IN 1991, FILMMAKER Tom DiCillo had just finished "Johnny Suede," a whimsical indie fable starring a handsome young unknown actor named Brad Pitt. DiCillo quickly got the green light for his next project, a different kind of tale about a repressed electrical engineer who finds himself, one Fourth of July weekend, stranded in a small Southern town with a wacked-out wannabe Davy Crockett as his only companion. But the green light turned red for DiCillo, and it would be six years (and four more green, then red lights) before he finally got to make his film, "Box of Moonlight." Along the way, he learned patience and perseverance -- and even made another film, the wryly satirical and critically successful "Living in Oblivion," about a frustrated director trying to make a whimsical, low-budget movie.
But it's obvious from "Box of Moonlight" that DiCillo is not a bitter man. A sweet-natured fairy tale, the film pairs John Turturro, as repressed businessman Al Fountain, with Sam Rockwell, as a coonskin-cap-wearing free spirit called the Kid. DiCillo reveals an eye for unusual images, as well as a surprisingly gentle touch.
Salon caught up with Dicillo in San Francisco as he finished his publicity tour.
It took you a very long time to get the money to make this film, and there were a lot of times when it looked like it wouldn't get made. Are you glad you waited?
Many times I've agonized, "Why me, why is this so hard?" But then I said wait a second. If I had had the money to make this movie before, I never would have made "Living in Oblivion," which was a major turning point of my life. It was made in the truest sense of the word "independence." It was the greatest group of people I've ever worked with, and the creativity on the set was addictive. We had no money, we literally had no food, and we shot the film in 16 days. So I could never say I didn't want that experience.
You were working on "Box of Moonlight," and out of frustration, you wrote a short film that eventually turned into "Living in Oblivion"?
I gave up. I really gave up on ever getting this made, and it was one of the darkest periods of my life. Right about that time, a friend came up to me and said, "Hey Tom, you made a movie, you made 'Johnny Suede,' you're so lucky, you get to work with actors! Lights, camera, action, man!" And I said, "Shut the fuck up! You don't know anything about it!" All my bitterness came out, and I said, "Making a movie is one of the most tedious, boring, painful experiences, and that's just when something goes right. An actress could be in the middle of the most emotional scene and suddenly the microphone comes into the shot, and you lose it," and something went "Bing!" and the idea for "Living In Oblivion" came out of that moment of frustration.
Didn't you have a "Living In Oblivion"-esque experience in shooting this film, where John Turturro was giving a very emotional performance and you ran out of film but pretended to keep shooting so he wouldn't lose the feeling?
I've had experiences like that on every film. That is one of the most agonizing, nightmarish qualities of filmmaking -- it's happening right in front of you and you have to somehow get it from reality onto this strip of plastic.
How did you cast John Turturro for this role?
I knew him, and I just kept pulling him in. At first he didn't quite see where he was going to put all of this tremendous energy he has, but I knew all he had to do was be himself, and he'd be incredible. Most of my job was getting him to do nothing.
What do you mean by do nothing?
Let's take the scene of Al and the Kid sitting around talking about wrestling. The first couple of takes, Al says, "You know it's all fake don't you?" really loud, like he's all angry about it, and I said, "John, why don't you just do it like you're talking to one of the world's greatest idiots, and you kind of enjoy treating him like an idiot." But what he didn't know was that I said the exact same thing to Sam Rockwell. So if you look at that scene, it's two guys thinking that the other person is an idiot. And it works really well. I mean, don't get me wrong, mostly it was John's own choices. He's a very strong actor, and I wanted to get his strength, without any of the quirky mannerisms that he brings to some of his roles. I wanted him to be as transparent as he could be, and he proves himself to be amazingly funny. Al Fountain is a very interesting guy. Just because he's repressed doesn't make him uninteresting, and I knew John could do that.
And you've known Sam Rockwell a long time.
He auditioned for me for "Johnny Suede," for the Brad Pitt part, and I remembered him, and I said let's bring him in for "Box of Moonlight." His audition was literally like Woody Woodpecker, he was bouncing around the room, giving birdcalls. I said, look at this inventiveness, look at this unpredictability -- that's exactly who the Kid is. And I held out for him. Many times people said, why don't you cast Jason Priestley, and I'll give you the money, cast Johnny Depp, and I'll give you the money. And I said no.
I think we all know someone a little repressed, someone like Al. Is there someone in your life like the Kid?
The Kid is sort of like a part of me, and a part of me that I wish to be. But definitely he's a part of me. I think you have to maintain -- I don't want to call it childhood, because that gets sappy, but kind of an adult juvenile delinquency. The willingness to allow yourself to feel like you're free.
Have you ever had an experience, or a weekend, like the one you depict in the film?
I danced around a fire naked. And I definitely remembered it. Those kind of moments in life are spectacular. We were at somebody's house, and they had built a bonfire, someone passed around a joint, and someone put on this incredible music, and the next thing we knew we all started taking off our clothes and dancing around this fire. It just got crazy, and I said, one day I'm going to put that in a movie.
Do you think it's possible to live a lifestyle like the Kid?
Well, the Kid is not complete. I'm not suggesting that he's a role model; he's also got some problems. His innocence, his trustingness makes him kind of helpless, and very vulnerable. I think his brush with Al helps him to focus more. But why not? At some point in your life, cut loose everything, and see where that leaves you. If you look at Al Fountain, in the film he's constantly being bombarded: Tomatoes are hitting him, cars are coming at him, fists are coming at him and he's forced out of his sterile world. You know, I'm at the end of my tour of publicity here, and I'm finally finding a way to put into words what my film is about: It's about finding a way to constantly peel yourself away, to open yourself up to something else. It's not about lightening up. It's about finding where the rituals of today are, the rituals that make you look at yourself and the people around you and say, "I value that."
Tell me about the scene where the Kid takes Al to his trailer, and gets out the key to the front door, and the audience is expecting a cramped little trailer, but we see that he's cut away the back wall, and all the furniture is arranged under the stars, and there are Christmas lights hung from the trees. How did you come up with that scene?
Imagine that I've seen that scene in my mind, that I've written that scene, I know how incredible it will be, and I can't get anybody to give me the money, and you'll see how much I wanted to make this film. I can remember, as a kid, driving on the highway and seeing these big tractor trailers driving down the road, pulling half of a mobile home. And I kept going back to the image of the box, that Al is living in the box, and let's have Kid blow the walls off the box. I pictured it at night, in my mind, as a proscenium, like a stage, this house spilling into the yard, and I wanted to put it on film.
How did you get the idea for this movie?
It was definitely a desire to get out of New York City, to make a film about the country, about America. I was fascinated with the idea of a guy suddenly being confronted by six days of free time, utterly alone, what would he do? What would happen if this guy took that time and went off? And I said, let's give him an identity crisis, and at the same time, let's have him be confronted by this crazy lunatic Kid, and put the two of them together.
So what would you have done if you had the six days of free time? You're on location, and you wrap early, and you don't have to be back for six more days?
Actually, it happened to me, and to tell you the truth, I went home.
PHOTO BY BILL BETTENCOURT | COURTESY OF TRIMARK PICTURES
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