A few months ago I found one of my student films, GOD SAVE THE KING.
GOD SAVE THE KING was my first sync sound film when I was in NYU film school. Back in 1977 student films were shot on real film and the move from silent to sound was considered a huge step. The original 16 mm print was recently discovered in a box under a bed in the basement of a juvenile correctional institution near Miami.
I wrote and directed the film in my 2nd year at NYU. It was loosely based on an incident that had happened to me one steamy August night a few months earlier. The punk movement was in full spasm. For some performance photos needed for the film we went to CBGB’s one afternoon and they let me shoot Joe and Jay on the stage for 20 minutes.
After graduation I decided for some reason to scrape some money together and re-edit the film. I added titles, did a sound mix and made something that was almost unheard of for an ex NYU student with no job–a real 16mm print.
Eight years later when I submitted my first screenplay Johnny Suede to the National Endowment for the Arts, I sent the print of God Save The King as an example of my work. They gave me $25,000.
A year later I submitted the Johnny Suede screenplay to the Sundance Director’s Lab. Once again, I sent this only print of God Save The King as a directing sample. I got accepted.
In some ways you could say this little film started my career.
A few months ago Nick Dawson from The Talkhouse invited me to write a piece for the magazine. He’s put together a great site where filmmakers and artists share their thoughts about recently released music and films.
The film pieces are not “reviews”. They are personal reflections about the films that offer a perspective missing for the most part in contemporary film writing.
It took me a while to find a film. But, when I saw Alex Gibney’s Mr. Dynamite, The Rise of James Brown, I knew I had something to write about.
Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) Talks Alex Gibney’s Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown
In this fine new HBO documentary about the legendary soul singer, you hear, feel and see the great man’s music, and also learn the stories behind it.
I always loved this song by Johnny Cash and U2. But, recently I wondered what it would sound like if it had a little Black and Blue added to it.
So, I laid down a new arrangement that brought in our solid beats and funky spaghetti surf sound. Then I recorded the lead vocals and sent the mix to Grog. She added the throbbing bass and then came up with a set of shimmering background vocals that take the song to a whole new realm.
We also had the great pleasure of working with guest musician Tim Carless. Tim wrote and laid down the lead guitar line which adds a great twang and bite. Tim is based out of North Carolina. We hooked up with him through my friend and composer Jim Farmer who did the scores for Johnny Suede, Living In Oblivion, Box of Moonlight and The Real Blonde. Thanks, Jim.
Our interview delves deeper into the creation of the character and the fertile times in NYC from which he spawned. Kathy provides a sharp perspective on the film and includes several clips from it throughout.
I’m pleased at the way it turned out and I think readers will find some new and interesting information. Miramax has helped me make an Official Director’s Cut of the film which is now streaming on Netflix.
Alex Green’s cool music website has been revamped and renamed. It is now called STEREO EMBERS. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read impassioned and informed articles on music–and best of all to discover new music.
Not all stories in the film business end like this one did.
A few months ago I found out that without my consent, major sections of music had been replaced in my film Johnny Suede showing on Netflix.
This was pretty shocking because the film had been “locked” since it was released in 1991. But, suddenly all of the Link Wray music I’d carefully chosen had been replaced with generic 50’s instrumental crap. This included complete tracks like “Hotel Loneliness” which I used in its entirety as the Opening Credit score.
But, now Johnny Suede is back up on Netflix with all the original music restored. This came about due to the remarkable support and patience of Miramax, the film’s US distributor. Through the assistance there of Ryan Sosa and Pamela Popp updated music rights were obtained for all the Link Wray tracks.
Even more exciting is that I got a chance to re-edit the film. In viewing it again I saw places where the focus drifted and the intent of the film wandered off like a distracted child. There were also performance issues due to my inexperience and as a first time director I was not yet aware of the concept of reshaping the film with the best of what I had.
That is one of the most important adjustments a writer/director has to make. With every film you put your soul into trying to bring the script to life. And with every film what ends up on film is always different than what was on the page.
Sometimes you can see that immediately. Other times it takes months to let go of the love and affection for the original ideas. It is amazing what kind of clarity you get with a distance of 20 years.
Miramax allowed me to start with the original Director’s Cut which had won Best Picture at the Locarno film festival in 1991. This cut does not have the annoying narration that was added just before the US release. In the course of a week I cut 7 minutes out of the film. I didn’t cut to make the film faster. I cut to make it clearer.
Early in the shooting I’d given Brad a note that Johnny was like a child. I meant that his attention and interest could shift quickly from one thing to another. I found out later Brad took it to mean that Johnny was a child and he’d made a choice to make the character a little less emotionally mature than himself.
This affected the pacing of some of the scenes. It also affected the reality of why Yvonne (a luminous Catherine Keener) would be attracted to Johnny. I never wanted this to be a question in the film. I always thought of Johnny as a smart, sexy guy who put sharp, intense energy into his facade. And I know Brad was capable of this, especially after seeing his charged, brilliant performances in 12 Monkeys, Snatch and Moneyball.
But, as the director it was my job to be as clear and precise as I needed to be in order to get what I felt was crucial to the film. So, in this new cut I tried to address this.
The film is still the same. Johnny is still the naive, schizophrenic fool that Brad brought to life. These were qualities written into the character and Brad went for them with great openness and courage. His scene where Yvonne discovers his infidelity is one of my favorites; fierce, raw and emotionally naked.
I shot a lot of the scenes in wide masters instead of going in for traditional close-up coverage. This was partly creative and partly as a result of having so little time. But, in the scene where Johnny meets Freak Storm (Nick Cave) it limited me.
That day was one from hell. Nick was furious because the wig “expert” had no idea what she was doing and his white pompadour looked like it was stapled to his forehead with a glue gun.
Also, the Director of Photography was going through some bizarre emotional trauma about me directing my first film. So, I ended up with an angry Nick, a misinformed Brad and a sulky cameraman who later admitted to me he was intentionally sabotaging the film (I intentionally relieved him of his trauma by replacing him).
Fortunately, in the re-edit I found a way to trim the scene, tightening it and taking out a moment where the writing stretched Johnny’s gullibility a little beyond belief.
But, in other instances, the single shot approach fostered some indelible performances. The scene where Yvonne instructs Johnny in the basics of female anatomy was done as a single take and the performances of Brad and Catherine have an amazing emotional pulse that gives life to the entire shot.
Likewise, every scene that Calvin Levels was in brought a sly humor that injected a great note of surprise into the film. In this new cut his relationship with Johnny is stronger and carries more importance.
When I first realized my film had been altered without my permission I felt like something infinitely sacred to me had been violated. And now, 20 years after I made it, I have what I feel is truly THE OFFICIAL DIRECTOR’S CUT of the film.
Miramax has allowed me access to the new digital master and I’m hoping to get this new version out on DVD and Blu-Ray as soon as possible.
I know it’s been a while since I posted anything of substance. My heart is still here but my brain is in a strange universe these days; one that looks almost as strange as the one we’re in.
There is some activity on the film front. I’m in what can be most accurately termed pre-pre-pre-production on a feature I wrote. Which means I’m in a deal with some people who are trying to get the cast so we can get the money to get the cast so we can get the money.
In the meantime, I finished a new film; a strange docu-mystery called DOWN IN SHADOWLAND. It is a personal project that I made completely by myself. For the past 5 year I’ve been carrying my video camera around with me every day on the subway. The intent was to try and capture some of the haunting and surreally beautiful moments I’ve seen down there, where people reveal something intimately human in this most public of private places. I edited 5 years of footage into a 65 minute film.
The film has just been accepted into the Main Competition of a major US festival. I will give the specifics when I can.
Last night a courageous and astute reader named Tony informed me that the version of my film, JOHNNY SUEDE, now showing on Netflix has been altered without my authorization. All of the Link Wray music I worked so carefully into the film has been replaced with some generic 50’s crap.
The Link Wray music has been legally in the film, in all formats, since 1991. It was so important to me I used it in both the opening and closing credits. Its removal was completely unauthorized and it destroys the artistic integrity of the film. And, whoever did it either forgot or did not care that the Link Wray music is credited at the end of the film. This is from the Netflix video stream of the film.
I’m asking people not to rent the film from Netflix until this is resolved. It is deeply disturbing to me that someone has changed my film without my consent.