The Big Chill: Tom DiCillo Interview
No other director except Richard Linklater has been invited more often to the American Independents section of FILMFEST MÜNCHEN: This year, Tom DiCillo returns to Munich for a complete retrospective of his work.
He studied film at New York University together with Jim Jarmusch at a time when Washington Square seemed to be the cinematic epicenter of the world. He shot rockabilly cult film JOHNNY SUEDE in 1991 with Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener in their first starring roles, plus appearances by Samuel L. Jackson and Nick Cave, which has never been shown in German theaters before. Based on his experiences in the independent NY film scene, he immortalized that era hilariously in LIVING IN OBLIVION 1995. In BOX OF MOONLIGHT with John Turturro and Sam Rockwell 1996, he perfected the indie genre of the existential midlife crisis road movie. Many of his films that followed were also send-ups of the New York show biz world: THE REAL BLONDE, DOUBLE WHAMMY and DELIRIOUS. In 2009, he was invited to Berlin with his doc on The Doors, WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE, which keyboarder Ray Manzarek called "the true story of The Doors" and the "anti-Oliver Stone".
Over the years, you kept screening your films at Munich. What kept you coming back? What do you like about the city?
One of the things an independent director looks for when bringing a film to a European festival is the openness and curiosity of its audiences, the festival's devotion and support of filmmakers, the taste of the city's pilsner and the quality of porn on the hotel television. In my experience I have found Munich to excel in all these areas.
You began as an NYU student and became cameraman for Jim Jarmusch, helping establish a unique style. How did that come about? What was it like?
This question brings to light one of the greatest myths and misconceptions since the virgin birth of Michael Jackson. I did not begin as a cameraman for Jim Jarmusch. We went to film school together in NYC where I was a writer and director as he was. One day I was randomly selected to shoot a class exercise, and Jim was randomly selected to direct it. I had never shot anything before, nor had I studied cinematography. But, the experience was creatively very stimulating for us both.
I think what Jim appreciated about me was that I had no preconceived ideas about what "correct" cinematography was. I approached shooting with complete openness, as a director does. Most cinematographers unfortunately feel compelled to tell you all the reasons why you cannot do a shot. I always did the opposite.
I only shot two films for Jarmusch (Editor's note: PERMANENT VACATION and STRANGER THAN PARADISE). I'm proud of my contribution to them. The collaboration was exciting and rewarding but I'm quite satisfied not to be shooting films anymore; for him or anyone else.
You gave Brad Pitt his first starring role in "Johnny Suede". How did that happen? How did the relationship develop?
I cast Brad Pitt after seeing over 300 actors for the part of Johnny. I did not know who he was when he walked into the audition. I saw on his resume that he'd just finished shooting a film called THELMA AND LOUISE but it would be months before that film was released. But, the moment he walked into the room I knew two things: he was Johnny Suede, and he was going to be a star.
My producers though, refused to cast him. They said he was a nobody. So, I had to get rid of them and start again to raise the money. But Brad remained loyal to me and the film. He committed 100% to the part. I still think it is one of his bravest performances.
You shot four films with Catherine Keener. Your muse? Secret love of your life? Give us the goodies.
I met Catherine the same day I met Brad Pitt. She walked into the cheap motel room we were casting out of while we were in LA. She actually auditioned with Brad. She was so tense and crazy during the audition I almost didn't cast her. But, I woke up in the middle of the night and said, "This woman has an amazing, original spirit and I would be an idiot not to cast her."
In LIVING IN OBLIVION a character says of Catherine, "She's smart, she's sexy and she's kind of kooky." I think that sums her up pretty accurately. As an actress she has an uncanny ability to be absolutely real on camera and at the same time be entertaining. This is a rare combination. She made me laugh. I liked to make her laugh. Especially in bed.
I understand your need for "goodies" but my lawyer has advised me to say no more as several of my illegitimate children have just gotten out of rehab and are now suing me in an effort to determine who their mothers were.
Living in Oblivion stands as a memorial to the New York independent film boom of the late 80s - how do you recall those days? Why did they come to an end?
I saw my first NY independent films when I moved to the city in 1976. Crazy directors I had never heard of, like Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, John Lurie and Beth and Scott B, were making films on Super 8mm and showing them in bars on the Lower East Side. That spirit was incredibly intoxicating. It was a feeling of liberation, of absolute freedom-the idea that people with no money could make feature films about whatever they wanted and cast whoever they wanted.
This spirit formed my cinematic consciousness the same way seeing La Strada for the first time did just a year before. The independent movement lasted only a short time, like all true movements in this country. But for those few years it was real. And it was the opposite of Hollywood. Its power came from the fact that it so clearly and joyously said, "FUCK YOU" to Hollywood. I have nothing against Hollywood. I just feel there ought to be room for both kinds of cinema. But, independent film came to an end when it began to worship the same deities of Hollywood films; Box Office, Opening Weekend; Numbers, Dollars, Numbers. There is now no such thing as independent film. It has become Indiewood or Hollydent, whichever term one can say without punching somebody or breaking down into tears.
Your films often deal self-consciously with the modern media. Phase or fixation?
Perhaps bewilderment is a better word. I have always been fascinated in the strange world that exists somewhere between the lens and the celebrity's grin. I watch what happens to people when they get in front of a camera and I feel like I'm watching creatures from another planet.
There has never been a time when such a vast number of human beings are so obsessed with fame and celebrity. The media feeds this obsession-and thereby feeds itself. It is a symbiotic cycle. The media hypes our obsession with fame. We buy into it, and buy it-and the media makes money.
But, none of this would mean anything if it didn't have some emotional meaning for me. What is our obsession with celebrity saying about us? What does it do to our universal psyches to be so dependent on recognition from others in order to feel we have value? In our contemporary world Attention equals Value-- any kind of attention.
Did you you grow up in a '60s household? What was your relationship with The Doors? Is Jim Morrison a Tom DiCillo character?
I grew up in the late 50's, the 60's and a few years of the 70's. My father was a Colonel in the Marine Corps. He refused to have a television in the house. I had to sneak over to my friend's house to watch it.
I hated my old man for his rules and regulations-even though I'm now grateful for a few of them because not having a TV forced me to read at a very early age. It wasn't until I was deep into researching the Doors film that I realized there were some strong similarities between Jim Morrison's childhood and my own.
Jim's father was an Admiral in the Navy. From talking to Jim's sister it was clear that Admiral Morrison gave all the orders around the house and everyone in the family was expected to obey him. My father was the same--which is why to this day I can't stand people telling me what to do. I don't mind someone expressing their opinion, or giving me advice. What I react the most violently to is someone telling me to do something simply because they are in a position of power.
Morrison reacted against authority like this with his entire soul. The more I learned about him the greater my respect for him as an artist grew. He believed that the only way to be creative is to be completely free. The moment you listen to anyone's judgment of you or your work, you are doomed. The similarity in our experience drew me close to him. I felt I caught a tiny glimpse of him as a real human being. And this inspired me more than ever as a filmmaker to continue fighting for what I believe in.
You saw some of your films go straight to DVD, then made a LAW & ORDER episode based on the Lonelygirl15 YouTube channel. Where do you see the movie business in 10 years?
I had only one film released on DVD (Editor's note: DOUBLE WHAMMY) and that was because the executives at the company that bought it (and signed a contract for its theatrical release) simply lost control of themselves and reverted to being the spiders and snakes they are in normal life.
I have directed a number of shows for television. The only reason for this is to make money so I can pay the rent and help my wife feel she is not living with a creatively intentioned gigolo. I do not choose the scripts for the TV shows I direct, nor do I write them. Ironically, it was because of the LAW & ORDER shows I've directed that I got the job of writing and directing WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE, the first documentary about the Doors.
In 10 years there will be no movie theaters. People will sit at home and press a button to attend the premiere of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 23 which will be showing on their combo computer screen/toaster ovens. Millions of people in the film business will lose their jobs. Film critics will sadly become obsolete and we will be forced to get our opinions on film from cab drivers and meat slicers at the local deli the way we used to.
What's in the pipeline? And what's the movie you really, really urgently want to make?
I have three scripts I've written. They are completely different and I am aching to make all of them. One is a contemporary sex comedy inspired by the classic sex comedies from Italy and France in the late 60's. Another is a sexually intense crime thriller. And one is a goofy comedy about a college teacher in an American university where all the students are complete idiots.
Every script takes at least 6 months to write. That amount of time requires a personal investment from me. And the only way to get any sense of completion is to actually make the film. There is nothing more depressing to a director than having a script lying in a drawer. It looks up at you year after year and the sense of abandonment and isolation in its eyes become increasingly unbearable.
And most important: How do New York pretzels compare to Bavarian pretzels?
To be totally honest I hate pretzels. I ate one when I first moved to NY and it took me about 3 hours. It was like eating an entire roll of lightly salted paper towels.
Interview: Collin McMahon
"I've seen you somewhere before. What's your name?" Brad Pitt and Nick Cave in JOHNNY SUEDE
"Why does it always have to be a dwarf?" Peter Dinkladge and Catherine Keener in LIVING IN OBLIVION
"Make sure all the guys in the front row have the right kind of ass": Steve Buscemi and Dave Chapelle in THE REAL BLONDE
"I am the Lizard King. I can do anything": Jim Morrison in WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE