buscemi has this fantasy of getting an award…
O: The Golden Apple.
TD: The Golden Apple for the best film ever, by a human being! And he starts off being thankful, and then it just [makes wrenching noise] comes erupting out of him, this fury at how all his life, people had been telling him no. And I must say, you never forget those things.
O: To what extent is filmmaking an uphill battle? Is it really tough to get your films made?
TD: The Real Blonde was a very welcome exception to that rule. The script came relatively clearly to me; I spent six months writing it. As soon as I had finished writing it, [producer] Tom Rosenberg at Lake Shore Entertainment picked it up, and he said, "I want to make this, and I want to make this for more money than the rest of your films [cost]." Which was a mixed blessing for me. I wanted to keep control, but I also wanted the film to hopefully reach a wider audience. Not an audience that was less my audience; just that more people would have a chance to see it, you know what I'm saying? I wasn't trying to sort of soft-soap my film, because I think there's some stuff in the movie that, if you think twice about it, is pretty intense. But this film was easier to make, and they have also agreed to make my next one, so at the moment…
O: Do you have a script for the next film?
TD: Yeah, it's all done. This one's called Double Whammy, and it's a very twisted crime/cop melodrama about addressing the issues of violence in movies today. You know, how much it takes to get your attention in films today.
O: So if someone out of the blue stopped by with an $80 million check and wanted you to make a film about a sexy serial killer with Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone, would you do it?
TD: I'd do it if Stallone played the guy gay, and did a sex scene with Mel Gibson, completely explicit. I would do it then.
O: So you would try to subvert the system.
TD: You can only do that, because the only way to do a film like that would be to take your soul, throw it on the floor, and take a shit on it. Because that's exactly what would happen. I can't even do that on my films, when I have one person coming up to me, saying, "Tom, what about this actor for this part?" "C'mon. Get out of here." It's a crazy business. I'm just realizing how many levels of things are governed by money. It's not even how good the film is. It's like, "It did $18 million at the box office." I just had a meeting with a guy, literally an hour ago: He said the new, uh, the guy from Saturday Night Live…
O: Adam Sandler?
TD: Yeah. [The Wedding Singer] made $18 million this weekend. That's all he said to me. You know, if you want to buy into that, you buy into that. "Power for me equals big box office." It's a dangerous game, and I try to stay as far away from it as I can.
O: Daily newspapers still run box-office tallies…
TD: Who do they think is reading it? It's frightening. The Real Blonde will be facing those exact same requirements. I'm nervous about it. All I know is that I made the best film I could make, and I think there's some really vibrant acting in it by some really skillful actors. It's funny in some really unexpected ways. Why is it funny when Denis Leary looks at this woman and, telling her that he's helping her as a self-defense instructor, insults her? I don't know, but it's funny!
O: Do the same vanities you deride in big films manifest themselves on the set of small films?
TD: Yeah, take a look at Living In Oblivion. From the opening frame, I was making it very obvious that this was a low-budget movie, that this wasn't Hollywood. The opening scene is two people in the middle of the night around a crap service table that looks like it came from Bosnia. It's not Hollywood, and Living In Oblivion was specifically designed to poke a hole in that idiotic cloak of coolness that independent filmmakers want to put on. Look at the director in that film: He lies, he's a fool, he's confused, he deceives his leading actress… It happens on every level, not just in Hollywood.
O: Do you think the massive publicity surrounding events like Sundance or even Cannes has somehow corrupted independent filmmaking?
TD: Yeah. It's hard to say that without sounding like a jaded pessimist, but I believe there are certain things that are obvious. One thing that's obvious is that independent film has changed: It's become a celebrity medium, and it didn't used to be. It used to be a film medium. Do you see what I mean? Stranger Than Paradise, yeah, it made kind of a star out of Jim Jarmusch, but most people who saw it just talked about the movie. Tarantino… Let's not get into that, because Tarantino's not responsible for all this; he's just a part of it. I know people who were depressed for months because their film did not get into Cannes. I know people I met at Sundance who were barely functioning because of the anxiety about whether they would or would not win an award there. It's definitely affected the business. It's become a money-making, fame-generating enterprise which definitely affects what kind of films are being made.
O: Is it possible to not play the game?
TD: There are a couple of people. John Sayles isn't playing it. I don't think I'm playing it. If you got down to it, you could write a script with no money and make [a movie], and there's still the possibility that you could get that film shown. And that's one of the good things about places like Sundance. I don't put Sundance down. For every sort of media-hype movie they have there, they would still take a film from a first-time director, and you'd have a chance of having people see it.
O: Do you ever take personal pleasure in seeing hyped films flop?
TD: [Laughs.] Well, if it was a good movie and that happened to it, I would be upset. If it was a piece of crap, yeah, there's a certain perverse joy in seeing it go up in flames. There is! I'm very much aware of the films getting all the buzz and hype, and then you wait for them to come out in the theaters and see how they hold up. A lot of times, the buzz works, and people go to see it. There are many films that get this buzz at Sundance or other things, and I've gone to see them, and it depresses the hell out of me. Not only is this emperor naked, but he never had any clothes!
O: Do you think all good films will eventually find their audience, or can a film be buried in the machinery?
TD: Again, it's hard to answer that question without sounding like a pessimist, but for all the little miracles and successes that happened with my films, there was also a tremendous amount of disappointment. Johnny Suede took four years to make; it played for two weeks in New York. Box Of Moonlight took five years to make; it played for two weeks in New York. At least I can say my films weren't buried. There were possibly other films that never even got distributors, and that person's story is much more painful than mine, because those movies never got a chance to be seen at all. The wheel of fortune in this business is extremely unpredictable, and some films could be buried and never seen. That's a scary thought.
O: Is it a matter of trust between a director and an actor that enables you to work together?
TD: It is. It most definitely is. I'm of two minds about actors. On the one hand, my experience as an actor gives me enormous sympathy for them. But I think they are equally the most abusive, pampered, and potentially destructive member of a set. It all depends on the actor. If I show the actors that all they have to do is trust me, repeatedly, and they don't trust me, then I get really angry.
O: Do you think it's a matter of the actors themselves being unwilling to take risks, or knowing that you are going to be taking more risks yourself?
TD: I think actors, at a certain point in their careers, decide they're either going to keep taking risks or take the exact same risk over and over again so that it's not a risk anymore. That's when I don't want to work with them. I think there are some actors who are just doing the exact same thing, and they will never shift from it. They get comfortable; they feel, "This is who am, this is as far as I'm going to go, and that's all I'm going to do." I think what Modine reveals about himself in this film is very courageous. Even Daryl Hannah… I never knew she had it in her. She took a huge risk for this film, playing someone who on the surface seems a little stupid, but is actually… Wow.
O: Are you still a fan of films, after film school and making films yourself? Do you go to the movies and enjoy them?
TD: I do, but it's getting rarer and rarer. A lot of the pleasure I take from films is rediscovering older films that inspire me. I will always look at La Dolce Vita. The last thing I want to do is sound like I'm some old-fart elitist. I'm not. But if you take a look at La Dolce Vita, there is some shit in that movie you just can't believe. It's so incredible. Casablanca is a very interesting film. The story is very simple. It's like a little love story combined with a war film, but the acting is unbelievable! You watch these people—Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre—and they thought they were making entertainment. They didn't think they were making an art movie, but the acting is unbelievable. I don't see why an entertainment film has to make you feel like an idiot, or make you check your brain at the door. Titanic. I'm sorry, the guy [James Cameron] spent $200 million, and the boat really looks like it sinks, but the acting in that film is dreadful. I'm sorry, it's an entertaining film, but why does the acting have to look like it's right out of Beverly Hills 90210?
O: Look at the box office and you get your cynical answer.