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.
I’m thrilled to announce the official release of The Black and Blue Orkestre’s first album, HURT ME TENDER. It consists of 12 original tracks performed by Tom DiCillo, Grog and Will Crewdson. Live drums provided by Alan Van Kleef. The album was impeccably mastered by Amaury Perez.
A great review came in from Alex Green at Caught in The Carousel. You can listen to the whole album here.
My friend Alex Green runs a very cool music website calledCaught In The Carousel. I would highly recommend checking it out for anyone interested in all things about new music. There are great pieces on new artists with free music, podcasts and insightful and personal interviews.
This week The Carousel if devoting four days entirely to The Doors. Senior Writer Paul Gleason has interviewed Doors drummer John Densmore. Their conversation slips easily into the sublime. Check it out HERE.
Paul has also written a new review of When You’re Strange which I found equally astute and engaging. Check it out HERE.
I also spoke at length with Paul about the making of the film. Our interview appears HERE.
This comment came in last week. I liked the questions so I thought I’d post them here.
“Hello, Tom. My name is Nicolò, I’m an Italian student from the University of Turin. The thesis for my academic degree is about the cinema of Steve Buscemi, as an actor and a director. For this reason I watched for the first time your “Living in the Oblivion”. I think that it is amazing…!! one of the most beautiful American pictures that I’ve ever seen. Your film has an atmosphere that reminds me something of Federico Fellini, but at the same time it has something so original and pure that, I swear, is so rare to find… especially here in Italy. For me “Living in the Oblivion” is a sort of “8 e mezzo” (8 1/2) of the independent American cinema, and it deserves to be even more known in my country, where it is so hard to get your and other independent movies.
If you don’t mind I’d like to ask you some questions about your own work and your opinion about Steve as an actor and director. Thanks anyway for your time and your patience… the most important thing is that I found another great director in you which I hadn’t known… it’s a pleasure and a fortune for me. Grazie mille!”
1. In your opinion in which way can a film be considered independent today?
TD: It has only been in the last few months that I’ve come to realize how vastly different independent film is today from when it started. In fact, I’m not sure I recognize it any more. All I can say is what originally inspired me about independent film, and about being an independent director, was the freedom. There was a joyous, sexy thrill about breaking completely away from the Hollywood penitentiary. The whole point of being independent was to cut loose, to break the chains, to create a cinema that was more real, more courageous, more creative and more honest than the Hollywood crap cycle.
Today, it has become almost impossible to tell the difference between a Hollywood film and an independent one. Both are now controlled by the same value system; Box Office and Opening Weekend. For both, success is measured in dollars. Independent filmmakers have had to become skilled at the Hollywood game. To get a film financed they have to cast Stars. They have to write scripts that still somehow will guarantee to the distributor that the seats in the theater will be filled. So, for me, the independent films that somehow do miraculously end up on screen now look and feel just like Hollywood films. They feel thin, tired and laced with artificial ingredients.
There are a few that make it through but they are very rare. What I look for in an independent film is a passionate, personal vision. I look for the directors whose main interest was in making the film, not in selling it.
2. How have your Italian roots influenced your work, if they did?
TD: I’m half Italian. I’m proud of that half but I don’t really consider myself Italian. Ironically, the film that lit my brain on fire and inspired me to become a filmmaker was La Strada, by Fellini. Perhaps there is a cultural connection, I don’t know. I mean Stallone is also Italian and I was never inspired to make a film like Rocky I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII.
3. What do you think of Steve as an actor, and also what do you think about him as a director?
TD: I think Steve is one of the greatest American actors. This is mainly due to his talent and to who he is as a human being. For me, he brings the rarest of combinations to his performances; which is an amazing blend of pathos, spontaneity and humor. These are key elements in my own sensibility. I don’t think any of the characters I have written have been brought to life on screen more fully than the ones Steve has played. What he did in Living In Oblivion was amazing. What he did with Les Galantine in Delirious was miraculous. No matter how far gone the character is Steve always finds a way to make him sympathetic. And he does it without cheating.
When we work together I actually say very little to him. The most enjoyable thing for me is to whisper something to him right before a take, not telling the other actor, and even surprising Steve with the suggestion. Every single time I’ve done this Steve simply smiles quietly and then leaps into the take with complete abandon and joy. There is nothing more exhilarating for a director.
Many people assume Living In Oblivion was mostly improvised. It was not; in fact 99% of the action and dialogue was in the script. One scene however was completely improvised by Steve. I needed him to yell at the crew members so I could shoot their reaction shots. He did it so incredibly, making up specific insults for each member of the crew, that I instantly turned the camera on him and asked him to do it again, this time on film. He did it even better.
Fellini described this as a “willingness”. I think he was talking about an actor being completely open to doing whatever it takes to get the scene. I would have to say that Steve is the most willing actor I’ve ever worked with.
I think that same quality extends to the films Steve has directed. Each one deals with people on a very human and intimate level. In each one Steve allows the actors to live and breathe, thereby creating characters on the screen that touch us deeply. I love Trees Lounge but Lonesome Jim and Animal Factory struck me with more resonance. In both those films I see the eye of a director who is excited about the absurd realities of people, where tragedy and humor are intricately intertwined.
I also see a director who trusts and respects his audience. He lets his films take the time they need. He doesn’t rush them; he doesn’t force them. He trusts the audience will follow. And this trust ultimately allows the audience to trust him.
4. Today I watched When You’re Strange and it deeply touched me because I am also a musician. How important is the music in your movies?
TD: Music and film are like lovers; in the best circumstances their interaction creates something warm, breathing, sexy and completely unpredictable. There is a powerful flash of life when image and music come together. There is the potential for the creation of something profound, emotional and unexplained.
I’m not talking about sad violins playing at the death of a puppy. I’m talking about a sound, any sound, that connects mysteriously to an image and sparks some kind of emotional connection. This connection is best when it is unexplained.
Unfortunately most music in films simply explains what is already explained in the image; happy scene, happy music; scary scene, scary music. In essence music like this treats the audience as if they are morons. But if you look at Ennio Morricone’s scores even as far back as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, you see a composer and director (Sergio Leone) working together in a way that still has not been equaled in terms of creative freedom. Morricone brought whistling, chanting, bullwhips cracking to the western as well as such odd modern elements as twangy, whammy barred surf chords.
As a result Morricone’s score created a strange emotional connection that is original and unforgettable. I am openly inspired by Morricone. I feel each film should have a sound or musical world that is completely unique to the film. I love the period during editing where music starts to come in. First you create the bones of the film by cutting the scenes together as clearly and powerfully as possible then you add the flesh; the music. Sometimes the truth is you need music to help a scene that was only partially realized. But, mostly the joy is using the music like a gift. It caresses the film, bringing it blood, mystery and life.
For me, making a film is an attempt at some emotional connection. Music makes that connection even richer.