“Do You Mind If I Finance the Rest of the Film?” Tom DiCillo on Living in Oblivion
In Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s 1995 triptych of the agony and ecstasy of indie film production, Murphy’s cinematic law is in full effect. Prima donna actors. Uncooperative smoke machines. Blown lines. Soft focus. Booms in the frame. However, the film’s most soul-crushing moment comes when the camera isn’t even rolling.
It arrives when the faux film’s director, played by Steve Buscemi, takes a moment to run lines with his two lead actresses. And of course — with the camera sitting idle and the cinematographer off set vomiting out-of-date milk from the meager craft services table — the scene comes alive. It all plays on Buscemi’s face – the elation of seeing his words take flight, and the despair of knowing that the moment is gone, never to return. That is the joy and the sorrow of low-budget filmmaking. Sometimes there is magic to be had, but fate conspires to prevent it from being preserved in the amber of celluloid.
With a 20th anniversary Blu-ray out from Shout! Factory next week, DiCillo revisited the indie classic with Filmmaker.
Filmmaker: I’m glad that Living in Oblivion is getting the Blu-ray treatment, because at the moment it’s almost impossible to find.
DiCillo: After twenty years with the original distributor, we recently broke away and made a new deal with Shout! Factory and the first thing they said was, “Let’s do a Blu-Ray.” So what they’ve done is put a hold on everything that used to be out there and they’re waiting until the Blu-ray comes out to relaunch availability of the film. Were you able to see the film again?
Filmmaker: Yes, but it wasn’t easy. After I exhausted all the streaming and VOD options without any luck, I even tried the library in Cincinnati where I live. They had two copies – both on VHS , and both checked out. So somewhere in Ohio, two people are enjoying your film on their VCRs as we speak.
DiCillo: That’s amazing. (laughs)
Filmmaker: When you’re putting together the Blu-ray and supervising a new transfer and color grade, what do you use for the source material? Do you go all the way back to the camera negative?
DiCillo: No, we used what is called the interpositive, which was the next step after the original 35mm negative. I supervised the (color grading) with a great colorist named Steven Peer. I recently came from a film festival where they showed the Blu-ray and I couldn’t believe how good it looked. The projection was at least 100 feet, onto a screen that had to be 50 feet wide, and it looked incredible.
Filmmaker: Was all the black-and-white footage shot on 16mm?
DiCillo: Not all of it. The origin of the film started when I had this crazy idea one day after years of frustration trying to make Box of Moonlight. I just decided that I had to do something or else I was going to commit some very destructive act. So I got together with some friends and made the first half hour of Living in Oblivion in five days. We shot it all on 16mm because that’s what we could afford. It cost $37,000, which we raised in about four days.
Anybody who wanted a part in the film, all they had to do was put up some money and that’s how we cast people. The (guy who plays the) boom operator worked at the gym where my wife used to go to and he put up $2,000 and got a part. (laughs) Then I had this half hour film and I didn’t know what to do with it because festivals don’t know what to do with a short film that’s longer than five minutes. The cast had bugged me on the last day of shooting to make a feature out of it and I realized they were right. So I came up with Parts II and III.
I first got the idea for Living in Oblivion at my wife’s cousin’s wedding after I drank several martinis. Then that cousin – (Hilary Gilford), who plays the script supervisor in the film – inherited some money and one day she called me and asked with the most amazing openness, “Tom, do you mind if I finance the rest of the film.” (laughs)
Filmmaker: Ummm, no, go right ahead.
DiCillo: Exactly. My jaw dropped. I was literally about to sign a deal with some sleazebag Hollywood producer who wanted to re-cast and all this other stuff. I told him to go fuck himself and Hilary put up the money. It was this incredible family affair and I don’t just mean because it was real family. Hilary’s husband at the time was this guy, Michael Griffiths, and he plays Speedo, the sound guy. Catherine Keener had been in (my first film, Johnny Suede). She gave the script to her husband at that point, Dermot Mulroney, and Dermot gave us $5,000. Everybody just kind of jumped in.
It went against everything that had to do with the way people think successful films are made. The only person who auditioned, and I was going to cast him anyway, was Peter Dinklage. I foolishly thought that for the part of the dwarf all I needed was somebody who was short. I was so stupid. Guys would audition and they couldn’t act. Kevin Corrigan (who plays the film’s 1st AC) told me he knew about this guy (Peter Dinklage) who was a great theater actor, but nobody knew where he was. Finally someone said they thought he worked at a copy store and they got his phone number. Peter came in and just completely blew us away.
Filmmaker: Can you the tell the story of how James Le Gros came to be cast as the Hollywood star looking for indie cred, Chad Palomino?
DiCillo: That part was originally going to be played by Brad Pitt (who starred in Johnny Suede alongside Catherine Keener) and he was all set to do it. Then he got pulled away for some intense press obligations for Legends of the Fall. I was on the phone with Catherine, who told me the news, and at that moment James Le Gros walked by her house. (Catherine) yelled out the window, “Hey James, you want to be in a movie?” That’s how James Le Gros got cast in this film and he’s so amazing in it. I never knew what he was going to do until the moment I said action.
Filmmaker: I love that bit where he turns around and he’s wearing Mulroney’s eye patch.
DiCillo: (laughs) Most actors who are not very talented, which is what Palomino is, they’re always looking for some little gimmick to make themselves somehow seem more interesting. He thinks, “With this eye patch, I could really nail this character.”
Filmmaker: Did that initial five-day shoot for Part I end with Buscemi waking up from the dream?
DiCillo: It always ended with him waking up from the dream. The idea came from a lot of experiences I had where I’d be in the middle of shooting — and shooting a low-budget movie is so exhausting and draining — and I would get immersed in an anxiety dream that would have me awake all night. Then I’d have to go shoot the next morning.
It struck me that I could make the second part of the movie someone else’s dream. There seemed to be a hint of a relationship between Steve and Catherine in the first part so that developed into “What if he’s really in love with her and she’s in love with him, but they’ve never expressed it.” Then I was racking my brain and I didn’t know what I was going to do in Part III. I didn’t think it would really stand up if it was another dream. I was freaking out and my wife said, “If Part I is a dream and Part II is a dream, why don’t you have Part III be a dream sequence that they’re filming?” It was such a brilliant idea and the first thing I thought of was a scene where a dwarf actor stands up and says, “Go fuck yourselves. Is this the only way you can make something a dream sequence? Just put a dwarf in it?”
Filmmaker: How long was the break between when you shot the first 30-minute portion and the rest of the film?
DiCillo: I wrote the rest of it very soon after because I knew that what we had captured in Part I was some of the best stuff that I’d ever made. We had captured lightning. I think I finished the script about four months later and then maybe a year after we shot the first part, we shot Part II and III.
Filmmaker: How many of the things that go wrong on set in Living in Oblivion came from first-hand experiences?
DiCillo: I would say everything that’s in the film is real. Actually, I don’t know whether I’ve witnessed a fistfight on the set, but I definitely wanted to include one because there are times when that’s exactly what you want to do but you can’t. (laughs)
When you’re in the middle of making a movie and that stuff goes wrong, it’s not funny. There’s an anxiety I feel when I can tell an actor is emotionally primed for a scene and we’re getting closer and closer to it. I’ve had it happen several times that the full potential of what the actor could bring to the scene is never realized because of some technical fuck up or some psychological, behavioral thing from a member of the crew or another actor. It’s just so excruciating when you see that. Time is so precious, especially with a low-budget film. And if you don’t get it in the tiny little window that has been allotted to shoot that scene, you’re never going to get it. That can totally mess your brain up.
Filmmaker: The first section of the film is essentially one long nightmare in which Buscemi’s director tries in vain to shoot a scene as a oner.
DiCillo: (Buscemi’s character) Nick feels like this is an artistic decision and he isn’t going to compromise, because every other day of the shoot he’s had to compromise. So he starts off by saying, “I won’t compromise.” And what happens is that the machine just grinds him down to the point where he’s reduced to breaking the shot up and even then he’s stymied.
I actually drew a picture once of this thug-looking deity wearing droopy white underwear and holding this ball in his hand. At his feet are other balls that have fallen and cracked open like eggs. And the caption was, “God and your film.” If he drops it, you’re fucked. And it can feel that way. That’s why I had Nick in the third section come up with this philosophy of “You just have to roll with it.” You have to, otherwise you’ll go insane.
Filmmaker: Did you have any life-imitating-art moments on Living in Oblivion where circumstances conspired to keep a scene from coming together?
DiCillo: It’s funny, there weren’t too many. It was one of the most efficient and creatively charged sets I have ever been on. There were no agents. There were no producers. It was just us. The problems that we encountered were really incredibly minor compared to anything depicted in the film.
Filmmaker: I saw Living in Oblivion for the first time when I was in high school and I didn’t have any idea how movies were actually made then. Re-watching it now, there are so many perfect little details, like the AC slamming the slate right in Catherine Keener’s face before every take of this incredibly emotional scene.
DiCillo: And she winces. (laughs) That’s what I’m saying — every single element of the filmmaking process can turn against you at times.
Filmmaker: The most heartbreaking moment in the film for me is in the first section, when the two actresses finally nail the scene but the camera isn’t rolling. As an audience, it raises the stakes because we now know that the possibility of that magic exists.
DiCillo: Part I is really like a half hour joke with that moment as the punch line. If you never felt that these actresses could do something wonderful, there would be no anxiety. That’s where the film shifts from just being a goofy comedy. As frustrated and disappointed and enraged as he is ± and rightfully so — (Buscemi’s character) still can’t take his eyes off of what is happening in front of him. That look of despairing longing on his face, that’s the gold of Steve Buscemi.
Filmmaker: Living in Oblivion was only your second feature as a director. Twenty years later, now that you’ve helmed a half-dozen features and done documentaries and TV work, how do you view filmmaking?
DiCillo: This business, particularly now and clearly I felt it then as well, is about trying to maintain your integrity under extremely difficult situations. There’s a scene in Living in Oblivion where Nick is backstage with Chad Palomino and Palomino says, “I can’t work with (Keener’s character). She’s a terrible actress.” In order to keep Palomino from walking off the set, which would destroy his movie, Nick has to say, “You’re right. She is.” Does it kill part of him? Sure it does. That’s really part of what Living in Oblivion is about. How do you stay truthful and honest and clear in a business that grinds all of those things down, yet you somehow have to survive.
Filmmaker: You also have a new doc, Down in Shadowland, doing the festival rounds at the moment. What can you tell me about the film?
DiCillo: I’ve been a little frustrated over the past few years just trying to get myself in a position where I’m actually standing by a camera and saying action. At times it feels like the most impossible thing on Earth to do. So like Living in Oblivion, where I circumvented the traditional path toward that by writing something that was easy to shoot and having a cousin who had the money (laughs), with Down in Shadowland, I just got tired of waiting for somebody to tell me, “You can get a camera and you can shoot.” So in 2009 I started carrying my little video camera with me on the New York City subway every single day. Then I put together a 67-minute film that is less a traditional documentary and more along the lines of Koyaanisqatsi or some of the early documentaries of Werner Herzog, where the line between dream and documentary is a little blurred. It’s, in part, about the mysterious, emotional, and strange connections that people make with each other silently as they’re sitting on the train. It was a joy to be able to pick up the camera and shoot whatever I wanted to shoot.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.