January 12, 2008

Guess what? I just found out my first film, Johnny Suede, has been released on DVD by Anchor Bay. The reason I just found out about it now could be a very lengthy post that maybe I'll undertake one morning after dropping acid and snorting a quart of scotch.

Johnny Suede

The DVD includes my commentary. It could have included a lot more but...see the paragraph above. The film stars Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, Nick Cave and Samuel L. Jackson in a small part. This is not a plug for the dvd. If you're interested fine. If not, don't worry about it.

I just remembered that Sam Jackson came in and auditioned for me.

Other memories are sneaking up now, like hungry zombies outside the Kwikee Mart. I spent months trying to find the right actor to play Johnny. I must have auditioned at least 300 guys. Most came in thinking the part was some moronic version of The Fonz from "Happy Days." In August of 1989, after exhausting all the possibilities in NYC the casting director, Marcia Shulman and I went out to LA to sift through the talent pickings there.

The production at that point had no money. The producers arranged for Marcia and me to stay at the Highland Gardens motel famed mainly for the fact that Janis Joplin had died there. There was a swimming pool. No one swam in it. It was filled with greenish-black sludge.

The motel let us use a "suite" to cast in. The auditions were held in the kitchenette with Marcia and I sitting a foot away in the dining nook. One afternoon I looked out the window and saw a tall woman dressed in a short, black skirt, black nylons and leopard-skin ankle boots. As she paced by the contaminated pool she carefully wielded a matching leopard-skin umbrella to keep the sun off of her. It took me a moment to recognize Tina Louise who'd played Ginger on "Gilligan's Island." She came up and I cast her as Johnny's girlfriend's mother the moment she finished reading.

Later that day Marcia flipped me a head-shot and informed me the next actor didn't have much on his resume. In fact he only had two things; he'd done a small Canadian TV series and he'd just finished shooting what he'd listed as his only real film credit---something called Thelma and Louise that no one had heard about because it hadn't even been edited yet.

The day before, Marcia and I had been eating lunch in a hamburger joint on La Cienaga. We saw some kid a few booths away. He looked interesting. We brought him in for a reading, thinking, "Hey, maybe this is one of those stars-discovered-in-a-greasy-hamburger-joint kind of stories. He was awful. Still, he was very depressed when we didn't cast him.

I took another look at the photo Marcia had handed me and said, "What the fuck, bring him in." The actor's name was Brad Pitt. Call me an idiot if you want but I was certain of 2 things the moment he walked in: 1. He was Johnny. 2. He was going to be a star.

He did his audition without me saying a word to him. And without me saying a word to him he understood that beneath his posturing exterior Johnny was really a lost soul--someone who literally had no idea who he was. This lead Brad to a brave acting choice; to bring a hesitant vulnerability to the character--something no one else had been able to do; even with my prompting.

When he walked out I knew I had my lead. However the producers were not so convinced. They said, "This kid's a nobody. We're not letting you cast him." The absurdity of this comment might be better understood if you keep in mind the entire budget of the film was under $500,000.

The producers made me meet another actor; a real "star." The Star would not come in to audition. He did however agree to "meet me in character." Seconds after that meeting began I got the very clear sense that the character who met me was one I was never, ever going to cast.

The producers were not happy with my position. So, on Friday, we parted company. On Monday I had a new deal with a Swiss producer, Ruth Waldburger who looked at Brad's audition tape and agreed with my assessment of his potential. Ruth also agreed to handle the lawsuit so instantly and generously provided to us by the Friday producers.

While at the Highland Gardens I encountered another actor who made an impression on me. Catherine Keener came in to audition for the part of Yvonne, Johnny's girlfriend. I have sometimes compared her audition to someone driving a golfball into a very small cinderblock room. The ensuing ricochets unnerved me so much I didn't realize this barely controlled chaos was exactly what the part needed. In the middle of the night I got out of bed, knocked on the wall and yelled quietly to Marcia, "We're casting Catherine Keener as Yvonne!"

We shot the film in 30 days in NYC in November and December of 1990. I remember this because at one point I looked up and Brad and Catherine were in my apartment eating Thanksgiving dinner. The shoot was for the most part a nightmare. Some great things happened of course. But for my first film it seemed the avalanche of disasters was just a little too relentless to be completely enjoyable.

In the 2nd week of filming the fire department wouldn't let us back into the building we'd meticulously painted and propped for Johnny's apartment. Over the weekend the entire building (already on the verge of demolition) had settled 5 feet to the left and it was now deemed unsafe for occupancy let alone something as idiotic as filmmaking. We had to finish shooting in another apartment and to this day I'm amazed no one has ever remarked upon the obvious and strangely changing layout as the film progresses.

Before shooting we had some difficulty in specifying Johnny's wardrobe with the costume designer. The character was fixated on the late '50's. I wanted clothing that came from that era but didn't want stuff that was strictly nostalgic. I wanted costumes that made the character visually different and unique but with an understated elegance.

Nothing worked. So, the day before shooting Brad and I went through my closet and pulled out every piece of Thrift Store gold I'd accumulated over the past 10 years. Luckily, everything fit him. All my favorite, one-of-a-kind, deeply personal, irreplaceable stuff.

We shot the film in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which back in 1990 really was not a place anyone was too eager to build a Starbucks in. Two weeks into shooting the assistant director came running up and cried, "Some left the wardrobe van unattended and all the costumes have been stolen!"

A day later they found the guys who'd stolen them. My relief was short-lived; about 30 seconds actually. The police informed us that the thieves had apparently liked Johnny's clothes so much they were not returning them. The cops advised us if we wanted to continue shooting in Williamsburg we should accept these "terms."

So, all Johnny's wardrobe had to be faked. Copies of everything we'd already shot Brad in were quickly made. Although we couldn't afford the original materials, on film the pants, shirtjacs and sharkskin suits all looked perfectly fine. At the end of the shoot the costume department gave me the copies as a gift. I took them home and hung them in my closet. One day I actually tried to wear one of the shirts. A week later I threw everything away. 

The film was accepted into the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. It was the first film festival I'd ever been to. A buyer from Miramax saw the film and urged Harvey Weinstein to do something he'd never done; buy a film without seeing it. The buyer convinced him that Brad was going to be a star. The deal was clinched when the film won Best Picture.

A month later when Harvey was sitting in front of me at the Toronto film festival I saw another distributor lean forward and chuckle into Harvey's ear, "Well, I hope you like it."

I think Harvey really did like it. We had a test screening in New York City a few weeks later. He sat beside me , turning and grinning when the audience broke into laughter and applause. At the end he gave me an emphatic thumbs up.

Then the cards came in. The results were not to his liking. Harvey then endeavored to fix the problem. His plan was to cut 15 minutes out of the film and put a voice-over on. I told him that if he showed me where the 15 minutes could be cut while maintaining the film's narrative logic then I would consider it.

This idea was soon jettisoned in favor of the voice-over. I wasn't happy about either idea. The film had just won top honors at a major European festival. I didn't see any reason why this version (my original Director's cut) could not be presented to American audiences.

But this was my first film. And it was my first lesson in how murky the waters of "negotiation" can be. A voice-over was added to the film. I cringe every time I think of it, especially knowing that after all that, it had absolutely no effect on the film's performance. 

Some people saw the film. Some people even liked it. Someone liked the name so much they started a clothing line without even offering me 10%. I'm the first one to admit the film has many of the inconsistencies of a First film. But it is my first child and I will always cherish it. I still think Brad's performance is startlingly brave and astute. I still think Catherine Keener is as magical in the film as anything else she's gone on to do. If you rent it check out the scene where Yvonne teaches Johnny about the "watermelon seed".

I think the story, that of a young man's gradual realization that he has no idea who he is, is still valid and engaging. Which is why I'm so thrilled that this version being released on DVD by Anchor Bay is the original Director's Cut, heretofore never seen in this country.

Minus the fucking voice-over.

are you aware that there is a version of this on the Netflix instant service? I just watched it and noticed that there are several changes in music. the Link Wray music seems to be missing, except for maybe a small cue here and there. but it’s not just this. there are a lot of tiny changes that I noticed. during the scene at Darlette’s mother’s, there was some wacky music that one would find in a Problem Child film, or maybe a Fred Olen Ray picture. i was wondering if you are aware of this, and if so, can you explain the changes? i’m very confused about this.
Hey Tony, I was definitely NOT aware of this. It is very disturbing. I’m contacting Netflix.
Thanks for the tip. Let people know. I’m going to.
it really bothered me. this is one of my favorite films and i’ve seen it enough times to notice all the nuanced changes. it really affects the integrity of the film and changes the whole vibe. i hope you can get this taken care of. this film deserves to be seen in it’s proper form and not bastardized by netflix.
It really bothers me too, Tony. I am still dumbfounded that a. someone did this, and b. they could think it was legal. I don’t know who is responsible but I’ve contacted my lawyers, Netflix and the Director’s Guild. Yes, it affects the integrity of the film and its soul.
Again, my sincere thanks.
Hey Tom,
I’ve not seen the film (will have to rectify that!) but had heard of it and remembered the picture of Brad with his “do” – I’m doing some random movie poster parody designs and was searching for a photo of Brad in that role to do a parody of the “Nebraska” movie poster with the hair 🙂 and just stumbled upon this blog and this story about your experiences with making “Johnny Suede”.
Just dropping you a line to say it’s great to find out about that kind of behind the scene casting and production etc info tha we never normally hear about – especially, as you say, when it involves hither-to unknown stars while they’re still ‘making it’
Nice lunch break for me 🙂
hey Mark,
Glad you stopped by on your lunch break. Some more info for you: Johnny’s hairstyle was based on the gangs of Japanese kids I’d seen in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. They all were dressed in black leather, pointy shoes and all the guys had the most towering pompadours I’d ever seen. I felt Johnny’s should be at least as high.
Brad was completely into it. In fact, he kept encouraging the hair stylist to make it taller. You actually see his hair get bigger as the film progresses because the stylist was starting to figure out how to do it. Check the film out on your next lunch break. Brad is incredible in it. So is Catherine Keener and Nick Cave has a very cool cameo.
‘Johnny Suede’ was the Oprah Movie Club selection for June on my little blog. I haven’t heard from my 4 1/2 other readers, but my brother and I love this film.
Well, Shane, I’m glad to hear you and your brother share my whacked sensibility. Thanks for this tip of the day; it made mine. I have great affection for Suede and I still think it is a brave and stellar performance from Brad.
Thanks for writing. Now get to work on those 4 1/2 readers!
My pleasure. I have to say that your attention to detail in not just this film but all of your films is absolutely amazing. Johnny Suede resonated with me the most as it came around the time that my friends and I were also trying to define ourselves and for a crazy as the things Johnny would do, looking back, I think we all saw a little bit of Johnny in ourselves that we could relate to.
The List scene with Deek and Johnny was beyond classic. The chemistry between the actors and the dialogue that you gave to them was fantastic. This was another scene that my friends and I would re-enact when we found ourselves sitting around a buddies apartment and complaining about our girlfriends. My friend, Wendell would on occasion break out the paper bag and get a list going. I kid you not. All inspired by your scene. And the whole “Johnny… Girl’s legs are getting cold.” Fucking brilliant!
In reference to BeBop, I should have clarified, that my friends and I weren’t asking why he (Sam) was there as an actor, but (BeBop) as a character. Much like Star Wars fans will debate over the relationships of characters and their motivations, we would have long drawn out conversations in the same respect for the characters you created in Johnny Suede. For example one of the common discossuins went a little like this… Johnny could play guitar but the chords and songs he wrote were very basic. Deek played keyboards but other than providing the “rocking beat”, a few chords here and there, and his awesome spin during practice during the “rock out” part aka “do it in seconds flat”, he too wasn’t all that much of a musician. Conan, King of the Accordion had his chops down, but Accordion players don’t get any respect as musicians when you’re in a rock band. Then there’s BeBop, here was this dude that comes to practice in this killer suit. In a fucking suit. Then he brings the band in laying this sweet melodic and fairly complex bass line (yes, I tried to figure it out on my own bass) underneath Johnny’s simplistic cord progression. I recall one conversation going to the lengths of my friends and I dreaming up backstories on how each of the band members were talked into joining the band. Deek was obvious, Johnny’s best friend. Conan, likely Johnny found him ona street corner. However, the consensus was along the lines of BeBop likely joined as a favor to Deek, possibly through a mutual friend. BeBop was the type of musician who was cool with those types of things as he just liked to jam regardless of what style the music was. The whole conversation would then say that BeBop would likely have quit but as we find out BeBop was a cut above the rest of the band in terms of musical talent as he is the only one that gets a gig, if I remember on a cruise line. Anyway, I probably sound like a crazy fanboy but it’s the truth, that’s the type of things we would talk about when discussing the film and debating on the backstories and coming up with our own theories on whether Johnny really believed that Yvonne would believe that his best friend would find a way to sneak a pair of womens panties in his own pants as a “Birthday Joke” and how does someone come up with the very notion of a “Birthday Joke”. Just stuff that still blows my mind on how you came up with this stuff.
Also, getting back to the level of how the characters would bullshit one another, I remember my friend mentioned to me that BeBop may have been a great bass player but he was still on the same level as the rest of the band members as right as Johnny walks up, you hear BeBop talking about getting his suit from his girl the day before (or something like that) and when asked where she is, he replies, “oh, she flew back to London today”. You know he is full of it and that’s what puts him there and that’s what makes the scene so real to anyone that’s ever been in a band. Brings a smle to my face just thinking about it.
I hope they put out a new version on DVD and we get to see Deleted Scenes. I’ve always been fascinated with Deleted Scenes, especially for films that I love as it gives the viewer a rare chance to return to that magical world that a filmmaker creates and see a glimpse of something that if you were living in that world, happened when you were in the next room or looked in the other direction for a second.
Anyway, I’ll stop geeking out as I have several other stories that will further expose my love for this film and at the same time what a total geek I am about this film, so I’ll stop here and just say Thank You for making this film, the inspiration you’ve given me over the years, and I look forward to your next one.
Hey Brian, No, I knew what you meant about BeBop, the character. I was trying to illustrate a similar, almost mirror-like feeling I was having about Sam Jackson while shooting with him. Are you a musician? I like the way you identified all the different levels in the music. Here’s some info you might find interesting.
I wrote all the lyrics and the basic chord progressions for all the songs. My friend, Stevie Flynn, is an amazing musician and musicologist who lives in Bennington, Vermont. You can check him out on Facebook.He was the one who originally turned me on to some of the instrumental music by Link Wray which blew my mind and ended up in Johnny Suede.
Well, Stevie took a couple of the songs, Mid-Town in particular, and arranged them for musicians. He brought in some friends of his; a keyboard player and a classical/jazz bassist and we recorded the backing instrumentals in a little studio in Vermont. Then, in the week before we started shooting Brad came into a NY studio and laid down the vocals. He then lip-synced them during the shoot. I honestly can’t remember what we did with Conan the Accordianist. I think I might have poked something out on a little Casio I had.
The half-in-two line was in the script. Sam made up the other stuff about his girlfriend.
I still have Johnny’s guitar, his shoes and one of his shirts–the red one with the shoes embroidered on it.
And, you’re not geeking. You’re actually giving me confidence that the characters I wrote and who ended up on film came to life for you.
Hi Tom,
Just found this site while trying to look up the soundtrack listing for Johnny Suede. To this day it remains one of my favorite films.
I have fond memories of watching the film with my friends over and over on a worn out VHS tape and reciting lines from the film. My friends and I would have discussions on the craziest things like why a bad ass bass player like BeBop would be playing with Johnny or how the band members would be bullshitting to each other before band practice “cut half in two” and how realistic it was.
The relationship between Deek and Johnny an how Deek decides to “gas the tempo” is absolutely classic. I can’t even begin to tell you how much joy that scene alone gave us and how many times we recited that scene alone (even performing it) in public at random places we would hang out.
A few years back I picked up the DVD. It was the first tim I had ever found it widescreen and hit my buddies together for a screening.
Not realizing it was the directors cut, we flipped especially after seeing the scene at the end that was deleted from the US version.
I was curious if anything else was cut and would love to hear about it and hopefully see it.
Thanks again for all the joy this film has brought me and my friends over the years.
Hey Brian,
Well, first let me just say your comment really made my day–hell, maybe even week; perhaps month. Your description of how you and your friends responded to Johnny Suede was as enjoyable to me as making the film itself. I am vastly impressed (and just plain flattered) at how detailed your knowledge of the film is. You really got it.
It’s funny you ask that about BeBop. That was Samuel L. Jackson, you know. Sometimes I often asked the same question about Sam, he’s so good–what’s he doing in my film? But he was amazing to work with and really seemed to be enjoying himself. He was right there with us all the way. And Calvin Levels who played Deke was the only guy I know who could make those lines zing. One of my favorite scenes is the List he and Johnny come up with to determine whether he should move in with Yvonne or not. The total seriousness that Calvin brought to it was genius. Someone asked me recently where that paper bag was that they wrote the list on. I wish I knew.
There are a lot of scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut. The first couple of versions were over 2 hours long. It was my first film and I’m not the first one to say some people had problems with the pacing. Places in it do feel slow. But, that was a rhythm built into the film by some of the performances and there was no way to speed it up. The only way I could pull time out was by cutting whole scenes. One had to do with Johnny stealing a bottle of wine (on sale for 2.99) to take to Darlette’s mom’s for dinner. Another had to do with some real, stuffed bullfrogs a friend brought me back from South America, that Johnny was surprised to discover sitting on the sidewalk.
I think now that what ended up in the film was the best of the lot. And I’m really glad the original version of the film is out on DVD. I also think Brad gives a beautiful performance; under-rated and very nuanced. There was supposed to be a soundtrack but one of the producers just flaked out on it and by the time the film was released it was too late. A lot of the music is Link Wray, some of his later instrumental stuff.
So, there you go, Brian. Thanks for writing. This film was my first child. Thanks for welcoming him.
Hi Tom,
As promised months ago, here is my dissertation. It can be downloaded as a pdf from this link :
I wrote it about three years ago. I just read it through. It’s not great but it was completed with a certain pride. I was going through a breakup and I had a lack of confidence in essay writing after previously dropping out from one degree over not doing my dissertation. I came to the conclusion once that I shouldn’t write essays about the things I love. Examining them so intensely and having to critique them spoilt their enjoyment. With Johnny Suede I couldn’t resist though and I’m pleased that the experience hasn’t lessened my passion for the film. If you have the time I would be really honoured if you’d give it a read through.
Cheers Tom,
What a great Christmas present! I am so very gratefull and really choked up for your lovely, well considered and (wow!) speedy reply. I’m now trawling the internet for the Juke Joints book. I will dig out my actual dissertation (ha!) and post a link to it for you in the near future.
Thanks so much again,
Hey Tim,
What a great pleasure to get your dissertation–er comment. Joke, my friend. Honestly, I am still amazed when anyone sees any of my films. For you to have put together these well-thought-out words about the film is more than astonishing.
First, sorry to hear the ex was not so nice. Second, I’m massively stoked Never Girl is getting played somewhere. I wrote the lyrics to all the songs in the film and the foolish imbecility of that particular song always keeps it close to my heart.
It is only slightly less banal than Mama’s Boy, the song Freak Storm sings. Nick Cave felt it was not appropriate for him to sing it as written. I authorized him to write his own lyrics. He sent me a tape that was, shall we say, extremely dour and mournful, followed by him speaking these words, “Tom, my lyrics are even more stupid than yours; let’s stick with the original.”
I never felt prouder.
Your observations about Johnny echo my own. He is a complex character underneath his simple facade. Most people never saw past the facade which was bewildering to me. I went far out of my way (and Brad assisted) to make it clear Johnny was a fool, not Cool. I happen to love fools. But most people today would never recognize a fool, let alone recognize the fool in themselves.
And your ex was right about the shoes. My idea there is that we all are constantly looking for some EXTERIOR flash for our identity; something to embellish or exaggerate what we feel is missing on the INTERIOR–which is where the real gold is anyway.
And like I said above, I was particularly fascinated with the rockabilly/punk scene in NYC in the early ’70’s. Even just on a visual level it was mind-blowing.
I’m really glad you noticed those details. And, I’m honored you tattooed that heart on yer person. My production designer showed me a book of photographs early on called Juke Joints. It was all these incredible, sweaty, gorgeously saturated color photos inside tiny blues clubs in the American deep south. The dagger-pierced heart was copied exactly from the book as were many others.
I copied all the sweat stains, peeled paint and broken plaster for Johnny’s apartment. Again, I agree with you–for all its disrepair I wouldn’t mind living there at all.
So, Tim. Thanks for writing. This was my first film. I put everything I had into it. It’s the first child. It comes out a little wobbly, a little red-faced and knobby-kneed–but you never love another like you do the first.
My sincere best to you.
Hi Tom.
My girlfriend found your blog and told me about it ages ago. I’ve been putting off writing a post. I always procrastinate about these small things that are actually really important to me and sometimes I should just get on and do them . It’s probably also because I don’t want to sound corny and sycophantic and I don’t want my passion for Johnny Suede to be diminished by inarticulate words… But simply Johnny suede is my favourite film. It has probably influenced far to much of my life (not a good thing!).But with 2008 nearly over and the film always in my mind at this time of year (I first watched it late at night on TV here in the UK, round about Christmas 2001) I thought it’s time to write. Like I say, I’ve always felt that writing about and critiquing the things you really love somehow lessens them. It should be enough sometimes to say that something is just damn cool . Still, this ethos didn’t stop me from writing my dissertation on Johnny Suede (actually I wasn’t allowed to write it completely on the film!) and it would be a great honour for you to read it someday.
I was really interested to read about Scott’s love for the film (above post) how immersed he was in the rockabilly scene at the time of its release and how it was a wake up call to him . I’m half aware of a rumour that at least one British rockabilly band had a song at the time declaring Johnny Suede ‘the coolest cat on the movie screen’ (which is missing the point some what, where as clearly Scott didn’t) .
The 80s/90s rockabilly scene I was too young for is my fascination, my favourite films the ones that have the shadow of the 1950s cast over them but are fiercely contemporary to when they were made. I’ve only ever considered myself on the periphery of today’s rockabilly scene which I feel in it’s present incarnation is bland and contrived. Johnny is this brilliantly singular character and in his world it is actually impossible to imagine that there is a scene Johnny could be part of. Even Freak Storm, who is similarly dressed represents the present in the film while Johnny ‘has his head in the clouds and his feet in the past’. I think perhaps what I’m trying to say is that it’s interesting how Johnny Suede has a fan base still within today’s rockabilly community when I don’t think his character represents it at all now.
Above everything in the film it is the set designs, details and backdrops of a beautifully tattered and decaying Brooklyn, that I love. My ex was American and we were to go to Brooklyn in Johnny’s footsteps, but I’m glad we didn’t. One thing is destroying the illusion of a movie by visiting where it was filmed. it’s quite another to find out that those buildings have gone. Apart from turning out to be a not very nice person my ex was quite insightful into the meaning of Johnny’s heaven sent shoes, something which I’ve never seen written about. That is Johnny becomes a bit of an arse when he finds the shoes. He appears to name himself “Suede” after contemplating them, and when he loses one in the finale he is remorseful and back to his humbler well meaning self. They do change his character to an extent. maybe this is incredibly obvious. I thought it was insightfully cool though.
As for the set design if I ever own my own place I will trash it to look like Johnny’s room. My crummy little band cover “Never Girl” at our gigs but what really gets me are the incredible details in the flick. The Lady Love heart and dagger drawn on the wall at the start of the film is the most perfectly beautiful little drawing I’ve seen and I’m partly ashamed to admit to you that I have it tattooed on my left arm. One carefully placed tattoo, that’s it. But I really want to know more about these stylistics and what inspired them, the naively drawn girl in leopard print we see on a card in the phone box and the ‘blue boy’ graffiti in the bathroom looking as though Jean Cocteau had drawn Popeye (I’m an illustrator by profession which is why I find this so interesting).
I apologise for this rambling mess of a post and hope I haven’t appeared like some dribbling sycophant (as I once did when I met Morrissey) but yes I do find the banality of life in the 2000s depressing and the visuals in Johnny Suede are something I wish I could wake up to sometimes. Thanking you in advance for taking the time to read this Tom
Best Regards
Tim Daddio
Hey Scott,
Well, this is one of the most interesting responses I’ve had to Johnny Suede. I never meant it as a wake up call but it did coincide with some moments in my own life where I realized a few things needed some re-consideration.
Your account of the psychobilly scene in Melbourne is fascinating. I was going to film school in NYC at the time I conceived the main visual themes for the film. The east village was just beginning to happen. Every morning I walked to school I would pass guys in the neo-punk, psycho-suede period stumbling home from being up all night. One guy with a 2-foot pompadour was trying to step onto the sidewalk. He was so blitzed on smack it took him 20 minutes just to get his pointed ankleboot off the pavement. When he finally did he promptly fell over and collapsed into a mound of garbage. He was still there when I walked out to get lunch. He became the inspiration for Freak Storm.
I actually loved that period in NY. It was a cool time. I loved the freedom it gave both guys and girls to dress in extremes. At least it was about something. The blandness of today is majorly depressing.
Ultimately though, no matter what you look like it is what you’ve got going on inside that has value. If that thing inside is not real, well first of all you know it, and 2nd of all very soon the world knows it too. It takes a fuck of a lot of courage to look at that.
I wish you the best, Scott. I really appreciate your taking the time to write.
I saw this film in 1991, it spoke directly to me, it said “WAKE UP”.
I was 20 at he time and had completely imersed myself in to the Rock-a-billy/Pychobilly scene in Melbourne, Australia. I was obsessed with my hair style, living for a week at a time without washing it because I’d got it just right (3 hrs of work) and I wanted it to last. My clothes were all one-of’s from second-hand shops, (no-one else wanted that stuff then), I had no money, and was trying to start a band, I been into this stuff for 7 years or so and had lots of stupid girl friends, was drunk a lot of the time etc, on a downward spiral, then when I saw this film, I was shocked into making some big changes in my life, (for the better) and ultimately I found and met my current partner of 15 years a women much wiser than I.
I had always wanted to write to Tom to say thanks so very much for making this film which spoke so clearly to me, and moved me to make changes for the better in my life. So as I eagerly await the arrival of my copy of “Johnny Suede” I thought it was about time to say it.
So, to Tom DiCillo,I extend a very warm, if belated, thank you for Johnny Suede.
Yours sincerly
Hey NPT,
yep, I’m going up to Portland on Thursday to yak a bit about Delirious and Living In Oblivion. I’m looking forward to it.
Congratz on the Johnny Suede DVD and losing the voice-over. I’ve never seen the movie and now look forward to catching up with it.
Look forward to seeing you in Portland later this week?
Hello Emily,
What a sweet note to get. I don’t mean that in any sticky or sugary way. I mean that you actually moved me.
You clearly got the intent of what I spent so much time on in the mix and the production design. The sound mixer looked at me like I was crazy when I said, “No, I want the sounds of birds chirping in Darlette’s apartment. It is part of her theme, part of what makes Johnny so infatuated with her.”
The finger snaps too were carefully worked out. One of my greatest influences in terms of film scores is Ennio Morricone, especially all his spaghetti western films. Nobody was doing what he was doing; whistling, guys chanting, bells ringing. To this day I am constantly going back to his scores for inspiration.
I hope you enjoy the DVD. Thanks so much for your support and enthusiasm. It really means a lot to me.
For years, I have anxiously awaited “Johnny Suede,” on dvd. My old vhs copy is nearly spent, though I love it so. This movie is so magical in every way. I never tire of it. The subtle bird chirps in the background, the snaps, Johnny’s expressions, Darlette’s bedroom…it is all so understated and clever. Makes me wish that I had a hand in the whole process. You have my full attention.
Hey Jillian,
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked Johnny Suede. It was my first feature. So much went into it. Looking back of course I see things I wonder why the hell did I do that. But I also see things that I wonder, where the hell did that come from and why aren’t you doing more of it?
It is clearly a first feature. But I’m proud of every frame. You should check out Living In Oblivion and Delirious for a different sense of my sensibility.
Just wanted to say that I saw Johnny Suede for the first time recently and felt an affinity with it. I’ve since began viewing your other films and look forward to whatever is next.
Hey Parker,
Yes, the rough cut was quite a bit longer. All of the rough cuts usually are. You take everything you shot, cut it in and see what works. That’s why time is so important in the editing process. You need to be able to look at everything over and over and determine what serves the film and what does not.
As far as Ms Louise her part was always as long as it is in the final cut. She played Darlette’s mother. When Darlette’s story ends so does her mother’s.
Thanks for answering my query re: Tina Louise. I have one more question. I had heard your rough cut of Johnny Suede was almost an hour longer. Were there more scenes with Ms. Louise in that longer version? I like the film a lot but was surprised she had only 2 scenes in it.
Am very impressed (and astonished) with brevity of your query. Also with its content.
Alison Moir. She was a complete unknown when I cast her as Johnny’s girlfriend in Johnny Suede. I wanted someone strong, sexy and beautiful of course, but not in a traditional “pretty girl” sense. The character is clearly disturbed, living in a fantasy world not far from West Schizophrenia.
I saw many young actresses for this part. In fact Juliette Lewis (16 at the time and living with Brad Pitt) came in to the seedy LA motel to audition. Juliette did very well but I felt that even at that young age there was a lack of innocence about her that I missed for the part. She auditioned with Brad. At one point Juliette stopped and with an odd smile asked if she could start again because “Brad was fucking her up.”
So, I cast Alison. She brought a believable child-like quality to her role as a slightly damaged lost princess who continually appeals to Johnny for his help. At the same time she had a very intense, smoldering anger which she turned on him whenever he crossed the emotional barriers she’d erected between them.
I thought Alison was amazing in the part. I am deeply surprised she was unable to pursue her acting further. As I said in my Trivia Notes above, her inexperience prompted a great quote from one of Brad’s publicists when GQ asked to do a photo spread on Alison and Brad for the New York release of Johnny Suede. Pitt’s publicist denied the request saying, “Her star is nowhere near his orbit.”
To which someone who sounded like me replied. “Thank you, I see now that your moon is in Uranus.”
Hey Nick,
Good to hear from you again. That’s actually a good question about the motels.
My father is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps. As a kid we moved to a different part of America every two years. Most of the moves were back and forth between the east and west coasts. As a result the family crossed the country by car at least 7 times.
There is a film there somewhere–five people jammed into a car for a week.
It was inevitably always in the middle of a school year and my father (straight out of Turturro’s character in Box of Moonlight) graciously brought along a series of Math workbooks for me to complete during the journey so I would not “fall behind”. I tell you, nothing compares to trying to figure out how far the train from Chicago will go at 55 mph if it stops in St. Louis to pick up 2,000 crates of bananas when the headwinds are 33 knots–especially when you are so fucking carsick all you want to do is barf into the front seat.
So, the motels. We stayed at hundreds of them. Usually they were well off the beaten path because my dad was always trying to find shortcuts. Almost all of them had the same damp, musty smell lightly laced with pine disenfectant. All of them were accompanied by an odd group of managers, some with entire families running the place. At one place the owner’s mentally handicapped son, about 12, brought us some plastic glasses and became so interested in my brother, sister and me that he insisted on sleeping in the room with us. We had to call his mother to gently escort him from the room.
All the motels were of course along some kind of highway, with the sound of traffic always moving past. These places have a strong evocation to me of America; something vaguely comforting and disturbing at the same time.
Hey Parker,
Tina Louise was great to work with. She had certain ideas she felt strongly about but they were all well-connected to the film and her character.
Listen, women have it tough in this business. You turn 17 and suddenly you’re playing all the grandmother roles. Tina had a very intense childhood and upbringing and had to fight hard to make headway in the business.
I love her combination of goofy humor and sulky sexiness.
At one point before filming I ended up in her apartment in Manhattan, discussing the role with her. The only place to sit was on her bed. With her. I was not yet jaded enough to let that moment pass unremarked by my brain; here I was reclining alone on a bed with Tina Louise, a woman whom I’d last seen blowing softly into The Professor’s ear making his bowtie begin spinning madly at his throat.
See the movie. She’s great in it.
Well, hello there Mona,
Always a pleasure.
So, yer a Leary fan, are ya?
Thanks for renting Double Whammy. I still feel that film has some great stuff in it and should have had a theatrical release. Legally it was supposed to. LionsGate picked it up in Sundance for a Sept. 2001 theatrical release and then simply shelved it. I have their announcement in Variety to prove it.
I tried everything to change their minds. No worky.
I think Denis is great in it. I love him and Buscemi together. But I must say my favorites are the younger actors like Keith Knobbs and Donald Faison, Melonie Diaz (in her first film) and Maurice Compte.
They were so great to work with. They gave their all.
Spozed to go into a studio on Monday to record the Director’s Commentary for Delirious. We’ll see…
My best to you. Happy New Year.
Hey Tom,
Your descriptions of the motel’s “suite” and contaminated pool instantly reminded me of the oddball hotel scenes in “Box of Moon Light.” I’ve got to say, those scenes captured the surreal nature of staying at hotels better than anything I’ve seen…especially because I’ve noticed a certain aura of weirdness any time I am in a hotel. I wanted to ask what (filmmaking?) experiences directly inspired the whimsical elements of those scenes?
Just out of curiosity, how was Tina Louise to work with? I’ve heard conflicting accounts of her through the years. Some tow the Gilligan’s Island party-line that she was high-maintenance and difficult. Others say she was simply insecure, but hard-working and dedicated nevertheless. What was your take?
I’m so happy to hear that Johnny Suede is on DVD. Turns out it’s available now on Netflix. What luck!
I just finished my second Tom DiCillo Classic, Double Whammy. Bless you for giving me Dennis Leary. Of course, I’m still dying for Delirious to come out, but I’ve waited over a year so what’s a few more months? (Sigh)
Happy New Year! Be good.
Hey Damien,
Great to hear from you again. I’m pleased that you gleaned some of the lesser obvious themes in Johnny Suede. Like violence towards women; truly despicable behavior. The only reason men do it is because they are physically stronger. If women could kick their asses it would never happen.
So, here’s this guy Johnny Suede, who’s whole personna is built upon the heroic idea of the wandering knight, the protector of women. And the first thing he does when he’s trapped in a crumbling identity crisis: he strikes out and hits the one woman who loves him.
I thought Brad played this complexity very well. I like characters who have weaknesses; even disturbing ones. We all do.
But, the whole idea was that Johnny’s personna was a facade, a complete sham. That’s why I wanted someone like Pitt to play him, with his obvious surface appeal. Brad was eager though to go as far as we could with showing Johnny’s imperfections.
The Nick Cave story is a long one. I knew of him of course, and admired him. A friend of mine, Christoph Dreher, a filmmaker/musician living in Berlin was in a band with Nick’s drummer. I sent Christoph the script at one point. One night my phone rang here in NY about 1am and a voice asked for me. The voice had a strong Australian accent that sounded strangely familiar.
It was Nick. He’d been crashing in Christoph’s loft in Kreuzberg and found the script on a table. I think Christoph may have “left” it there. To my utter astonishment Nick had read it and wondered if he could play the part of Freak Storm; Johnny’s jaded alter-ego.
I said yes immediately. It was Nick’s idea to make Freak an albino and kind of an evangelical whackjob. The day we shot his scene he was 2 hours late from the makeup basement. I kept hearing there were “problems in the chair.” I walked 5 blocks through the crumbling needle-littered streets of Brooklyn and entered a dingy cellar to discover Nick glowering in a small make-up chair. The wig “expert” we’d hired to apply the white pompador wig was sweating profusely and poking at the putty on Nick’s forehead with a plastic fork in her expert attempt to smooth it out.
Nick looked at me and said, “I knew I should niva have tyken this fokkin film.”
We immediately hired another expert. Three hours later Nick was singing Mama’s Boy with all his heart in an alley with Brad. Aah, the memories…
Hello Simo,
Thanks for writing. Your English is not bad at all. You wrote a very interesting comment and I thank you for sharing such personal thoughts.
I am very pleased you got a chance to see two of my films. I did not know they were available in Serbia. It is a coincidence you mention the Christian themes you sensed in those 2 films. My latest film, Delirious, won Grand Prize from the Catholic Church in Spain. I was astonished when I heard this news.
I do not practice any one religion. I don’t mean to judge you or others who believe in written religious movements. I believe in only one thing and that is how mankind behaves towards mankind. I believe it is every human being’s task while on this planet to discover the truth for themselves and not have it forced upon them.
The ideas you mention in my film are not strictly Christian. They are Human. I’m sure you know Christianity does not hold a monopoly on the decency in human behavior.
Nonetheless, you have responded to something “spiritual” in my films and I am very moved by that.
Thanks very much for writing.
Hola Victor M!
Glad to hear you are still alive and have not over-dosed from all the drugs in your friend’s father’s medicine cabinet. Your English is not repulsive. Bush and company are repulsive.
As a matter of fact I just used a word you will find very useful with many English-speaking people: over-dose. Do you know this word? Medically it means taking way too much of a prescription drug. So much that you either pass into oblivion or you die, whichever come first.
This word is a great one for today’s society–especially the commonly used abbreviation: O.D. Example–“Today I O.D.ed watching way too much news about Britney Spears developing hemmorhoids.”
See? You can use it at many formal ocassions, like dinner parties and church functions.
No, there will be no more extras added to the Spanish DVD of Delirious. I can only thank the brave, wonderful people at Aurum for their fantastic release. They did such a wonderful job of releasing the film in Spain I think I am going to O.D. from total fucking happiness.
The quotation about me saying goodbye to Brad is accurate. I never really saw him again after making Johnny Suede and he became a star. I put that idea into Delirious, at the end of the movie when Toby becomes a star, ascending into the heavens of Stardom and having to say goodbye to the rest of humanity.
Catherine Keener is a wonderful actress. I have not seen or hear from her in many years. Maybe one day our paths will cross again.
Here is another great English word: douchebag. Do you know this one? I use it alot; especially in the movie business. I suggest you make it one of the 901.
Glad you liked the post on Suede. I just watched the movie again from start to finish. Crazy. Like it was made by someone else. Both Brad and Catherine are amazing in it.
hasta luego, mi amigo.
And that relationship with Catherine Keener, how she ended up being in many of your subsequent films, with her incredible diversity of roles, made her one of my favourite actresses.
Anyway, enough with my internet clutter.
Talk to you later,
Great post! I always wondered about that rumour; glad you cleared it up.
Johnny Suede is the first movie I saw of yours; it was luck: Walking in a store I saw–almost fucking passing out–that my two favourite artists at the time, Nick Cave and Brad Pitt, were in the same movie. I bought it, watched it, and it was Tom Dicillo all the way. Take too long to explain the wonders I’ve found in all your films, like Johnny fucking up his relationship at the end, that bit of violence, or the cheating in Box of Moonlight, actually being benificial to the relationship, etcetera, etcetera. Too bad about all the bullshit slowing your film producution.
By the way, how did you get mixed up with Nick Cave?
Hello Tom, I am writing from Serbia.
Second try to write you something.This was very interesting story about making Johnny Suede, but unfortunatelly I haven`t seen movie yet.A few years ago I have seen two movies.Both were good,both I was impressed and both have something in common.I am not some movie critic or movie maniac and I usually forget names of director,actors and I like to see good movie as I like to read good book or see nice picture.When I realized that both movies were made by one man, I understood why I thought that must be some connection between these movies.What was so much in common?It was something essentially human in treating characters,despite their weakness and naivety,something that make them very close to every of us.As a Christian I could say that there were Christian movies without mentioning a Christ.The movies were: Living in Oblivion and The Box of Moonlight.I was very happy when I saw this blog and I am very happy to have a chance to write you. Sorry for bad English and wish you all the best.
Hola Tom!
Amazing post and amazing story, dude, I liked a lot. I saw “Johnny Suede” long time ago and I think that now is the perfect time to see it again.
I love Catherine Keener (an authentic muse), she transmits a lot of things with her penetrating look and I hope she come back to film a movie with you.
About Brad Pitt (great actor and incredible performance in that movie), I read an interview where you said in respond to a question about Brad and Johnny Suede:
“The last day of shooting I approached Brad Pitt and gave him a hug. In a second I felt rejected, and at that time I had the feeling that never would see him again.”
Interesting moment, I think.
Indeed, I saw here in Madrid the Delirious Dvd, but only contain the movie and one trailer. Will appear another dvd with more extras in Spain? If not, I go to buy this right now.
Hey, how many people from Spain there are here!!! Spain loves you, Tom.
See ya.
PS: My English continues being repulsive, don’t you think? My friends always said me: “You can’t learn English with 1000 words.” They are right because I only know 900.
Hey Rick,
Good to hear from you again. Yes, that story is true. I still quake in fear in memory of it. On top of stolen wardrobe and collapsing buildings I was dealing with a very talented Director of Photography who later confided to me he was so jealous I was directing my first feature he couldn’t stop himself from intentionally sabotaging the shoot.
Nothing I’ve just written is exaggerated. It is the honest truth. He was in tears when he told me 6 months later. I had to fire him 2 weeks in because I was getting footage that was so poorly framed and out of focus it could not be used.
I am still amazed how this business attracts so many psychologically warped and crippled people. Especially on a low-budget film it is absolutely crucial that the director trusts and relies upon the unflinching committment of his/her crew–most importantly the DP. To have one who is intentionally trying to screw you?
I based the wardrobe of Wolf (the cameraman in Living In Oblivion) on this guy’s clothes. He had everything; the leather beret, the black, half-fingered gloves, the sleeveless leather vest, the motorcycle boots. He thought the camera was a weapon. He didn’t know he looked (and acted) like a cross between Road Warrior and a gay motorcycle cop.
We did not work together again.
Dear Maite,
Thanks for buying the Johnny Suede dvd. I came over to Spain to press for the original Spanish release in 1995. I don’t eat a lot of fish or bifstek so everytime we went to eat I asked for chicken. The Spanish distributor started calling me Johnny Chicken.
I hope you can find Box of Moonlight on dvd.
As far as you’re being prepared–what do you need to be prepared to write me a comment. Nothing. Nada. Gracias. You have passed the test.
Hey Good People Movie,
Thanks for writing. So, you noticed the hair, did you?
It’s funny, some (artsy) critics reacted against the movie, saying it was just trying to be cool. Which just goes to show you that just because someone can type doesn’t mean they’re not fucking boneheads.
The central, and painstakingly obvious conceit of the movie is that Johnny Suede is a FOOL. I gave him a pompador that big so emphasize this. He looks like an idiot. He can’t even tell that in his desire to look different he’s made him self look ridiculous. That was the whole point.
I like it. It exaggerates him, the way the film is exaggerated. Brad was very cool with it. We kept trying to get to go higher and higher. If you watch the film you’ll see how we succeeded as shooting progressed; his hair at peak pomp reached up over 7 inches.
So, you like cramped kitchen stories? Oh, man–do I have millions of them. I’m glad you find the blog readable. Your words of encouragement are taken seriously and seriously appreciated.
Hey Chet,
Thank you so much for being the first to ask my favorite question. Here are the facts:
Brad was great to work with on Johnny Suede. He was very intelligent and he cared very much about adding as much dimension as he could to his performance.
When I wrote the script for Oblivion I drew upon many, many actors I’d encountered–some in films, some on stage, some from the numerous total fucking lunatics I meet in acting classes. But, I did not base the character of Chad Palomino on Brad. In fact for 5 days in 1994 Living In Oblivion was a “go” picture with Brad playing the part. He loved it and was all set to shoot when he had a schedule conflict with doing press for Legends of the Fall.
James Legros was walking by Catherine Keener’s house when I was on the phone telling her this. She yelled out to him that we were making a movie and asked him if he wanted to be in it. Legros said, yes. That’s how he was cast.
I found out later he based his performance on Patrick Swayze.
When the film went to Sundance in 1995 a rumor got started that I was too inexperienced to deal with as cleverly or forcefully as I should have. As a result, the rumor spread. I explained my error to Brad and he appreciated my honesty. In actuality it is understandable how he could have been hurt by it. As far as he knew we left Johnny Suede as friends.
I’ve spent considerable time over the years trying to correct this mistake. I wrote a letter to Entertainment Weekly which they never published. People want to believe it so they do.
So, there you have it.
Hey Tom,
I am glad to see you posting again. I remember reading something about your DP intentionally trying to sabotage your film (Johnny Suede). Is that true? With all the obstacles you need to overcome with your first film – and to deal with that! Incredible that you came through it with a good film. I look forward to seeing it again as you originally intended (director’s cut).
I’ve been able to buy “Johny Suede” as Christmas gift for my friends this year, but I’m still waiting for Spanish DVD edition of lovely “Box of Moonlight”. I’d like my boyfriend to watch it.
I’ve just discovered this blog and I’ll prepare better my next post. This has been some kind of… test?
Holy Hair Batman! That’s one serious do Mr. Pitt has going there on the cover.
I have never seen this movie (nor heard of it honestly), however reading this story makes me want to see it.
Being a filmmaker I love these stories of cramped kitchen auditions between now major Hollywood actors and directors!
Good blog. Please keep writing, your stories are told with a unique voice and you are an inspiration.
Speaking of Brad Pitt in “Johnny Suede,” isn’t it true that Chaz in “Living in Oblivion” is based on Brad Pitt and…
Sorry, just kidding. I “KNOW” how much you love answering that same f’n question.

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Independent Filmmaker & Musician