Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tom DiCillo on "Living in Oblivion"

What was going on before you made Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: My first feature was film called Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. I busted my ass on that one for at least four years to get it made. Although the film reached a certain sort of audience, it never quite found an audience, and the distribution of it was, frankly, really disappointing. It made making my second film really, really difficult.

I had written a screenplay called Box of Moonlight, and could not get the money for it. Years and years went by, two, three, four, five, and I just reached a point of such maniacal desperation that I said, "I have to do something, no matter what." It was out of that intense frustration that Living in Oblivion was born.

It wasn't born out of, "Hey, let me make a funny movie." It really came out of one of the most intense periods of anger and frustration in my career. And, ironically, it turned out to be the funniest movie I've ever made. I think in some way that is part of what makes my humor my humor. It is humor based upon real, human intensity, desperation, foolishness.

One of the things that makes the script so strong is that all the obstacles that you put in Nick's way are real obstacles that you've experienced in that position.

TOM DICILLO: Whatever you write, you have to tap into something personal for yourself. I used to have an acting teacher who said to me, "If it ain't personal, it ain't no good." There's something to be said for that. Even if you're talking about a character, someone who's not you, you have to find something that is you that you really do believe and that you've really experienced and you have real feelings about, and put it in that character's mouth and in their hearts and minds.

But at the same time, I don't want to ever make it seem like when I write that it's just me. I'm not interested in that. Even with my first film, Johnny Suede -- sure, I put a lot of myself into that character -- but I also was very clearly trying to find a way to make it more objective, more universal, something that other people could relate to.

I absolutely believe that if you can find a way to tap into something that's very personal, and then make a creative leap from there, that's the best way to do it. Anger by itself is not enough. You have to have the creative imagination coming into play as well.

How much rehearsal did you have?

TOM DICILLO: None. Absolutely none.

I don't like to rehearse, anyway. My style of working is to just talk to people, get the costumes correct, talk a little bit about the character, and then just find it as the camera is rolling. What was so fascinating to me was that none of these actors auditioned and they were almost instantaneously their parts. But everyone knew the lines, I'm very disciplined in terms of that.

Most people think Living In Oblivion is completely improvised, but there's only one scene that was improvised, and that's the scene where Steve erupts at the crew at the end of Part One. Everything else was completely scripted.

Were there any things you learned writing that script that you still use today?

TOM DICILLO: Yeah. I have a tendency, if I'm going to write a joke, I set it up with a one, two, three punch. But I realized that most of the time, when I get in the editing room, I usually only end up using the one or the two, never the one, two, three. That's kind of an interesting lesson to learn: if you're going to tell a joke, just tell the joke. Don't do three jokes.

I also learned the idea of setting in motion something that, once it's in motion has a life of its own and people are really are almost instantaneously eager to find out what's going to happen. That's a crucial thing. Many screenwriting teachers will talk to you about a screenplay and say that it's all about tension and conflict. And, in some ways, that absolutely true.

But if that tension and conflict doesn't arouse enough interest to have people really want to know what's going to happen next, then you're screwed. I think Johnny Suede suffered from that a bit. It was my first screenplay and there's very little real dramatic tension in it.

I like the idea of setting something in motion -- like a cart rolling down a hill -- that once it's going, you can't stop it.

What's your favorite memory of working on Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: Oh, man, there are millions. I think I would have to say that it was the look on people's faces the first time Peter Dinklage, who plays Tito, erupted into his tirade against the director. Most of the crew that we had hired had not read the script, because we weren't paying anybody. And so we were getting people working for free, and they might work one or two days a week.

And so this crew was just standing by the lights, doing whatever they were doing, and all of a sudden Peter Dinklage, during a take, says, "I'm sick of this crap." He just erupted and everybody just turned and looked with their jaws open. They really thought he was saying it.

Then the laughter that erupted when they realized that it was just part of the movie, it was a fantastic feeling. It made me really feel that I had stumbled upon something and it was working.

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