Tom DiCillo is known as a New York indie hipster, having shot Jim Jarmusch’s striking Stranger than Paradise and directing a number of his own indie classics, most of them starring Steve Buscemi. (We personally recommend Living in Oblivion to anyone reading this who has ever thought of making their own movie.) Fresh out of the Sundance Film Festival comes DiCillo’s latest, Delirious, which is a bit of a departure in some ways even if it does explore familiar territory of looking at the underpinnings of “the industry.” This time, Buscemi plays celebrity photographer Les Galantine who takes on a homeless young man named Toby, played by Michael Pitt, as his assistant, a partnership that’s put to the ultimate test when the good-looking Toby catches the eye of hot pop star Kharma (Alison Lohman), kicking off his own meteoric rise to fame.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the New York filmmaker who has played an influential part on the New York film scene over the last 15 to 17 years.
ComingSoon.net: You came up with the idea for this movie six years ago, so when did you finally get the cast and the money together and start shooting?
Tom DiCillo: Well, the six years included from the inception of the idea to the first day of shooting, so many things happened in staggered stages up until that point. The first thing that happened was that I wrote it for Buscemi. We were great friends and he’s been in four of my films. He was very excited to hear that I was writing something for him, so when I finished it, the first thing I did was just send it to him right away and I didn’t hear from him for two weeks. I called him, and said, “Steve, did you get the script?” and he goes, “Yeah, Tom, I’m not going to do it.” I said, “What are you talking about, man?” and he goes, “Yeah, well, the guy’s a little too creepy for me.” So he had a couple of ideas. I worked them into the script, sort of giving the character a little bit more humanity. I developed that scene with the parents so that we saw the effect that that rejection from his father had on him. Then I set up a stage-reading a year later, that’s how long it took, and finally at that stage reading, Steve read the part of Les and he saw what I was looking for and why I wanted him, and he said, “Yes.” That was one step.
CS: Did you have any of the others from the movie at that reading?
DiCillo: No, and at that point I didn’t have any money either. I had a script and I had Steve attached, so I started looking for the money. I went through every parameter and possibility of trying to find this money: every single U.S. financing company, U.S. independent distributor, anybody who ever invested in independent film, all said “no.” I went to Europe, and I ended up with a British company that was going to finance it. Michael Pitt came on board at that point and at one point, Scarlett Johansson was going to play the part of Kharma. I thought we would just take off with that.
CS: That would have been a very different movie.
DiCillo: Very different. I think Alison (Lohman) commits in a way that perhaps Scarlett might not have, but then, I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen with these people and this was like four years in. I hooked up with this company called Peace Arch Entertainment. I cut two million dollars out of the budget. They found that enticing enough to commit to the entire budget, and five and a half years later, we had a green light.
CS: $2 million might not seem like a lot, but that’s a lot of money for an independent film.
DiCillo: Yeah, it was significant. It completely dictated, I think in a fortuitous way, the way I made the movie. It’s just driven by this energy, by this lack of what I would call pretension or preciousness. I didn’t have time for that. I still wanted it to have elements of great beauty and mystery in it, so that was the challenge. How do you do that in 25 days? I was so pleased with that shot of Toby’s foot hitting the puddle and the flowers coming down.
CS: You definitely played with a lot of different filmmaking styles in the movie.
DiCillo: Right, yea, so it was a challenge. The money that I had wanted was not to do anything tricky. It was to satisfy the necessary I thought requirements of the film, which was Les’ world and Kharma’s world. It takes money to make Kharma’s world, so that was the real challenge. Les’ world was easy, but to make Kharma’s world believable and have these guys be like “I wish I could get in there” that’s where the money would have gone. Still, I think with 25 days, I think we managed to suggest that.
CS: Was Les’ apartment an actual apartment that you shot in or was that a space you found and dressed-up?
DiCillo: Oh, no, that was a find. The location guy found it, and we dressed it. Pretty much physically, it was like that. We didn’t paint it, but we put the furniture inor lack thereofand if anything, we knocked a few more holes in the wall.
CS: Les is a tough character to like, but you do find a way to make him the protagonist. Can you talk about that a little bit?
DiCillo: Well, I just wanted to make sure that with this movie, nobody accused me of just softening it, of chickening out. Yeah, the paparrazzi is a desperate and very specific character, and I did not want to be accused of romanticizing it. Now I may have erred a little bit to the side of leaving out the humanity and I think Steve was correct. It didn’t change that much, but the little stuff that I put in really emphasized for me why I wrote it for Steve, because this guy, I have to say, is my favorite character in the film. He’s struggling with an enormous almost handicap. He’s literally been crippled. When his mother says “I smell sh*t. Wash your hands.” You know what she’s talking about. The guy feels like he wreaks of “sh*t” so I needed someone like Steve, who was such a great human being and such a brilliantly empathic actor that in the midst of all this desperation from the character, he always brings his humanity to the screen, so that you may not sympathize with him, but you understand him. There’s no other actor that I felt could do that, and I think that Steve goes places in this movie that he’s never done. I think it’s one of his most complex roles, to be the raging comic thing but the moment when he breaks down? God, that’s a rare moment for Steve Buscemi, and completely believable.
CS: I always have seen you more of the indie New York guy, but the things seen in this movie you’d think would be something that would be more L.A., the paparazzi, etc. I know that you’ve been doing more TV stuff lately so have you been spending a bit more time out there?
DiCillo: Well, now hold on. I would caution you about jumping to those kinds of conclusions please. I did one episode of “Monk” three years ago. Since then, I’ve done two episodes of “Law and Order” which shoots in New York. I live in New York. I know Chris Noth, he’s a friend of mine, so they offered me a gig. They let me have a surprising amount of creative input. It’s a short gig. It pays my insurance. I gotta live off something! No, I live here. I chose New York because I love the way it forces all elements of society to smash into each other. L.A., everything is just in a vacuum. You never meet anybody. In New York, Donald Trump can get out of his car and bump into a homeless guy. That’s why.
CS: But how much of this stuff actually affects you and how much of this stuff do you see all the time?
DiCillo: I see it occasionally. Every movie premiere, including my own, that I’ve been to or any publicity event, I’ve always been I can’t help myself but just be fascinated by watching what’s happening just off-camera, the maneuvering, the frenzy of the fans, the photographers, the machinery of hierarchy. You know what I mean? It’s so intense and it fascinates me. It’s not like I go “Oh, yes, it deserves importance.” I’m just saying that it brings out some very desperate human behavior over the most apparently trivial things.
CS: You’re correct in saying that a fantasy story like this probably could only happen in New York and you might say the same about Steve Buscemi’s other recent movie “Interview.”
DiCillo: Yes, yes, and the contrast between shall we say rich and poor, the have and the have-nots, is very extreme here. What I’m saying is that a homeless person here can look up at Trump Tower. He can be standing there on the street when the limo drives by and see the star get into the car. In L.A., it’s all just spread out.
CS: Even though you spent six years making this movie, there’s something about the timing of it that’s really perfect and more pertinent now than six years ago.
DiCillo: Yeah, I hope so.
CS: Another thing I really liked about the movie is the way that fame affects friendships. It’s something we see all the time and everyone’s been through it at one point or another. Was that something you brought from your own life experiences in some ways?
DiCillo: I’ll tell you something. I’ll tell you a very specific incident in my life, and I will never forget it. I cast Brad Pitt in “Johnny Suede,” my first film. You should see it. He’s very, very good in it. He totally committed himself to the part. I cast him because I knew he had something. Everybody told me not to cast this kid, he was going to be nobody, this was 1990. We shot for 30 days. At the end of the shootand by that point, “Thelma & Louise” was just about to be released, but he had already gotten this buzz and this group of handlers around him, and on the very last day of shooting, I went up to him and I hugged him. I said, “Thanks, man.” I must have held the hug one millisecond too long because instantly, it was the tiniest little gesture but (Tom does a movement of backing away) and I knew at that point that I was never going to see him again. And it’s true. So I put that idea into the film. I think that celebrity does affect how human beings relate to each other.
CS: Do you see yourself doing any more television work or cinematography for other directors?
DiCillo: No, why would I do that? No, no. I started out as a director and the cinematography was just an accidental thing. I shot a couple of movies for Jarmusch. I never studied it, and I think he enjoyed working with me because I brought a director’s sensibility to the work, but nah, I’d never think that a director would go back to shooting (for someone else).
CS: When working with someone like Steve, who’s also a director, does he bring something else to the table in terms of working with the other actors?
DiCillo: What he brings is like I said, with the group, a complete diplomacy and willingness to work with the other actors. That’s where all the conflicts come up with other actors. They think that someone is not paying attention to them. He’s a very giving actor.
CS: Do you have any inclination to do any acting, like in one of Steve’s movies?
DiCillo: Actually, I studied acting for eight years when I got out of film school, because I realized that it was something I knew nothing about. It was very difficult to express ideas to actors on the set, so I studied acting for eight years and tried to make a career out of it actually and ended up feeling like I didn’t have the shall we say necessary ability to not take it too seriously. I just did this series of these video blogs. You should check them out. Go to Deliriousthemovie.com and there’s three of them up there, and none of them were scripted and I’m in every one, and it was really enjoyable.
And here’s some more non-exclusive stuff from an interview with Tom done earlier with a couple other journalist-types:
CS: Can you talk about how this differs from your previous movies that skewer industry?
DiCillo: I’m going to nitpick a little bit with you because these films are important to me, and I put a lot of time and effort into choosing why I want to make the films I want to make. I would never want to repeat the exact same film. “Living in Oblivion” if you look at it is about a bunch of filmmakers on a set, that’s what it is. There’s no publicists, no agents, no producers, it’s just the horrors of what happens to the simplest form of filmmaker. “The Real Blonde” was more from the point of view of an actor trying to make it in the business, and it wasn’t so much trying to skewer that stuff, but just to kind of show what that particular world is like. With this one, I originally had this idea of watching the world of the paparazzi. It really started to fascinate me and I began to think about these guys as real people. They wake up in the morning, they figure out what they’re doing. How do they justify what they do? Once I had that idea, this kind of guy who occupies the lowest rung of the celebrity ladder, I said, “Well, let me see what the opposite of that would be,” which would be this kid who has some sort of innocence and openness about him, and then put the two of them together. I’m much more interested in what happens in that human relationship then I am about making a comment about the industry. I will say that you have to be blind today not to see that celebrity and fame has become the most intense obsession of the world, not just this country. I’ve seen some of the most vicious and brutal behavior I’ve ever seen in the entertainment business. The film is really a homage to this myth of why we keep going to the movies, the discovery of something that’s genuine. I believe it exists, and that’s really what I was trying to do with this movie.
CS: Why call the movie “Delirious”?
DiCillo: A couple of reasons. There was one film that really influenced this film, and that was “A Hard Day’s Night” just in the sense of the energy in there, the delight, and I thought there was a certain element of that I would like to bring into this film. It also means “happy to the point of insanity” which seems to me to apply to what is driving a lot of people in the film, some desire to get to the point of not just happiness, but happiness to the point where it drives you insane.
CS: Can you talk about what your next project might be?
DiCillo: Well, I wrote something. It’s called “Americana” and it would star Willem Dafoe as the leader of a very small white militia group placed somewhere in the United States, and Buscemi plays his brother. There’s only about five or six people in the group and these two young kids, Kieran Culkin is going to play one of them, get swept up into this group, not because of the ideology, but because Dafoe is this very intense father figure to them. It’s a comment about what’s going on in the world today. I will just tell you one thing. How many times have we heard Bush talk about the No Child Left Behind Act? We’ve heard this, right? You know what it really stipulates? An act in there by a Republican senator stipulates that for any school in the United States to get funding by this No Child Left Behind Act, they have to provide the U.S. military with the names, the addresses and phone numbers of every single kid in the school, and the only way to opt out of that is to sign a little box on something that most parents never see. “No Child Left Behind” (is really) “No Child Left Out of Iraq.”
Delirious opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, August 15 and in other cities over the course of August and September.