Somehow I made it to the Burbank airport in the morning. I stared at the DELAYED notice above my flight for about 15 minutes before I realized it meant I was going to miss my connection in Dallas which meant I was not going to get to Champain, Illinois in time for the screening of Delirious.
Unless I took a cab to LAX and caught a different flight. Which I did. Which cost me. Which got me to Champain at about 10:30 pm. I was starving. Loreen, my local liaison at the festival, took me down Main Street trying to find one of the 30 pizza joints/bars still serving pizza. Champain is a college town. The local merchants have discovered that after 10 pm college students don’t need to eat; they need to drink.
On every corner stood huge clots of kids wearing matching yellow T-shirts which declared, “Tuesday Night Bar Crawl!!!” Some of them were already crawling. Loreen finally found a place on the outskirts of town that was just shutting down but because the manager knew her he would heat up a couple slices for us. We were the only people in the place. As we plowed into our soggy Gutbusters I felt like I was in a Coen Brothers movie directed by David Lynch. And that was before Loreen informed me she believed in God because of sunshine and because she’d already seen 3 flying saucers in her life.
The following morning I found myself on a panel along with film critics Richard Roeper and Lisa Rosman, the actor Rufus Sewell (Cold Comfort Farm), the director Bill Forsythe (Local Hero) and several independent producers and directors. The subject of the panel was, “The State of American Independent Film.” As I looked out over the audience I wondered if at the last minute the festival had bussed in residents from a local retirement home to fill the seats. Everyone was at least 65.
But the discussion was spirited and lively. Several people lamented the fact that independent filmmakers were having such a hard time in the current blockbuster climate. A question was directed to me about how to cope with this catastrophe. It could have been the powdery residue of my recent evening at Tregor’s that prompted my response:
“I’m not sure I understand why independent filmmakers automatically feel they should be welcomed, protected and nurtured like some helpless, holy babies. I have tremendous sympathy for anyone trying to make a more personal kind of film but filmmaking is an intensely competitive profession. If you want to succeed you have to fight. You have to earn the right to be a filmmaker. No one is just going to hand it to you. And no one cares if you make a movie. No one cares if you don’t make a movie. It is entirely up to you whether you do or you don’t.”
Several of the more senior members of the audience nodded their silvery heads in knowing consent. Or they could have been just nodding off. Then a woman in the audience stated, “I’m 78. I have some money. I hear your stories of needing cash. I want you to know I’m ready to invest a sizeable sum in a film.”
The rush toward her after the panel ended slowed when it was revealed her sizeable sum tapped out at $150. Still I felt a great admiration for this septuagenarian trying to help the Cause and I wondered if there was any way I could get my hands on that $150 so I could cover the cost of the taxi fare I’d spent from Burbank to LAX.
At 1 pm Delirious was to screen at the festival’s ornate Virginia Theatre. The place was packed by the time I arrived. I learned only then that Roger Ebert would not be there. His wife Chaz told me his health issues prevented him from traveling. She then asked me if I would introduce the film myself as Richard Roeper was running late.
I hadn’t planned on this. I was intending to just sit and watch the film before the Q&A afterwards. It wasn’t until I walked onto the stage and looked out at the audience that I realized what I would say.
“I made a vow to myself and to Roger that I would not discuss any of the distribution nightmares that plagued Delirious. In fact, it is entirely due to Roger that I am here. In my darkest hour I wrote him an email with 5 questions. We had never met. In the email I expressed my confusion about what had happened to my film and to my astonishment Roger wrote back and answered every one of my questions in detail. It was a huge help to me in a very troubling time. I’ve seen performances and screenings dedicated to people and I’ve thought to myself, how silly. How can you dedicate a screening to someone? Well, now I know how you can. This one is for Roger.”
It was a dream screening. The laughter was so intense and abrupt huge sections of crucial dialogue were drowned out. Afterwards I went on stage with Richard Roeper and Lisa Rosman. We all received life-sized golden statues of Roger Ebert’s upraised thumb. I weakened and broke my vow.
“I know just where to tell my distributors to stick this,” I muttered into the microphone.
The discussion with Roeper and Rosman was sharp and astute. At one point Roeper noted his admiration for Steve Buscemi’s performance. I told a story about how just before a take I’d whispered a direction to Steve, suggesting he use some of his feelings for his own father. During the next take Steve broke down.
It is one of my most cherished moments in the film. As I came to that part of the story a huge swell of emotion suddenly gripped me and I had to fight to keep from bursting into tears. It took me several moments to resume. Everyone saw it. No one said a word.
Experiencing this in front of over 1200 people is more than a little terrifying.
But this is not the first time it has happened with Delirious. I thought about it afterwards and I realized why this deep well of emotion keeps following at my elbow. There isn’t a single frame in the film that I didn’t pour my soul into. Creating something is as close to immortality that we get. It’s the creation itself that is eternal; not the fame. And it was my life up there.
When the Q&A ended I lingered outside the theatre for a long time, just kind of walking back and forth in dazed exhaustion. I sensed the presence of Roger Ebert everywhere. The same spirit is in every one of his reviews, whether written or televised. He loves movies. He loves to share his joy with others. His film criticism is never nasty, self-absorbed or mean-spirited. If he likes something he tells you why. His openness and generosity clearly affected everyone at the festival.
At that moment I said to myself, “This is probably the last time Delirious will screen in front of an audience. Nothing could have given me a more rewarding closing experience.”
Just then my cellphone rang. A strangely familiar voice snapped me out of my state of dreamy rumination.
“Yo, T. Wassup.”
“Yeah, bro. What’s goin’ on?”
“How’d you get my number?”
“Hey, I’m in Surveillance. Gettin’ a phone number’s easier than buyin’ a cheeseburger. And what’s with all the fuckin’ questions?!”
“I’m just kind of surprised to hear from you, that’s all.”
“Well, get over it. I got some good news. You know that particular “issue” we discussed?”
“You’re startin’ to bug me, T. I’m talkin’ about the “issue” we discussed on my balcony less than 36 fuckin’ hours ago.”
It all came crawling back like some sick, yellow nightmare. Tregor’s laugh crackled through the phone with a harsh spike of static. “Payback, bro. Now you remember?”
At that moment Richard Roeper and Lisa Rosman walked by, both waving in peaceful, new-found solidarity with me. My return wave was feeble and distracted.
“What did you do, Tregor?” I asked finally when they’d passed.
“I told you I had your back, T.”
I lost it. “Goddammit, Tregor! If you did any bodily harm to those guys at Gestation–!”
“Oh, shut up, T. What do you take me for; a moron? You think immona risk more carceration for you? Fuck no. There’s thousands of different ways to extract payback besides swordal mutilation.”
“What did you do?!”
“You wanna know what I did?”
“I snuck into Arnold’s house and put catshit in a pair of his shoes!”
I couldn’t speak for a long moment. “Tell me you’re kidding,” I managed finally.
“No!” Tregor blurted in delight. “See, it’s like I told you, T. The Plan is we don’t do one big thing. We do a bunch of little things and just keep doin’ ’em. On and on, for years. We never let up. I got a million different idears.”
“You put catshit in Arnold’s shoes?”
Tregor was so excited he was panting into the phone. “Fuckin’ genius, right?! Imagine him tomorrow. He gets dressed; he’s all set to put in another day as a typical Hollywood asshole. He sits down, puts on his shoes and BAM! Their fulla catshit!”
His sudden bleat of laughter was so loud I had to pull the cellphone away from my ear.
“Can you imagine that!” I heard him cackle. “Payback, bro!! Sure feels good, don’t it?! And there’s a lot more where that came from!”
“No, there isn’t, Tregor!!” I suddenly shouted. Rufus Sewell glanced up at me in startled surprise from an interview he was giving 50 feet away. “There’s no more where that came from!” I hissed into the phone.
Now Tregor was silent for a moment. “What’re you sayin’, T?” he stated quietly.
“I’m saying, that’s it, Tregor.”
“You chickenin’ out?”
“I’m telling you it’s over. You hear me? I never asked for your help. I don’t want it.”
“You goin’ solo?” he sneered. “You’ll never make it.”
“Yeah? Well, I know this much; whatever those guys at Gestation did it’s not going to change a thing by putting catshit in their shoes!”
“You’re right. Dogshit’s better.”
“No, man! Nothing!”
I heard Tregor breathing softly into the phone. “You don’t want my help, T?”
“No.” I winced, then took a deep breath and said it. “I like you, Tregor, but I don’t think there’s any need for us to speak to each other again.”
The phone was quiet for a long, long moment. Finally Tregor said, “Oh, I don’t know. I think you’ll be hearin’ from me, T.”
And then he hung up.