I WANNA SEE YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR
Both actor and bona fide Hollywood star, Mark Ruffalo has made a surprising directorial debut with Sympathy For Delicious, a bold fable about religion and rock & roll, betrayal and friendship.
While business how-to books will caution, “Never work with your friends,” for most in the film business maintaining friendships is key to both initial success and long-term survival. But of course, in movies, friendships can take many forms. There are friends, “friends,” frenemies and, most commonly, relationships, and usually a director relies on some of each for a film. But, both onscreen and behind the camera, friendships can be explored in deeper ways too. For Mark Ruffalo, a long-running friendship with actor and screenwriter Christopher Thornton provided both the impetus as well as, in some respects, the subject matter for his own directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious.
After he was paralyzed in a climbing accident, actor Christopher Thornton thought he’d never act again. But, as Ruffalo says in the following interview, after Thornton’s physical rehab he and his friends immediately threw the actor into a production of Waiting for Godot as a form of artistic therapy. Taking longer was Sympathy for Delicious, which Thornton wrote based on his own post-accident experiences, exploring the world of faith healing. Thornton is “Delicious,” an underground turntablist who haunts downtown L.A.’s Skid Row. Ruffalo is Father Joe, a pastor struggling to make his parish successful at its mission of housing and feeding the poor. When Delicious suddenly accrues faith healing powers — his hands can cure the afflictions of others, although sadly not his own — he becomes a potential meal ticket to Father Joe but also to a rock star (Orlando Bloom) and manager (Laura Linney), who see his powers as nothing more than show business spectacle.
Morality play, relationship drama, capitalist fable and entertainment industry satire — Sympathy for Delicious boldly and indescribably dances between genres. It’s a completely surprising directorial debut from Ruffalo, whose performances in films such as Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right and Shutter Island have made him one of both Hollywood and the independent community’s most versatile and well-loved actors. Stunningly shot with bold compositions and chiaroscuro lighting by d.p. Chris Norr, the film resists the pattern of most indies, which boil their large themes over running times into smaller personal resolutions. Sympathy for Delicious heads the other way, crazily getting more thoughtful and provocative as it unspools. And, as their characters wind up antagonists in this story, Thornton and Ruffalo bring lifetimes’ worth of subtext to their scenes together.
Sympathy for Delicious is released this spring through Maya Entertainment
I don’t like to do interviews where the interviewer presents a thesis about the film and asks the director to respond, but in this case I am going to do that. [laughs] That’s cool.
And maybe I’m influenced by having seen your Q&A following the premiere at Sundance. But it seemed to me that the film is a product of — or is even about — a very complicated friendship. I never really thought of it that way. Christopher Thornton [and I] — our friendship is not that complicated. But whatever is in our friendship I think is in the film. There’s a lot of our history in that film. In a lot of ways, the film is emotionally and deeply based on our friendship and our experiences over a specific period of time.
So how did you and Christopher come together to do the film? Chris and I were friends before he had his climbing accident that broke his spine. We were in acting school together. He was going to quit acting at that point, and a couple of friends and I weren’t going to let him accept that life choice. So, as soon as he got out of this state rehab facility, we threw him on stage in a production of Waiting for Godot.
Wow. And that was pretty intense. [laughs] We were probably closer to brothers, and he had a lot of resistance to embracing himself as an actor at that moment. He felt like he couldn’t really be an actor in a chair. He didn’t want to be known as an actor in a chair. And at the same time he was beginning to accept what was happening to him, he was also beginning to think of faith healing as an option.
As an option for him to — To walk again. To get out of his chair. To fight against his fate. You know, the reason it’s called faith healing is because you have to have faith to get healed. [laughs] That’s part of how they sell you on it. If you don’t get healed then you didn’t believe enough. It’s part of this magical thinking thing. Somehow you’re blamed for the failure of the healings. And so he was going to these healing services. I had a lot of trouble with them personally, but I supported him in his efforts. He went to Christian, Catholic, Thai and even the more esoteric psychic [healers]. And he was doing all the alternative methods, of course, as well.
Was he a religious person before this? No. He grew up in a Catholic household, like myself. But when the accident happened, he did turn pretty starkly toward his faith to help him get through it. He got a lot of comfort from that. As this was happening, he started to come to grips with the idea that as an actor in a wheelchair, there’s a limited amount of parts and material. And usually, when there is a great part for an actor in a chair, the guy who plays it gets up and walks to his limousine at the end of the day, you know? So he started throwing around this notion of writing himself a great part, which I thought was beautiful and proac- tive. I was constantly encouraging him to do that. He’s a gifted writer, and he would pitch me ideas. So, it was the anniversary of his fall — we used to always go to lunch on that day — and he pitched me. This was probably year four [after the accident]. He said he was really still struggling with it. So I said to him, “Maybe there’s a gift in all of this. I’ve seen who you were beforehand and I’ve seen what you’ve become — an immense human being. You’re an inspiration to a lot of people. And you might want to hit me in the balls for saying that.” And then he said something like, “Fuck you. You can be the saint in the wheelchair and I’ll be the asshole walking around.” And then he punched me in the balls. [laughs] But it was joking — we have that kind of relationship. Out of that conversation the kernel of Sympathy for Delicious started to be born. This idea that in life sometimes you get handed a bag of shit, you know? But in time life springs from it.
I’ll confess that I don’t know very much about faith healing. Were you interested in depicting this world realistically? Because there’s a quality of the film that’s almost like a fable. After watching it I wondered how much of the movie, whether it’s the world of turntablism or the faith-healing world, is based on research or observation, and how much has been deliberately abstracted into something more fable-like. What we set out to do is take this totally fantastical thing and then just play it as real as possible. When you see these movies [about faith healing] usually, the fucking lights are flickering, and there’s some CGI spiritual wind blowing through. [laughs] That wasn’t the movie that I wanted to make. And there are so many disparate tones in the movie and kinds of people — and some of the characters and situations are broad — that I felt the only way we could pull it off is to deeply ground it in as much reality as we could. So we spent days on Skid Row feeding the homeless. I sent Chris down there to live in his car for a couple days. We had all of the faith healing background from Chris’s experience, and then when we decided to make him a turntablist, we went out and found one of the great underground turntablists, DJ Disk. We brought him in, gave him the script and asked him what’s real in that world. I like to think of the movie as a modern fable, but I still wanted it to resonate with honesty in people. I think what a fable does is capture a universality, some aspect of being a human being. Hopefully you learn something from it. There’s a teaching to the story.
It felt like an emotionally honest film even as elements felt quite unlike real life. I think it’s totally and completely fantasy. I would even venture to say that faith healing for the most part doesn’t exist. Do amazing, miraculous things happen for people? I haven’t seen it firsthand, but I hear people talk about it, and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to think that they’re going out of their way to bullshit people. But as an industry, I don’t know if I buy it. We used it as a jumping-off tool to talk about capitalism, the com-modification of spirituality, charity and the gift of hardship.
Another theme in the movie is betrayal, which seems to be a common theme in many films that deal with some aspect of show business. Why do you think that is, and were you thinking of that theme when you made the movie? That’s interesting. There’s a capitalist system — and I’m not knocking it per se — but [betrayal] is inherently built into it. If you make money, have success and fame, you’re the highest aspirations of a culture. And you are going to run into a moment when somebody says, “Those things are more important than other human beings.” Those kinds of betrayals happen every day. That’s just part of doing business in America. People get thrown under the bus all the time. It’s not just in Hollywood; it’s happening everywhere. It’s just more dramatic and interesting if it’s done in a movie. Father Joe does the same thing. He is put in this incredibly difficult position. He has to sell something in order to get charity. Most charities are in that position. That’s the nature of a capitalist society: even with charity, you’re selling something. You’re selling tax breaks, you’re selling someone’s name on a charity. So, I was wondering, can [charity] really exist in a culture that puts money and fame above everything else? Father Joe is caught in this incredible predicament. What he’s doing is absolutely right and pure. He’s trying to help the poor, feed them, and build this homeless shelter. The system he’s working in leads him to do things that are amoral in a way, but is it amoral, really? It’s an interesting problem.
Do you think there’s an analogy there to art-making as well? Say, by the time a band like the one in your movie achieves their level of popularity, have they by necessity crossed that line? You mean where they’ve sold out? I don’t know, it’s tough. You have to really be on guard to keep that [integrity] intact, through commerce and everything. And I think the quicker [success] happens the easier it is to lose [one’s integrity].
I’m presuming you had an extremely high degree of control over your movie. Obviously, you’ve got great, well-known actors in it, who I suppose are elements that a conventional distributor or producer would think are marketable. But, as we know, the film world is a tough one right now for challenging material. To extend this line of dialogue, was it difficult to maintain some of your ideas within this commodified world of film production? If there is a miracle, it’s the miracle that the movie got made at all. [laughs] It’s about a paraplegic, and no one wanted to touch that, and they certainly didn’t want to touch it with a real paraplegic in the part. And they thought the Christian right would be offended by it. People didn’t want to talk about religion in a non-political, non-haranguing sort of way — like have a real dialogue about it, not talk at you but talk with you about it. And so when we were trying to distribute it, people were freaking out about those things. They said, “We love this movie, but we just don’t know how to market it. We want you to screen it for religious groups and see if it’s going to offend them.” We did do some of that, and oddly enough it didn’t, although some people said we were going to have problems because of the [swearing]. A woman who is a tastemaker in L.A. and a big part of the Christian community there in the entertainment world said, “I love this movie, and I think the message is right. It’s incredibly in line with Christ’s teachings, but I think it’s going to make many Christians have to question their lives.” There were moments when we were having a hard time getting distribution, and someone asked me to go through and cut all the swear words, drug use and sex. But then that’s not real anymore. Thank God I never felt like going down that road. But then again, it wasn’t totally my choice. My producing company, Corner Store, had a say in it as well. They said, “Listen, this is a special movie. And we’ll wait it out. It will find its place.”
Tell me a little bit about working with your d.p., Chris Norr, on the film’s visual style. What format did you shoot? We shot two-perf 35mm on a Panavision camera. We had been told we could only afford digital, but two-perf gives you this beautiful 35mm grain pattern at half the price [of four-perf stock and processing]. You can only shoot 2.35, but that’s what we wanted anyway.
And how about coming up with the style of the film? Oddly enough, we first went back to and looked at Renaissance paintings and early religious paintings. And we kind of settled on Caravaggio for the overall [visual] tone of the movie. That’s the perfect combination of realism and fantasy, or realism and iconography. We sort of came upon the phrase: we wanted it to be “rough and holy.” We wanted it to have a rough, gritty feeling but also feel like it was magic. Those paintings are illuminated from the inside; it feels like the light is almost coming from the people who are present in the scenes. When they’re in tableaux, their edges fall off, and the blacks are really saturated, the colors pop and the skin tones are real. When Dean gets busted and he goes to prison, I wanted a lot of headroom [to convey] the feeling that the human is so small in the system and the system is so big. At that point we locked off the camera and put it on sticks or a dolly and didn’t do any panning. We wanted to convey the idea that the reality he’s now in is solid. It doesn’t fluctuate. It’s not dynamic. And then we stay with that until he heals Rene at the end of the movie. And then we move back to that handheld, fluid camera. Chris and I talked a lot about this. He was a great collaborator. And we danced a lot — he’s one of the great handheld guys. He’s not afraid to let an actor break a frame. He’s not chasing actors. But at the same time, he knows where the magic is happening in the scene. I’d do a scene with the band and Dean, six or seven pages in one take, and I’d be right behind him with a clamshell [monitor]. We’d just be walking through the scene picking up the person who was hot at that moment. When you’re in a big scene like that, not everyone’s firing at the same time. I was literally right next to him the whole shoot. I never went back to the monitor. That’s a good way to stay away from producers, by the way, if any filmmaker wants to know.
Are there filmmaking values you learned from being on so many sets as an actor that you tried to bring to this film? Yeah. I didn’t know how much I’d learned over the years until I was actually shooting — how much actual film school I’ve had through the past 15 years of working with really good directors. Someone who was really important to me when I first decided I wanted to direct a movie was Jane Campion. I was shooting In The Cut, and we’d become good friends. I told her about the film and said, “Can you give me some tips?” And she sat down with me for a few hours and literally went from Day 1 — what to expect, what to look for, what to do, what not to do. And because of the time constraints — this was a 23-day shoot — I found that the way that she worked also worked very well for me. She goes to where it’s happening and sort of builds off that. I love the way she works with actors, so she was a big inspiration. And the way Scorsese and David Fincher move the camera — there’s no one who moves a camera better than them as far as storytelling. And then there’s a smattering of other people. I definitely think Michel Gondry is a flavor in there. And Isabel Coixet too.
Well, the film doesn’t feel like anyone else’s film. Like I said at the beginning, it has a real psychic life underneath the more obvious narrative. I watched it a second time last night, and I was really struck by the subtext of your scenes with Chris. There’s something honest and unique about the relationship between your character and Chris’s. Thanks. Does it age well?
It does. Well, in a lot of ways it is as complex a relationship as I’ve had with anybody. I said it’s simple, but we have been through so much together. We’ve known each other for so long and worked on the script for 10 years. Tearing it down, putting it back together, and the relationship between a writer and a director, and his star — all of that is way outside a lot of normal relationships. And so when I say complicated, I do mean we’ve fucking run the gamut. Through tragedy, death, brain tumor, paralysis, making a movie together, learning how to make a movie together, there’s a lot in there that’s reflected on the screen.