Its no picnic for independent filmmakers

NEW YORK – Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion is a cult classic – which means most people have never heard of it.

Speaking at the film’s showing here May 22, as part of the Golden Age of Cinema Film Festival, writer-director DiCillo described his motivation for the 1995 film. “[I was] either going to kill myself or kill somebody.”

Sure, DiCillo’s first film, Johnny Suede, starred an unknown Brad Pitt. But it took four years to make and played in New York for exactly one week. Such is the life of an independent filmmaker.

DiCillo, who is now seeking a distributor for his latest, Double Whammy (which will be shown at the festival July 2), was then looking for a producer for Box of Moonlight, which would star John Turturro.

Unfortunately, what happens with one film has a big impact on the next and suddenly DiCillo couldn’t raise the money for Box of Moonlight. So, suffering those suicidal and homicidal tendencies, he was drowning his sorrows at a relative’s wedding when, after three martinis, he came up with the idea for Living in Oblivion – a day in the unglamorous life of the director of a no-budget film.

It was an independent film in the truest sense. The overall financing came from DiCillo’s wife’s cousin and the actors even put up money for their parts.

Steve Buscemi, who plays the director and has starred in Ghost World, Fargo, Reservoir Dogs and some 70 other films, was trying to get his own movie, Trees Lounge, off the ground without any luck.

“I figured I could play a director,” Buscemi said, “even if I couldn’t be one.”

Living in Oblivion, which also featured Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney and James LeGros, started out as a half-hour movie shot on 16 mm film. DiCillo soon realized, though, that it was too long for a “short” and too short for a feature.

“If I was going to get it shown, I had to expand it,” he said. Thus, what started out as the entire film became the first sequence of the three-part final product.

It went on to win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and DiCillo eventually secured the funding for Box of Moonlight. He followed that in 1997 with The Real Blonde, which starred Matthew Modine and Keener.

Now he’s completed Double Whammy, which stars Buscemi, Denis Leary (“The Job”), Elizabeth Hurley, Donald Faison (“Scrubs”), Chris Noth (“Sex and the City”) and indie-favorite Luis Guzmán.

A comic cop movie, Double Whammy presents a gallery of New York eccentrics, including Homicide Detective Ray Pluto (Leary), voluptuous chiropractor Dr. Ann Beamer (Hurley), Pluto’s loyal partner Jerry Cubbins (Buscemi), as well as tattoo-loving teenagers, young thugs and aspiring screenwriters.

“It is an ode to the vibrant diversity of New York City, where the film was shot in its entirety,” according to Golden Age of Cinema Director Zhenya Kiperman.

In fact, DiCillo had to buck the producers, who wanted Double Whammy shot in non-union Toronto instead. “No one will know the difference,” they argued. DiCillo, all of whose films have been shot here, refused to give in on this point.

He described one compromise he did make, though. One of the money men insisted on a part in Double Whammy for his karate instructor, who wanted to “get into acting.” DiCillo was going to refuse but “$4 million is $4 million” so he agreed to give him a try.

Unfortunately, the 39-year-old martial arts master wanted to play one of the 18-year-old budding screenwriters. Worse, he could not act to save his life! DiCillo eventually let him play a reporter in a three-line role. His delivery of those lines was so bizarre that I looked up from my note-taking to see what was wrong with him. That’s when I remembered DiCillo’s story.

As DiCillo said, $4 million is $4 million, and “independence” doesn’t mean freedom in the world of film.

Double Whammy was a huge hit at its Sundance screening in January 2001 – “even at the ungodly hour of nine o’clock a.m.” – according to festival reports. In fact, it was the first film at the festival to be picked up, with Lions Gate Entertainment paying $1 million for the domestic distribution rights.

Unfortunately, a year later they jumped ship and now DiCillo is again looking for a distributor. Such is the tortured existence of independent filmmakers. Why do they continue to do it? Simple. They love making movies and they want to make the movies they love.

The author can be reached at crummel@cpusa.org