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.
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.