Tom DiCillo has produced a body of films stamped with his own unique style by remaining resolutely true to his principles. An outspoken critic of modern American filmmaking, DiCillo has the ability to be both touching and caustic, but an aptitude for injecting humour ensures his films always have an offbeat charm.
His frustration with the American film industry was vented through perhaps his best-known work, Living in Oblivion (1995), an angst-ridden critique of the painful process of no-budget filmmaking. DiCillo’s films have attracted some of indie cinema’s most respected names, including Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Denis Leary. The fact that they have all been keen to work with him again is a mark of DiCillo’s talent as a director. He may have remained firmly on the outside looking in, but this perennial teenager of American cinema wouldn’t have it any other way.
Paul Clarke: You often inject something of your own life into your films. Did you do this with Double Whammy?
Tom DiCillo: Whenever I include certain elements of my lifein my films I make an immediate effort to find what it is about it that might relate to other people. In Pluto’s [Denis Leary, main character in Double Whammy] case, I certainly related to his sense of being on the outside – that’s why I gave him the name Pluto, it’s the furthest planet from the sun.
In some ways it’s a metaphor for how I feel my place has evolved in the independent film world and the double whammys that occur to Pluto are in some ways no different to the whammys that have occurred to me during my attempts to survive in this business. What happened with my very first film Johnny Suede, for example. It did the best in the UK, it played for one week in the US and then the distributor just dropped it without any explanation and it made it impossible to get my next film going.
Double Whammy is only 90 minutes long, yet it crams so much story into that time – a love story, an attempted murder, a career crisis, as well as being a comedy. Was it important for you to make the film so multi-layered?
In a way, yes. I find that as I write I like to keep surprising myself. Particularly with this film, it’s kind of like an adult rollercoaster ride. In its most basic form I wanted it to be an entertainment that didn’t require a lobotomy to enjoy it. At moments it scares you, it delights you, it makes you laugh and I felt that the story really leant itself to wild swings of emotion. But in some ways it’s a relatively simple story – the basic idea was that I wanted to tell a cop story in which my hero was the last person to figure out the crime.
Was the fact that Ray Pluto is such a rich and textured character a draw for Dennis Leary? And how do you think he responded to playing a romantic lead for the first time?
I think he really liked it, it was a natural choice, because I’ve seen him do different kinds of work like Jesus’ Son (1999) in which he played a character that wasn’t this raving, obscenity spouting, chain-smoker that he’s most famous for. I think he really has the ability to become a leading man and when he saw the part he just jumped at it. I was encouraging him to trust himself further into the areas that are gentle. I don’t mean that in a feminine way, just that he allowed himself to be more open and vulnerable. Particularly in the scenes with Liz [Hurley, who plays Pluto’s love interest, Dr Ann Beamer], I think it’s some pretty interesting work on his part.
Pluto’s dress sense and tortured soul detective is very much in the ilk of forties noir characters. Was this a deliberate device?
Yes, very much so, I gave him one suit, which was taken from Jimmy Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo (a brown suit with a red tie). I love film noir and maybe one day I’ll make a straight one. I don’t know what it is, but my comic sensibilities just came in on this one. I must say that one of the driving forces of writing this script was a kind of anger that I feel and I think this anger is throughout the film.
The opening sequence where this kid picks up a gun and shoots a guy in the back is really a ridiculous situation, although not too far from what could happen, particularly in this country. These shock tactics are not only employed by Hollywood films but also independent films, which I think are the worst offenders. They do it under the guise of aesthetics, it’s the exact same idiocy of shocking somebody to get them in the seat.
There is a sort of outrage in the film about the state of our culture. Not just the gun culture but also the entertainment culture. The two screenwriters in Double Whammy have nothing to do with the principles of Living in Oblivion. Oblivion dealt primarily with the efforts to capture one little scene on film. These guys aren’t even talking about this, they’re talking about money, about box office, about fame and awards. They represent to me the current state of independent film, which is really, as far as I can see, no different from Hollywood.
You managed to get Steve Buscemi in the film even though he only had a very small part [Pluto’s partner, Jerry Cubins]. Did he do you a favour or were the two of you just keen to work together again?
I originally wrote the part of the white screenwriter for Steve and I was quite dismayed when he read it and said he didn’t want to play the guy. His explanation was that he was too old for the kid. Then out of nowhere he said he would really like to play Jerry Cubins. The more I thought about it the more I realised that he was perfect for the role. He is able to deal with complex little pieces of emotion and present them very beautifully. His character is going through some sort of sexual identity crisis. I don’t think he’s gay, but he adores Pluto and doesn’t quite know what to do with those feelings. Steve was able to find humour in that in a way that doesn’t turn him into a cartoon character.
The film includes another sly critique of the state of filmmaking in America, through the characters Duke and Cletis. What is your opinion on filmmaking at the moment?
I have a very low opinion of it. It’s hard to answer that question without sounding like a grumpy old codger. I just know that when I got into this business, the sort of films that inspired me are not being made today and the sort of films that I want to make are becoming harder and harder to make. There are a few abnormalities that come through now and again. I think that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive  is a fantastic film and Lukas Moodysson’s film Lilja 4-Ever  is great. But for the most part American independent film is just becoming completely uninteresting to me. The ideas are sophomoric, the style is straight out of MTV and it doesn’t interest me.
You’ve often had to struggle to get your films made, but this time you had problems actually getting it shown in the US. Can you tell me about that?
The US distributor bought the film at Sundance, signed a legal contract and ultimately, without even a word to me, just decided not to release it. I was furious, I fought them for eight months. It was totally illegal, what they did. I thought I had a legal ground to stand on but they had made a under the table deal with the people who financed the film and it was financially advantageous for them both to accept this new agreement [releasing it straight to video]. They did it without ever once contacting me. Quite honestly it places one in an extremely homicidal situation. I have these people to thank for having my fifth film, and I think one of my best films, not being released in the United States. These people are just fucking idiots, they’re cowards and they have the integrity of a garden slug.
Do you ever find it annoying that the film you are best know for – Living in Oblivion – only came into existence because of your frustration with the movie industry?
It’s ironic. It seems to me that every one of my films is directly affected by what happened before it. I certainly didn’t expect what happened with Double Whammy to happen. My films I think are artistic, I have never once changed anything in a film to try and reach a bigger audience. I write it as purely as I can write it and cast it as purely as I can cast. My films occupy, I think mainly because of their humour, a middle ground somewhere between an art film and a more conventional film. Somehow people find it difficult to look into that middle ground.
Do you think first-time directors now use festivals like Sundance merely as a platform to launch a movie career? Do you think this undermines the concept of independent cinema?
I don’t think they think twice about it – it just seems like a natural progression for them. To me, it indicates more clearly than ever the disappearance of the line between independent and Hollywood films. There’s a director, who I won’t name, who made one of the most acclaimed independent films of a couple of years ago and now he’s directing the new Batman film. In hindsight, Tarantino, despite his huge stature, emerges as someone with more integrity than those guys. He burst onto the scene with a real enthusiasm and vitality for filmmaking, which I felt was really lacking previously. I really respect him, but just think the critical response to his work is really unbalanced. I think what Tarantino did was start the movement towards the filmmaker being a superstar, a celebrity.
You live and work in New York rather than LA. Has this shaped your approach to filmmaking?
It’s been interesting to be out in L.A. this past month. It’s obvious that this is the centre of filmmaking. In New York there’s just a few independent filmmakers that live here but in terms of funding and any sort of business aspect, there is nothing happening there. There is a necessity for me to come down to L.A. more often. But every one is an aspiring filmmaker or actor. I wanted to start a series of films by just going into random Starbucks out here and just walking around filming. Every single person in Starbucks is either talking about an acting job or about a script they’re going to do, it’s insane. It’s like everybody’s taken the same drug.