“THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE'”S DAVID RUSSO By Alicia Van Couvering
David Russo’s The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle is not your average Seattle-based, night-shift janitors eating self-heating cookies as unwitting test subjects male pregnancy special effects-peppered butt fish movie. The film’s official synopsis is: “When Dory’s life seems like it’s going down the drain, a strange ‘new life’ takes shape inside him and he learns that sometimes you don’t have to find meaning; it grows in you.” But this is a film that defies description and transcends its bizarre title and bizarre-er premise to take you into a strange and beautiful place you never knew you wanted to explore (but are finally glad you did.)
The film stars Marshall Allman as Dory, the new young janitor; Natasha Lyonne (The Slums of Beverly Hills) as a sexy employee of the test-marketing company that he is employed to clean; Tania Raymonde (the French woman’s grown-up daughter on Lost) as Ethyl, one half of a nympho-maniacal janitor couple working with Dory; Tygh Runyan; Matt Smith; and Vince Vieluf. Russo is a past recipient of grants from Creative Capital and The Rockefeller Foundation whose short films, including Pan with Us and I Am (Not) Van Gogh, have played at past Sundances and elsewhere. He was one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces in 2003. In addition to live action, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle uses rotoscoping as well as compositing techniques by renowned Dutch animator Rosto, and it is scored by the collective Awesome. We spoke to Russo just after his Sundance Premiere.
FILMMAKER: How was the premiere at Sundance?
RUSSO: It was just… cacophonous. It was really amazing. That first scene in the third act, you wouldn’t have believed the freakin’ orgasm in the audience, it was wonderful. Oh my god… then just two minutes after that, there’s a prayer, and it was so neat to see people like starting to get misty, and quiet, and reverential. It was so neat to see it work how I always imagined it working – today it was like, Was I imagining that? Were they not laughing and crying and giving a standing ovation? Amazing for a butt fish film.
FILMMAKER: So you had never played it for an audience before?
RUSSO: No, never. I didn’t want a test audience or anything like that, because everyone has input about what to do, what they like, what they didn’t like, what to change, how to make it better… after a while you just feel like Frodo with the Ring. Everybody wants that Ring, and you’re just like “No, this is my burden. This is not your burden. Just write a check or shut up.” I still have a whole file of input from investors and potential investors, like 16 pages of notes from the various screenings that have happened, and I haven’t read a single one. They’re in a file for my scrapbook when I retire.
FILMMAKER: When did you have to compromise?
RUSSO: The one time I did open it up for committee thinking was when I wanted to cast a certain somebody, and the investor said, “Sure, you can cast that person, and we’ll take away hundreds of thousands of your dollars.” I’ve spent time making up for those times when I couldn’t go with my instincts.
FILMMAKER: How did you come up with the title?
RUSSO: Well, it used to be called Number Two, and then there were a couple of movies released with that title. I had to come up with a working title for casting, and I wanted one that made the actors’ agents have to put it in a special pile. And with this title, I think we reached the kind of actors we were looking for faster, because anyone who’s going to open up a script with that title and read it is probably closer to our spirit anyway. But then it just stayed as a working title, and I meant to change it before we released it to film festivals. But I just plum forgot. Believe me, I got an earful from investors who were just livid about it. I would have been happy to change it, but, well, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, it’s sort of self-referential to the miracle of how it got made: a little tiny idea struggling against the odds of everything. Having to sell a film with this premise is very difficult. Very difficult.
FILMMAKER: When did you decide to make this film?
RUSSO: I was watching my [short] film Pan With Us at Sundance in 2003 in the Eccles, and I saw the film taking hold of the audience. At that moment, I don’t know what happened, but this memory just took hold of being a janitor and finding a miscarriage in one of the women’s toilets. So I just went home, and with the help of my wife, the script just bloomed really fast. I was a janitor for 11 years so I knew that world inside and out.
FILMMAKER: Wait, what happened when you found the miscarriage in the office bathroom [a scene that is paralleled by a more surreal discovery in the film]?
RUSSO: I was pretty new as a janitor, and I just called one of my bosses in a panic. “I th-th-th-think s-s-s-s-something might be d-d-d-dead somewhere, there’s blood” – and he came down. He’d seen it all, right? He’d seen it all. But he was im-pressed. He was like, “That is flesh, look; There’s the placenta, look.” He was getting into it, and I just wanted to die. And then he just flushed it. He flushed it! He says, “What, am I gonna call 911?’ And that was it.”
FILMMAKER: Holy moly.
RUSSO: It was interesting because there was a porn addict in the men’s room, which was right next door. So there’s a miscarriage in one bathroom and a bunch of porn mags in the next. Out of that discrepancy the script idea sort of came about — what it meant doing that job, having to deal with such hard biological realities, and how it would change a person.
FILMMAKER: How does it change a person?
RUSSO: It’s like being an alien. You inhabit the same places, but there’s this whole parade going on that you’re not a part of, and your perspective on that parade is unique because it’s from the end where they scoop up the shit.
FILMMAKER: So you worked in big office buildings?
RUSSO: Yes, I worked for a place that was very similar to Corsica [the fictional company in the film.] It was the product development and gift-marketing hub of the country. So I got to see all kinds of weird products that got perpetrated on the public. Very few of them take, and the ones that don’t are the most hilarious.
FILMMAKER: Were the characters all based on people you knew?
RUSSO: The job of being a late-night graveyard janitor attracted very edgy people. Some of the most creative people I’ve ever met were janitors. Some of them were borderline criminals, a lot of them were drug addicts, a lot of immigrants — quite the potpourri of misfits. People who are trying to be good citizens but are still sort of outside the culture. And their perspective I found very interesting and it informed how I look at the world with everything.
FILMMAKER: I loved your portrayal of Vince as an artist, which is very funny but very real at the same time – his overwhelming joy when he wins an $8500 grant; his art show about toilets and janitorial discoveries…
RUSSO: Well, he’s a side of me, definitely. I remember getting my first art grant as a janitor and just feeling like, “Oh my god, my life has opened up and turned into a glorious flower-filled meadow, I am going to run off and prove to the world how wonderful I am.” I love that scene for its beautiful naivete. You can’t make that shit up.
I think Vince Vieluf [janitorial shift leader & unwitting fellow butt fish carrier “OC”] is a genius, and I’m so proud of him. I came up with that character to basically carry us through the movie’s parts where we establish motifs that are necessary to establish, and he just invites the audience in. He introduces us to what a bathroom is, and you like him so much that you go with him.You’re not grossed out so that when we get to the birth, everyone’s ready for it. Everyone wants it.
FILMMAKER: How did you work with the actors? Did you rehearse a lot?
RUSSO: I had no rehearsals with the actors. They’d fly into town, we’d run lines a little but and then throw them in front of the camera.
FILMMAKER: So it was a fast and furious shoot?
RUSSO: It was a 126 page script shot on film in 19 days. It was trial by fire. The biggest, hardest, most special effect-ed, multiple camera, tons of extras scenes, those were my first two days. We shot 13 pages my first day, and I’d never even been on a feature film set! I liked it though, because it just strips you down to pure instinct. I never wanted to be an animator for that very reason. You can’t get down to that flow that you can get into with theater where you carry that audience’s imagination over a two-hour period.
FILMMAKER: What’s your theater experience?
RUSSO: We janitors started our own Shakespeare Company back in 1991 in Seattle. It’s still one of the most successful amateur theaters. It’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park, green stage. That’s where I learned to work with actors and what a performance is. We couldn’t raise a dime for the movie until we went to L.A. and came back with a tape of auditions that proved to investors that I wasn’t nuts, that I do know how to work with actors.
FILMMAKER: How DID you find investors?
RUSSO: Oh my god, it was so hard. Do we have to go there? It was so hard. It was so hard. All I know is that I probably had to give a speech to 250 people to find the eight people who actually made it happen. We were always out of money, always raising money, always, always, always. I tried to enjoy it but it’s so hard to focus on creativity when you’re so busy being P.T. Barnum. You’re standing in front of a curtain, you don’t know what’s behind it and you’re trying to sell it, like… whoa, it’s hard. And you know, wealthy people tend to be slightly anal retentive by nature — that’s just a Freudian psychological fact. Our film comes from the opposite tendency. Trying to get them to let go was very difficult. My main part of the fundraising speech was, “Give Us Your Tax Cut.” Religious people tithe to the cultural causes they believe in but I think us bleeding heart liberals often forget to do that. It’s not about writing a check to the DNC, it’s actually personally supporting the arts with your dough. This would be a different country if we tithed to the things we supposedly espouse. This is part of a cultural battle as well – believe me, I know a butt fish movie isn’t gonna do it, a hundred butt fish movies aren’t gonna [win the culture war], but beautiful things can come from very unintended places.
The hard part is getting the industry to believe in it. I was told last night after the credits rolled [at Sundance] that Australia already bought it – that’s how I always imagined it would go, that outside the United States people will figure it out, and then in six months or so hopefully we can make a deal in the U.S. My sales rep [Visit Films] was saying that hardly any of his invitees came to the screening. It’s a bummer because they need to see it work on an audience. Our sales rep has a long term view about carving out the audience over several months and many festivals. [They believe] people will start paying attention and seeing that there’s a real movie there.
FILMMAKER: The animation – can you talk about your background as an animator? Did you ever think of making an animated feature?
RUSSO: No, no, I don’t like animation and I’m not an animator. The reason I do frame control, and I do what is respected in the animation community as animation, it’s really just a very efficient way of remaining a professional film artist. Frame control allows you to make very powerful, impactful little movies for very little money because you’re never rolling the camera. So I make movies on 35mm film for $5,000 and that’s just how it’s been for the last 11 years or so.
FILMMAKER: What was the design of the fish?
RUSSO: That evolved. At the outset I wrote a $1,500 check of my own money to get the special effects on that going, and it was so stupid because it looked like a stupid lure and it didn’t go. So I went and bought a red snapper, gutted it, sewed its fins to its stomach and blued it up and it looks beautiful. We made it move with a very complicated effect where I tied some fishing line to it and jiggled my hand.
FILMMAKER: The shower sequence?
RUSSO: The shower sequence I wrote for my favorite digital artist, a Dutch animator named Rosto. And he’s your glorious, stuck-up, pretentious master – he’s very disdainful of taking work like this that’s not his own work. But we had become friends and I wrote it for him, and sure enough it ended up looking exactly like I knew he could make it. So I don’t know all the processes involved, but I knew I wanted my film to go off the rails in a way I couldn’t quite take it, and so I commissioned somebody. It was written all the way down to the tiniest details. He would send me storyboards and I would send them back and then I flew him in on the last day of production, we did some shower shots and greenscreen, he took it home and did his magic. It’s this weird vision that just flashes out at you and then goes away.
FILMMAKER: How did the edit process go?
RUSSO: I also want to put a shout out to my editor, Billy McMillan, who saved me creatively. I was a beginner and so I made so many mistakes during production. I let a lot of mistakes be made, and our first editor quit the project because he said, “This is depressing me. It’s out of focus, I don’t like the performances, and I don’t know where this is going. “He just up and quit. But Billy came on board, he studied the script, and he lashed everything we had done back to the script. It wasn’t like he sat down and said, “Oh, I’m gonna make some other movie.” He actually took the pieces and gave me very specific assignments about what was missing and how we could make it up. It was the first time in my whole life I experienced true, true creative collaboration and it was wonderful. So now I want to remake Tommy with Billy as my editor.