Legendary Hollywood Cinematographer Coming to Ireland

 

Nick McLean and John Schlesinger shooting Marathon Man

Irish film fans and cinematography buffs should relish a rare upcoming visit to Ireland from one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors of photography. This March, legendary Hollywood cinematographer Nick McLean comes to Ireland for a series of events honouring his acclaimed work in American Cinema. McLean will be joined by Irish author Wayne Byrne at various film screenings and discussions around the country to celebrate McLean’s storied career in anticipation of their upcoming book.

Kildare-based Byrne is a film historian and music journalist; he writes for Hot Press magazine and has authored books on lauded indie auteur Tom DiCillo and screen icon Burt Reynolds. His next book, to be released later this year is one he co-authored with Nick McLean on the cinematographer’s prolific work behind the camera on some of the biggest films and television shows of the last fifty years. As Camera Operator or Cinematographer, McLean has shot the likes of McCabe & Mrs Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Marathon Man, Being There, The Right Stuff, City Heat, Stick, The Goonies, Short Circuit, Spaceballs, and many more. McLean was also the special effects cinematographer for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) throughout the 1980s, shooting effects work for the likes of Ron Howard’s Willow. He was subsequently highly acclaimed and Emmy Award nominated for his work shooting successful television sitcoms, including Evening Shade, Cybill, and later Friends.

Speaking about their collaboration, McLean recalls his working relationship with Byrne, “I had a great time working on this book with Wayne. I have rarely met anyone with his depth of knowledge and passion for cinema. I provided the foreword to his upcoming book on Burt Reynolds and I was immediately struck by his expertise, his enthusiasm and his love for film history. He knew all of my work inside out, even the most obscure ones! He suggested to me that there should be a book on my career and I told I would only do a book if it was with him. Wayne makes it easy and comfortable. He knows his stuff.

For Byrne, McLean’s influence is far reaching and his legacy in film history an important one. “I am a huge fan of Nick’s work. His compositions are rich and inventive, his camera movements immediate and graceful, and he tempers the elegance of his framing with handheld and aerial work which is exciting, he gets right into the action with the characters. Just look at the action sequences in Stick or Cobra; the aerial shots in Sharky’s Machine or The Right Stuff; or the lighting work on The Goonies and Staying Alive. City Heat is a masterclass in high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting, Nick really gives it that great old film noir feel. I also think some of his best work can be found in Burt Reynolds’ television series, B.L. Stryker. It’s so rare to see such a stylish cinematic aesthetic in television, especially television in 1990! Just thinking about the shots from these works makes this whole thing very exciting to be part of.


Wayne Byrne

McLean’s work spans several generations of film audiences, from his crucial camerawork in the 1970s’ New Hollywood movement right through to his cinematography in the blockbusters of the 1980s; and of course, who hasn’t seen Friends? Camerawork runs in the McLean clan, his stepfather and grandfather, Fred Jackman Jr. and Fred Jackman Sr., were pioneering Hollywood cinematographers respectively, going back to the days of silent cinema and up to the Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s. McLean’s son, Nicolas S. McLean continues the tradition, shooting shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Glee, and Private Practice.

Charting Nick’s career with him right there with me for our book has been like my own personal tour of Hollywood of the last fifty years,” Byrne says, and I hope that is how it will feel for people coming to our events in March where Nick and I will be going through his career and looking at some amazing scenes and discussing his work with great directors, from his earliest work with Altman and Spielberg right up to Friends.

Byrne continues, “Nick’s career kicked off in earnest when he was Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera operator, they worked together on a lot of films and from there Nick really flourished. When you see our opening montage compiled of many films Nick worked on you will be blown away when you recognise the scenes he has shot. Nick really helped develop the visual style of the New Hollywood, which is for me one of the greatest eras of American cinema.

Nick playing Mouth’s dad in The Goonies

These events will have special meaning for Byrne, as he will get to celebrate the films that he grew up on.

I have been a big fan of Short Circuit, City Heat, Stick, Cobra, all these films Nick shot, since I was a kid. I rented these movies in the video shops of Naas back in the late-80s/early 90s. They are part of the reason that I love cinema. And of course I remember Nick from playing Mouth’s father in The Goonies. But more importantly, Nick has become a very dear friend of mine. We send each other movies and I always look forward to our discussions.

The first event to be announced is “An Evening with Nick McLean” which will take place in Naas Community Library in Naas, County Kildare on Friday March 15th at 7pm. McLean is particularly excited about his opportunity to visit Ireland.

I was fortunate to work with people like Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, John Schlesinger, Richard Donner, Paul Newman, Brian De Palma, Mel Brooks, Hal Ashby, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone…many amazing artists. So it will be exciting for me to screen and discuss scenes from these films with Wayne for the movie lovers of Ireland. I can’t wait to see Dublin and Kildare and many other places I’m hoping to visit while I’m there, I have wanted to come to Ireland for a long time.

The Naas event is free of charge though booking is essential. To reserve a seat, call Naas Library on 045 879111 or email them at naaslib@kildarecoco.ie  

For more information and updates on further Nick McLean events in March, check in with Wayne on Twitter @DiCilloBook

 

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Burt Reynolds

 

Irish writer and journalist Wayne Byrne pays tribute to the late and truly great Burt Reynolds.

There will be many clip reels being put together this week to honour the passing of Burt Reynolds. He was a genuine icon of the American Cinema, with over a hundred films to his name, not to mention the number one box-office star in the world from 1977 to 1981. He produced, directed and starred in several major TV shows such as B.L. Stryker and the award-winning Evening Shade. But in those clip reels you will mostly see Reynolds appearing in three films: Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit, and Boogie Nights. Respectively, that’s one great film; one mammoth box-office behemoth; and one good-though-overrated picture that the actor himself didn’t even like. In these tributes nothing will be mentioned of the myriad films and television shows that made his a truly substantial career; it is unfortunate because there is so much more to the actor than those three films can summarise. Forget the articles what will ruminate on him not taking roles in Star Wars, Dr. No and Terms of Endearment, for Reynolds was a truly accomplished and prolific actor who made more than his fair share of memorable work since landing his first major gig as the co-star of NBC’s Riverboat in 1959. After quitting that show amidst acrimony with co-star Darren McGavin, further TV appearances followed in the likes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Johnny Ringo, and The Blue Angels before he landed roles in feature films.

Angel Baby

Reynolds’ film debut appeared in 1961 when he was cast playing an aggressive juvenile delinquent lusting after Salome Jens in the steamy Southern melodrama, Angel Baby. It was an inauspicious appearance in an intriguing film, which had the unfortunate timing of being released just after as the similarly themed Elmer Gantry. There followed a series of enjoyable, if routine, wartime pictures, Armoured Command and Operation C.I.A., before Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis cast him as the eponymous lead in Sergio Corbucci’s brilliant spaghetti western, Navajo Joe, in 1967. Shooting had to be prematurely wrapped on Corbucci’s film, as Reynolds was summoned to New York to begin filming the gritty cop show, Hawk. This series gave Reynolds his first major lead role on television, and while the show didn’t last long (despite petitions to keep it alive) it did bring Reynolds to the attention of notable producers and studio heads as a dashing, athletic, and potentially romantic leading man. As such, he was duly cast in Hollywood genre films such as the Westerns 100 Rifles and Sam Whiskey, as well as the strange science fiction adventure, Skullduggery. Exotic low-budget productions such as Sam Fuller’s Shark and the heist picture Impasse came and went. Two of his best pictures of this era are also two of his least well-known. The 1968 romantic drama Fade In was dumped by Paramount Pictures after disastrous test screenings, but the film interestingly pairs tough, blue-collar country-boy Burt with sophisticated bourgeois city-girl Barbara Loden in a romance doomed to fail amidst the inherent culture clash and small-town jealousy. Fade In is a boldly intertextual film which pre-dates more notable self-reflexive cinematic exercises such as Dennis Hopper’s two New Hollywood masterpieces, Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971), but audiences of the time didn’t take to the film’s obfuscating aesthetic. Not long after that Reynolds portrayed another local boy who has fallen for someone from the higher rungs of the social ladder, in Run Simon Run. Here, Reynolds plays an ostracised ex-con Native American who falls in love with a rich, charitable social worker played by Inger Stevens. It was another culture clash romance; a good film with important themes at its heart, but one which failed to ignite much interest from audiences and critics.

With his film career trajectory in stasis, another foray into television police procedurals would follow in the form of Dan August, which wasn’t dissimilar to the previous Hawk, and also like that show Dan August didn’t make it past season one. Success wouldn’t elude the actor for much longer however, as Reynolds would find some formula for success when he parlayed his likeable rogue cop demeanour to the big screen into the very enjoyable Fuzz. It was in this film in which Reynolds would begin to hone the persona that many would come to associate as being definitive of the actor’s style, a considerable mixture of irreverent rapscallion charisma, everyman humility, and athletic tough guy resolve. Not to mention brooding good looks and romantic charm to beat the band. It would be Reynolds’ next film which would prove a crucial turning point in his career, John Boorman’s chilling Deliverance. Playing tough survivalist Lewis Medlock, Reynolds cemented his status as the ultimate rugged, handsome action man for the 1970s. Immense Hollywood success followed, which each film increasing the star’s media omnipresence while increasing his credibility as one of American Cinema’s most profitable and popular leading men. Amidst the haze of celebrity anointment, with his brilliant recurring appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as the infamous Cosmopolitan spread, and even a very decent major label country/easy listening album called Ask Me What I Am, Burt Reynolds was making damn fine films.

At Long Last Love

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was a raw, violent feminist western and one of the most underrated of its era. White Lightning is a classic Southern crime thriller that spawned an equally thrilling sequel, Gator. Around this time Reynolds began working with lauded auteurs of Hollywood Old and New, such as Robert Aldrich on two occasions with the massively successful prison football picture The Longest Yard and the fantastic neo-noir Hustle. The former has become one of the definitive pictures of Reynolds’ career, with him even starring in its 2005 remake, while the latter is simply one of the best pictures of both Reynolds’ and Aldrich’s illustrious careers, a dark, chilling noir that rivals Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye as one of the great film noir revivals of the 1970s. Two interesting collaborations with director Peter Bogdanovich ensued and allowed Reynolds to indulge his comedic side in the director’s tribute to D.W. Griffith and early silent cinema, Nickelodeon, and the director’s tribute to Ernst Lubitch and early sound cinema, At Long Last Love. Both films were, however, compromised by studio interference and were critically disdained. Reynolds had the misfortune of working with the brilliant Bogdanovich just as the critics turned against him for the cinematic sins of ego, excess, and Daisy Miller. Not that any of this would matter to Reynolds, as he was about to unleash one of the biggest films of the decade, and one with which he will be associated as long as he is remembered, Smokey and the Bandit. A colossal success with a $300 million return on a $4 million budget, the film would make Reynolds one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood.

It was inevitable that a star with as much financial clout as Reynolds would turn to directing. His first effort behind the camera was the aforementioned Gator, and with it he displayed a sharp command of kinetic action, amplifying the smaller-scaled elements of White Lighting to almost Bondian proportions with the stunt-heavy anarchy of the second picture. But the film Reynolds was itching to make was The End, a pitch black comedy about a terminally ill man’s absurdist attempts to commit suicide. It had been written by Jerry Belson as a Woody Allen picture, and one could certainly imagine it as prime comically neurotic material for Allen, but for Reynolds? With a plot like that and a star of his magnitude with the populist personality that he had, it shouldn’t work, but it does, exquisitely. Pairing with Dom Deluise, Reynolds clearly has a blast with the daring material and the film manages to be both funny and thematically significant. Turning The End in under-budget and under-schedule, and then seeing it make good box-office returns, only made Reynolds an even more cherished asset to the Hollywood studios.

Sharky’s Machine

Now at the height of his box office reign, Reynolds had his pick of material. Fine films such as Hooper and Starting Over were further indication of the actor’s dramatic abilities, while at the same time returning to the kind of cartoon-like stunt-and-gag farces that made the studios a mint, with Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run, and The Cannonball Run II brought out to great success over the first half of the 1980s. In-between those pictures are some of Reynolds’ best work of the era. Sharky’s Machine is a terrific neo-noir, which re-imagines the 1940 film noir Laura and Hitchcock’s Rear Window in a contemporary crime thriller milieu, featuring stunning camerawork, a densely-layered plot of political intrigue and civil corruption, and a career-making turn from Rachel Ward. Sharky’s Machine was for Reynolds what McQ was for John Wayne, a chance at an urban western in the manner of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

City Heat

Of course Reynolds would then get to share the screen with Eastwood in a moment of dream casting – two of Hollywood’s pre-eminent tough guys and most popular stars finally together. The film was City Heat, and while it is a wonderfully shot (by the brilliant cinematographer Nick McLean) and thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the Warner Bros gangster pictures of the 1940s, the production set off an unfortunate chain of events in Reynolds’ personal life from which he perhaps never truly recovered. A devastating accident took place on the set of the film in which the actor was felled by a real steel chair to the face, where a breakaway stunt chair was supposed to be used. Much medication and treatment was required, during which time his changing physical appearance was noted. In the films following City Heat, Reynolds looked notably thinner; perhaps due to his inability to eat solid food for a time following the on-set accident. But amidst the gossip and hearsay regarding the actor’s health, Reynolds was as prolific as ever, embracing the action hero image that he had been crafting throughout the 1970s. The result was the brilliant Elmore Leonard adaptation, Stick, a southern noir tale that mixes Miami high society with murky underworld figures, the kind Leonard was so great at writing. Reynolds also directed Stick with distinctive style, and subsequently went on to star in further hard-edged pictures such as the excellent unofficial Shane remake, Malone, and the interesting Las Vegas-set crime thriller, Heat.

At the turn of the 1990s, Reynolds found a home in smaller independent pictures which afforded the actor to display the depth of his scope and range. Bill Forsyth’s excellent dramatic comedy, Breaking In, contains a stunning performance from its star, one of nuance and quiet melancholy. Further into the decade Reynolds appeared in a series of striking films: Danny Huston’s macabre horror The Maddening, Alexander Payne’s topical political comedy Citizen Ruth, Ash Baron-Cohen’s stunning media satire Pups, Richard Weinman’s terrific backwoods thriller The Hunter’s Moon, Mike Figgis’ daring and unorthodox Hotel, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, for which he would be rightly acclaimed.

The Last Movie Star

Reynolds would give one last truly great performance in what may be a most fitting swansong to the cinema and a sincere acknowledgment to his adoring audience, in Adam Rifkin’s loving tribute, The Last Movie Star. Even though Reynolds plays the fictional character of Vic Edwards, the parallels to the real life star are obvious and intentional. In the film, Edwards revisits his past by recalling memories of his old movies, in which scenes from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance are used. The final shot of The Last Movie Star will now prove especially poignant, as Edwards/Reynolds breaks the fourth wall and with subtlety and grace, smiles sincerely to the audience. It is a moment in acknowledgment of the praise, the adoration, the loyalty and the commitment of a fanbase that has supported this incredible man who broke out of small-town Florida to become the world’s biggest movie star. And he was indeed the biggest movie star, but also perhaps the last movie star, and most certainly my favourite movie star.

Burt Reynolds died in his hometown of Jupiter, Florida on September 6th, 2018. His death was deeply upsetting, which is a strange thing to say about someone I’ve never met, but I idolised the man. Having been working on a book on his career and spending a lot of time with those he was friends with and those he worked with, one has been able to get a sense of the real man, and that is by all accounts the same man we watched and loved on the big and small screens: that warm personality, sensitive, inclusive, funny, and tough, but mostly sincere and honest… real. Knowing we won’t see that again is what inspires such a sense of loss with the man’s passing. A world without Burt Reynolds just feels a little less wonderful. But, he has left a staggering body of work in which we can revisit that laugh, that smile, those eyes, where we can share that undiluted sense of joy in filmmaking that Reynolds displayed every second he is on the screen. There was a magic in Burt Reynolds, a rare transcendent quality that was never seen before and will never be seen again.

Everyone loves me… I’m good lookin’!” says Burt’s eponymous character in the film Stroker Ace. But even though it was Stroker who spoke those words, one suspects Burt was playfully referring to himself with his tongue characteristically in cheek.

Well, we sure did, and you sure were, Burt.

 

Wayne Byrne is a film historian, librarian and journalist. He writes for Hot Press magazine and is the author of  The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out (Wallflower Press, 2017). Wayne has written two books due for release next year, one a comprehensive critical retrospective of the films of Burt Reynolds, the other he co-authored with legendary cinematographer Nick McLean Sr. and which is a study of McLean’s life and career as an acclaimed Hollywood cameraman. Both books will be released by McFarland & Company in 2019.

 

 

Read Wayne Byrne’s interview with Tom DiCillo, the American film director, screenwriter and cinematographer

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‘The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out’

Wayne Byrne’s book The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out is published on Tuesday, September 5th, by Columbia University Press and Wallflower Press.  The volume considers for the first time in a single collection the acclaimed, award-winning director’s entire oeuvre, addressing and analysing themes such as identity, family, and masculinity, supported by in-depth coverage of the generic and aesthetic aspects of DiCillo’s distinctive and influential film style.

Tom DiCillo & Brad Pitt

Tom DiCillo recalls when Wayne Byrne first approached him about writing the book in 2012: “I was immediately struck by his intuitive knowledge of film and more, his deep passion for it. We sat together for the next 5 years and talked, in person and over the phone. The conversations were more intimate, honest and revealing than any I’d had with a film writer. What he has accomplished with his book is remarkable; he has captured my soul.”

Peter Dinklage & Steve Buscemi in Living in Oblivion
Wayne Byrne says, “This book is the result of my passion for DiCillo’s work and because I felt he deserved greater critical recognition than that which has been afforded to him. He is fiercely underrated. DiCillo’s films introduced me to all the possibilities of cinema, and with this book I hoped to capture on paper what captivated me about his work. I also feel the story of his career holds valuable lessons for any aspiring filmmakers. The book is a serious study and analysis of his work, in terms of the craft and aesthetics of the films, but it’s also an entertaining peek inside the film industry.” 
 
The book contains exclusive interviews with DiCillo and many of his collaborators, including Sam Rockwell, John Turturro, Peter Dinklage, Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Chris Noth, Gina Gershon, Maxwell Caulfield, Matthew Modine, as well as Robby Krieger and John Densmore of The Doors, and many others.
Steve Buscemi provides the book’s foreword.
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Profile: Tom DiCillo

Tom image 3

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.’”

Tom DiCillo image 2

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 image 3

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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Thirty Years of Paradise: Eszter Balint in Conversation

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Jim Jarmusch’s second feature film, Stranger Than Paradise, is 30 years old this year. Wayne Byrne meets Eszter Balint, one of the film’s stars, ahead of its screening this Friday in Naas as part of Culture Night in celebration of its 30th anniversary.

1984 is often considered to be one of the greatest years of modern American cinema. In terms of quality commercial and mainstream-oriented product, there is some truth to that. But such reverence is often due to the staggering financial figures accrued by such behemoth blockbusters as Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, Romancing the Stone, The NeverEnding Story, and Footloose. There were also a number of significant crossovers, from humble independent origins they came, bursting out of the gate to become financial and/or cultural touchstones of the decade, their effect still felt today with sequels and remakes. Think A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Terminator, respectively low-budget genre films with a built-in B-movie audience ready for their midnight movie fix. But both ended up giving birth to two of the most successful franchises in film history while simultaneously offering two of the most iconic figures of contemporary American cinema: Freddy Krueger and the eponymous Terminator. The financial success of Wes Craven’s horror film built a major studio, New Line, while James Cameron’s tech noir would harvest a veritable one-man industry in itself. Behind the biceps and finger-blades, there was another important independent film released which, while nowhere near as commercially viable nor as visible on the marketplace as the above mentioned works, nonetheless paved the way for an aesthetic revolution in American cinema.

Stranger Than Paradise is Jim Jarmusch’s second feature film, following his inspired debut, Permanent Vacation (1980). Since its release Stranger Than Paradise has become a touchstone of hip, beatnik indie cool; a minimalist, idiosyncratic exercise in formal precision, a film school graduate’s ode to Yasujiro Ozu and the French New Wave, yet born to the avant-garde styling of the downtown New York City art scene of the late-’70s and early-’80s. In the year of the Gremlin and the Marshmallow Man, Stranger Than Paradise is a very unconventional American movie. It adheres to an influence of alternative European film rather than classical narrative cinema of the US. The static cinematography and tranquillity of the film’s mise-en-scene nods to the quiet serenity of the cinema of Ozu, the Japanese director whose masterly late works must surely have inspired Jarmusch’s theme of familial discontent and emotional distance, as well as providing such notable aesthetic influence.

The film stars John Lurie and Richard Edson respectively as Willie and Eddie, a duo of idle misfits whose myopic world of TV dinners and small-time gambling is invaded by the arrival of Willie’s Hungarian teenage cousin, Eva, played by Eszter Balint. Willie’s insular hipster sphere is disrupted further when Eva informs him that she needs to stay with him in the interim ten days en route to her final destination of Cleveland, Ohio, where she will ultimately live with her Aunt Lottie. When Willie and Eddie win a poker game by deceit, they use their illicit fortune to travel cross-country, first to frost-bitten Cleveland to see Eva, and then to sun-kissed Miami for a day at the races. While visiting the torpid house of Aunt Lottie, the eternally nonchalant duo decides to rescue Eva from such cultural quiescence and bring her along their journey south, where fortunes are lost and found, in this case, literally.

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I spoke to Stranger Than Paradise star Eszter Balint, looking back on thirty years of the film and its profound legacy, her career and her concurrent musical path. I wanted to know how being a vital part of one of the most influential and important films of modern American cinema may have impacted upon her life.

“Well, I’m still figuring out how it has affected my life. It comes and goes, it disappears and then it comes back again…it has different meanings to me in different ways. I would say that it has been something of a help and a hindrance throughout my career.”

How so?

“It was a help in that I had an instantly recognisable back story to other things that I wanted to do with my life. On the other hand, it really identified me for a long time as being the only thing that I did and I felt that was such a weight on me because I did many other things in my life before and after it, so it feels weird when you do this one thing that more people see than anything else; you start imagining that they think you haven’t done anything else and that everything else you’re doing is in relation to that one thing.

I was really young when we did the first part of the film, I was sixteen when we started and I was seventeen when I finished it. I thought acting was going to be a way for me to make a living, which was absolutely not the case. It brought me a lot of attention, which in a way was not all that good, because I was really young and inexperienced in life; I mean I was very experienced for my age, but when you’re seventeen you’re only seventeen, you only have so much life experience. So it was a little bit of an adjustment to understand that there are highs and lows and that the highs don’t always pan out every day. That taught me a lot.

I’ve become aware that there are renewed interests in the film periodically. It seems to get forgotten and then there’ll be a twentieth anniversary, then a twenty-fifth anniversary, or if people start talking about indie films again…I’ve made a lot more peace with it these days, I feel that now I’ve found my footing having done enough other things since then and I can look back and really appreciate the film and the work we put into it.”

Balint informs the role of Eva with an endearing, understated quality; blunt and uninhibited, she is a sharp riposte to Willie’s disingenuous chancer, while a cleverer, world-wearier contrast to Eddie’s guileless nimrod. The actress brings a raw natural presence to the screen which works in tandem with the studied eccentricity of her two fellow performers. Perhaps Balint’s ease in front of the camera has something to do with a bohemian upbringing in an arts culture that served the actress well in the realm of performance, whether in a theatrical, musical, or cinematic milieu. Balint was practically born into the world of performing arts; her father, Stephan Balint, was one of the founders of the experimental Hungarian theatre troupe, Squat Theatre. Formed in Budapest in the late 1960s but having fled under political pressure in the mid-1970s, the group travelled around Europe before settling in the Chelsea district of Manhattan’s 23rd Street. The group’s performances became a fixture of the alternative NYC art scene, cultivating a nucleus of likeminded artists, musicians, and filmmakers. This vital New York sub-cultural art scene was the influence behind Edo Bertoglio’s 1981 film, Downtown 81, wherein the director attempted to capture the vibrancy and spirit of the movement. Balint had a small part in the film, which starred art world luminary, Jean Michele Basquiat.

Downtown 81 was one of the many things that came out of that time, that place, and those people. I was too deep into that whole world to judge whether Downtown 81 really captured something authentic, I mean it’s sort of a silly fairytale, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way, it just has this tacked-on fairytale quality that wasn’t really how our lives were, but it does have a lot of the soul of that era. While it is a more romanticised version of that life, it definitely has some of the people, and the faces, and the music that were important to me growing up.

That whole No Wave scene was a very close-knit community of friends and acquaintances, of artists and like-minded people. That was probably how I first met Jim Jarmusch. He came to the theatre where I performed, which was a very central location where a lot of the creative people of that era came and went and I’m sure that it was because of this connection that Jim hired me for “Stranger Than Paradise””.

For Balint, a career in film acting was not a conscious endeavour, rather, an alternative artistic outlet and form of expression to revel in and satisfy her creative needs, those which were cultivated and honed through a childhood and subsequent adolescence very much on the stage.

“I think it had a lot to do with it being another form of artistic expression for me,” the actress admits. “I was exposed from an early age to a life in the arts. Film and the cinematic influence played a major role in the aesthetics of the theatre group and they utilised film a lot. I think being that I wasn’t completely new to performance, my acting style in Stranger Than Paradise didn’t really come from any specific direction; it was more that I had developed a particular aesthetic over the years and I brought that to it. The theatre company really had an approach to acting that was all about bringing some strong personal presence in to the performance. Some people were more natural at it than others, and I’m not trying to say that I was, but even in my music I feel that kind of stage presence is just a strong part of my aesthetic, I can’t really explain it or how I “do” it. It does kind of come natural but that isn’t to say that I don’t struggle with it a lot, believe me. I struggle in the moment but I always think there is something there deep within me. I do feel that whether it’s in front of the camera, or on stage, or singing, or performing, I’m searching for that moment of being real and being present. So, Stranger Than Paradise wasn’t a completely new thing for me but I would say that the idea of acting in a film was an extension of being an artistic creative person. But, then I learned, after living in Hollywood, that it isn’t always the case and that maybe acting wasn’t for me.”

While looking back on Stranger Than Paradise one is witness to the beginning of the careers of several people who are now distinguished artists in the worlds of film and music. Director Jim Jarmusch and then-cinematographer Tom DiCillo have both become lauded auteur filmmakers in their own right, with Jarmusch taking the reins from the likes of John Cassavetes and John Sayles as an influential and recognisable figurehead of Amercian independent cinema, cementing his distinctive authority with appreciable works such as the offbeat Down By Law (1986) and the wonderful Mystery Train (1989). DiCillo established himself as a formidable directorial force in the early nineties with his own distinctive and stylish aesthetic in his debut, Johnny Suede (1991), then following it up with one of the defining films of the mid-nineties independent boom, the dynamic Living in Oblivion (1995). Actor John Lurie was already a cause celebre on the downtown scene thanks to his post-punk jazz combo, The Lounge Lizards, while over the ensuing decade he would appear in films as varied as Susan Siedelman’s downtown love letter, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Martin Scorsese’s inflammatory The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and David Lynch’s subversive ode to Oz, Wild at Heart (1990). Lurie’s co-star Richard Edson carved out a career as a consummate and indelible character actor, supporting big names in commercial and critical hits like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Platoon (1986), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Do the Right Thing (1989).

For Balint, the transition to Hollywood success wasn’t so easy, nor that desirable. In the succeeding years following on from her memorable turn as Eva, the actress appeared in few big screen roles, and less television ones. Despite the scarcity of her on-screen presence, Balint chose wisely, the few roles she did undertake each showcased her unique talent, working as she was for the likes of Woody Allen, Richard Shepard, and Steve Buscemi. Allen cast her in his luscious tribute to German Expressionism, Shadows and Fog (1991); for Shepard, she co-starred with Rosanna Arquette and David Bowie in the flawed but visually arresting and eccentric delight, The Linguini Incident (1991), and perhaps most notable, Balint gave a striking performance in Buscemi’s wonderfully empathetic depiction of alcoholism and the denizens of a working class neighbourhood bar, Trees Lounge (1996), playing Mark Boone Jr.’s emotionally bereft housewife. Marked roles with significant directors, yet Hollywood has eluded her. Why?

“I spent about seven years living in Los Angeles, hoping to do more acting while I was there. I did do a little bit of acting but I absolutely did not fit into what the acting world out there meant. I do, however, feel I was able to find my true self. So much of this acting stuff came about early on because I was in the right place at the right time. Perhaps I possessed a certain quality that worked for certain things, but it wasn’t like I set out to be an actor, I mean I was cast in some plays when I was younger and it turned out that I had a bit of a stage presence and that led on to other things. A lot of it I sort happened into, and I had to kind of reinvent myself when I realised that whole lifestyle wasn’t my lifestyle.”

Balint has only recently returned to the screen, the small screen that is, but in a show that perhaps owes more to independent cinema than what is actually classed as independent cinema in today’s film culture, Louis CK’s Emmy Award-winning Louie. In the fourth season of the acclaimed show Balint plays a Hungarian love interest for the eponymous protagonist.

“I never discussed this with Louis but I think part of his inspiration in hiring me, and part of his aesthetic of some of that show, is that there’s conscious or unconscious hints or homage to Stranger Than Paradise. I do feel certain TV is venturing into what independent film used to be about more so than cinema currently is and I would put that show Louie up there for sure. I think the influence of Stranger Than Paradis has its tentacles in certain elements of independent film of today, but certainly in the more adventurous side of television.”

Has this recent return to acting intrigued Balint enough to return to the profession?

“It would, and I hadn’t acted in a long time and it was really scary for me to do it, but I feel like I rose to the occasion and with it I found a connection to my life experience and to my performing; even though I haven’t been acting I have been active as a musician consistently through the years so it didn’t feel like that giant of a leap. I’m inspired because there’s a lot of great acting out there, especially in television and in shows like Louie and some of the cable shows, the calibre of acting has gone up. In a weird way, for the first time in a long time I am inspired to act again based on this experience with Louie, but he is special and very creative and I may not encounter that again so easily.

One of the problems out there is that the whole financial system for an independent film like Stranger Than Paradise has collapsed. I know people who work in the independent film world and they say there is just no money anymore for films like that. There are very weird rules about how to get independent films made, like you have to have some millionaire film buff who is willing to finance your project but as long you cast someone on his wish list of actors, or cast someone who will inevitably meet video sales targets and such and such. Obviously if we had those rules at the time of Stranger Than Paradise then the film would never have happened.”

While acting has only been a sporadic pursuit, for Balint music has been a constant in her life. Her debut album, Flicker, was released in 1999, followed by the sophomore release, Mud, in 2004. Both albums were produced by alternative country stalwart, J.D. Foster. Balint’s primary instrument is violin, her performance style utilises the instrument as it is rarely heard; her playing is at once passionate and violent, melodic and discordant. There seems to be an avant-garde and punk influence in her approach to a traditionally classical form of music, evident in her live performance as much as on record. Both Flicker and Mud feature a variety of soulful and often rustic tones, while conversely performed and produced with a decidedly alternative aesthetic.

“I know this may sound funny but I sometimes worry my songs are too ‘normal’ or ‘pretty’. So in part out of insecurity, in part because I truly do love contrast, I need to throw in some dissonance, and some punk rock spirit. I was lucky in that I was exposed to a variety of musical styles growing up and I have always sought contrast in my own work. The violin in particular can have an almost nostalgically pretty sound; it is good to rough it up a bit now and then, lest it become too sugary.”

 

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Now set to release her third solo album, Balint is experiencing the music industry’s own challenges for an independent artist. Like many acts, new and established, Balint has sought the assistance of a crowdfunding platform via Pledgemusic. Crowdfunding is an interesting model of business that has seen concerts, albums, and films being funded by their own fanbase, a direct connection between artist and audience. Balint offers a variety of incentives for fans looking to connect directly and to participate in the recording of her new album. Ranging from original lyric sheets, to signed artwork, to production credits, to private concerts, depending on the package one wishes to pledge support by. This method of purchasing music is enabling more and more independent artists the freedom from label and industry bureaucracy. But how willing are people to engage with and participate in the actual creation of art by the artists they adore in this age of downloading and seemingly “disposable” music, a culture of streaming and shuffling single tracks versus the album as a piece of art. Does this modern cultural-industrial milieu affect an artist like Balint, whose goal is to produce a unified piece of work and not to deal in the format of one-off commercial singles?

“I’m still in the midst of my campaign so I’m not ready to summarize the experience yet, and I shouldn’t. But I can say that on one hand, I’ve been very moved by the support, and on the other, I have a very uneasy relationship with anything requiring public relations, so this process is tricky for me to navigate for sure. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

I can only imagine and hope that there are still a few others like me out there, who relate to the idea of a cohesive album. At the same time I have no problem with people who appreciate the individual songs too; after all we used to get a big kick out of mix tapes back in the day. (I know: I’m dating myself). But for me to make an album, I have to believe that these individual “stories” will somehow make sense as some whole, even if it’s not entirely obvious how, it’s a bit of a mystery. But I don’t worry too much about that right now, I’m just thinking in terms of the album as a whole. I’ve written all the lyrics and am tinkering with the music on a small handful, while the others are finished. I’ve performed more than half the material in a live duo setting, with my long-time guitarist Chris Cochrane, and have done home demos of much of the new stuff. It’s taken me an immense amount of time to get to this point. For many, many reasons which I won’t get into here; it’s too boring and long. But I’ve been raising a boy, so there’s that. I’m definitely not prolific, which I’m working on, so there’s that. And the music industry has completely shifted to where making an album is ever more difficult and pointless, so there’s definitely that. But in the end I decided to hell with it, I have these songs, I’m getting older, time is passing, I want to do at least one more. As I’m putting my toes in that water, I’m definitely getting giddy.”

Between albums Balint has found time to tour and record with Tom Waits’ guitarist Marc Ribot and his band Ceramic Dog, an improvisatory fusion of the kind of experimental tones and sounds not out of context with the avant-garde world from which Balint blossomed.

“My year with Ceramic Dog was an immensely valuable education. Not just in teaching me new things but also and perhaps most significantly it taught me about essential things I didn’t cultivate and appreciate sufficiently before, things which were already right there to be had. Ribot takes huge risks with each performance, certainly with Ceramic Dog shows. That is to say, he almost deliberately seeks out a situation where it is utterly impossible to settle into any kind of comfort zone for the musicians. And he doesn’t spare himself either, even though obviously he’s at the helm. This makes for the kind of live experience where there is something truly at stake. The Ceramic Dog musicians have some immense chops, so I felt out of my league at times.  I think I have good ears, I am musical, but I’m not a virtuoso.  But I was forced into a situation of letting all that kind of thinking go, and just seek that deep connection with the music, to fully invest myself the way the Dogs did, and this makes for better musicianship too. I’ve been able to generate more of this in my own live shows since my time with Ceramic Dog, so I’m very grateful for the experience.”

And so as Stranger Than Paradise celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, it is as good a time as ever to revisit the film that initiated the cult and celebrity of Jim Jarmusch, that paved the way for several generations of young filmmakers looking to eschew the traditional forms of cinema, and which has given birth to the modern indie film. The wider cultural impact of Stranger Than Paradise is not insignificant, with its influence creating a ripple effect that has been prominently felt since American independent cinema truly came to the fore in 1989 with Steven Soderbergh’s hugely successful Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and its impact and aesthetic ubiquitous throughout the commercial zenith of indie film in the 1990s. Stranger Than Paradise is a snapshot of a period of cinema wherein it seemed possible that a new breed of young auteur could pick up where the old auteur of the recently-felled New Hollywood movement left off after Heaven’s Gate dragged Hollywood to Hell, but it would take the colossal impact of the aforementioned Soderbergh film to truly lift the lid off the indie urn and instigate a crossover movement where alternative aesthetics and mainstream economics met briefly and instigated an industrial milieu that afforded left-field filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Tom DiCillo, and Hal Hartley a moment to reign as the immediate visionaries of American cinema. The legacy propagated by Stranger Than Paradise in the 1980s and which prospered in the 1990s can be looked back upon as perhaps the most creatively fertile period of American cinema since Penn, Peckinpah, and Nichols changed the game in the late ‘60s.

So while Stranger Than Paradise is continually lauded as an important and seminal piece of 1980s American cinema, with ceaseless support from the critical establishment, and having won coveted awards upon its release at the Cannes, Locarno, and Sundance film festivals, its legend is no more surprising than to Balint, who looks back with astonishment as to how the modest black-and-white film made with her intimate group of friends and acquaintances could become something so influential and important in film and pop culture.

“I was genuinely surprised afterwards,” Balint recalls. “I thought we were just making another little film, as I say it was a creatively vital time in New York and especially so in that scene that I was a part of, everybody was making films or performing music, writing and producing art. This was during my teenage years so I thought this is how life is and that this is normal, and I’m still adjusting to the unfortunate fact that it’s not. I don’t think any of us saw Stranger Than Paradise as any different to anything around us. I think for us who were a part of that movement, everything was unconventional. The life we were living was unconventional, and by us I mean everybody who was a part of that whole downtown New York scene, the era of my theatre group. So for us, this film was just another thing that we created from this aesthetic that was natural to us; it may have been unconventional to others outside of that scene, but not to us. When it first popped out and reached a higher level of attention we were all like ‘wow!’ Maybe Jim wasn’t surprised, maybe he had a design to reach more people, but I know the level of attention it got was a genuine shock to me.

“It’s funny looking back on it historically because I didn’t really experience it the way its influence is felt today, that it paved the way for all this art – which it did, it absolutely did. When I think about it, thinking back over my career with you, I realise that I got to work with some really cool people, I made some films that I’m really proud of, and who knows, maybe none of that would have happened had I not done Stranger Than Paradise.”

Stranger Than Paradise will be screened in celebration of its 30th anniversary as part of Culture Night 2014 in The Gallery in Naas Community Library on Friday September 19th at 7pm. For more information visit http://www.culturenight.ie/regional_event/naas-community-library/

You can participate in the making of Eszter Balint’s latest album via her page at http://www.pledgemusic.com/artists/eszterbalint

For further information visit http://www.eszterbalint.com/

Wayne Byrne is a film lecturer and writer from Co. Kildare. He was resident film critic and film columnist for the Leinster Leader newspaper for a number of years, as well as contributing reviews, interviews and articles to the likes of Click magazine and other media outlets. Wayne teaches Film Studies in various secondary schools throughout Ireland as well as facilitating Film workshops in many libraries across Leinster. He is currently writing his first book of film criticism.

 

 

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The Black and Blue Orkestre – Hurt Me Tender: A Profile

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(Tom DiCillo)

Wayne Byrne explores Hurt Me Tender, the debut album from the American filmmaker Tom DiCillo’s band, The Black and Blue Orkestre.

“Music and film are like incestuous cousins”, says Tom DiCillo (above), lead vocalist of The Black and Blue Orkestre, “They share so many deeply rooted elements that something intense happens when they get together. Both are completely dependent on time, flow and rhythm. I love the way a certain note or chord can evoke a whole world of images and feelings.”

The band’s newly released debut album, Hurt Me Tender, is not a soundtrack to a movie, but this opening statement from DiCillo has particular resonance because of the singer-songwriter’s parallel career as a maverick auteur filmmaker whose work has helped define the aesthetic of an entire movement of American cinema. DiCillo’s 1991 directorial debut Johnny Suede introduced the world to Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener, the former starring in the title role as the eponymous bequiffed teen-idol wannabe, while over the ensuing three decades the filmmaker has crafted an authoritative career directing stylishly inventive dramatic comedies shot through with a stinging satirical edge and a caustic social commentary, with several of those among the highlights of the American independent boom of the early-mid nineties and beyond. Notable among his catalogue of work is the iconic and definitive film-about-filmmaking, 1995’s Living in Oblivion; the critically lauded and award-winning 2006 film Delirious starring Steve Buscemi; and most recently, 2010’s When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, a documentary narrated by Johnny Depp charting the rise and fall of the influential 1960s rock group.

The Black and Blue Orkestre is a three-piece band that has just released their twelve-track debut album Hurt Me Tender. The record is infused with a cinematic soundscape drenched in a sweltering South-Western grit, an often darkly humorous gothic tour de force informed with the great many textures of the musical heritage of American rock n’ roll. Taking in everything from surf, rockabilly, glam, garage and country, lathered with occasional electronic flourishes and contemporary beats that give the production a modern veneer on top of the retro styling, Hurt Me Tender is a most assured debut.

It’s perhaps no accident that the album is such a confidently performed and engineered piece, aiding DiCillo is a duo of outstanding musicians with an eclectic array of experience to their names: Will Crewdson on guitar and Grog Rox on bass. Crewdson was part of the acclaimed ’90s London rock outfit Rachel Stamp before carving a career as a consummate sideman to the likes of Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, Adam Ant, and Bow Wow Wow, while serving session work for artists as diverse as Celine Dion, Bryan Ferry, Tom Jones, and Billy Bragg. Providing backing vocals as well as the rumbling, melodic low-end foundation, Rox too brings a history of touring in the trenches of the alternative music scene with her bands Flinch, Feline, and currently, Die So Fluid. On occasion, her skills as a bassist have led to session work for the likes of Mel C and Kelly Osbourne. As a collective, DiCillo, Crewdson, and Rox have delivered a soulful, sonically textured statement of intent with their thrillingly eclectic debut.

“Every person I play or collaborate with brings new learning curves and experiences,” Crewdson says. “Some artists give freer rein than others and most of the time it’s all about adapting to their needs. I feel, with Tom’s direction I’ve pushed my guitar playing forward a great deal and hopefully that comes across when you listen to the album.”

For Rox, the experience was an artistically nourishing one, having DiCillo spearheading the project meant the opportunity to work in benefit of his characteristic visionary drive and initiative,“Tom put a great deal of time and passion into writing these songs” the bassist recalls, “and I’m honoured to have been a part of it. He pretty much started with no previous experience and that made it interesting and exciting. Tom is very gracious in his approach to the way we work and communicate; he brings a strong element of his experience in filmmaking to the band. He’s certainly a perfectionist and I realised early on that he usually has a vision even when he doesn’t pin point or verbalise it at the start. The thing is, he’s a great director and artist. His passion and intensity makes you want to rise to the occasion every time he presents you with an idea.”

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(Grog Rox)

The genesis and development of The Black and Blue Orkestre hasn’t played out in the traditional narrative trajectory of most band back-stories. A cross-continental outfit, DiCillo is based in New York City, while Crewdson lives in London, and Rox is an English expat currently residing in Los Angeles. It was a chance communiqué between DiCillo and Crewdson eight years ago that has now resulted in the release of Hurt Me Tender, an album brimming with passion, pathos, and DiCillo’s distinct and darkly humorous take on life. I spoke to all three musicians on the eve of the release of their first single and video, ‘Ball & Chain’, and got an insight into what brought such a diverse collection of musicians together, as well as to discuss the making of their astounding debut album.

“I’d met Will online during the UK release of my film Delirious, which was released in 2006”, DiCillo informs me. “He first wrote to me telling me how much he liked the film. He also happened to mention that he liked surf music, Ennio Morricone and guitarists like Link Wray, whose music I used in Johnny Suede. Well, that got me immediately. I’ve always felt something deep about surf music; not the corny shit that gets played all the time but guys like Dick Dale, The Trashmen or The Fireballs. I think that the surf sound was a distinctly American discovery. I felt that it would be cool to kind of modernise it, to bring that spooky, reverb twang into a contemporary musical blend. And Will felt the same way. Not only that, he could really play it. He’s got a great ability to write guitar parts that carry power, beauty and a tense emotional edge. And so I sent him a song I was working on, a cover of the folk classic, ’16 Tons’. Will ended up providing me with some indispensable production input on that track which would come to define the sound of the final version.”

“I had been a long-time admirer of Tom’s films right from his first feature, Johnny Suede,” Crewdson admits, “About eight years ago when he started a blog on his site I followed him with great interest because before the net there was very little information around about the guy behind all these amazing films. I started a conversation with him on one of his blog threads and he seemed interested in the fact that I was a working musician of sorts. We carried on like this for a bit and then started emailing. He was interested in getting my opinion on a recording he had done of the old ’16 Tons’ standard so I happily agreed to give it a listen. I was blown away by his voice and what it brought to the song. There was definitely something special about the way he carried it off and I set about adding some guitars and extra keyboards and production ideas. We were both really pleased with the end result and carried on from there.”

DiCillo continues, “Two things happened on ’16 Tons’ that amazed me. One, he did not laugh at my singing. Two, he sent back an amazing guitar track that added a whole new dimension to the song. And so, not long after that, I sent him an initial piece that I wrote on acoustic guitar called ‘Whiskey Promise’, on which we again collaborated, and with that we had our first original composition.” ‘Whiskey Promise’ now appears as one of the highlights on the album, an intensely epic ballad in which DiCillo’s voice exercises its full potential, a soaring metamorphosis from the engaging intimacy of the conversational verses to the mighty declaration of change in the euphoric choruses.

Crewdson and Rox had been engaged in some live session work together in New York City when DiCillo caught their act, the performance of which left a lasting impression, and upon the recommendation of Crewdson, Rox was asked to join the band. Aside from bringing her accomplished and distinctively melodic basslines, Rox also informs many of the songs with a crucial vocal byplay to counter DiCillo’s dark, deep croon, the combination of which gives songs such as ‘Nervous Laughter’, ‘Frozen Heartache’ and ‘Fade to Black’ their intriguing dynamic that is one crucial element of the band’s signature sound, her ethereal and delicate vocals a riposte to DiCillo’s soaring, passionate baritone; a relationship of light and dark.

“The dual vocals weren’t something we hinged an aesthetic upon from the beginning but once we discovered it we recognised it as a strength,” Rox admits. “We did experiment with different approaches and the contrast seemed more pleasing when it was exaggerated. I like the play between the female and male voices as if they’re characters in a story. The female part in ‘Nervous Laughter’ sounds like a surreal angel that makes the male voice seem all the more dark and world-weary.”

DiCillo concurs, “Grog is an amazing singer. All you have to do is listen to one track from Die So Fluid and you can hear a vocalist that has tremendous power and precision. It always bothered me to have someone with such potential restricted to just playing bass. I also felt that a whole album of just me singing would leave me solely responsible for the blame. Grog first came up with the idea of her singing the ghostly echo “everybody knows” on ‘Frozen Heartache’. I loved the way her voice interacted with mine. I think both our voices have a little grit and eloquence to them and melding the masculine and feminine versions added that strange hint of the rock ballad – sort of David Lynchian. She really cuts loose on ‘Fade to Black’ and I’m in awe of the way her voice just takes off like a guitar solo. On ‘Nervous Laughter’ I asked her to kind of whisper-sing and what she came up with for those solo choruses adds this odd dark angel quality to the track. So, really it was a happy accident waiting to happen.”

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(Will Crewdson)

With the triumvirate complete, writing and production on the album took place over a five-year period. DiCillo offers me an insight into the discipline and progress of the band, “The way it works is I write all the lyrics and the musical structure of the songs. I record them at home with my electric guitar and a drum track I put together with loops. Then I send the track to Grog. She writes and lays down a bass track. I may make a suggestion or two but essentially she puts down what she feels. Then I mix this in and send the track to Will in London who starts layering in the guitars. Will usually sends me 4 or 5 different takes of his leads, rhythms and solos and then I cut them in, trying alternate versions and sending the temp mix out to Grog and Will for feedback. Once we all agree on a mix the track is done. So a lot of work went into the mixes throughout the five years it took to create the album, we worked on unifying the sound, giving it a coherence as if it all came out of the same musical impulse. Sometimes a chord riff would come to me, like ‘Frozen Heartache’ or ‘Shoeshine Shuffle’, and the lyrics evolved afterwards. On the other hand, I remember getting a big laugh out of Grog when I told her that part of the lyrics for ‘Ball & Chain’ came to me 15 years ago as I was walking down the street and suddenly I was singing in time to my walking, “Mama said yeah, Papa said no, I said kiss my ass yeah the bof of yo.” But, I soon realized that just because something rhymed didn’t make it good. So, I began to put as much work into the choice of words and the arc of the story as I would do in a film script. It makes you look at some of those great songs out there and just shake your head in astonishment.”

I suggest to DiCillo and Crewdson that the overall production and engineering of the album is sonically kaleidoscopic, as it serves a multitude of genres, from gritty, down n’ dirty rockers like ‘Ball & Chain’, the disco stomp of ‘Hurt Me Tender’, to the sweltering country heat of ‘Slide On’ and ethereal dream-pop of ‘Nervous Laughter’. I wonder if the production served each song at it came or if there was an overall tone or sonic consistency the band were trying to achieve for the album.

“I would say textured versus kaleidoscopic,” DiCillo says, “We spent considerable time on the mastering to give the songs connection and coherence. As these twelve songs were written and recorded over a period of five years there were one or two cases where I rerecorded my vocal and Will redid a few guitar parts to keep the developing sound with consistency. We also had some great help from drummer Alan Van Kleef who laid down a live groove under the loops I’d constructed. But, just on a sound level, all the songs were carved out of the same three tools; my vocal, Will’s guitar and Grog’s bass. In that sense they all sound like they originated from the same primordial ooze to me.

Crewdson affirms that the album was born with a distinct sonic character in mind, “It’s interesting that it comes across like that because for me the album has a very definite blueprint which threads right through it from start to finish. Tom seems as meticulous about the planning of his musical work as he obviously is about making films. I normally create the wild card and jam all over things with few restrictions but it’s Tom who reigns it in and makes it coherent and relevant to the song. This could be either by editing or just describing what it is he wants from the guitar parts and encouraging me to have another go. But, I’m very glad what seems to be quite natural and within our style comes across as being so eclectic.”

DiCillo continues, “I agree that sometimes the surface tone seems like it touches on other genres, like dance or gypsy pop, but the underneath layer is all the same bedrock. That bedrock I would think is what characterises The Black and Blue Orkestre sound; a kind of deep groove, strong beat, cinematic guitar and moody vocals. Amaury Perez mastered the album. I think he also contributed greatly to unifying the sound. The goal with the guitar, which Will and I discussed, was to always maintain a certain feel or mood. Within that mood, the guitar touches on other genres but not overtly and never straight out. If the guitar goes a little country it does so in the realm of the Black and Blue tone. This applies to the surf or rockabilly stuff. The goal was never to simply work with that particular genre. The goal was to take the genre and apply our particular sensibility to it, which meant at times over-saturating or bending it a bit.”

The sonic landscape provided by the trio results in an extremely visual experience for the listener, thanks in no small part to DiCillo’s skill as a lyricist and storyteller, complimented by a production which envelopes with its epic, widescreen vista of a sweeping American landscape; a gritty, torrid south-western atmosphere that provides the backdrop for DiCillo’s tales of despair, regret, forgiveness, passion, and rebellion. The mythical American landscape and the idiosyncratic characters it can breed is something that has intrigued DiCillo as a filmmaker and which can be seen examined in his excellent 1996 surreal fable Box of Moonlight, starring John Turturro and Sam Rockwell.

“I think you’re right,” DiCillo enthuses, “there is a specific kind of gothic American dreamscape to this album that has a lot of connection to the imagery of film, especially from directors like David Lynch and even John Ford or Billy Wilder. Because my father was in the military I moved around a lot all over the country. I’ve spent a lot of time down south, out west and here in NYC. And though I guess I feel like I’m American I never felt like I belonged anywhere. So, it felt natural to me to have the songs feel they came from all over America. I like to think of the world of the album as Johnny Cash on acid.”

The lyrics on the album feel powerfully subjective, perhaps deceptively so, as DiCillo utilises his dexterity as a storyteller to craft a narrative for each song, respectively taking the listener on a journey of anger, regret, rebellion and self-doubt, while conversely positive, his tales can be immensely romantic, hopeful and wistful. There is an inherent intensity to the album that makes it feel so personal. Both ‘Fade to Black’ and ‘Whiskey Promise’ alternately reveal a tender, almost insecure side of the narrator, DiCillo makes references to days going by, with the sun rising and falling as a reminder of the ticking clock, both appealing to another person who is something of an emotional rock in times of need. It’s an endearing and sensitive juxtaposition to the dark humour and volatility of songs like ‘Ball & Chain’, ‘Hurt Me Tender’, and ‘Nervous Laughter’.

“That’s interesting you say that because all the songs are completely fictitious. Now, there are certainly strong elements in them that touch something personal but to be honest it was thrilling to become all those different characters in the songs. It is very different trying to put emotional meaning into a very public song and crafting a film that though personal has many different characters and contributors. Singing is like an illegal drug to me. I almost feel like I have to enjoy it in private. But, you touch on two key discoveries for me. The very first thing I learned was how hard it is to write a song. In fact, I think as the songs progressed over the 5 years the lyrics and structures became better. As I listened to other songs I realized that the message or intent was always accompanied by something larger that went beyond the merely personal. Some of my favourite songs are ones that seem intensely personal and completely universal at the same time. I will say that my experience with actors and acting has shown me that emotional truth is crucial in any performance. So, I tried to dig deep with each song and find things that really touched or moved me, from angst to longing to anger and acceptance. And I just said, hell, I’ll put it out there.”

DiCillo’s films are well-known for their trenchant satire, whether it’s aimed at the approbation of independent film (Living in Oblivion), the redundancy of the fashion industry (The Real Blonde), or the blitzkrieg barrage and saturation of media and reality television in today’s entertainment culture (Delirious), but underneath the mordant and absurdist assaults lay elements of deep pathos and drama as well as a gallows humour. This juxtaposition of light and dark is something that now bleeds over into the filmmaker’s musical endeavours; it lends the album a mercurial tone that compliments the multitude of genres that the album entertains.

“I find that anything can be made more dimensional with a little of the opposite emotion. Pathos and humour have always been linked for me. If something is only horrific the only choice is to slit your wrists. But, if you add a strange blast of humour it not only becomes more realistic it becomes more interesting. So, yeah, I think ‘Ball & Chain’ is a very funny song. It’s got a punchy kind of rage to it but the narrator is also a goofball who finally confesses he’s got no idea what he’s doing. There’s a whacky honesty and reality to the songs even when they’re satiric like ‘Nervous Laughter’ or love-struck like ‘Frozen Heartache’. But, the idea with the album was to try and present a cycle of songs that went together but that also explored different ideas so people could find interest and surprise as they listened.”

black and blue photos 3 - band

So after five years of developing their sound and crafting an album of resolute charm, attitude, melody and groove, and a new music video just released for their single ‘Ball & Chain’, where to next for The Black and Blue Orkestre?

“That’s a good question, Wayne.” DiCillo acknowledges, “Writing the songs and putting the album together took a tremendous amount of time and concentration. I had to carve that time out of my efforts to make another film. And like film, making music takes as much energy as you can put into it. In fact it requires it. So, there is a little bit of a struggle with priorities for me. I feel like I’ve got another four or five films in me. But, making this album with Will and Grog has been an incredible creative experience. There was so much freedom and spontaneity and pure immediate joy that I will have a hard time not trying to make another one. Mainly, I’d love for people to get a chance to listen to the music. As far as a music career, who knows? Both Will and Grog have equally serious commitments to their own projects. Plus, you have to remember the three of us have never performed live. Now, that would be an experience.”

Wayne Byrne is a film lecturer and writer from Co. Kildare. He was resident film critic and film columnist for the Leinster Leader newspaper for a number of years, as well as contributing reviews, interviews and articles to the likes of Click magazine and other media outlets. Wayne teaches Film Studies in various secondary schools throughout Ireland as well as facilitating Film workshops in many libraries across Leinster. He is currently writing his first book of film criticism.

Hurt Me Tender is available now on iTunes.

The music video for ‘Ball & Chain’, directed by Tom DiCillo, is available on YouTube at this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9i0E491c1I

For further news and info on the band and to follow Tom DiCillo’s blog, see http://www.tomdicillo.com/

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