johnny suede (1991)

Writer/Director: Tom DiCillo
Cast: Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, Nick Cave, Alison Moir, Calvin Levels, Tina Louise, Samuel L. Jackson.
Produced by Yoram Mandel and Vega Film.
US Distribution by Miramax.
Festivals: Sundance, Locarno, Gijon, Deauville.
Awards: Best Picture; Locarno Film Festival.
Music by Jim Farmer, Link Wray.

Johnny Suede is my first film. It is based on a 1-man show I wrote and performed in a tiny theatre Way-Off-Off Broadway.


The reaction was strong enough to convince me to write the screenplay and begin the insane journey of trying to make it. At one point, about three years in, I miraculously found the money. But, the producer would not agree to my casting choice for the lead; a young, unknown Brad Pitt. He said, "That kid is going nowhere."

Another year later I found the money again, this time with a producer who believed it was the director's job to cast whoever was best for the role. I went straight to Brad and Catherine Keener and in the late Fall of 1991 I was on the streets of NYC directing my first feature.

The film is essentially a tragi-comic meandering through the murky swamps of the male psyche. One of the reasons I was so excited to work with Brad was that I wanted Johnny to be someone who looked like he had it all together; like the world was his for the taking. But, beneath this facade was a guy who didn't have a clue about anything--particularly himself. Brad completely commited himself to this idea; he let himself be as blind, childish, arrogant and foolish as the role required. I think it is some of his best work. It was also my first experience working with Catherine Keener and the trip was riveting enough for me to come back several times for more.

I also had the great pleasure of working with Nick Cave, who I greatly respect and admire. He'd read the script in a mutual friend's loft in Berlin and called me out of the blue to ask if he could play Freak Storm. It was Nick's idea to play Freak as a kind of "albino evangelist Elvis."

I wrote all the songs in the film. Nick sings one called “Mamma’s Boy,” The song was written to be rather dumb. Nick felt apparently it was too dumb and offered to rewrite the lyrics. Who was I to argue? Nick sent me a cassette tape of him singing his new lyrics. Halfway through he stops singing and says, “You know, Tom. I think my lyrics are even more stupid than yours.” And he ended up singing the song as I wrote it. 

I really wish I knew where that cassette is now. 

Jim Farmer wrote the beautiful score; a great blend of Spaghetti Western, Nina Rota and American Surf music.




11 responses to “Johnny Suede (1991)”

  1. Liora says:

    wow, I just found an alternate trailer at Youtube for Johnny Suede. The movie trailer voice of my generation – just learned his name, it’s Doug Paul – see if you don’t remember it!

  2. Freya says:

    I’ve finally watched Johnny Suede after wanting to see it since I was fifteen (that was 22 years ago), back then purely because Nick Cave is in it, I was a huge Nick Cave fan in my teens. It has proved a very elusive film. Hard luck finding it anywhere in the little small town in northern Europe where I lived then. I did once find it in a film shop that specialised in more alternative films, but it was a special import and very expensive, far too much for my pocket money. Then when I was in Australia in my early twenties I saw a poster advertising a screening of Johnny Suede, we tried to go and see it but got lost and never found the cinema. Then about a year ago I found the dvd in a charity shop on my way home from picking up my daughter from school, it was only £1 but I had very little money and needed to buy food, I could spare even £1 on something aa trivial as a dvd. But I decided to come back and have a look for it at the end of the week when I would have more money. To my disappointment it was gone and I left the shop in gloom. Then a few months ago I suddenly came across it again in a charity shop just next to our house (possibly even the very same dvd I misses out on last time) and this time I had a pound to spare. However, being a single mom, having time to spend 90 minutes doing nothing more productive than staring at a screen is a rare luxury, and thus it lay on a shelf until tonight, when I sat down with a bowl of popcorn and had a well earned treat. I even liked it so much I went and made a cup of tea and then sat down again to watch it, this time with the commentary on (which I really didn’t have time for, stealing from my much needed sleep hours).
    Well, I just wanted to say I really liked the film, and this 22 year pursuit if it hasn’t been in vain. I liked the ending, I too don’t like it when things are spelled out too much. I liked the pace of the film as well, but then I’m European, I think we generally have a different pacing in storytelling than Americans? The only thing that bothered me about the film really was when Johnny stalks that woman and she willingly lets him in, it’s hardly plausible that a woman would be enticed to sex with some creep that followed her from the subway, even if he does look like Brad Pitt. Other than that I really liked the film a lot. Thanks!

  3. Brian says:

    Hi Tom. I wanted to know what is the name of the song playing when Deek and Johnny are painting the walls right before the “mark those nibs” scene?

  4. Nordel says:

    Johnny Suede is probably my favorite movie of all time. There’s something about the writing and the imagery, and Brad Pitts performance, and the songs.. this movie is forever burned into my psyche. Been watching it since I was 15. I think this movie is just part of who I am now.

  5. Liora says:

    I believe Brad Pitt owes you a public apology for not crediting you at the 2020 Oscars for helping him get his start.

  6. Steven says:

    Hey Tom,

    I wanted to write and tell you that Johnny Suede is a film that I truly adore and have done so since the mid 90’s. I have it on VHS, Laser Disc, collect the various DVD releases/cuts from around the world and have the orginal movie poster. I’m always amazed, when you’re amazed, by the love fans have of your first film. I have about four films I regard as my absolute favourites and Johnny Suede is one of those.
    I wanted to ask if you or someone else may have plans to eventually release a special edition blu-ray? I vaguely recall you talking about it and including deleted scenes etc that have never been seen before. Of course I may have wishfully made this up but thought I’d ask whilst saying thank you for such a wonderful film.

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Independent Filmmaker & Musician