Living in oblivion

Idiosyncratic indie director Tom DiCillo on how he made the best film of his career, and why Hollywood won't let you see it.

Published July 10, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Just as members of the press were arriving for a screening of Tom DiCillo's new film "Double Whammy" at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, an upstairs toilet somehow serendipitously exploded. We watched as a flash flood blasted through the hallway and rolled in a gushing, two-inch deep waterfall down the stairs, totally preventing our entrance. It was a perfect metaphor for DiCillo's quixotic career.

DiCillo's need to break free of convention and expectation has undoubtedly hampered his career advancement. He directed Brad Pitt in "Johnny Suede" (1991), his first feature, and then spoofed the star's pretentiousness in the indie-film satire "Living in Oblivion" (1995), which remains DiCillo's best-known film. He followed that with "Box of Moonlight" (1996) and "The Real Blonde" (1997).

He was supposed to release another film this year, after a five-year absence. "Double Whammy" is a comedy/romance/action/Hollywood-satire/social-commentary film that stars Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley. Like DiCillo, it doesn't fit into any recognizable niche, and is hence being punished by the distributors -- they're not releasing it, although it was, ironically, released in France under the title "Bad Luck."

As an acquaintance and fan of DiCillo's, I've noticed that his life is a kind of gestalt poetry-in-motion, filled with characters, obstacles and screwy circumstances that only he could have invented. It's as if he magnetizes the forces around him and imbues them with his own subtly nuanced, sometimes dark, multi-leveled and occasionally infuriating sense of humor. I met up with him recently to talk about his career, the saga of "Double Whammy" and the dark side of the indie-film boomlet.

Tell me about your new film, "Double Whammy."

I decided to make a foray into classic suspense films, like "The Asphalt Jungle," John Boorman's "Point Blank," Hitchcock's "Notorious." I wanted to make a crime story, but put my particular twist on it, and I came up with a hero that instead of being Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson, was somebody who was so human that when he tried to solve the problem, some personal, emotional Achilles heel prevented him from being the hero. He's an outsider. The guy was based entirely on me, in terms of the way the guy feels. His name was Ray Pluto. You know, the furthest planet from the sun.

And what does the sun mean for you?

The sun is simply the ability to be able to make films without this kind of agony. I'm looking for success in my own world -- I'm an independent filmmaker. There are a few people that have achieved artistic success as independent filmmakers -- Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz -- but critical success has eluded me, so I'm not a member of that group.

Isn't "Living in Oblivion" universally loved?

The fact is that very few people saw "Living in Oblivion." Thanks to the Thumb Critics, from whom I received Two Thumbs Down, the film did not play in the middle of the country at all. It just died. It is a business where you are dependent upon some critical reinforcement in order to make another movie. It's life or death: The success or lack of success of one film absolutely dictates what happens on your next one.

What connotes independent film success?

The ability to make another fucking movie. With a cast of talented actors. When the Coen brothers cast George Clooney [in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"] that is a prime example of independent success. It's been an incredibly difficult ordeal just getting anybody to give me a dime.

I had a huge fight with the company that had produced my last two movies, "Box of Moonlight" and "The Real Blonde." Lakeshore Entertainment bought the "Double Whammy" script as soon as I finished it. Then "The Real Blonde" came out and bombed, and they immediately cut my budget in half. We began arguing about the cast. For the part of the chiropractor, I had said that I wanted somebody who had an almost cartoonish sexuality. Well, they wanted me to cast Joan Cusack. I said, how about Julianne Moore? No, the guy said. What about Madeleine Stowe? No. I said, well, Elizabeth Hurley wrote back that she's interested -- I'm going to take that meeting. They said, take the movie elsewhere. So I did.

I had Denis Leary, I had Elizabeth Hurley, I had Steve Buscemi committed to be in the film and I had no one who would give me a dime. Every single independent company in the United States turned me down, and I ended up getting in business with two guys that I'd never met, because I was out in the void again. Both of these guys -- let's call them the Scumbags -- sued me after their option expired, because I got another deal. The new company I was involved with said, we're not going to give you any money now, because you have this pending lawsuit. I couldn't move. I was so furious.

In the middle of the night, my phone rings and it's some woman. She said she has information that's going to help me with the lawsuit. One of the Scumbags is her ex-husband. I met her at a Starbucks on 60th Street [in New York]. She wanted to help me because her ex-husband had said something to her the night before that had hurt her feelings. Describing her -- I don't know how to do it -- imagine meeting a 55-year-old Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who had just fallen off the back of a bus.

She immediately handed me a manuscript. It was a novel about a fictional character, a New York hooker who screws all the rich guys in New York. Guess who the hooker was? She then proceeds to tell me, "My ex-husband is a chronic ... " and she rubs her tits onto my forearm while we're in Starbucks and she said, "chronic ... " and she looked at me.

I said, "Gambler?"

"No," she said. "Masturbator."

I sort of resented the fact that I wasn't going to be able to present my next producer: "By the way, here's my producer. He's a chronic masturbator."

I couldn't believe it. Anyway, I got out of the deal. The film fell apart a hundred times. Finally it came together. I hooked up with this company called Gold Circle, which was funded by Gateway computers. This guy named David Kronemyer was running the company. The film fell apart in the middle of pre-production and these guys came through with $4 million. I went from utter disaster to being right back on schedule two weeks later. The miraculousness of that left me so breathless that it actually terrified me. But we got the money. We shot, it all went great.

Then we went to Sundance. I sold the film at Sundance to this distribution company, Lions Gate. When they initially bought the film, Mark Urman, a friend of mine, was vice president of the company. We went into this hotel in Sundance, we sat down with these guys from Lions Gate. I had been burned by film distributors before, so I said, "Listen guys: tell me why I should sell you the film." And they told me why: "Were going to open it in 40 cities."

"OK," I said. "I like what I'm hearing." About two weeks after we made the deal, Mark Urman left the company. Two weeks after that, Dave Kronemyer was forced out of Gold Circle. I guess you could just call it bad luck. But I started to really get a sense that I was in trouble when about a year later the release got delayed by Sept. 11. It was supposed to come out in theaters in October.

Strike three, essentially.

Right now, film distributors have monopoly power, because there are so many movies and so few distributors. Distributors make the decisions as to which ones get on the screen. Gold Circle by now had a number of films they were seeking distribution for, and they didnt want to jeopardize their relationship with Lions Gate. Lions Gate paid Gold Circle a million dollars for "Double Whammy," then went to Gold Circle after doing one test screening, which they said they were unhappy with, and said, "Listen, you can keep the million, we just dont want to release it." So Gold Circle got their million dollars, and they maintained their relationship with Lions Gate. So who's expendable here? They both broke their promises to me, and they both took the cowards way out.

How many other independent filmmakers do you know of who have been through horrible sagas like this?

Usually, if you get it sold, it ends up on the screen. Miramax is notorious for buying a bunch of films and never releasing them. But the smaller companies, if they put out the money, need to try and get the money back. So its in their best interest to distribute the film.

So in the case of "Double Whammy," a bunch of crappy things happened in a row.

Yeah, right. But on the other hand, if I attribute it to bad luck, then it makes it seem like I have no power here. And ultimately that's what they want you to believe. It was a business decision that these people made. The contract was between Lions Gate and Gold Circle.

You were out of the loop.

T: The weakest link was that once I signed the contract with Gold Circle, in exchange for their money to make the movie they acquired all rights to it. That's where they get you every single time.

In "Double Whammy," there's a lot of commentary going on, a lot of allegory, a lot of different levels. And there's a subversive feel. It's possible to take the movie at face value, but its more fun if you know what's going on.

A prime motivation for "Double Whammy" was that I was sick and tired of this idea that in order to get an audiences attention today, you have to do certain things. Taboo ideas are sometimes necessary, a jolt to the system, a shock. But when they are used simply to get people to sit in their seats, then what fuckin' difference is it from that millionth big explosion? Some independent filmmakers' cynicism is so forced, it's like those kinds of guys who would stick a finger up their own ass, and sticks their finger in your nose and laugh. Youre smelling shit. Whose shit? Their shit.

It's as manipulative as a Hollywood movie. It is literally such a forced point of view that there's no difference between it and Disney. It takes as much energy to force it over that way as it does for Disney to force it the other way. And it gets attention. Why? Oh, wow, it's controversial. The cynicism that exists in our society today is really weird, and I think it's a result of the fact that there's so much horrific shit going on that people have no idea how to deal with. And so they don't care about anything.

"Double Whammy" doesn't have that veneer of cynicism. I can tell you right now, there's a reason for every frame in the film. There's a reason for every color. The kind of art that inspires me is art that has that same sensibility -- you can keep looking at it.

It seems like American film audiences are so trained to let things wash over them in one big primary color that when you ask people to sit and analyze something, they don't even have the faculties to do it. We do not live in an era when people are making surreal films or non-linear films or films with particularly complicated structures or open endings or even tragic endings.

I agree. I think we have entered the dark ages in terms of intellect and it has come to the point where intellect is looked at as a negative thing. You have to literally reduce something to the most simple terms in order to get acceptance.

What's going on with the film now?

Inertia. Lions Gate wants to dump it to video and Gold Circle has agreed to let them.

I cherish the idea that you will release the DVD with extensive directorial notes, with a real discussion of every scene.

You mean like explaining the movie? I would love to do that. I feel that marketing is critical with this movie and I think they have to let people know, hey, it's going to be entertaining, but you've gotta keep your brain inside your head.

What are you doing next?

Some people want me to adapt a novel and direct it. So its still the one-two thing. Its the first time I will have done it from someone else's work. They'll give me the money to write and direct it. I'm also developing a new idea for a screenplay.

So you're surviving. You're doing all right.

Financially, no. Creatively -- creatively is what I'm concerned about. The greatest luxury is being able to get on the set. I would do it for no money. I love doing it. I love it.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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