Johnny Suede (1991)

Johnny Suede was my first film. It was based on a series of monologues I’d written for a character I’d created in an acting class.

In 1986 I gathered the monologues into a 1-man show and performed it in a tiny theatre Way-Off-Off-Broadway. The reaction was strong enough to convince me to write the screenplay and start sending it out to anyone I knew with money. Four years later I was directing the film with Brad Pitt as Johnny and Catherine Keener as his girlfriend, Yvonne. Or as Brad called her, “Yavonne.”

The film is essentially a tragi-comic meandering through the uncharted swamps of the male psyche. I think it is some of Brad’s best work. It was also my first experience working with Catherine and the trip was riveting enough for me to come back for more.

The film won Best Picture at the 1990 Locarno Film Festival. It was bought there by Miramax but not released until over a year later in order to “capitalize on Pitt’s ascending stardom.” It was my first film at Sundance. No one seemed to know what to make of the film. And when it was finally released critical reaction was pretty much the same. Vincent Canby, writing in the NY Times said, “There is something going on in this film; maybe someone can tell me what it is.”

I almost wondered for a moment if that wasn’t his job.

Just before the film opened Miramax head Harvey Weinstein called at midnight to read the review to me, “I’m sorry, Tom,” he said, and I believe he was. But, the film played a week in NYC and then was gone. It did much better in Europe, especially the UK. I think they understood the whacked out humor of it more.

I wrote the songs Johnny sings in the film. Brad sings them all. Nick Cave sings one I wrote called “Mamma’s Boy.” The song was essentially written to be rather dumb. Nick felt it was apparently too dumb and offered to rewrite the lyrics. He sent me a cassette tape of him singing the new lyrics. I sincerely wish I knew where that cassette is now. Halfway through he stops singing and says, “You know, Tom. I think my lyrics are even more stupid than yours.” And he ended up singing the song as I wrote it.