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.
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.