Living in Oblivion's Tom DiCillo
The scene was any filmmaker's dream -- but perhaps especially rewarding for an independent artist who's been toiling at his craft for years: It's after midnight as a prestigious film festival screening of his new film ends. The closing credits role, but no one moves from his or her seat. The audience is anxiously waiting for the creator of the work they just loved to go to the head of the theater, take a few bows, and answer a few questions. Such was the recent scenario for Tom DiCillo, writer and director of Living in Oblivion, which had screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. DiCillo was riding high -- just a few weeks before his low-budget film about the making of a low-budget film took the prestigious screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival. So ended the last of Tom DiCillo's own life in oblivion. In an industry filled with characters who would run over their own mothers if they thought it might help get a movie made, the success of Living in Oblivion couldn't be happening to a nicer New Yorker. And with good reason. Living in Oblivion is a smart, funny comedy -- part slapstick for the masses, part brain picnic for celluloid junkies. DiCillo's second feature (his first was the under-appreciated flop, Johnny Suede) stars a goateed Steve Buscemi (best-known as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs) as Nick Reve, a spastic filmmaker having a surreally bad day on the set of his film. "It was never my intention to make a film about filmmaking," says DiCillo. "I look at it now and I see it more as a farce that just happens to take place in this milieu -- it's like a cross between the Marx Brothers and Kafka." In Nick Reve's moviemaking world, there are no Range Rovers, cellular phones, and plush trailers for spoiled leading ladies. Here, as the real world of filmmaking unfolds, we witness bumbling camerapeople, an out-of-control fog machine, and a cast and crew with so many personal problems they make the characters on Melrose Place look like the Waltons. Filmmaking reality, DiCillo, reveals in no uncertain terms, bites "I've always been completely dumbfounded by this bizarre duality that takes place on the set of every film," says DiCillo. "There's this massive concentration of energy focused by everybody on this little tiny fake scene. And what it takes to get that fake scene, is just much more interesting, most of the time, than the scene itself. Watching the crazy interactions with people; the intense effort -- making a movie is literally like warfare at times." While Altman's The Player focused on the sleazy back-stabbing of a vacuous industry, and Heart of Darkness explored Francis Coppola's one-man fight against the elements (and himself) to make Apocalypse Now, Oblivion's details the daily battles the actual cast and crew must confront to get their movie made. "This film is not at all about the pretentions of the whole 'Hollywood Syndrome -- this is a whole different game," explains DiCillo. "There are no agents, no producers -- there's nobody on the set, just these people, these filmmakers. What they're struggling with is whatever it is that frustrates any sort of accomplishment or endeavor." Oblivion originally was conceived as a short film with no commercial aspirations -- simply a labor of love born out of DiCillo's own awful experiences both on the set of his first film Johnny Suede and trying to secure funding for Box of Moonlight, what was to be his next project. "When [Moonlight] fell apart for the fifth time," explains DiCillo. "I said 'this is too much, I can't handle it.'" "Right at that moment I went to a wedding. And this guy comes up to me, a guy who was in one of my acting classes eight years before. He says, 'Oh man, Tom, you made Johnny Suede, how great, you made a movie. How great. Working with the actors, the cameras, the lights, everything...'" That's when DiCillo flipped. "Maybe it was my mood, maybe it was the martinis, but I just said, 'Let my tell you something man, let me fucking tell you something. Most of the time acting in a film is the tedious boring bunch of shit you can imagine.' He said, 'Noooo, you're kidding me.' I said, 'No, I'm not.' And I started explaining to him why it could be a real nightmare -- a light could go off, the camera could not have film in it, all these things. Suddenly as I began to list them, it struck me: all the different technical things that go wrong, especially to an actor who is really emotionally primed to do a scene. I realized that I had a half-an-hour sketch right there and I wrote it -- and before I knew it turned into: 'fuck it, let's just make a half-hour film.'" The surprise success of Living in Oblivion came just in time for DiCillo. After fluking into the job of shooting then-NYU film school-mate Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, DiCillo went on to serve as cinematographer for a number of films. Finally he scraped up the funds to make his movie, Johnny Suede. But despite Suede's star cache-- a just-discovered Brad Pitt -- the quirky little fantasy about a boy and his suede shoes was a commercial bust. DiCillo has recovered, and the independent filmmaking market he came of age in is indeed booming. That debt, says DiCillo, is owed to Quentin Tarentino. "Tarentino has completely changed the face of independent filmmaking," offers DiCillo. "I believe the idea now has to be completely restructured. He has made the first commercially accepted art film -- Pulp Fiction grossed over a hundred million dollars, that has never been done before. Now maybe what that's going to do is just elevate him to the big time; but it may move the line of separation between Hollywood films and independent films way, way down so that that line now incorporates more independent filmmaking." He describes his next film, Box Of Moonlight, as "a crazy American comedy about a man who sort of relives his adolescence in five days." Although that film will feature a bigger budget, don't expect DiCillo to forget the lean years. "It wasn't until after I made this movie that I realized that it was kind of an homage to all the years I've spent making these kind of movies," he says. "It's four in the morning, no one's getting paid, the pizza that came four hours earlier is still there, it's ice cold and you have to ask yourself 'why are you doing it?' I realized I made this movie because of my real respect and admiration for these people that really have no money, no equipment, no food -- nothing but this crazy desire to capture something beautiful on film. I think that is the true spirit of independent filmmaking."