Talking with Michael Di Jiacomo and John Turturro about 1-900-Tonight
One of the most frustrating things about covering film festivals is making discoveries that few movie lovers will ever see. Filmmaking is an industry after all, and as such, artistry will always play second fiddle to marketability. Even so, I was quite surprised to learn that one of my favorite films from the 2011 edition of the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival never found U.S. theatrical distribution. Surely someone could have figured a way to sell a John Turturro-starring, NYC-set story about two lost souls on opposite ends of an adult chat line? (Especially considering Turturro last year appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival to pitch what sounded like another brilliantly offbeat, sex-themed project, Fading Gigolo, in which he’d play a hooker to Woody Allen’s pimp.)
Fortunately, one of the most exciting things about covering film festivals is that nagging questions like these can be taken straight to the creators themselves. Filmmaker spoke with both the writer/director and lead actor of 1-900-Tonight (formerly Somewhere Tonight), Michael Di Jiacomo and John Turturro, respectively, about the indie film life, the death of Theo Van Gogh, and ending up where they least expected – on demand on Starz. The film is also available on iTunes and on-demand everywhere starting Tuesday, May 7.
Filmmaker: After seeing what was then called Somewhere Tonight at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival I wrongly assumed you were a European director, Michael, and not just because the movie is inspired by Theo Van Gogh’s 06. The editing pace, the rhythm of the cinematography, feels very European art-house to me. So how did you get involved in the project? Was John involved before you were? How did John and [his wife] Katherine Borowitz actually come onboard?
Di Jiacomo: Yes, John was involved before I was. He was initially to star in it with Kathie, and direct a straight remake of the Theo Van Gogh film called 06 as a tribute. Stanley Tucci had done one, as well as Steve Buscemi. But for whatever reason it didn’t work out. Eventually, John asked me to come onboard but made it clear that it did not have to be a remake, which was something I preferred not to do. I felt as an artist it made more sense if we did something original, to “extend the life” as a tribute. And so I extended the sex phone line begun in Amsterdam to New York, and created completely original characters with their own story while layering the subtext with allusions and themes I thought played into and around Theo’s assassination – i.e. the sense of isolation, of two very different worlds trying to communicate, etc.
I first came on as the writer, but John always had it in mind for me to direct. John has always been incredibly supportive and he’d seen the financing of too many of my other projects collapse over the years and wanted to get me behind the camera again. So he concocted this as a very generous situation. It allowed he, Kathie and myself to do something creative together.
As far as the pace and the rhythm of the piece feeling European, people said the same thing about my first film Animals with the Tollkeeper (starring Tim Roth), which is very different from this film. Animals is much more visual, overtly poetic, and sprawling by design. This one is much more understated. So I suppose it’s just my sensibility. I was very fortunate to work with the great editor Barry Brown on this one. We were in sync from the beginning.
Since we had severe limitations with this one as far as time (12 shooting days) and money (less than 500,000 for the production budget), the cinematography had to be modest in scope. The frames had to be simple, but composed. We were shooting 14, 17 pages a day and I did not want to jeopardize the performances by trying too much. With no performance there would be no film. And so I simplified, and tried for a “contained” feeling as I thought it would be harmonious with the characters’ sense of isolation. There was always a plan for the space within those simple frames, such as positioning a character off to one side to emphasize loneliness, etc.
As the scope is modest, it was important to build depth – color and texture – within the frame. I wanted a look and feel similar to the New York photographer Saul Leiter. It started with both the production and costume design, and blossomed on the Baselight in post-production. I was fortunate to work with a very talented Belgian colorist. We worked intensively for 14 days sculpting the colors and shading the light. I believe the work pays off on the big screen (prints and DCP) and gives us that different feel you may be referring to, but unfortunately the DVD pales dramatically in comparison, which is frustrating because so much of the storytelling is in the feel of these simple images.
Filmmaker: The film’s lack of visibility has been a real head-scratcher for me. Can you give me the scoop on why a beautifully crafted film set in NYC and starring a beloved NYC actor (not to mention following on the heels of two other beloved NYC actors’ – Buscemi’s and Tucci’s – Theo Van Gogh reworks) has barely been seen on this side of the pond? Theatrical aside, you never even really played U.S. film festivals.
Turturro: I don’t have an answer for that, but this is the world that we live in. Steve Buscemi’s Van Gogh-inspired film was fortunate enough to be distributed, but that had Sienna Miller in it. Stanley Tucci’s film, I believe, was not distributed here. This is a film that’s delicate and limited somewhat in scope because of its budget, but that doesn’t take away from what Michael was able to accomplish with such limited means. Each independent film has its own Sisyphean journey.
Di Jiacomo: For the most part, I have no idea considering the film plays – perhaps surprisingly for such a small contained film – extremely well to audiences, especially in Europe. One of the compliments I hear most often over there is how universal it is. And you won’t find a better performance than what John pulls off with this role. So, yes, you’re right. It’s a head-scratcher. We all know the business is tough. I am certainly no expert, but it seems pretty obvious that people in the industry are struggling to figure out how “indie” films can turn a profit with so many competing outlets and so many films. And so the trend seems to be to go more and more for the “louder” films, the concept films, which they believe are easier to tag and market. You most often have to have a platform in place to attract a distributor. Which means being in one of the few big American festivals and getting a strong review from a particular newspaper or magazine – unless you have easily marketable extremes, or get damn lucky. And we all know some of the bigger festivals have changed and are less about the filmmaking than the spectacle they attract. It is a shame because traditionally they have been pioneers and true partners with indie filmmakers. And so for a film like ours, a truthful, subtle, chamber piece, it becomes all the more difficult. We aren’t a screamer. It is written and performed between the lines. What isn’t said is often more important than what is. That was intentional. But I do hope we get out there in a reasonable way. I think our film has proven to be worthy.
Now having said all that, it is, above everything else, the film team’s responsibility to get the film out there in a strategically thoughtful, well planned, cohesive way. Despite how brutal the gauntlet is out there, it is up to the film team to create the environment and opportunity to succeed. Which means being patient and selective – showing it to the right people at the right time using the right elements. Now, my thinking is this: when you initially form the team (director, producer, financier,, sales company if there is one) it is wise to develop an agreed upon strategy early on, before production, for the film once it is finished. Including even simple things like how the film is to be characterized, to who and when will the film be shown and on what format, what a press release may look like, how communication will be handled between the parties, etc. Most importantly, what are the expectations we have of one another and the film. And not just have a discussion about it but memorialize what is reasonably possible in the contracts.
Filmmaker: Great advice. One of the things I love about the film is the lavish attention you give to character and dialogue, so much so that it easily could work as a stage play. Since this is really an actors’ piece can you and John let me in on your working process? Too often I see indie narratives in which there’s a frustrating disconnect between those onscreen and behind the lens, but here director and cast seem to be speaking the same language.
Turturro: We worked on distilling the dialogue, which was in pretty good shape from the first draft on. I’ve read many of Michael’s screenplays, and I’m a big fan of his, so knowing each other a little bit is a big help, as is being able to work with Katherine. I think very highly of Michael as a writer and a director. Hopefully, if Michael and I do something else together then we can build on what we just did. There are two beautiful scripts in particular, Spaghetti & Meatballs and Emilio of The Beans, that I’d love to be a part of.
Di Jiacomo: I was lucky to know the actors I was writing for quite well. So although the characters are completely fictional, embodying what was stirring around in my heart at the time, I consciously imbued both [the characters of] Wooly and Pattie with what I saw were pieces of John and Kathie as I knew them. Not only who they were as people, but meaningful bits from their lives that we discussed, specific people they knew and experiences they’ve had, themes that were meaningful to them. As a writer I was trying to build a framework that these specific actors could excel in completely. And that included cadence. I thought a lot about how both John and Kathie spoke rhythmically and tried to use it when I could. Also, how their bodies worked. Obviously, the goal in the end is to get the actors to “own” the characters completely. When you know beforehand the actors you will be working with you can sculpt to fit.
We had readings amongst ourselves, discussed the characters at length, really worked them, then trimmed and tucked. Both John and Kathie are very good at pointing out the rough bits. I think once we all fully accepted and understood the characters it was a matter of letting the foundation settle. As I mentioned before this piece is written “between the lines.” It’s where the characters’ souls lay. What they didn’t say was often more important, hopefully more revealing, than what they did. In my opinion, John and Kathie manage a beautiful little dance in these silences.
Since we had so few shooting days, production was pretty much a high-speed freight train we just had to hang onto. Perhaps we were lucky that the financing had initially fallen apart, and we had a year to live with the characters and talk them through. I would occasionally send John and Kathie notes on background, history, photos, music references, etc. in hopes to keep the characters alive while we were all doing other things. It also helped that we are all preparation and detail people. Things certainly went wrong at times, but we never let go of who these characters were. Of course, in the end, it was extremely fortunate to have great actors as partners who obviously knew each other extremely well.
Filmmaker: Just by virtue of the fact that the characters are on opposite ends of an adult chat line, rather than online, signals to the audience that the film is set firmly in the past – or at least its characters are stuck there. Also, the salacious premise is really a maguffin since the film isn’t about sex at all. Do you think this retro, old-fashioned quality – which I personally find so touching in its oddball honesty, much like I do with Mike Leigh’s movies – made it harder to market the film?
Turturro: Yes, the film is discreetly set firmly in the past, because the characters are stuck there, and the salacious premise is used much more as an obstacle than it is exploited. There are only so many times you can watch people have sex in a film before getting tired. When you are shooting in 12 days you have to deal with the visual limitation that is presented to the audience. When we go outside it really is a breath of fresh air. Any film that explores delicacy is harder to market than one that is overt, but at the same time that is the film’s strength, and why it doesn’t run out of steam
Di Jiacomo: Yes. I do think the “retro” feeling makes it harder. There are also wisps of fable woven in.
Even though it takes place on a sex line, the film is not about sex at all. It is simply a means for these two desperate broken sparrows to find each other. A last resort for them. It was more interesting to navigate around the overt sexuality that may be expected by the premise, in order to reveal the depth of the characters’ desperation. There is an unexpected purity that comes through. I think avoiding the trap of a “masturbation-a-thon” adds to the tension.
It was important to have these characters stuck in the past, stuck in time, and not know how to move forward, because I think it is a feeling we all experience at times. I thought if these characters reach out to each other with a willingness to be vulnerable, then they could help each other move forward. It is their reward. They had to figure out amongst each other how to break free. Going by audience responses, these choices were successful. In the end, we wanted to create a small but emotionally affecting chamber piece. Something that felt immediate, yet timeless and beyond everything else, truthful. With all its imperfections, I believe we succeeded. Ironically, it may have cost us theatrical distribution here.
Filmmaker: So lastly, can you discuss the upside of Starz picking it up? At least it’s finally made it to the States – though I guess they changed the title.
Di Jiacomo: As far as it playing on Starz, I am very appreciative that they are showing and supporting the film. What Starz offers, potentially, is a larger audience than the film may have gotten in a modest art-house run. It will initially play throughout the country on “on demand” and a digital download basis, then play on their main channels in the fall. I think it will be a strong venue for this particular film, which is emotionally deep but smaller in scope. As far as exposure, it may be the best solution for most indie films. I think it would be smart if closer relationships were forged between channels like Starz and the actual filmmakers. Then it becomes more than simply programming, but a larger, very exciting stage.
And yes, they changed the title. I knew nothing about it. Not sure exactly who came up with the new one. My impression is that it was the sales company. I don’t like it at all and do not believe it accurately reflects what the film is. I called it Somewhere Tonight because I thought, somewhere in the world, at some moment tonight, any night, a similar story – an unexpected romance – will begin. If they had changed it to something as simple as Patti and Leroy, the names of the main characters, I’d be all right with it, but this new title 1-900-Tonight is a bit misleading. Somebody thought it would be good for marketing or whatever, but the danger is that it gives people the wrong expectations of what the film is. As story tellers we want to bring the right audience into the mix and expand in an imaginative way from there. There is no better advocate for a film than the filmmaker. But the truth of the matter is, once the film leaves the filmmaker’s hands, and after all the festivals, it becomes vulnerable. It is just the way of the business.