Tuesday, November 10, 2015
[Tom DiCillo, left, and Steve Buscemi from 2006 by Jeff Vespa, © WireImage.com]
Tom DiCillo came to New York City to study film at NYU in 1976.
Like other new residents, he was taken by the NYC subway system. "From the moment I arrived in the city, particularly when I'd get on the train, I noticed these tiny daily dramas," said DiCillo in a phone conversation last week. It provided potential dramatic fodder for a filmmaker, "but it wasn't feasible to carry a big camera and canisters of film" to attempt a subway shoot. It wasn't until some 30 years later when DiCillo bought a digital camera did he decide to make a movie capturing a slice-of-life look at the subway experience.
The results of his nearly six years of work can be seen tonight in the 69-minute "Down in Shadowland," his latest work, which is playing at the Anthology Film Archives as part of a two-night Tom DiCillo retrospective.
The other featured works are the 20-year-anniversary of his best-known film, the darkly satirical "Living in Oblivion," and the 2006 offbeat dramedy "Delirious," in which Steve Buscemi — also the star of "Living in Oblivion" — plays a small-time paparazzo. DiCillo and Buscemi will both be on-hand tomorrow night for a Q-and-A following the screening of each film.
After serving as cinematographer to classmate Jim Jarmusch's "Permanent Vacation" in 1980 and "Stranger Than Paradise" in 1984, DiCillo dabbled as an actor before striking out on his own as a director.
His first film was the absurdist fable "Johnny Suede" from 1991 and featuring Brad Pitt in his first leading role. (The Johnny Suede character's punk-rockabilly look and style came from some of the musicians DiCillo saw around the East Village in the 1980s.)
DiCillo's subsequent films included casts with Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage and Denis Leary, among others. The films found a limited but devoted audience. His subsequent challenges, from failed financing to lackluster distribution, have been well-documented (here and here, for example).
I spoke with an upbeat and talkative DiCillo on the phone from his Upper West Side apartment for nearly 40 minutes. What follows are some highlights from the conversation edited for length and clarity.
On making "Down in the Shadowland" over a six-year period:
In late 2007, I got my first small digital movie camera that I could carry around with me. I found taking this little camera and shooting whenever I wanted was so liberating that it actually took me back to the most basic impulses that I ever had wanting to be a filmmaker. Seeing something on the street and going Oh my God if I can only put that in a movie.
I thought the idea of capturing these ephemeral moments that exist underground would make for a great project. I started carrying the camera with me every day. After shooting for about four years, I said it was time to come up with a structure for it. [Laughs]
I think it's done. You could probably keep shooting this for 20 years. The whole purpose of it was to see if I could translate what my eyes were seeing to something other people would appreciate. It's kind of an individual journey. It's not a mass thing. The film works the best when you start to feel like it's a surreal and mysterious journey that's going on inside each of these individuals' minds.
I don't feel as if the film is strictly a documentary. There are many different kinds of films that are vérité. Every frame in it is real. But it's not a film that explains or illustrates the experience of the subway. It's less about the subway than it is about us as human beings. Twenty years from now this film is going to seem like a really bizarre time capsule.
On the filmmaking scene in the Lower East Side upon his arrival in 1976:
In that period, the late 1970s through the late 1980s, the city was really falling to pieces. There was a desperate element that fueled a great artistic movement… the punk scene, the independent film scene all were generated by the fact that things were falling apart.
None of my classmates I found interesting ever thought about going to Hollywood. The idea was to take this opportunity to make a film and do something that was completely different than Hollywood. Steve Buscemi was writing and performing plays with Mark Boone Junior. The only thing they really wanted to do was write and perform. They weren't worried about where they did it.
The film scene was that way too. Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe… these guys were making films on Super 8 and screening them in bars. Anybody could make a movie. You didn't have to have this enormous financial machine. New York was that way. It was a fantastic time. There was a feeling that something fresh and new was happening.
On making "Living in Oblivion":
When I got the idea for "Living in Oblivion," the first person to put up money was Dermot Mulroney. He was married to Catherine Keener at the time. She was the first person who I had shown the script to. She sent it to Dermot. He immediately put up $5,000. He said that he wanted to play the director. I said "I'll take your $5,000, but I think you'd be better suited to playing the cameraman." He said, "OK great. How about Steve as the director?" That was the beginning of my relationship with Steve. He said yes without even reading the script.
Steve is one of the most warmhearted and genuine people I've ever met. He is a fascinating actor. I'm thrilled that he is going to be [at the Anthology] with me.
When "Oblivion" was released here, it got a very nice notice from The New York Times, which helped it. A lot of critics panned the film, saying that it was just a movie for filmmakers. It crippled the film in some other markets. It always bothered me because it's like saying, "You can't make a film about astronauts, because only astronauts will want to see it." It's crazy.
On New York City today:
I'm definitely not the kind of person who's going to say that Times Square used to be better before it was cleaned up. I was a visitor there during that period when there were hookers and drugs. You wouldn't really want to go there. But to say that was a better time for the city is bullshit. There is a certain corporate bullshit that has happened to New York. I despise the fact that every single gritty, realistic aspect of the city has been bought by merchandising. A place that used to be a real meat market [has been turned] into something to make you feel like you are in a hip part of Manhattan.
The thing I love about the city … on the street level, it's a very democratic city. You engage with people of every level, shoulder to shoulder every day. New York still has this feeling that it is unique in America. There are people here from all over the world. I'm all for the quiet, small-town idea. But small-town thoughts are what is destroying this country. At least in New York there is a willingness to have different points of view.
On never giving up as a filmmaker:
Part of me believes that this is what I do best, that I have a skill at it. I've never had anything just given to me in life. Everything has been a struggle. Certainly the filmmaking part of my career has been a struggle as well.
There's nothing worse than being two years into raising money for a film, and you think it's going to be a go — everyone says that it's going to be a go — and you get the phone call: "We don't know why, but they just pulled out." It has happened so many times. And you go Ahhhhh! And you start again. I guess it was a belief that what I had written and what I knew what I could do was worth fighting for. The main thing that keeps me going is the thought that I will be making another film one day.
Here's the schedule at the Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue at East Second Street:
DOWN IN SHADOWLAND
Nov. 10 at 8 PM
LIVING IN OBLIVION — Tom DiCillo & Steve Buscemi in person
Nov. 11 at 6:45 PM
DELIRIOUS — Tom DiCillo & Steve Buscemi in person
Nov. 11 at 9:15 PM