Living in Oblivion (1995)

Writer/Director: Tom DiCillo
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James Legros, Danielle Von Zerneck, Rica Maartens, Peter Dinklage.
Awards: Best Screenplay; Sundance Film Festival. 
Best Picture; Deauville Film Festival. 
Best Actress, Catherine Keener; Stockholm Film Festival.
US Distribution: Shout! FACTORY
Festivals: Sundance, Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, New Directors (NYC), Berlin, Deauville, Gijon, Stockholm.
Music by Jim Farmer.

Books: “Eating Crow; Notes From a Filmmakers Diary.” (Living In Oblivion).

I wrote Living In Oblivion in a state of mind teetering somewhere between homicide and suicide.



I couldn't get another film made after Johnny Suede. And so one night, plastered on martini’s at my wife’s cousin’s wedding, I stumbled into the Idea; a movie taking place right on the set of a no-budget movie. All the things that could possibly go wrong actually do go wrong.

At times it really does feel that the entire process of making a film is designed to drive you into an insane asylum. Just when some miraculous moment is blossoming to life the camera screws up and that fragile glimmer of beauty is gone. Of course the opposite is also true. But on a no-budget film the “unhappy accidents” can drop you to your knees.

What was so surprising to me was the joy I found in writing scenes that had originally been nightmares to me; absolutely excruciating to experience. After the wedding hangover wore off I wrote the first half hour in 4 days. I gave it to Catherine Keener who was visiting for a few days. I will never forget the shrieks of laughter coming from her bedroom. As she stood in the front doorway saying goodbye we all said, “We’re going to make this movie!”

Except we had no idea how to. My wife Jane started it off by hitting up everyone she knew, somehow raising $37,000 over the weekend. Catherine gave the script to Dermot Mulroney who immediately invested another $5,000 . He wanted to play Nick, the director. I suggested he might have more fun with Wolf, the cameraman. Dermot agreed and instantly suggested Steve Buscemi for Nick. Steve said yes without even reading the script.

Suddenly a financing plan had emerged; any actor who put up money got a part. And that is the way the entire film was cast. No one auditioned. I never knew what any actor was going to do until the moment I called action.

Actually, one actor auditioned; Peter Dinklage. I was having difficulty finding an actor for Tito, the dwarf who is pissed off he's been cast in a Dream Sequence. Kevin Corrigan, who plays the stoner camera assistant, said he knew a really great actor who worked at a fax store somewhere in Brooklyn. I somehow got a message to him and when he came in he blew us all away. 



Brad Pitt was going to play actor Chad Palomino in the film. He loved the script and was all set to go when a conflict developed with Legends of the Fall. As I was on the phone with Catherine, lamenting about the bad news, James Legros walked by her house. I heard her yell out to him, “Hey James! Wanna be in a movie?” That’s how James joined the club.

The entire film was shot in 15 days. It was ultimately financed by Hilary Gilford, Jane's wedding cousin who plays the Script Girl. Thanks to her and Michael Griffiths (Speedo the Sound man) I was able to make a film entirely free of any requirements or demands. It was just us, this lunatic group that had come together. And it was the most exciting, joyous and creatively satisfying experience I've ever had on a film set.

I could write a book about it. In fact I did; “Eating Crow, Notes from A Filmmaker’s Diary,” (also titled Living In Oblivion). 




31 responses to “Living in Oblivion (1995)”

  1. Liam says:

    Hi, Tom. Not sure if you check these comments but I just wanted to let you know that I really love this film. I always viewed movies as little more than interesting ways to kill time. I loved Star Wars, Willow, all the Batmans and anything by Adam Sandler and was content to watch and forget every other film I ever saw.

    That was before Living in Oblivion. I’d never heard of you or your work prior to seeing it but I’m a very big fan of Steve Buscemi so when I saw this dvd on a shelf in my favourite used record store for $2.50, I grabbed it. This was three months ago and I’ve now watched it at least a dozen times. I can’t describe the effect it has had on me. Everything about it hypnotises me. The performances, the lighting, the sets, the writing, Catherine Keener’s armpit hair, Peter Dinklage’s “NO!” and the very concept itself. It made me want to become a filmmaker. Yes, I am aware that this is probably the exact opposite effect you anticipated it might have on people but still, because of this film, I sold most of my shit, left my friends, family and girlfriend behind and moved away from my hometown to attend film school.

    At 28 with previously little or no ambition beyond a strong desire to earn enough money to pay rent, get regularly drunk and put petrol in my car, I now have a Purpose. I will make films. They will be funny, beautiful, human and largely misunderstood. They will not make much money (if any at all) and they will consume my life. I cannot wait to get started.

    Thanks for this film, Tom, and all your others. I don’t know where I’d be without them.

  2. Tom says:

    Hey Liam,
    I’m glad Oblivion inspired you to take the plunge. It’s funny you mention Keener’s armpit hair. It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of cool sexy women let the fuzz flow free. At the time the film was released no one even commented on it. I happen to like it, on some women–but to each their own. I made a choice to have her not shave it and she was cool with it. I think it adds something very human.

    Now listen, Liam. I hope you don’t think I make “funny, beautiful, human films that make no money and are largely misunderstood.” I mean, I think that–but I don’t want you, or anyone else to. You should just think about making films that truly move you. I can guarantee you this; if they truly excite you they will excite others. There’s nothing wrong with making a little cash while you’re at it. Maybe you’re not getting regularly drunk anymore but it’s nice to have a few dollars the keep the irregular inebriation going.

    I sincerely thank you for writing; and with equal sincerity wish you the best.

  3. Marcus Jay says:

    I just watched Living in Oblivion for the first time last night. Wow, a totally unexpected, out-of-left-field experience. I’d heard of your movie but, somehow, never got around to seeing it. It’s so good I don’t even have the words to describe it.
    I’m working on getting my own film off the ground and this was just the inspiration I needed to soldier on.

  4. Liam says:

    Hahaha I don’t think that about your films, Tom. For all I know, you’re rich as Scrooge McDuck. And I’d say your awards cabinet would be nice and full; a testament to the fact your films are NOT largely misunderstood (though I have to say, Box of Moon Light gets not even half the credit it deserves) .

    I said mine’ll “probably” make “not much money” money, Tom, not “no” money. I’ve recently had my first taste of cognac. I can’t go back to moonshine. And in no way would I compare what I believe I’m capable of to what you create. Appreciate the encouragement, brother. Can’t wait for your new shit!

  5. Tom says:

    Hey Marcus,
    Sorry about the lateness of this reply. I’ve been a little pre-occupied the last few weeks. I appreciate your kind words about Living In Oblivion and I’m glad it might have influenced you to keep going.

    Soldiering on is a good term. That’s what it is like; marching for weeks, getting shot at from behind trees, running for your life, digging foxholes, filling them in and then digging new ones two feet away–

    But just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Even if it only gets you one inch further. Just keep doing it. And if you suffer a crushing disappointment dust yourself off, check for bleeding and if you’re still alive, well…pick up the phone and start making your calls again.

    I sincerely wish you the best.


  6. Naomi says:

    Hi Tom,

    When I was 11, I was shown an extract of Living in Oblivion. I remember being amazed at the patience and meticulousness involved in the making of a movie. For years, I tried to find the film, remembering only the word “oblivion” and the image of a beret-wearing guy throwing up, and it wasn’t until last week that I was able to watch the film in its entirety.

    Now, as an 18-year-old film student, I can appreciate and relate to the frustration and occasional elation of low-budget filmmaking. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to verbally abuse an entire crew like Nick did at the end of the first part.) But rather than discourage me from the art, Living in Oblivion motivates me to pursue cinema, for I can only hope to make a film as funny, touching, sincere and relatable.

    Films like these are rare gems.

  7. Tom says:

    Hey Naomi,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m impressed that you found something interesting in Oblivion when you were only 11. This might be because the film started out as a kind of existential nightmare but as it developed it took on some of the lunatic absurdity of The Marx Bros and even The Three Stooges.

    I’m glad you found some inspiration from it. For me, satisfaction still comes from what ended up on screen. But, just as meaningful is the sense of victory and accomplishment at just getting the film made.

    I wish you the best.

  8. Key Ramp says:

    One of my favorite movies. Great atmosphere, staging and acting. Especially Buscemi. Thank you!

  9. Mike Altieri says:

    Hey Tom-

    Is there a link anywhere online to view, “Making Living in Oblivion.
    Conversation with Tom DiCillo and Steve Buscemi”

    I think it’s a great video that will humble all Filmmakers lucky enough to view it.


    – Mike

  10. Tom says:

    Hey Mike,
    The film you are referring too was included as an extra on the dvd release of Living In Oblivion. It was put together by Zhenya Kiperman. He also conducts the interview which was filmed in front of his film class. You might find Zhenya on the web, he’s got a few pages listed. You could ask him if he’s uploaded it anywhere. Glad you liked it. Steve and I had a great time.

  11. Nicolò Piccinni says:

    Hi Tom,

    my name is Nicolò, I’m an italian student from the University of Turin. Sorry for my bad english I’ll try to be as clear as I can.
    The thesis for my accademic degree is about the cinema of Steve Buscemi, as an actor and a director. For this reason I watched for the first time your “Living in the Oblivion”. I think that it is amazing…!! one of the most beautiful american picture that I ever saw. Your film has an atmosphere that reminds me something of Federico Fellini, but at the same time it has something so original and pure that, I swear, is so rare to find… especially here in Italy. For me “Living in the Oblivion” is a sort of “8 e mezzo” of the indepdent american cinema, and it deserves to be even more known in my country, were is so hard to get your and other independent movies. But I hope to find it as soon as possible!
    If you don’t mind I’d like to ask you only three questions about your own work and your opinion about Steve as an actor and director… I see that would be a dream, but I had to try!
    Thanks anyway for your time and your patience… the most important thing is that I found another great director in you wich I didn’t known… it’s a pleasure and a fortune for me.
    Grazie mille!


  12. Tom says:

    Hello Nic,
    Thank you for your kind words. I would be happy to answer your three questions. Why don’t you write them here and I’ll post the answers.

  13. Nicolò Piccinni says:

    Of course!
    In your opinion in which way a film can be considered independent today?
    The second question is… how your italian roots had influenced your work, if they did?
    What do you think of Steve as an actor, and also what do you think about him as a director? (did you appreciated “Trees Lounge” for example?)
    At last, only for my curiosity because I’m a musician, how important is the music in your movies?
    Sorry in the end I’ve asked you four questions… because today I’ve watched “When you’re strange” and it deeply touched me and let me think about the fourth question!
    Thank you so much for your kindness

  14. Tom says:

    Very good questions, Nic. Give me a few days and I will answer them fully.

  15. River says:

    Hi there!
    I’ve just finished watching your film Living in oblivion. It’s a gem. It’s a movie to watch and re-watch and re-watch. It reminds me of the film The nines (2007) by J. August, very similar, although yours it’s more difficult to digest, but I think I like it better. Are the 3 acts happening at the same time but from different perspectives? Like in the first act the director is the Cat’s character, in the second, he is Palomino and in the third one, the guy with the eyepatch. You play all the characters and there’s no difference between real life and the dreamlife.

  16. Alê Camargo says:

    Hi Tom,

    My name is Alê, and I’m an animation producer and director here in Brazil.

    I just re-watched Living in Oblivion yesterday for the milionth time, and let me tell you: it’s one of my all-time favorite films. I love pretty much everything on it including – but not limited to – the clever screenplay, the amazing cast, and the overall dream-like quality it has. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, and it has a great heart – this film amazes me and moves me everytime I watch it.

    Before working with animation, years ago I worked as a production assistant in a live action commercials company. And I would like you to know that life on set here in my country was basically like you related on Oblivion – the only difference being everything was so painfully slower to do in real life… and certainly not so fun.

    Thanks for Living in Olivion – what a great ride it is.

    Best regards,

  17. Tom says:

    Hello Ale,
    Thanks very much for this wonderful comment. I am so pleased the film found it’s way into your heart. It remains one of my favorites. Unfortunately, I cannot go onto the set of any film production without seeing all the behind-the-scenes action and thinking of Oblivion. From the very beginning it always amazed me that this activity and drama just off camera was most of the time more interesting than the subject being filmed.

    There is a book I wrote about the making of the film you might enjoy. It is called “Eating Crow, A Filmmaker’s Diary.” I think you might find a copy somewhere on line. But, you might get a kick out of some of the things that happened during the making of the film and afterwards.

    Once again, thanks for writing. I most sincerely appreciate it.

  18. Hey Tom,

    I just watched Living In Oblivion for the first time. A screenwriting teacher told me to see it back in film school. As a indie film-maker (I recently completed my first feature independently) I must say it’s a masterpiece. No wonder my teacher told me to check it out, but the title slipped by me, and it was only in the video store the other day I recognised it!

    Thanks for sharing this film with the world.

    From Australia,
    Matthew Victor Pastor.

  19. Tom says:

    Hey Matthew,
    Well, I’m glad you persisted and finally had a chance to see the film. As a film student myself, the first time I ever stood through “room tone” I swore I would one day put that bizarre, surreal moment in a film.

    I’m not going to waste your time here with a history of the film but you might find something of interest in this book I wrote called “Eating Crow, A Filmmaker’s Diary.” It’s out of print but there are a few copies floating around the web. It chronicles the whole story of the origins and making of the film.

    Thanks for writing. And I really appreciate your kind words about the film.
    best of luck to you in your filmmaking endeavors.

  20. ale says:

    se riuscissi ad esprimere l entusiasmo che provo nel vedere si gira a manhattan lo farei ma è impossibile grazie tom sei sicuramente il piu grande regista che io conosca….. conosco tutti i toui film e non vedo l ora che ne escano di nuovi.

  21. Zahraa says:

    Hey Tom!
    I recently watched your movie ‘Living in Oblivion’ that was assigned for us by our film teacher. I LOVED IT.
    I’ve been staring at the computer screen for more than an hour trying to explain why I (and the capitals will represent my tone of voice at the moment) LOVED IT. Maybe i’ll never know exactly why it clicked with me so much, but I have a few guesses.
    First of all, i’m not a film student (taking the class for credits) but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying film through what I wanna major in which is psychology. I tend to focus on characters mostly and their development in the plot. I don’t know if the way the actors were cast, like you mentioned before, that made each character seem so original and real. You mentioned how you didn’t know what to expect from the actors until they came on set; maybe that gave the actors the opportunity to stay true to the character they have without being fazed by the process of casting and whatnot. Or maybe (Definitely) you’re just a very very good director and you knew how to bring out the best in your actors like what Nick was trying to do in the movie.
    The color changes from black and white to color was honestly genius and not just for the audience to differentiate the difference between the real world, dream world and shooting the scenes. It played a huge part in setting the mood of each scene and gave us an insight to the minds of the characters. For example Nick’s dream ‘reality’ was in black and white while the scenes he’s shooting were colored. I could go on and on trying to analyze those very thought- out things that we may not appreciate when we watch the movie at first but i’m pretty sure you know every little detail since you made the movie (obviously) so i don’t want to bore you.
    This movie made me laugh, cry out of laughing hysterically (esp. the beeping sound scene) and it had a great external and internal message AND the characters were awesome.
    I’m making all of my friends watch it.
    Sorry i’m late to the party!

  22. Tom says:

    Hey Zahraa,
    It was a pleasure to get this note from you. What was the class your teacher was teaching? Please give my thanks for spreading the word and helping keep the film alive.
    It really sounds like you got the film and that is one of the greatest rewards for any filmmaker. I did know most of the actors and they knew how much I respected their talent. I think they also trusted me to find things in their performances that allowed them further joy and excitement. I have to say there was a sense of family, or community, on that set that was like no other.
    And of course, you must know that almost every word of the script was inspired by shotgun blasts of real experience.
    Thanks for writing and thanks for telling your friends. I’m working on a deal right now to get the film remastered and distributed for the first time on Blu-ray.

  23. Damon Duran says:

    Hey Tom!
    Similar to another poster in this thread I had watched this movie as part of a film class. This film is highly under-rated! A few classmates and I will actually be doing a presentation based on this film later on in the week. The cast was absolutely brilliant, Buscemi was great (as always). The writing was just fantastic, I really got a kick out of the line from Chad saying the only reason he was doing the movie was because he thought Nick was tight with Tarantino. What advice can you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in film or television? Mainly speaking as a director but also as a writer and an actor? Thank you for your time!

  24. Tom says:

    Hey Damon, I’m glad you liked Living In Oblivion. The film pretty much came out of my beginning years of working in the independent film world. So, yes–in many ways it is funny, but in other ways it could be seen as a little scary. That’s what getting into the film business is like. It would be hard for me to give you any real advice here because it would take too long and also it’s almost impossible to say anything clear about the business as it is today. But, here are a few words:

    See if you can specify what you think you do best; writing, acting or directing. Then focus on that with all the energy you have. If you want to be a director you could go to a Film School and learn some basics. But, the best way to make a step forward is to somehow make your own film. Once you have a finished film in your hands it immediately places you on a different level from all the millions of other people trying to make it in this business but who sadly will spend years talking and talking and talking and never make the film they are talking about.

    If you want to work as a writer then I would say, write. If you want to write for TV that is a whole different bag. You can get books on the different TV script forms and write some spec scripts. Not an easy thing to do, I admit. But, my point is, no matter what your aims are the sooner you actually get something done the better off you will be. The same thing is true if you want to write for film; although the screenplay form is much looser and open to innovation.

    If you want to work as an actor then act in everything you can. You could get lucky and get a part in a film. That does happen. But, if you don’t want to wait for luck then try to work together with a group of people who share your interests and ideas and come up with a film or theatre piece that will showcase your acting talents to the best.

    In every instance in my career whenever I have waited for something to happen, or for people to “give me a chance” it never worked. The only time anything happened was when I said fuck it, and created something on my own. It is a little riskier that way, especially if you have to try to raise money, or take time off from family or your job–but it at least will give you the sense that you are actually doing something.

    The film business is hard. It can crush you into nothing. It can also make you feel better than any sex or drug you’ve ever had. If you can find a way to accept both of these extremes then you might be able to survive and create something meaningful at the same time.

    There. A few words. If any of them mean anything to you then I’m glad. They may gibberish but that’s what I’ve got for tonight.
    Good luck to you.

  25. Greg says:

    Hi Tom,

    Stumbled across this site after seeing a recent episode of a TV show with the role a home owner moving in with his renters played by Steve Buscemi, which caused me to Google this film as well as look for it streaming online from some source.

    Living in Oblivion is an unforgettable film; I saw it just once when it was released and I never forgot it. Really great art; IMHO it is right up there with Clerks, most of us can only dream of creating something nearly as good, once in a lifetime man; once in a lifetime.

  26. Tom says:

    Thanks Greg. I appreciate the kind words. I’m excited that audiences getting the new Blu-ray will get a chance to see the film in its original, pristine state, instead of some messed up film print or blurry DVD. I worked with the color timer on it and I’m really impressed with what ShoutFactory is doing with the release.
    But, yes beyond the technical aspects there is the film itself. It is one that I am immensely proud of on a personal level, and proud of everyone in it.

  27. James Loudon says:

    Hi Tom
    I just discovered this site and want to say hi. Living in Oblivion is one of my favourite films ever. I have watched it many times and insist that everyone I know sees it as well, especially friends who work in TV and film.
    It is such incredible work, and its all the more fascinating now I have heard you explain the casting and financing!
    So many great scenes and quotes – and the entire concept is delicious. So, well done to you and all aboard and thank you.

    Last night I watched Delirious for the first time and liked that a lot. I shall be trying to track down Box of Moonlight too.
    Best of luck with whatever you are up to.

  28. Tom says:

    Thanks James. I really appreciate your writing in. Yes, Oblivion struck a chord with me from the moment I had the idea. I see Delirious as a kind of re-visitation, but with a foot in the outside world. Box of Moonlight is an entirely different film altogether. Shot it all outside, down in Knoxville, Tennessee. Some really fine acting by Catherine Keener, Sam Rockwell and John Turturro.
    I wish you luck as well.
    We all need it these days.

  29. Kaz says:

    Hello Tom!
    I’m quite a few years late but I had the pleasure of watching this gem today and it was a wonderful experience, even on my pre-owned DVD copy with French subtitles that could not be removed.
    As someone who’s currently spending a free year between studies doing a one year film course, the authenticity is striking (several classmates who watched it with me would agree). I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave me inspired to try harder though!

    It’s unfortunate that not a lot of your films seem to be available on region 2 Blu-Ray or streaming in my country. I have no clue how licensing works, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to watch more of your work soon (hopefully legally as to support your craft, but my options are limited unfortunately)!

    Love from Norway!

Leave a Reply


Independent Filmmaker & Musician