TOM DiCILLO is one of the founding members of the American Independent Film movement that began in New York City in the late 1970’s. His early contributions were as Director of Photography on several feature films including Howard Brookner's Burroughs and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.
Among the directors DiCillo worked with are Eric Mitchell, Bette Gordon, Amos Poe and John Lurie who were making features on super-eight film and projecting them on walls in bars on the lower east side.
“That was an incredible time to be in New York,” DiCillo recalls. “Everybody was working on everybody else’s film. Nobody knew how to do anything. Everyone was a first-timer but no one cared. That’s what was so exciting—everything was possible.”
DiCillo moved to NYC in 1976 to attend NYU Graduate Film School. He received an MFA in Directing, having written and directed six short films, one of which, God Save The King, won the Paullette Goddard Scholarship award.
After graduating, DiCillo began studying acting. He performed in numerous Off-Off Broadway plays including "Johnny Suede," a 1-Man Show he wrote and starred in. The success of the show prompted DiCillo to adapt it into a screenplay.
1n 1991, DiCillo made his directorial debut with Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener. The film won Best Picture at the Locarno Film Festival but it was his next film, Living In Oblivion, that introduced him internationally as a filmmaker. The film stars Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener, with Peter Dinklage in his first film appearance as a dwarf who is angry he’s been cast in a dream sequence.
Living In Oblivion won the Best Screenplay award at the Sundance Film Festival and marked DiCillo’s continuing collaboration with Catherine Keener for whom he’d written the film. Keener starred in DiCillo’s next film, Box of Moonlight, which also introduced Sam Rockwell in one of his first film roles.
DiCillo continued to develop his unique blend of humor and pathos in his next three films, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious. Delirious won Best Director and Best Screenplay at the San Sebastian Film Festival and reunited DiCillo with Steve Buscemi for whom DiCillo had written the lead role.
In 2010 DiCillo wrote and directed the feature documentary, When You’re Strange, the first documentary to tell the story of The Doors. The film was narrated by Johnny Depp and won a Grammy for Best Direction.
DiCillo’s interest in music lead him to write and record his first album of original songs in 2013. The album, Hurt Me Tender, was made with Will Crewdson and Grog Lisee who joined DiCillo in a band called The Black & Blue Orkestre.
Throughout 2022 DiCillo wrote and recorded his 2nd album, Shot of Blue. The album continues DiCillo’s interest in blending his favorite musical genres; Surf, Hip Hop, Spaghetti Western, Electronica and early Elvis into a single genre.
DiCillo explains his love of writing and recording music. “It’s all spontaneous. You get an idea, you plug in the guitar and you record something. You do it just the way you want, right when you want. I love filmmaking; just not the part where you spend four years trying to raise the money. The creative joy of making music is instantaneous.”
DiCillo’s desire to apply this same creative freedom to film lead him to make a feature documentary called Down In Shadowland. The film consists of footage DiCillo shot over a 7 year period while underground in the the New York subway system. Using a small, hand-held camera, DiCillo was able to capture moments of intimacy, violence and beauty that had engrossed him since he’d first moved to NYC.
Tom DiCillo is also the author of two books, “Eating Crow,” and “Notes From Overboard,” which detail his experiences making his films Living In Oblivion and Box of Moonlight.
There are several books about the cinema of Tom DiCillo, but "Include Me Out" by Wayne Byrne includes in-depth interviews with DiCillo and goes into great detail on every film.
Independent Filmmaker & Musician
rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain – hello, tom.
faces on the streets of this city need someone
who knows how to frame a shot. they keep
slipping off the sides into the rivers. messy.
then they are eaten by salamanders
I want to thank you for “When You’re Strange”. I watched it through netflix 2 weeks ago and since then purchased it and have watched it 4 times.
I was 8 years old when I was turned onto the Doors as well as all the other bands of the late sixties (by my cousin who lived with us while attending college). The Doors have always been my favorite band and always will be.
The footage you were able to obtain and use in this film did and does make me feel as if I was right there with the band (as Johnny Depp has mentioned).
It makes me sad that the Doors and the sixties are gone. That was the only chance the youth had at true freedom and it was lost.
Sometimes I cry when I watch your film and sometimes I smile, but you definitely have captured the mystique of the Doors like no other (very pure).
Thanks very much for your comment. I’m glad you were touched by the film. I took a great risk choosing to use only the original footage but I agree with you (and Johnny Depp) that it makes you feel you are right next to Jim, Ray, John and Robbie.
Yes, the 60’s were an intense time for kids in America. I think that for one very brief moment there really was the belief that young people could change the world. It still blows my mind that college kids were making the news every night protesting the Vietnam war–really going out there and fighting against Nixon, the military and “authority”. I miss that fighting spirit among our kids today.
I also miss the willingness to see the benefits of the Inner Journey. I don’t care if I sound ethereal cereal. This journey has been crucial to the development of every human being’s soul since man crawled out of the swamp. And now the use of our opposable thumbs is limited primarily to punching in typographical smiley faces and our gaze is permanently fixed straight down at our tiny blue screen navels. The window of our souls indeed.
But, don’t despair. The flame still burns on, clearly in you–and from the responses to the film, many others.
My best to you,
This is a first for me – blogging – I just watched When You Are Strange. I do footage, still, content research, rights and clearances for broadcast TV and film and I have to say I just loved the way you used what I am assuming is archival material of The Doors during their run together. So many gems! I think it adds this wonderful quality to your piece.
And I am usually pretty good at determining what is archival material and what has been shot or “re-enacted” in documentaries. There were a few moments while watching your film where I was not quite sure.
I listened to The Doors growing up and felt their impact even though I was very young, the memories are there.
Thank you for your film – it was quite real and refreshing and it makes me happy as a researcher that these gems exist!
Thank you, thank you!
Thanks for taking your first plunge into the blogosphere here. Also, thanks for your kind words about When You’re Strange.
Your observations are fascinating because 99.99% of the material for the film was either archival, or footage taken directly from The Doors vault. Jim asked a classmate from UCLA, Paul Ferrara, to begin filming them in concert as early as 1967. That’s where most of the performance and behind the scenes material came from.
You may be aware from reading here that in 1969 Jim Morrison wrote, directed and starred in a 50 minute color film called HWY (also shot by Ferrara). I used outtakes from his film for all the scenes with Jim driving and wandering through the desert; the coyote, the gas stations, the swimming.
If you’ve read here you will also be aware of how amused I was that most people thought that was all re-enacted; especially sniffy critics who didn’t even bother to ask.
The rest of the material was gathered from film archives by our researcher Deborah Ricketts. I spent many, many hours weeding through it all to find images that I felt best served the film.
There is no film footage that I’m aware of for the Miami concert. This entire sequence was re-created by my editors and I using material from other Doors concerts. It is interesting to me that no one has ever mentioned this, despite the fact the lack of material is pretty well known.
There are only two fragments that we actually filmed. One was a close up of the period road map seen at the beginning of the film. And the other was the sequence of the “state of the art” 4 track tape recorder used to record The Doors first album. There was actually a working machine in the sound dept of Universal Studios (where I was editing). I felt that seeing it was important to the drama of that moment so one morning I went over with a little home video camera and shot the footage of the reels spinning and the meters moving. Then we made it black & white and added some grit and grain to it.
That’s it. Every other frame in the film is real.
when i heard what the nature of -When You’re Strange- would be,i knew i had to see it because i knew i most certainly would be in it-i am! the riot scene at The Singer Bowl when the camera scans the audience-my sister & i-just 2 lost little black girls in the city of night. thank you everso. nothing could ever compare to jim in the flesh!
Saw “Living in Oblivion” down here in OC, CA so many years ago. My wife and I both quote it and laugh about it to this day. Chad Palomino sneaking into frame behind Catherine Keener. Still makes me smile. (We both left saying “Man, that Keener gal is amazing. Hope she gets somewhere.”) Saw “The real blonde” and still treasure the bow tie scene. Both films are gems that need to be required viewing for anybody who claims to be an “indie” fan. Thank you Mr. DeCillo.
Sorry it took me a while to get back to you. I’m glad you and your wife enjoyed Oblivion. I’ve got to confess I’ve laughed at the Chad Palomino/Keener scenes many times both during and after the film. And yes, Ms. Keener did get somewhere–as did Peter Dinklage.
I’m also pleased you enjoyed The Real Blonde. That’s a tough film for me. I put a lot into it, and there is much in it I like but I wish to hell I could re-cut to its original Director’s Cut.
This is a bit of an usual request but I would like to use the image on the cover of Living in Oblivion in a book I am writing for teachers to be published by Routledge. One of the teachers in my doctoral study used your film to teach her senior students film protocols. Could you please give me permission to reproduce it as part of the introduction to one of the chapters. Thank you. Please respond using my email address.
A few questions first.
What source of the image are you planning to use?
Is the book to be made available for sale?
I just wanted to tell you how much I love “When You’re Strange”. I have watched it countless times alone and with friends. You made this documentary so perfectly! You convey an era, a person, a story, and the American psyche. Great narration and editing. Thank you! I hope you will create many more projects. All good wishes.
Thanks Maryam, that is very kind of you to say. I’m glad you liked the film. I worked hard on it for quite a while. It is a time period that means a lot to me and obviously a lot of other people, including yourself.
I’m hoping to get some of my film projects going soon. Always working on them. Not always seeing eye to eye with the current independent film making machine.
I like the new look & feel of your website, Tom! Nice!
Thanks, Elaine. I’ve been wanting to change it for a while. Had the great fortune to work with Eduardo Almonte who designed it.
Dear Tom: My good friend and fellow Boston editor and filmmaker James Rutenbeck just gave me a heads up on your website. Looks great.
You are one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. I have turned countless friends and students onto your films, especially the beauties “Living in Oblivion” “Box of Moonlight” and “The Real Blonde”
Gotta track down “Delirious” which I somehow missed, and “Shadowland”
Thank you so much for your great body of work.
Thanks Cob, Sorry it took so long to get back to you.
I’m sincerely glad you appreciate the films. I think you would love Delirious. Buscemi is unbelievable in it. Down In Shadowland is much different, more of a personal artistic expression; if such a thing is still possible in the film world. But, again, I think you would enjoy it. Keep checking the site for release info.
Thanks for the reply Tom. watched ‘Delirious’ last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. GREAT ensemble cast! And per norm, wonderful NYC cinematography. Your films all have so much heart. So genuine.
Will be on the lookout for Down in Shadowland. Know I’ll dig it.
Hey Cob, thanks for checking out the film. It actually got off to an amazing start on the European festival circuit. Best Director at San Sebastian, Best Screenplay. But for some reason the American distributors just didn’t get it. It ended up as a small arthouse release. That killed me.
Because, as you pointed out, the cast is amazing and the film is full of humor and heart. I would say though the film belongs to Buscemi. I wrote every word, and I directed it as I saw the film, but Steve brings the film to life.
Hi Tom: Happy Autumn. Just finished reading ‘The Cinema of Tom Dicillo’ by Wayne Byrne. What an absolute delight. A great window into your filmmaking mind, and of course the anecdotal stories were a blast.
Also, since my last reply, I watched “People are Strange” and “Down in Shadowland.” Wow! Both beauties in a completely original way. As a doc editor, I was blown away by the style and storytelling in The Doors film. Near and dear to my heart, my first ever live rock’n roll concert was on a summer night in August, 1968, Kennedy Stadium, Bridgeport, CT when The Doors absolutely killed it. Went over the chain link fence with 100 other young fools sneaking in. I don’t think Jim would have minded. Loved the way you used his desert movie, and love the story behind you figuring out the editing puzzle. “Down in Shadowland” is jaw dropping selection of shots, cinematography and music. Bravo Tom…your body of work is a gift to the universe.
Hey Cob, please excuse the lateness of this reply. Life swings you out into distant orbits sometimes. I congratulate you on seeing the Doors live. I never got a chance to; well—I did get to see Ray and Robby lay down a gorgeous performance of Riders On The Storm when the film played at Sundance. It was mind blowing.
I have to tell you, I so much appreciate the fact that you “got” When You’re Strange. I put so much work into trying to make the film as honest as possible, finally just deciding to use only real footage of the Doors. I can’t tell you how many “major” critics trashed the film for using the footage of Jim’s film HWY. They accused me of recreating all of it with an actor playing Jim. Forget me, what a massive disrespect and ignorance of Morrison and his work. And they never even asked me!!
But, man. The fact that you watched and got something out of Down In Shadowland is hugely affecting to me. Again, I made that film just trying to put what my eye saw on film. Some people get it, some people don’t. You got it. Thanks so much for your words of support, Cob.
“Box of Moonlight” is among my favorite pictures. Loved the synth banjo score. I always laugh when Turturro’s eyelids are half way open and a quick passage of the banjo run sneaks in (when he’s sitting in the car, window down, talking to the Kid, near the end of the film, saying goodbye). Not sure why I laugh everytime I see that quick moment. I always forget about it, but then when I re-watch the movie, I always end up laughing at the same part. Crazy stuff.
Nice to meet you yesterday !!!! I didn’t know your backgrownd but I knew you were special !!! I am Elena and I was having dinner with Kerry Fulton and Jose Toledo, my friends.
Hello, Elena. Nice to meet you too. Jim is one of my oldest friends. He did the score for my first 4 films. How do you know him?
Greetings from Maine Tom! Enjoyed watching Down in Shadowland the other week in Waterville at the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF). Very powerful and thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing (as I said in the Q & A as well as in the lobby afterwards). Glad you understood my conflicted emotions about kids on the NY subway daily!
I was telling you in the lobby how much I loved the music – your own as well as the other artists. It beautifully tied so many different and varied visuals together. You mentioned watching a video stream in the future for the music credits. When will the film stream? Is your composition available iTunes?
Come back to Maine sometime!
Greetings from Italy.
Yesterday I had the chance to watch Down to Shadowland on Mubi, twice in a row and then, with goosebumps and tears, I scrolled to pick up clips here and there. I confess I danced on section 6.
What a magnificent docu!
I’ve to say that I also have a fascination for NYC subway and newyorkers, that’s probably why you’ve got right to my heart.
Thank you 🙂
Any chance we’ll also see it on DVD? Only found on iTunes and Prime.
All my best
Hello Michele, thanks so much for writing. And thanks for your words of support. I’m sorry not to have written sooner but the past few years have been a little crazy. It means so much to me that Down In Shadowland touched you. I spent 7 years making it and it has great meaning for me. To see that it has somehow touched you makes it all worthwhile. No, it is not on DVD. Perhaps that might happen. But, it was a very personal film and it was hard even to get it shown on iTunes and Prime. But, you’ve given me inspiration to try.
I send my best,
Dear Mr DiCillo – This past month I accidentally subscribed to prime video by missing the cancel date for my “free trial” period and somehow I found your film “Down in Shadowland” – what a great compensation for my “mistake”! I LOVE movies and have been a Netflix DVD fan for a # of years, and watched all the old Hollywood greats on TCM when I still subscribed to cable. BUT “Down in Shadowland” is probably the greatest film I have ever seen, and one of the greatest artistic works I have ever experienced. It had a profound emotional effect on me and I will purchase it so I can rewatch it. I wish it were available on DVD. BTW, I used to ride the subways when I attended school in NYC in the ’70s (Barnard and the Art Students’ League) but have not actually been underground in NY for 38 years as I moved to CA for 17 and am now in upstate NY. I remember so many long slightly scary walks from the last stop on the IRT thru the tunnel to 180th(?) St…..Also running like a madwoman thru the long tunnel at Geo Washington Bridge from the A-train to and from the bus terminal on my way to and from school. Once I carried a 8′ length of pipe that I had found on the street and wanted to use to construct a sculpture stand thru the subway and onto the bus – no problem! Probably not possible today! Anyway, I can’t imagine how you managed to DO this film – noone seems to notice you are filming, for one thing, and the way you cut it all together to actually MEAN something is sort of beyond comprehension. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – the accretion of words/images gradually adding up to something ultimately ineffable. And the soundtrack is sublime. THANK YOU for a wonderful piece of work. I will try to see everything you have made. I DID see Stranger Than Paradise years ago and loved it…. SC
What a pleasure to read your message. I’m thrilled at the happy accident that drew Down In Shadowlandto your attention; even more thrilled that you responded to it so strongly.
I noticed the mystery of this underground world the moment I moved to NYC in 1976. It was so frustrating not being able to capture some of the amazing and emotional images I saw. It wasn’t until technology and finances enabled me to purchase a small Sony Handicam digital camera that I was finally able to begin in around 2009. I never hid the camera. In fact, in some sequences you see people looking right at me. One man gets up in disgust and walks away. But, I always tried to respect people’s personal privacy. If I filmed something it was because I thought it illuminated some real emotional meaning and did not ridicule or belittle anyone; in fact I hoped that my filming honored the truth of what the person was revealing. I know, tricky area. But, I do feel that there is the possibility of a shared artistic connection to things you see in public.
I filmed for about 7 years, every day. Sometimes I’d film for a week and get one shot. I never knew when something was about to happen. I had to be ready all the time. Eventually I developed a sense when I walked into a car where to look; a face, a motion of a hand–something sending out a signal that drew my attention.
It took 3 years to cut it together. My biggest challenge was to create something that was more than a random series of shots cut together. I spent a lot of time trying to find a structure where viewers could feel there was a distinct, and clearly thought-out journey the film was taking them on.
If you liked the film the only thing I ask is that if you feel like it give it a like, a thumb, star or a comment or whatever is available. Not many people got a chance to see the film. Anything that suggests another human being saw it and responded to it could be so helpful in nudging others to give it a try.
Once again, thank you for your wonderful note. It made my day.
hi mister DiCillo my name is alon cohen I live in Israel in a city near Tel Aviv 4 months ago my older brother died while working in Zimbabwe Africa Since then, I have decided that life is short and that you have to give thanks to people on the way
A few weeks ago I started reading your diary about a box of moonlight And I wanted to thank you
I watched box of moonlight in 2001 on Israeli cable television and it had a big influence on me and I thought about it and the characters of kid and al over the years and the film helped me through difficult times hope you will read this
Hello Alon, two things. First, I’m deeply sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. Life is indeed short. The connections we make with people, whether they are family or otherwise, are the most important things in life. The loss of any one of those connections is devastating. Please accept my condolences.
Second, never never never call me mister. I’m Tom.
I’m deeply touched that Box of Moonlight found it’s way to you. I put a lot of hard work and love into that film. It is based very much on my childhood. It speaks of a lesson that I keep having to learn; we all have two lives. The second one begins the moment we realize we only have one. I send my best to you.
For a moment, I was sitting down and randomly thought about Tina Louise which then led me to think about Johnny Suede. It was one of my favorite films in college. I am from Kansas City, and I had a friend who had the rule that any Brad Pitt film that had him playing a “Springfield character” i.e. one that resembled his upbringing in southern Missouri was a good role for Brad. We used to Johnny Suede as an example of a good Pitt performance. If someone ever throws a bunch of money your way, please make a feature depicting the life of Freak Storm as played by Nick Cave. It would be a compelling narrative. Thank you, Brent
Hey Brent, sorry for the late reply. I love your comment. I could tell you a million stories about all the things you mentioned. But, let me just say the most important thing; I so much appreciate the fact that the film I made had some impact on you. No matter what anybody says we’re all in a vacuum. I had an idea, it somehow got realized into a film and somehow, some way you saw it. That is proof enough that miracles can occur in this business. Brad was great in Johnny Suede. He was also great in Moneyball and Burn After Reading. Nick Cave would be amazing in an film entirely his own as Freak Storm. And hey, if you stumble across anybody looking to throw some money my way just let me know. I thank you.
I was first directed to your work by my film school professor who encouraged me to watch ‘Living in Oblivion’ in order to develop a screenplay I was writing about a film set. After watching it, I was really impressed by how slow, calm and patient the storytelling and camera movements were. Around this time I also read an interview you did in a book called ‘My First Movie’, where you mentioned the making of ‘Johnny Suede’ and your work as a cinematographer, one thing which caught my attention was you mentioning some conflicts with Brad on his performance, about how it should be carried out. I’ve now seen the film, and think perhaps that this friction, dynamism in ‘Johnny Suede’, between the filmmaker’s intention, and the actor’s interpretation actually makes the film much more alluring and interesting than if you had cast an actor who was more complacent. As a filmmaker, I always look for this kind of exciting energy where things almost go wrong, because it then makes for a fascinating experience watching the films.
The script for the movie is also quite interesting because it seems to be guided by the character’s thoughts and feelings, the story is almost told like a poem rather than following a plot and its hard to tell what Johnny wants except to be himself. I thought that some of the scenes could have even been based on real dreams you’ve had. Made me wonder if you are familiar with any Iranian filmmakers; We tend to make poetry the centre of our work. In American films, these qualities are unique. Another filmmaker who does this well and I love is Jerry Schatzberg, are you familiar with his work?
I’m very excited to track down the rest of your work and I’m happy that you are kicking around!