By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: Left, Michael Pitt in “Delirious”; below, Tom DiCillo on set, Peace Arch Releasing, 2007]
Tom DiCillo comes to the table with a truckload of indie cred, from his early-career cinematographer gigs on Jim Jarmusch’s “Permanent Vacation” and “Stranger Than Paradise,” to his leap into writing and directing with 1991’s “Johnny Suede” (starring a relatively unknown Brad Pitt, long-rumored to be the inspiration for the self-absorbed Hollywood actor slumming it in DiCillo’s 1995 hit “Living in Oblivion”). That DiCillo isn’t more famous after premiering his sixth feature at Sundance this year is particularly ironic, considering the premise of his latest: “Delirious” takes a satirical bite out of celebrity-worship culture and pathetic, petty behavior displayed by those who want to be a part of it. Steve Buscemi stars as a deluded, sad-sack NYC paparazzo who reluctantly takes a wide-eyed homeless kid (Michael Pitt) under his wing, until their relationship becomes strained comically so after Pitt’s puppy-dog crush on a pop diva (Alison Lohman) somehow springboards him into celebrity status. DiCillo, who has recently started blogging on the film’s website, sat down with me to discuss fame in the digital age.
What is becoming of our society? Is this our downfall, worshipping the Paris Hiltons of the world?
I’ve put a lot of thought into it. Now, just because I think of these things doesn’t make them valid; they’re just my theories. But certainly, if you have eyeballs, you look around and see what appears to be this fungus that’s growing. What do you call it when something keeps doubling on itself? It’s a bizarre focus of attention on something that I find both fascinating and terrifying. I did a lot of research about this. Neil Gabler wrote a great book about celebrity [entitled “Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity”], in which he detailed some of mankind’s development of fame. It used to be that people were famous for doing something. In the earliest times, if a bear attacked a village, and a guy went out with his spear and killed the bear by himself, that became a real thing that was perpetuated, sometimes for centuries. But it’s only been in the last five or ten years, this idea of being famous for doing nothing.
What event do you think instigated this change?
The explosion of the information age. Any piece of information, whether it’s visual, verbal or whatever, gets spewed out into the world instantaneously. Anybody can do it, so that means anybody can be famous. I mean, look at all the people who want to be on YouTube: “Look at me! Look at me!” Why should we look at you? Why do you feel someone should look at you? I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be sanctimonious, I’m just saying. One of the things Gabler talks about is people being satisfied with what they do. That, whatever your job, whatever that thing you do, it satisfies you. You shouldn’t feel the need to have the entire world not only know who you are, but to give you validation. That’s something I’m really interested in, this sense of worth and worthlessness. That’s more prevalent today than I’ve ever seen before. People are feeling that, my god, if Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan get this much attention for doing nothing, what am I? How can I be valued? That’s one thing it does, and the other is: “Well, let me have that, too! I want that.” People don’t really feel comfortable today; I don’t think people have a sense of what their place is in the world. For a lot of people, the world has become a place with no value on it. That’s a tough thing for any human being to deal with.
Could a backlash divert this trend to any extent? Like, now that all these party girls are getting busted and going to jail regularly, will people ever wise up and realize fame for fame’s sake is a silly goal?
That’s a good question, I don’t know. Even now, with Lindsay going back into rehab she just got out, for chrissakes, and people are fascinated to hear about it! I think the entire world, not just America, is fixated on some idea of fame or celebrity. If the entire world tells you that you’re an incredible person, you never have to think about it: “I don’t have to go to a shrink! The world tells me I’m great, so I’m great.” I think it solves a lot of problems for people, or they think that it will.
So how do you deal with this belief? Where do you find your own values and aspirations?
It places them in a very precarious situation. Sometimes I feel like I’m on an alien planet. The only thing I can fall back on, with this movie in particular, is that people really respond to its emotional resonance, and that’s assuring to me. It makes me feel like I’m not alone and that there are people out there who recognize it’s the human element that matters. That’s what keeps me going.
Well, having seen all or most of your work, I respect that, for better or worse, you don’t compromise your independent status to make the films you want to make. Maybe it’s come at the expense of being less famous, but your films never feel like they exist to please the mainstream indie masses.
I have to tell you, I really appreciate that comment because it’s taken me quite a while to actually understand why I do what I do. It came to me about a year or two ago, when I saw one of my films, and my name came up, and I thought, “You know what? I’m proud of that movie.” I made it the way I wanted to, it’s my film. Not in an ownership [way], but I made what I felt was important, what had value to me. If I can continue doing that, seeing my name come up on a film and not cringing, that’s what it’s about. The whole independent business today and again, I don’t want to sound like sour grapes, because I’m not these are facts. The independent business is driven by the exact same priorities as Hollywood right now. This film opens [on August 15th], and I guarantee the first thing that’s going to happen: “How’d the box office do? How are the reviews?” It’s going to depend on the exact same things that Hollywood films survive on: star power and box office. I think this is affecting the kinds of films that are being made because even an independent film needs to survive opening weekend. How do you do that?
How do you feel about having your passion projects commodified like this to judge their success?
There’s no question about it, you feel a tremendous sense of vulnerability. It’s hard, and the real challenge is to have the faith and confidence that you made what you made. On the other hand, you can’t deny that reaction to the film is going to affect how you’ll proceed. It’s either going to make the next film easier or harder. Certainly, everyone would opt for easier, but you also hope the things you feel are important and vital are recognized, and that other people respond the same way. No one wants to feel that they’re operating in a vacuum, that’s a terrifying feeling.
On top of that, how do you attract people’s attention when there’s so much out there to watch, read, listen to, etc.? Do you think about this when you’re making a movie, or do you block that out until the production’s finished?
I’m of two minds about that. If you think about it, it could be terrifying because it’s like looking up and seeing a tidal wave, and trying to run as fast as you can to stay ahead. If you’re running, then you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing. You have to be aware of it, you can’t be blind to it. But I believe that if I continue trying to make the films the best that I can, people will respond to them. You can’t even comprehend how dense the marketplace is. And where it’s going, the idea of showing films on iPods? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in the last ten years. What kind of movie would sustain itself on an iPod? I guess I’m just a purist. The idea of sitting at home and watching movies, it’s convenient, but it’s not the [theatrical] experience where something sparks to life.
Alright, I’ll stop depressing you here. How did Elvis Costello end up in the celebrity cameo role?
That was a great happy accident. I wanted someone in that scene who would motivate Steve Buscemi’s character to be speechless in the presence of a star. Originally, I had gone to Paul McCartney, but that didn’t work out. Then David Bowie didn’t work out. We were a week before shooting, and one of the people on our list was Elvis. Steve said he knew him, he called him, and the next thing you know I’m in a location van, the phone rings, and it was Elvis Costello. I was as speechless as Steve’s character in the movie. He said, “Sure, let’s do it.” I met him the next day, we sketched out that scene, and he was fantastic. He’s a real artist and generous as hell. He gave us the song at the end of the movie for free. He’s just a great guy, I had to keep pinching myself.
Because he’s one of the deservedly famous, like your villager who kills the bear.
Yes, exactly! That’s a very good analogy. [laughs]
“Delirious” opens in limited release on August 15th (official site).