Tom DiCillo burst onto the indie scene in 1991 with the uniquely brilliant JOHNNY SUEDE, which featured Brad Pitt's first major lead role. Since then he's established himself as a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, capable of crafting intimate, truthful, hilarious comedy-dramas such as LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995), BOX OF MOON LIGHT (1996), THE REAL BLONDE (1997), DOUBLE WHAMMY (2001) and DELIRIOUS (2006); films that more often that not feature performances amongst the actors' best. Tom's latest film is the extraordinary documentary on The Doors, WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE (2009), which deservedly netted a Grammy Award. I spoke to him about his impressive career.    

Why did you decide to study acting before directing your first film, JOHNNY SUEDE? 
I was twenty years old before I fell in love with a different kind of filmmaking than would appear on traditional American screens. I was in college and I happened to see LA STRADA (1954). The film made me want to investigate that way of making films. I went to Film School in New York City, and I got my Master's Degree in Directing at NYU. After I graduated, I realized that the understanding of acting was one of the crucial elements of directing. I really felt like I had a block there. There were words that I thought I should be saying but I didn’t know what they were. At a friend’s gentle urging I started taking acting classes and the teacher told me ''You know you’ve got a little bit of a gift here. You should keep acting.'' That was an ego boost. At that time I was wondering how I was ever going to be able to direct a movie. Now I was thinking I might be an actor. But the original impulse was to help me work with actors as a director. And I can tell you the moment I stepped in front of an audience trying to bring some emotional truth to a scene changed forever how I talked to actors.

I think what happens between an actor and a director on set, or what potentially can happen, is one of the most abused and potentially destructive areas of the filmmaking process. The director’s job is to encourage the actor to do the best they can do, no matter what it takes, because ultimately it is the director who wins if he manages to do it successfully. Then the performance is on film and the film has more of a chance of bringing its ideas to life. Most directors are terrified of actors and never want to reveal it, so they tend to exert this exaggerated control over them, usually because they have no idea what to say or do with them. What I learned as an actor and from watching really good actors is that it's important to really give them the sense that you are really seeing what they’re doing. Because they look to you, and you have to let them know that if they try something in a scene that you have witnessed it, and that you’re able to identify it. It’s such an important knowledge. If you don’t know that language, or how to get a performance or how to help an actor, it’s like you’re going in with two hands tied behind your back. If you get them to trust you, you can actually get them to do anything and that’s where the joy is, where working with an actor like Steve Buscemi becomes so amazing.

How did JOHNNY SUEDE come into being?

Every day, for three years, I would walk up through the East Village to get to Film School. I would see these amazing characters with their hair up in pompadours, wearing sharkskin suits, sequinned jackets and pointy suede boots. They’d be making their way home after being up all night. Some of these people were junkies. An unforgettable image was this guy standing on a street corner for ten minutes and then suddenly falling down into the garbage. That, in a way, inspired Nick Cave’s character, Freak Storm, in JOHNNY SUEDE. I actually got the inspiration for Johnny’s hairdo when I was in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo and I saw a group of teddy boys with big pompadours standing around in a circle. The neo-rockabilly, punk aspect of what was happening with music at that time, and the costumes and imagery, really appealed to me. I don’t know why. I’m sort of an Elvis fan but definitely not much past 1956. I was never much of a Ricky Nelson fan because other than his sweet, homogenised voice, he was boring.

While I was taking acting classes, I began piecing together little sketches about a character called Johnny Suede. I would perform 15 minute pieces of stuff in front of everybody. Then I put all the short pieces together and made a one-man show out of it that was about an hour long. I still don’t believe I had the balls to do this, but I told a theatre what I wanted to do and they gave me the space for three weekends.I performed it as a one-man show. People came to see it and for the most part they responded to it, especially women. They appreciated the glimpse behind the surface into the male psyche. That was essentially what started my momentum again, after studying acting and performing in plays and in films for eight years, and working as a cinematographer.

How autobiographical is JOHNNY SUEDE?
Some things are very autobiographical, like the two relationships with Darlette and Yvonne. Other things I borrowed and exaggerated to serve the story. My intent with the character was to portray a guy who, like Ricky Nelson, worked very hard on the facade of looking cool and like he had it together in order to cover-up his confusion and the real chaos that was going on inside. That echoed some things that I was going through in my own life about who I was, and my understanding of how men and women related to each other. I knew nothing. The idea of emotional honesty and intimacy with another person terrified me. I decided to put some of my autobiographical material into the form of this kind of lost '50s troubadour wandering around this urban wasteland.

How close is Brad Pitt's portrayal of Johnny compared to your original conception?

It was close but with some significant differences. As the movie moved toward actual production I quickly came to see that my primary goal with the film was to be the writer and director because those were the engines that were really driving me the most. The acting one was a strong one, but I realised that if I wanted to focus on the film, I would probably have to let that one go. Once I made that decision, it was a little easier and I knew I needed to start and try to find this guy. Most of the guys we auditioned completely misunderstood what the character was about. They thought that he was some '50s greaseball like The Fonz on 'Happy Days'. It wasn’t until we saw Brad, who was like the 458th actor we looked at, that I saw an actor who had the kind of quality I was looking for in Johnny. There’s a certain kind of elegance and goofiness in Johnny, but at the same time he’s an interesting, complex character. I think Brad did really well with the part. If anything, it being my first film, I should have probably specified a little more what it was I wanted and what I was seeing. Brad certainly worked hard, but I think he made the choice to give a slightly infantile element to Johnny, and it made the character appear less intelligent. That was a mistake I felt that probably didn’t help the film. It makes you wonder why Catherine Keener's character is even with this guy if he is living in such a state of oblivion. Nonetheless, I still think Brad is amazing in the part and he brought something to it that I never could have. You know, it was my first film and learning those kinds of necessities when you’re directing like ''Oh my God, there’s something that needs to be changed'' was a really important lesson. No matter how big or drastic the change you have to just roll up your sleeves and change it. And not give up on it.

What are some of the film's cinematic influences?
LA STRADA was a huge influence, particularly the ending. The central story of that film, if you take away all the gritty neo-realism, was about a man who is brutal and alone but manages to stumble upon the only other human being on the planet who would ever care or have the time and patience for him. And he lets her go. He destroys the connection that they had and he ultimately winds up alone again. There’s an element of that in Johnny and Yvonne (Catherine Keener)’s relationship. The other huge influence was MIDNIGHT COWBOY. This wandering, naive kid ends up stumbling through the cold canyons of New York City. It’s an amazing film. Hard to understand how it got made in 1969. That whole sequence following Jon Voight walking through Times Square with the jump-cutting on his back. It pre-dated anything that happened on MTV. Really innovative.

Why do you think JOHNNY SUEDE was better received in Europe than the U.S.?
It did okay in Europe; very good in the UK. I suppose it touched upon more of a European sensibility where it’s fine to have a lead character who isn’t always a good guy. I’ve never been interested in characters who are simply heroic. It’s just incredibly boring to me.
I really don’t want to blame anybody but I don’t think the American release was helpful to the film. They didn’t put much into it. It was picked up by Miramax at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won Best Picture. At that time, Harvey Weinstein had never heard or seen Brad Pitt. His buyer suggested he obtain the film, and for one of the first times in his career he bought a film he hadn’t seen. Harvey didn’t quite know what to make of the film. Brad was becoming a star after playing the sexy, hitchhiking stud in THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) and Harvey decided to postpone the release of JOHNNY SUEDE until Brad became an even bigger star. By the time the film came out it was clear that nobody really understood why anybody would want to watch Brad with his hair up in a pompadour and acting like a fool. I still think that if JOHNNY SUEDE had been the first film that we had seen Brad in it would have been a different story. I think people would have been more open to his performance and impressed by it as I am. Also, it could be that it didn't have the stylistic reserve of a Jarmusch film or other established independent directors of the time. JOHNNY SUEDE has a kind of goofy sensibility and a sense of heart to it that threw people.

How proud do you remain of the film?
I still love the film like a difficult first child. I think there is a lot of original stuff in it. To this day I’ve never watched a scene in another American film like the one where Yvonne shows Johnny exactly where the clitoris is. The way the two actors handled that scene is just incredibly courageous and beautiful to me. It really surprised me that nobody found that scene as interesting or as intimate as I did. I think I made a film that has real honesty and a visual uniqueness to it. The world that it creates visually is quite beautiful and interesting and I like what the film is about. That said, I do take credit for some of the flaws of the movie - some of the pacing and some of the writing show signs of it being my first film. It could’ve been sharper, more reliant on just the magic of film to tell the story as opposed to just using dialogue all the time.

After making LIVING IN OBLIVION, are you now able to look back at the JOHNNY SUEDE experience in a more positive light?

Yes, I give myself a little more understanding and compassion now because making a film on a small budget is tough. Some people say that if you have only a little money it actually removes a lot of your variables and makes it easier. But on the other hand, it also imparts a pressure that is so intense. For example, if you have one day to shoot six scenes, and things start to go wrong - a camera starts to malfunction, a crew member doesn’t turn up or an actor starts getting weird on you - you start to worry about what’s going to happen to your film if the scenes don’t get done. If it was a Hollywood film, you could add a day to the schedule, do re-shoots or just throw money at the problem. You can’t do that on an independent production. That’s what the pressure was like on JOHNNY SUEDE. It was like going over Niagara Falls. Some of the adaptations or adjustments I made were smart and showed me that I had what it took to keep going. Some of them revealed other areas that I needed to work on.
I wasn't really prepared for what happens when you make a film and it doesn't really do anything for you, or even sets you back. Some people saw the film as a real accomplishment. That helped me in a certain way. It got me an agent and I became known as a director, which is what I wanted to be, and not as a cinematographer. I learned that to survive in the world of independent production you have to make films that are either incredibly critically acclaimed and/ or make money. Otherwise, people don't know what to do with you.

What emotions usually motivate you to write?
For me it is usually anger or hilarity. But sometimes the anger fuels the comedy. In any case, the motivation is usually pretty strong. It has to be, because the process of writing a screenplay is rather intense. A series of ideas that began on the corner of a napkin have to get to the point where it is enough to make you want to sit down for six or seven hours a day for a month to actually write an entire script. It has to be an impetus that really resonates with you because writing a script is hard. Sometimes it’s the humour that gives you that little hook to keep you going. Each script comes out of a different way. LIVING IN OBLIVION, though written quickly, took four years to sort of get into my brain and sit there. Frankly, I lived through all those nightmares with JOHNNY SUEDE. LIVING IN OBLIVION isn’t just really about being on the set. You could look at it as being about the entire independent production process. By the time I sat down to write it, everything was so rich and cooked inside of me that it just came out very easily. I think there’s a very interesting connection between humour and anger or rage. I think it’s important though that one tempers the other. If it’s just rage, I’ve noticed that it is boring and doesn’t have that extra edge that makes it understandable and interesting to other people.

Who is your biggest influence in terms of humour? I know you're a fan of Richard Lester's films. 
Richard Lester's A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) is one of my favourite films. It is really a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Yes, it is with The Beatles but what Lester did with the storytelling, the camera and the editing is twenty years ahead of its time. I actually showed my Director of Photography the film before we made DELIRIOUS. It strongly affected the look and feel of the film. There is a real sense of joy, ebullience really, in Lester's film. The way he used the camera to relay the humour and magic in his film was really bold and inspiring.

Mark Twain is an inspiration, and so are the Marx Brothers. I like humour that has an edge of lunacy to it. I think there’s definitely a bit of Kafka in my work. I’m one of the few people who find his work bizarrely humorous. The humour of LIVING IN OBLIVION comes out of these desperate and horrific moments that filmmakers go through. I was aiming to show all the things that directors go through that make them want to commit suicide!

How did you first meet Steve Buscemi?
 moved to New York in 1976, which was a very cool time to be there. The punk scene was really just starting. That affected how people were doing theatre and how people were doing movies. Suddenly people were taking Super 8 cameras and making feature-length films with them. On the theatre side, Steve was going around the clubs with his writing partner, Mark Boone Jr. Steve also acted in a couple of films Eric Mitchell made. I met Steve in a club on the Lower East Side. He and Mark did a silent sketch where they both play men pretending to be dogs. I thought his acting and playwrighting were so amazing that I really wanted to work with him. At one point, Steve and I were going to play the leads in JOHNNY SUEDE, with me as Johnny, and he as Deke, Johnny’s best friend. Who’s to say what that would have been like? It certainly would have been interesting I think.
Why do you enjoy working with Steve? You've collaborated on three films.
To me Steve is the ideal kind of actor. He takes it very seriously but he’s also able to enjoy what he is doing. That’s such an important element. My preparational dialogue with him is very minimal. He’s such an intuitive actor and willing to go places. Most of the time when I’m on set with him what I'll do is take him aside at the beginning of a take and whisper a suggestion in his ear. I whisper because I don't want the other actor to know what is coming. Some actors resist this kind of directing. They don't like to be caught off guard or put off balance. But with Steve, you’d see his eyes light up very quietly and then 'Boom!', he just goes with it. It’s like he jumps off a balcony. It’s incredible. It's interesting that I first put Steve, Michael Pitt and Tom Aldredge together in DELIRIOUS and all three of them were cast in the HBO series 'Boardwalk Empire'!

How did you end up casting Catherine Keener in JOHNNY SUEDE? You have worked with her four times now.
The casting director and I exhausted all the actresses we knew in New York, so we scraped some money together and went out to California. We held auditions in this really cheap motel, which I later found out was the motel Janis Joplin overdosed in. The actors would come in and stand around waiting by this empty, deserted swimming pool, which always made me think of Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). I almost didn’t cast Catherine because she was so wacky in her audition. Then I realised she had exactly what I needed. For me, she has an element, a little like Buscemi, that once she gets going on something you can’t take your eyes off of her. She’s got a combination of humour and rage in her. You can see it in the scene in LIVING IN OBLIVION where she fights with James Le Gros. She's got a kind of devil quality in her, like a mischievous juvenile delinquent. For me, that is a great quality, especially from a woman. Women rarely get to play in that arena.

How did you first meet Jim Jarmusch? You photographed his early films.
Jim and I were in film school together. We were both directors in the same class. He and I quickly realised we shared a similar sensibility, although we're also very different. As a random student exercise, one teacher suggested that somebody should come up with a script, somebody should edit the film, and somebody should shoot it. A little five-minute exercise. I'd never shot anything before and I ended up shooting this film that Jim wrote the script for. Working with Jim on his early films was artistically and intellectually satisfying because I respected his ideas and at the same time he respected mine. He never forced me into a box the way a lot of directors do when you work for them. Specifically with STRANGER IN PARADISE (1984) he let me create the visual world of the film. That's one of the things that can be exciting about cinematography. On the other hand, I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do.

It troubles me that people don't put enough energy into looking at the great differences between the two of us. His films are brilliant, but they're different from mine. They're highly conceptual on a more abstract level. My films, although having a slight exaggeration and altered reality as well, tend to be much more focused on basic human emotion.

How helpful to your career have your various awards been?
I guess if it’s the right kind of award it can help you. An Academy Award has a great logistical value to a filmmaker. That means you can now possibly do something a bit different, and your career may be a little easier. That’s a highly valued and desperately sought after award for a filmmaker, even independent ones. I've never come close, nor do I expect to. LIVING IN OBLIVION won some nice awards, including Best Screenplay at Sundance. I was pleased with that but it didn't really help me make another movie. Winning Best Picture at Locarno with my first film JOHNNY SUEDE was a thrill. But immediately afterwards some US critics derided the decision, saying I'd only won because one of my producers was Swiss. To my great surprise DELIRIOUS won some awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival. But such prestigious awards did not stop all the independent distributors from turning their back on the movie. I think winning an award at Cannes can be very helpful to a filmmaker's career. Every one of my films has been rejected there.
You must have been very happy with the Grammy win for your documentary on The Doors, WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE'.
The Grammy win was actually very gratifying because the US release of the film was handled so poorly. I put so much work into the film. Originally, I'd been asked by the producers if I was interested in making a documentary about The Doors. I said yes immediately. They had access to every frame of footage in the Doors archive. It wasn't until I looked at all that footage that I finally came up with an idea of how to tell the Doors' story. All this original footage had such power and detail that I decided to only use that footage and no talking heads to tell the story. It was kind of a risky decision. Even The Doors were skeptical at first, but when they saw the first half hour they all loved it. It was real. It was their story, using the real images to tell it. My point is that I pieced the narrative and chronology from fragments of real footage. It took months. My goal was to tell the story of The Doors as truthfully as possible, using the original footage to give the viewer the idea they too were witnesing the birth of this utterly unique band, just as people did who were lucky enough to be there in that period.

So the Grammy win, especially coming from a musicians' organisation, meant a lot to me. But I'm more pleased with the way WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE turned out. It's kind of some strange hybrid of a documentary; an odd movie all of its own. At the last minute we got access to the original negative of Jim Morrison's film HWY: AN AMERICAN PASTORAL (1969). Prior to this, I'd had to be satisfied with using grainy, bleached out fragments of old prints of the film. Morrison had been so impressed by Dennis Hopper and EASY RIDER (1969) that he set out to make a similar kind of movie. He financed it himself and shot it on colour 35mm negative. Morrison was very proud of the movie. I decided to open the documentary with the footage of Jim wandering the desert and interweave other outtakes from his film throughout WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE. I thought it could be a unifying sub-theme to the documentary - Jim's spirit searching for the meaning of things: like his own life, the meaning of the band, of the turbulent times in which they came into being. I chose to use the original 35mm negative in its most pristine state, the state in which Jim shot it. But some people seing the footage, perhaps because it looks so beautiful mistakenly thought it was all recreated, that somehow I'd found an actor that looked just like Morrison and fakes all that. That is an incredibly destructive misconception that hurt the film. No one bothered to inquire where I got that footage. Any serious Doors fan knows of the film Morrison made. Most critics panned the film because they erroneously thought all the incredible footage from his film was faked.

How did you fall in love with the music of The Doors?
I was thirteen when 'Light My Fire' came out. Even at that age I preferred the long version because it had that incredible instrumental break in the middle. It was music like nothing I'd ever heard. I wouldn't have called myself a massive fan, but I knew I liked their music. It was very strange music, and when I was doing my movie I was able to take a step back and try to identify what that sound is. I think I came close to it. I do believe there's something about the music and about Morrison that makes people feel it's very private music. It's music for people that never quite felt included. Being included is a massive issue, especially for Americans. If you're not included growing up, it can be really brutal. I related to that. I must say that the writing of the film was a learning experience for me as I came to The Doors kind of brand new. It was a really great experience.

Has your JOHNNY SUEDE experience been the biggest struggle of your career so far?
Actually, no! The most painful experience for me was the release of DELIRIOUS in the US. I wrote DELIRIOUS for Steve Buscemi, but the backers wanted Billy Bob Thornton instead. Ultimately I won that battle but I had to compromise in other areas to do so. It's a jewel of a film but it got flushed down the toilet due to financial cowardice on the part of the financiers. That had serious effects on my career and I'm back at that place now where I've got to start again. It's OK. I've done it before. I'm writing something now that hopefully I can shoot in a few rooms with three or four people for maybe 3 weeks. I'll cast some actors that I think are perfect for the parts no matter what producers or Hollywood people would think. The opposite to making movies this way is what's been happening to three of my scripts over the last five years: submiting scripts to agents and waiting 3 months for a reply from actors only for them to say "It's not for me". You end up going after the same three or four actors everybody is going after in order to get their films financed. It is a merry-go-round that is impossible to get off of.

What has been the biggest joy of your career?
I think joy carries the most pleasure when it comes after moments of great tension, doubt and fear. After JOHNNY SUEDE came out and disappeared so quickly, I was stuck in a pit of quicksand. I wanted to make BOX OF MOON LIGHT but nobody would give me the money for it. By hitting up my family and friends, I got together enough money to shoot a half hour movie of LIVING IN OBLIVION. I thought ''I have to just stop and go back. Even if it means shooting it on 8mm,  that’s what I’ll do.'' We shot it in five days. At the end of the last day, everyone, including me, was walking around depressed because we realised it was going to end. I knew there was nothing I could really do with a half hour film. A short film needs to be a minute, four minutes or ten minutes. People like Catherine, kept telling me I had to turn it into a feature film. But how was I going to do that? I felt like I’d put some of the best scenes I’d ever done on film, with beautiful acting, and nobody’s going to see it. I don’t know how it happened but I just went ahead and wrote the second section. Then I had another idea and wrote the third section. When I realised that I had taken this one crazy little idea and turned it into a rather cohesive script, it was one of the most incredible moments of joy I’ve ever experienced. I’m really proud of that screenplay. I put so much into it and I love the form of it. Sometimes I can barely believe I wrote it. It was partly luck and blind belief in myself that it happened. It gave me the faith that if it had happened once, it can happen again.


I spoke with Tom by telephone on 7th October 2012, and corresponded by email during August 2013. I'd like to thank him for sparing his time.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

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