The European Film premiere of Tom DiCillo’s Down in Shadowland takes place at The Moat Theatre, Naas on Saturday, 19th March. To mark the event, Wayne Byrne interviewed the American film director, screenwriter and cinematographer looking back over his remarkable career.
The recent demise of the Xtra Vision franchise resonated with me powerfully. I won’t miss it as a customer, as I haven’t rented a film in many a year, but the former institution is responsible for my introduction to a filmmaker that constantly surprised and delighted me for the last two decades. Rewind to 1995, whiling away my school lunch breaks in the local Xtra Vision, whence I happened upon a video cover bearing a massively bequiffed Brad Pitt. It was one of those exotic tapes in the “Foreign Film” section, released, as it was, on the arthouse video label, Artificial Eye. Any self-respecting Steven Seagal fan rarely ventured over to those shelves, but something about this luminous cover art stood out amongst the bland white-and-grey uniformed sleeves of the Tartan and Artificial Eye inventory. Intrigued by the striking image of Pitt and the giant pink-yellow lettering, Johnny Suede, I took a chance and rented it. The result was like a hammer blow to my adolescent cine-illiteracy. All of a sudden I was aware of film as Art. It was exotic, and felt exclusive. Perhaps for the first time, I took note of a director’s name: Tom DiCillo. “I must keep an eye out for this guy’s films”, I thought. That was twenty-odd years ago. Since then I’ve written a book on his life and career, and now I’m delighted to herald the exclusive European theatrical premiere screening of his latest film, Down in Shadowland, at The Moat Theatre in Naas on March 19th.
With that event imminent, I took this opportunity to reflect on DiCillo’s career.
A biographical reflection of DiCillo’s contribution to American Cinema must surely begin in the early-1980s. After studying Film at NYU in the late-70s, DiCillo worked as cinematographer on a number of crucial films to come out of the New York City underground art scene, the No Wave movement. DiCillo framed films for Eric Mitchell (Underground U.S.A., 1980), Bette Gordon (Variety, 1983), Jim Jarmusch (Permanent Vacation, 1980; Stranger Than Paradise, 1984), and Howard Brookner (Burroughs: The Movie, 1983). Based on his influential work on Stranger Than Paradise, DiCillo was even sought out to shoot other projects across the globe, such as Japanese director Mamashi Yamamoto’s Robinson’s Garden (1987). Despite the acclaim, cinematography was never a conscious career path; his calling was directing.
“I got into cinematography completely by accident,” DiCillo states, “One day at NYU our professor said, ‘OK, let’s do a little exercise.’ He assigned Jim [Jarmusch, DiCillo’s classmate] to write a five-minute film, me to shoot it, and someone else to edit it. It was all completely at random. I’d never shot anything before. I have an eye for movement and composition and because I didn’t have preconceived notions about lighting and technical things, I would conceive the shots more like a director than a cinematographer; ‘What’s the best way to tell this story with the camera?’ Shooting films was a great learning experience. That was my film school. The problems and solutions were all in the real world, not in a classroom.”
DiCillo continues, “Several years later, after graduating NYU and having shot several independent features, I was working painting apartments. One day, I was in a tiny bathroom using some newspaper to mask off a medicine cabinet I was about to paint and I noticed it was a page from the Arts section of the New York Times; there was an article that read, ‘Stranger Than Paradise wins the Camera D’Or at Cannes.’ I was very happy for Jim, his film was a great accomplishment on many levels and was massively influential to the independent film movement, but seeing this notice forced me to look at myself and ask, ‘Why are you standing here with paint dripping from your elbow?’ And that was the moment that snapped me out of it. I realized right then that it was time for me to get back to what I started out doing, directing. I had already written a screenplay called Johnny Suede and it was sitting in a drawer. I said, ‘It’s time for you to get it out of the drawer, Tom. It’s really now…or never.’”
In the mid-80s, DiCillo enrolled in acting class, and it was here that he adopted an alter-ego named Johnny Suede to deliver monologues for certain assignments. Suede had a cool, sexy exterior which masked fierce insecurity and neurosis. In 1986, DiCillo took Johnny to the stage, directing and performing a one-man show featuring the character at an Off-Off-Off Broadway theatre. Response was strong enough to encourage DiCillo to craft a feature-length script around this flawed, misguided, but deeply romantic soul and his misadventures and encounters with women. This would become the blueprint for DiCillo’s debut film, Johnny Suede. In 1989, after several years of fine-tuning the script, DiCillo was accepted to the Sundance Lab. It was here, with the assistance of no less a writer than Buck Henry (The Graduate, Catch-22, and actor in DiCillo’s The Real Blonde) advised and encouraged the burgeoning director. “Buck said, ‘this script is really good!’ DiCillo recalls, “He advised me to shoot the film as it was on the page and that’s exactly what I did.”
Casting Johnny Suede would take DiCillo out to Hollywood, where the director set up auditions in the legendary Highland Gardens Hotel, where two future industry luminaries would take their first steps towards stardom. Enter Brad Pitt.
“We couldn’t find anybody in NYC so on the advice of my casting director, Marcia Schulman, we headed out West to see what we could find,” DiCillo continues, “We set up in this tiny kitchenette and we were so desperate we even auditioned some random kid we saw eating in a burger joint. He was awful. But then Brad Pitt walked in and before he said a word I knew we had found Johnny Suede. My producer said, ‘You are not making this movie with someone called Brad Pitt!’”.
To placate the producer DiCillo met with Oscar-winning actor, Timothy Hutton, who wouldn’t audition but would talk to the director “in-character”. “It was one of the strangest meetings ever… I respect Timothy Hutton, but I couldn’t see anything, just a guy sitting and talking to me.” DiCillo refused to cast Hutton and the production deal fell through. Not for long…
“Within two days I had a new deal with a respected producer, Ruth Waldburger, who had made films with Godard, and when I showed her the tape of Brad’s audition she said, ‘he is good, but you are the director, so if you want to cast him, cast him!’”, DiCillo says. “Brad had a genuine sense of quiet intelligence and innocence which would be crucial for Johnny.”
Also, through the Highland Gardens door was Catherine Keener. The actress has since featured in four DiCillo films, been twice nominated for Best Supporting Actress (for Being John Malkovich and Capote, respectively), appeared in major studio pictures such as Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter and Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year Old Virgin, while also maintaining a presence in lower-key works such as John Carney’s Begin Again. “You couldn’t take your eyes off Catherine,” DiCillo says, “She has this combustible intensity and unpredictability. We ended up sharing this incredible bond that lasted through four films.”
Johnny Suede was released in 1991, scoring a victory at that year’s Locarno International Film Festival by garnering the festival’s top price of the Golden Leopard Award, and where the film would be picked up for US distribution by Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s powerhouse Miramax. The American release of Johnny Suede saw the picture fall victim to the test-screening system, resulting in the film being trimmed of its running time and lumped with an unnecessary voiceover narration. Thankfully, European audiences were privy to DiCillo’s director’s cut, minus said voiceover, but Johnny Suede’s theatrical lifespan in the US was cut short, playing for only one week in New York, affecting DiCillo’s chances of a second film.
In the aftermath of Johnny Suede, DiCillo set out to secure financing for his next film, the surrealist rural comedy, Box of Moonlight, an endeavour which repeatedly failed. And so, in the midst of despondency, DiCillo decided to make a film for next to nothing, casting mainly friends and family, which included Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, and newcomer Peter Dinklage, future star of Game of Thrones, in his debut screen appearance. The result was the stupendous, Living In Oblivion. The film charts the comically absurd endeavours of an anxiety-ridden filmmaker (Buscemi) shooting his increasingly disaster-prone independent film. To this day, Living In Oblivion remains one of the great films about filmmaking and perhaps DiCillo’s signature film, a marvel considering its genesis as a short subject born out of despair. That initial thirty-minute short remains as the first act of the feature-length version of Living In Oblivion. “We shot that short half-hour film in five days,” DiCillo recalls, “everybody worked for free. No producers, no agents. Nothing! My wife Jane and I provided the food.”
Living In Oblivion would be the first of five collaborations with actor-filmmaker Steve Buscemi. “I remember when Tom had written his script for Johnny Suede he had sent it to me,” Buscemi recalls, “he wanted me to be a part of it but that one didn’t work out, so by the time he was doing Living in Oblivion… I thought it was so funny and so brilliant, just an amazing part. I remember being really excited about doing it.”
“I’ve known Steve since the mid-Eighties,” DiCillo says, “I met him when I began going to see these bizarre, off-beat shows he performed on stage in the East Village with Mark Boone Jr. I had thought of Steve when I was casting Johnny Suede, I was hoping to cast him as Deke, the role that ultimately went to Calvin Levels, but I really wanted him for Living In Oblivion and he said yes immediately. Only a few days later he said, ‘Can I see the script?’”
What initially began life as an intermediate short subject, an inspired expression of frustration out of the director’s anguish with the industry’s perceived failure of his first feature, would ultimately become DiCillo’s second feature film.
“Because we were making this short film for ourselves there wasn’t that element of pressure,” Buscemi recalls, “we were really making it for ourselves; we loved working together and loved the material. Around the fourth or fifth day of the shoot, all the actors, including myself, were talking about it and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if this could be a feature film?’…”
DiCillo concurs, “Nobody wanted this thing to end, and I realised that the only way this film is going to be seen is if it’s feature-length.” Time was of the essence. The main cast were moving on to big projects and if Living In Oblivion were to be stretched out into a 90-minute running time, it required the budget to do so. Fate intervened.
“I was on the phone about to sign a deal with this guy who wanted to make a name for himself in Hollywood. He had never made a film before and he wanted to change the cast and hire famous film stars. Just as he said that my call-waiting clicked in and it was my wife’s cousin Hilary, who plays Script Girl in the film. She told me that her father had passed away and she was left some money; she wanted to know if she could provide the money to complete Living In Oblivion as a feature. So I immediately told that other guy where to shove his money and hung up on him.”
With cast and crew re-assembled, the remaining two acts of Living In Oblivion were completed and the feature version was entered into the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Greeted with ecstatic response, the film won big, with DiCillo taking home the Walto Salt Screenwriting Award.
Buoyed by Sundance success, DiCillo was finally able to bring Box of Moonlight to realisation. “After the win at Sundance I began getting attention from potential investors, more than I ever expected, and one of whom offered $3 million for my next film. But that film would be far different than my previous two, which were these absurd urban comedies. They were looking for my next Living In Oblivion.”
Box of Moonlight (1996) is a gentle rural fable starring John Turturro, Sam Rockwell, and Catherine Keener. Turturro plays an uptight, Midwestern electrical engineer, Al Fountain, whose pedantic ways are contributing to his mental unravelling. While working down south, Fountain receives word from corporate headquarters that their contract is terminated. Faced with the option of going home early or enjoying some free time, Al plans a nostalgic expedition to a former haunt of his youth; a now-rusting playground. En route, Al narrowly avoids a fatal car crash with an eccentric young man known as The Kid, a manic ball of energy and anxiety in a Davy Crockett outfit. Kid manipulates Al into spending the weekend at his dilapidated forest abode – half a mobile home – while their cars are mended. The two bond throughout an eventful July 4th weekend as The Kid introduces Al to the joys, and pitfalls, of living “off the grid”.
“That role of Kid was a killer part,” Rockwell says, “I was there from the very beginning and I think that’s one of the reasons it took Tom so long to find funding for the film; I wasn’t a recognisable name at that point. But I wanted to be a part of Tom’s work so bad; I had auditioned for Johnny Suede, but that role went to Brad Pitt. When I saw Johnny Suede and Living In Oblivion I was just blown away.”
DiCillo recalls the autobiographical inspiration, “The idea for Box of Moonlight hit me a few years earlier when I was in Tokyo shooting a low-budget Japanese film, Robinson’s Garden. It felt like I was a million miles from home and it struck me, what would I do if the film was suddenly cancelled? Would I instantly go home or would I use the unexpected window of free time to go off somewhere? And that’s where the idea hit me. I changed it to a guy who was very rigid and structured. He falls out of his comfort zone but he’s courageous enough to take advantage of it. He steps out into this void of free time, which to a lot of people is pretty terrifying. Most people live their lives in a very strict and ordered way. We take comfort from routine and familiarity,” the director continues, “What I was looking for was a slightly fictitious America; one that had a sense of mystery and myth about it. We got to Tennessee and I saw these lush, rolling hills embracing small, slightly run down towns; there was a great contrast to that lush beauty and the almost primal simplicity of the way people were living in it. It suggested an America that existed long ago, before the Europeans came over. There’s something magical, almost out of The Wizard of Oz, but with a slight sense of danger and uneasiness.”
While the $3 million budget gave DiCillo the opportunity of a more expansive canvas to work with, production and post-production problems plagued the film, all of which are caustically captured in Faber & Faber’s publication of the Box of Moonlight screenplay, alongside DiCillo’s production journal, Notes from Overboard: A Film-Maker’s Diary.
The end result is one of DiCillo’s most personal films, an offbeat fairytale with a keen eye for the oddities and eccentricities of its off-the-beaten-track environ. Dramatic as much as it is funny and romantic, the film deftly considers the impact of volatile circumstances on fragile minds and timid hearts. In the post-Pulp Fiction industrial milieu of cynical, facetiously violent crime films, Box of Moonlight seems somewhat anachronistic in its gentle consideration of human interaction, or lack thereof. Despite a magnificent, commanding lead performance from Turturro and an ebullient comedic touch from Rockwell, the film struggled at the box office. Perhaps the film may have been a little too contemplative or whimsical for audiences basking in the ubiquity of hip, misanthropic bloodshed pouring from Hollywood’s orifices.
“Tom has a brilliant comic mind,” Rockwell states, “but he also has a great understanding of the human condition; he offers a great insight into where the pain we experience in our lives can come from.”
“Arriving soon after Living in Oblivion, I think people were completely baffled and had no idea why I made Box of Moonlight. It was a strange, contemporary American fable. I stepped out into a different way of storytelling and I believe I accomplished something with it,” DiCillo continues, “To my utter astonishment the film got accepted into the Venice Film Festival. The screening was held at this magnificent Italian movie theatre in front of an audience of 2,000. The film was projected on this huge screen and looked incredible but the audience was completely silent throughout the entire film. I was sitting there, drenched in sweat, thinking, ‘My god, this film is an absolute failure’. Then the film ended, the house lights came up and they put a spotlight on me and all of a sudden I realised the entire audience was on its feet giving me a standing ovation. They really got the film and especially appreciated Turturro’s performance.”
For Rockwell, the experience remains a pivotal moment in his career, “That film really opened doors for me. It was a springboard for my career. We went to Sundance with it and I was stunned watching it at the screening. It was a really big deal. I am very proud of Box of Moonlight. That film changed my life.”
In league with Lakeshore Entertainment and Paramount Pictures on his fourth feature film, the edgy 1997 urban comedy The Real Blonde, DiCillo would work with his biggest budget to date, that of $8 million, and a prolific all-star cast, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Maxwell Caulfield, Kathleen Turner, Christopher Lloyd, Daryl Hannah, Elizabeth Berkeley, Marlo Thomas, Buck Henry, Steve Buscemi and Dave Chapelle.
Centring on the lives and loves of several couples whilst irreverently piercing the vapid, self-important surfaces of the fashion and television industries, The Real Blonde is a bright, bold, battle of the sexes; its busy ensemble gathering and network narrative reminiscent of Altman, Nichols, and Mazursky. Behind the ribald humour and trenchant satire is a frank look at the dynamics of sex and relationships working against the pressures of age, career, economic instability, and fidelity; emotional warfare waged on the battleground of domesticity. In terms of quality and exploration of its themes, The Real Blonde plays in the great tradition of mainstream adult films of yore, recalling elements from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, to Carnal Knowledge, and Next Stop, Greenwich Village.
Despite potentially viable marquee names, glossy production values, and approachable, broad comedic appeal, the film should, in theory, have satisfied the Hollywood context of late-90s indie-mainstream crossover, but executive cold feet scuppered any potential. DiCillo’s subversively humorous and provocative examination of near-Millenium sexual politics was far too risqué for a tentative Paramount. Corporate desire to placate a hypothetical mainstream audience meant diluting the more subversive intent of the film.
“Relatively speaking, the budget wasn’t massive, but it did give you a safety net, you could play around and expand on ideas visually without the feeling that it could all go wrong in an instant. But at the end of the day Lakeshore and Paramount wanted a film they could sell to everybody, and that means certain scenes suffered because of that. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Real Blonde has some strong scenes and some engaging ideas, but there is a hint of moralising to the film that bothers me a bit. My films work best when they are at their sharpest and clearest. This one gets a bit murky.” DiCillo continues, “The moral was given precedence over some of my more anarchic ideas when some of the wilder scenes were cut at the behest of the studio.”
The existing cut remains a scintillating film brimming with DiCillo’s remarkable qualities: that empathy for human frailties and absurdities, delivered in with his distinctive brand of acerbic humour and unconventional aesthetic. Unfortunately, The Real Blonde would have its theatrical fate sealed in a single, devastating phone call from Paramount to DiCillo, informing him they were pulling prints from cinemas after one week of exhibition. DiCillo hasn’t worked with a major studio since.
Following Paramount’s desultory release of The Real Blonde, DiCillo’s subsequent experience would have felled a lesser filmmaker irrevocably. Expanding his repertoire into previously uncharted territory, DiCillo advanced toward the neo-noir world of a flawed, morally-deflated anti-hero detective battling an unjust system and his own disillusionment. The film is Double Whammy, and you certainly didn’t see it on a cinema screen.
An entertaining cop thriller/romantic comedy, Denis Leary stars as recently bereaved Detective Ray Pluto, who falls for his chiropractor, Dr. Anne Beamer (Liz Hurley), after suffering a serious back injury in trying to foil a mass shooting. Whilst recovering, Pluto becomes embroiled in solving the attempted murder of his neighbour Juan Benitez. Juan’s daughter, Maribel – a suspect – is played by Melonie Diaz, resplendent in her debut screen role. Steve Buscemi stars as Pluto’s sexually confused partner, Detective Cubbins, while Chris Noth is Pluto’s slick, clever adversary, Detective Dimitri.
“In the mid-late 90s there was this kind of quivering reverence for disaffected violence in movies,” DiCillo recalls, “People had an insatiable appetite for that kind of stuff. I wanted to have some fun in trying to hold a funhouse mirror up to show how this kind of mayhem in movies became such a point of fascination.”
After a corporate shakeup at Lionsgate Films, the incoming bureaucrats had no affection for the film that their predecessors were nurturing, and thus resigned DiCillo’s fifth feature film to an early grave. Produced for theatrical release, Double Whammy was instead dumped to video shelves in 2001, an unfair demise for a vividly constructed piece of work. Few straight-to-video films look this good, realised with DiCillo’s accomplished cinematic flair and cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s striking photography. The film’s satirical edge is sharp, deconstructing the cop thriller genre with glee, although the subplots of the film often overshadow the central romance between Leary and Hurley. Much more gratifying is DiCillo’s empathetic handling of Cubbins’ existential sexual-identity crisis, and his sensitive treatment of Maribel’s malaise.
“I don’t think culture has any room left for a film like Double Whammy anymore,” Noth speculates, “the juxtaposition of the real and the absurd that is Tom’s aesthetic. Tom is a satirist, but sometimes it feels like people don’t realise its satire, perhaps because there’s a lot of eccentricity to it. The world sometimes denies that kind of thing.” The actor continues, “I was frustrated with the reception Double Whammy got. I don’t think people really understand what Tom’s work is truly about. It’s a film that is symbolic of Tom’s imagination, that idiosyncratic sensibility. There are a lot of laughs, a lot of interesting relationships, and a different take on things in the film.”
“I never imagined I would make a film that wouldn’t be released”, DiCillo says, “It does tremendous damage to a filmmaker. It basically dictates that your product is unwanted. But, what I’m proud of about Double Whammy is, the balance of humour and pathos. I think there is some very real drama and suspense in there. One of my favourite moments is when a killer puts a Sundance bag over his intended victim’s head to see if it will work as an effective blindfold!”
After the corporate debacle of The Real Blonde and Double Whammy, DiCillo came back triumphant in 2006 with one of the greatest, most underrated films of that decade, Delirious.
Starring Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt, Delirious is a compulsive, dramatic satire that tells the story of a lonely, neurotic paparazzo, Les Gallantine, who tentatively befriends homeless teenager, Toby Grace, who offers to help Les as his assistant in exchange for some rather confined lodgings: Les’ dusty closet! While Les remains on the outskirts of celebrity, peering in but never accepted among the inner circle, the fabulous and famous gravitate to Toby’s charm and effortless appeal; before long, Toby is a star with his own faux-reality show and dating a pop starlet, something which disturbs an already psychologically frail Les further.
Often reminiscent of John Schlesinger’s New Hollywood marvel, Midnight Cowboy, in its profound, compassionate examination of male friendship and familial discord, DiCillo deftly weaves his intense themes throughout his satirical deconstruction of contemporary media, the film punctuated with vivacious editing and a pulsating soundtrack.
The film received some of the greatest acclaim of DiCillo’s career. “This is the best DiCillo movie I’ve seen, and he’s made some good ones,” says Roger Ebert in his original Chicago Sun-Times review, before programming the film at his annual Overlooked Film Festival in Illinois. Delirious is indeed a stand-out film in an already esteemed oeuvre, boasting what is, for this writer’s money, a career-best performance from Buscemi.
“The character of Les was wonderful to play,” Buscemi admits, “he’s so full of contradictions. Tom’s scripts are always surprising, you never know where they’re going to go or what’s going to happen. There’s always humour, but to me Tom’s films are so much more than just comedies; it’s some of the funniest stuff, but the humour is coming out of something real that people can relate to.”
The actor continues, “Part of Tom’s talent is that he creates these complex characters who are likeable and sometimes are just people with problems, people who have delusions or whatever, but Tom is always interested in their heart and soul, and that’s evident in every character that he writes.”
“I put my soul into every frame of that film,” DiCillo says, “and it showed me that is the basic requirement of every film. I think Delirious has a richer emotional depth than some of my previous films, as well as some sharp, delightful humour. The themes are also very personal to me, but I think the film finds a way to express those ideas and be relatable to everybody.”
The next step in DiCillo’s career was perhaps a surprising one. In 2009, DiCillo was approached by television mogul Dick Wolf and his long-time producer Peter Jankowski with a most enviable offer. Having acquired the rights to The Doors’ catalogue, Wolf and Jankowski needed a director to craft the definitive cinematic telling of the legendary band’s already well-documented career.
“The true story of The Doors had the potential for all the classic elements of cinema,” DiCillo recalls. “It has great promise and great tragedy. It’s like a contemporary myth; a distinctly American one.”
When You’re Strange is an enthralling piece of documentary filmmaking, a sober response to the bloated excesses of Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic, The Doors. DiCillo had a bounty of footage to mine, as well as the immediate collaboration of the surviving members of The Doors. DiCillo chose not to include contemporary interviews of the band members, eschewing the talking-head documentary format in favour of letting the footage and music speak for itself… with a little help from Johnny Depp. DiCillo wrote the narration, and in Depp, the director found the right voice to deliver it.
“I knew the narrator would have to be someone a little different, not just a voice that gave a fake tremor and depth to the words,” DiCillo says. “It needed to be someone who really believed what they were saying. My first choice was Johnny Depp. He’s a very gifted and very personal actor. He invests a huge part of himself in every role. I knew that if he connected to the film he could bring that crucial level of intimacy to it. He’s also a musician; and he was the right age. I did not want the voice of the film to be coming from the past. I don’t see it as a nostalgic film. Depp brought the perspective of a whole new generation to the music. He made it seem modern; which to me it always was.”
“DiCillo’s When You’re Strange is a meticulously crafted, exhilarating ode to one of music’s greatest, most exciting ensembles” Depp praises, “I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done.”
Drummer for The Doors, John Densmore, recalls the moment he found their director, “I watched Living In Oblivion and I immediately realised this is a very talented filmmaker. After that I just spoke to him about his vision for the film and I knew he was our guy. Tom comes from the independent world and so he brought that kind of outsider attitude and approach to the material.”
“When You’re Strange is my favourite film on The Doors,” guitarist Robby Krieger enthuses, “Tom’s writing was absolutely brilliant, and Johnny’s narration of that is wonderful; you are kept within the present of our story, no looking back, it puts you right back in the middle of it as it’s happening. I love the reality of it, that it’s put together using only genuine original footage of the band. There’s no bullshit. Tom got it right with When You’re Strange.”
Throughout 2010, DiCillo and members of The Doors promoted the film’s theatrical release throughout the world’s major film festivals, where it was received ecstatically or with derision, depending on which Doors fan you were to ask. The ultimate triumph was that DiCillo made a film that The Doors could say is the definitive document of their band’s story and a true representation of their legacy; a film DiCillo considers a proud addition to his catalogue. The film also won a Grammy Award for Best Music Film.
“I knew there was something in the story of The Doors that touched me on a very deep level,” DiCillo says, “That’s what kept me going. I put as much of myself into the film, and worked as hard on it as any film I’ve made. At the end of the day it feels like one of my films. And there is no feeling more satisfying than that.”
In the aftermath of When You’re Strange I began writing a book on DiCillo’s career, and during this time, a period as hard as ever for independent filmmakers seeking theatrical distribution and exhibition, I asked him how he envisioned himself realising future film ideas onto cinema screens. “I’m close to going back to making a film for absolutely nothing,” the director disclosed. The result: Down in Shadowland.
“‘Living In Oblivion was made completely outside the Hollywood system,” DiCillo says, “It was also made completely outside the Independent system. There is a myth here that the Independent world is somehow real and exists and if you’re an independent filmmaker all you have to do is knock on the door of this Independent world and it will let you in. This is complete bullshit. When I first started out, making every film was like stepping out into the void. There was no support system anywhere. You had to somehow come up with the money and make the film; by any means necessary.” The director continues, “Further, any connection with Hollywood was scorned and ridiculed. No true independent would ever make a film that catered to Hollywood sensibilities and demands. For a brief period somewhere between 1979 and 1984, there was a real sense that an independent American film was unique and special. Living In Oblivion came out of that period. But, no matter how difficult it was to make the films, the rush of artistic freedom was so exhilarating that at times it seemed better than any drug.
Down In Shadowland was an attempt to return to that kind of freedom and rebellion. Lately, to me, there is no distinction anymore between Hollywood and Independent films. Both now rework the exact same formula; some hook or gimmick for a plot, hiring actors that are stars and all aiming for huge commercial and critical success. All of these things immediately rule out the possibility of making a truly personal film. As soon as a producer says, ‘Cast Jennifer Lawrence and I’ll finance your film,’ there is no difference between your film and Fast & Furious 34.”
Down in Shadowland is DiCillo’s eight feature film. Set in the subterranean microcosm of the New York City subway system, the film examines life in transit; an evocative piece of cinema verite, capturing a multi-cultural hotbed of human drama. Filmed over the course of several years, DiCillo has crafted an absorbing tone poem recalling the majestic ambient quality and emotional resonance of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, while also tipping its hat to the early documentaries of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
“When I first moved to NYC in 1976 everything about this place both fascinated and terrified me. You can’t really get around unless you know the subway system and for a long time that dark, damp, screeching labyrinth terrified me the most. I was constantly fascinated by the micro dramas that I was seeing every day, sometimes with dialogue between people, other times silent, intense monologues that took place entirely in one person’s eyes. Filming discreetly with a very small camera, my original intent was a very simple one; just to see if I could put on film some of these haunting, beautiful and poetic human moments that were happening in this most public of places. I started tentatively putting this footage together, based more on mood and emotional connection than trying to tell any kind of story. My excitement about the footage, and the fact that I could make a film immediately, with no interference from agents, producers, financiers, made me commit to it with a kind of thrill that was very refreshing to me.
DiCillo continues, “I see Down in Shadowland as an epic journey that takes the viewer/passenger deep into this mysterious, strange world, a shadowy underground that’s a mirror image of the bright, glaring world above; and in some ways more truthful and illuminating. Audiences expecting a traditional documentary narrative may be thrown at first but I’ve learned that once people let go and allow the film to work on them, they slip into a journey that has shape, form and direction. I never wanted people to feel the film was just a random collection of shots. I worked hard from the beginning to structure the film into clear, dramatic sequences that have a beginning, middle and end, which provides a larger dramatic shape to the arc of the entire film.”
Having played several US film festivals, Down in Shadowland will make its European theatrical debut in Ireland this month. The Moat Theatre in Naas will be hosting the premiere screening of the film on Saturday, March 19th.
“I’m thrilled the film with be screened at The Moat Theatre,” DiCillo enthuses, “I’m eager to see how people respond to it. I think audiences outside the US view my films the way we view ‘foreign’ films here in the US. I love seeing different worlds and different points of view from people absolutely contemporary to me. I think that in this case the iconic world of New York, and this journey underground will equally seem like a journey to a foreign country, even a distant exotic land. To be honest, the world down under there beneath the streets feels that way to me to this day.”
Kevin Martin, chairman of Naas Film Club, which is based in The Moat Theatre, expresses his enthusiasm for the upcoming screening, “We are absolutely delighted to be able to host this European premiere of Down in Shadowland. Tom DiCillo is an important director and it’s a great honour to have this opportunity to exclusively showcase his new film. DiCillo has worked with some truly great artists, including Brad Pitt, Steve Buscemi, The Doors, Elvis Costello, and so many fine actors, in creating a really strong body of work. We’re really looking forward to the event.”
“I haven’t been to Ireland in twenty years. I went to Dublin for the release of both Johnny Suede and Living In Oblivion,” DiCillo recalls. “I didn’t stay long but I distinctly remember my first taste of Guinness in a smoky hotel bar in Dublin. It tasted like motor oil. But, really, really good motor oil. I wish I could be there in Naas on the night. I’d love to sit and talk with people, over a few pints, and hear their thoughts on what I put together. This is a film really about human beings, about the moments that make us human—fear, joy, solitude, longing for connection, love, loneliness, foolishness. I think these qualities extend far beyond the subway in NYC. I am deeply grateful and appreciative that Co. Kildare has invited my film to come visit for a night.”
Wayne Byrne is a lecturer and education consultant in Film Studies. He has just finished his first book, Include Me Out: The Films of Tom DiCillo, for which he is currently seeking a publisher.
The European Film premiere of Down in Shadowland will take place at The Moat Theatre on Saturday, 19th March at 8pm.
Tickets: €5. Bookhere