An Interview with Wayne Byrne, Author of The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out

This week, our featured book is The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out. Today, we are happy to present an exclusive interview with author Wayne Byrne.

Q: What attracted you to Tom DiCillo’s work enough for you to embark on this project?

Wayne: I have been in love with Cinema since the age of four. I remember vividly the first film I saw in a movie theatre; it was Masters of the Universe, in 1987. Because of that event, film is my life, and when I was a kid the video shop was my sanctuary, full of possibilities, full of dreams, full of covers which would grab my attention for one reason or another – usually the more bizarre the better. One section I used to consciously avoid was the World Cinema area (I was a kid…subtitles, right?), but one day I passed through World Cinema on my way to Horror when I was struck by a VHS cover which stood out: Johnny Suede. A lot of the video covers in the World Cinema section had a bland uniformity, as per distribution company format; for example: Artificial Eye and Tartan Video respectively used the same colour (grey and white) template and style of font on their covers, regardless of the film. But Johnny Suede blared out amongst the blandness, screaming “look at me!” It sparkled in lurid yellow and pink, with a picture of Brad Pitt in a bathtub, sporting a huge pompadour. “What the hell is this?!” Something intrigued me enough to chance it, rather than renting A Nightmare on Elm Street for the 14th time.

What unfolded before me was a culture shock. Opening with that Link Wray music, the imagery of the rippled fabric, the surreal nature of the film’s diegetic world – real yet unreal, grotty yet exotic – and in the middle of it is Brad Pitt, who I was familiar with; I wasn’t, however, familiar with the captivating Catherine Keener.

Soon after returning the tape I came across a VHS for sale called Living in Oblivion. I noticed “A film by Tom DiCillo” above the title, and it struck me that this is the guy who made Johnny Suede. I bought it immediately. Wow. It was the one-two punch needed to rattle my cage. While it was the carefully crafted style and elliptical, dreamlike atmosphere of Johnny Suede that hypnotised me and shook my senses and sensibilities to the core, I will credit the pathos, humour and unusual narrative structure of Living in Oblivion with establishing Tom DiCillo in my mind as the first filmmaker I took interest in as a director, and which introduced me to the idea that someone crafts and controls what we see. I duly watched the rest of DiCillo’s films as they came out on video – Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, and so on.

Q: So you credit ‘Johnny Suede’ with getting you into Film as an artform?

Wayne: Absolutely; prior to seeing Johnny Suede I never really paid attention to the filmmaking process; I was familiar with names such as Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper – the guys whose names were synonymous with the horror movies I would always rent – but I never tried to make aesthetic or thematic connections between the films, I never took note of any stylistic flourishes or questioned what a director did. Until I saw Johnny Suede, and soon after, Living in Oblivion. There was something about DiCillo’s very original aesthetic approach, his distinct sense of humour, and devotion to his characters’ humanity that struck me as a recurring element which piqued my curiosity.

So from there I really started taking film seriously, especially independent cinema and arthouse films. I went from avoiding the World Cinema section at the video store to hanging out there trawling through all the covers, looking for the next film that could give me the Johnny Suede experience.

Q: Did you find it?

Wayne: No. Nothing as mind blowing as Johnny Suede; because it was so unexpected! I found out that you can’t replicate such an experience consciously. But I did find other films which made me happy to have embarked on this journey of discovery: Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, Susan Siedelman’s Smithereens, Amos Poe’s Alphabet City, John Sayles’ Matewan

But I will say that seeing DiCillo’s Delirious later on was as close to the delight and euphoria I experienced with Johnny Suede. I consider Delirious the best American film since Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Q: How has your relationship with these films changed over the time spent writing the book and delving in so deep into their production?

Wayne: That’s an interesting question. While Johnny Suede will always remain the most important of the films for me personally, my favourites tend to hop between Delirious, The Real Blonde, and Living in Oblivion, depending on what day it is. And then there are times when I think When You’re Strange is as good as anything Tom has directed.

One of the most exciting chapters for me to write was the one on Box of Moonlight. I immensely enjoyed speaking to Tom, Sam [Rockwell], John [Turturro], and Catherine [Keener] about that film; it was an eventful shoot, and a very personal film. It was a breakout role for Sam, so I could sense the excitement as he recalled that experience to me. I’ve shown Tom’s work many times over the years at film festivals and film clubs, and to friends, and Box of Moonlight tends to be the one that people relate to the most; I’ve been told by many people Box of Moonlight is their favourite DiCillo film.

Q: This book really affords DiCillo’s films a greater analysis than has previously been afforded them over the years in film criticism and academia.

Wayne: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. I’ve never been satisfied with the coverage Tom or his films have received in either mainstream criticism or academic texts, and what does exist barely scratches the surface, either thematically or aesthetically. So, I’ve tried to fix that and I ended up going in far deeper than I initially expected, by interviewing as many of the actors and collaborators as I did. Speaking to the people who made these films, I really got a sense of the love and the labour that went into their creation, and after you do that it can be hard to detach and watch them or criticise them objectively. Reading retrospectively the bad reviews that Double Whammy received when it was released, I find them hard to stomach, because I know of the heartache that Tom endured in getting that film out into the world, and because it’s a film that has so much more going on in it than what critics gave it credit for. Tom really tried to do something different on that film, and I really admire that he endeavoured to turn the “cool, hip violence” thing that was prevalent in indie cinema at that time on its head. And it has such a distinctive look to it which rarely got mentioned in reviews; sometimes it’s the film that sticks out in my mind the most, in visual terms, because the art direction, the production design and the cinematography on that film are so memorable. The visual language of Double Whammy has a similarly striking effect as the films of Douglas Sirk or Pedro Almodovar, it’s reminiscent of the style of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou.

Q: Your book charts DiCillo’s career through the industrial changes that independent cinema faced throughout 80s and 90s and the turn of the millennium. What is it about this era in US cinema that holds particular fascination for you?

Wayne: For me, there hasn’t been as fascinating and as rich a moment in American cinema since that early-mid 90s independent movement. At some stage a homogenisation of certain aesthetic and formal elements set in somewhere along the way and led to what has become the “indiewood” formula. But for a while there it was fierce exciting, with directors likes Tom DiCillo, Hal Hartley, Gregg Araki, John Dahl, Alison Anders, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Solondz, emerging and making really exciting and vital works, the spirit of which I don’t see in much of today’s cinema. These were original voices making distinct, original films, certainly the most interesting since those of the filmmakers of the New Hollywood era, many of whom were, by 1990, not making very interesting films anymore. So we kind of looked to these emerging indie auteurs as the vanguard of a new quality American cinema, a new New Hollywood, if you will. I still do; I still get excited and optimistic when I hear that any of those guys have a new film coming out, even if there is less of a chance of seeing it on a cinema screen these days.

To think there was a time when, in a single year – 1992 for example –  we got Johnny Suede, Simple Men, Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, Gas Food Lodging, The Living End, Deep Cover and El Mariachi would certainly make one nostalgic; yet let’s not forget it was also the era when The Brothers McMullen was apotheosised as exemplary independent cinema. There are some excellent films that came out of the 90s independent movement which got lost among the commercial shuffle and festival accolades; brilliant, interesting works like John Turturro’s Mac, Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, and Stacy Title’s The Last Supper which I feel are due re-discovery and re-evaluation.

Q: You are involved in programming and curation of film. Is this role an active opportunity for you to encourage such re-evaluation?

Wayne: Absolutely. I look at it as being a proactive fan. It gives me an opportunity to share some great films with audiences who may otherwise never have come across them. Curation of cinema is such an important thing. There’s so much content out there on all these various formats and so many ways to watch, it must be hard to know where to begin. We don’t have Alex Cox or Mark Cousins on [BBC film series] Moviedrome to help guide us anymore, so I think the closest thing we have to good curation is with some of the boutique video companies. We hear rumblings that physical formats such as DVD and Blu Ray are on the decline, but as a film enthusiast and a collector, I find the home video market is thriving better than ever in terms of selection and quality of product. Thanks to the likes of Criterion Collection, Shout Factory, Arrow Video, Eureka Masters of Cinema, 88 Films, etc, we have so much more variety than before. These companies are really putting in the extra effort to make purchasing a physical copy worthwhile, with essays, documentaries, posters, dual-format selection, etc.

I love that the current home video market dictates that Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama is afforded as much of a deluxe edition blu ray release as Schindler’s List.

Q: Why do you feel curation is so important?

Some people are happy for an algorithm to suggest and recommend films based on their viewing habits, but I personally don’t see the value of it; there’s no discrimination involved, no personal or critical insight, no historical context, nobody offering their enthusiasm on why they feel this film is worth watching. I meet a lot of attendees at various events that I curate who are grateful for having been introduced to a film they would never have come across on their own. It’s a very gratifying experience, because when I review films professionally I’m stuck to discussing new releases. When teaching, I’m generally tied to specific films that the schools want taught. But when I’m programming films for arts and culture festivals or for film clubs, it really allows me to indulge and screen films I feel deserve such re-discovery, or just discovery. This book is, in a way, an extension of my curation activities. I’m essentially saying “hey, you should really check out these films by this great director!”

Q: And you say you have programmed DiCillo’s work before. How do you find the response by audiences new to his work?

Wayne: I know that Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, and Delirious are winners when it comes to programming. You can always play it safe with Living in Oblivion, because it’s a real crowd pleaser. I’ve rarely heard audiences laugh as hard as during that film. For some reason, I’ve had a harder time convincing people of the merits of Johnny Suede; it seems to be a trickier film for some people to connect with, which I think partly comes down to the fact that the protagonist, Johnny, is a mess of a man, his personality is not easily digestible in the way most films present their heroes. He is a complicated character and has some flaws which many would deem unpalatable or repulsive, but in fact is probably closer to human behaviour than we’d like to admit. We’re so used to being morally guided by cinema that when presented with something that challenges those preconceptions we get confused.  

I brought Tom’s most recent film, Down in Shadowland, to Ireland for its European premiere. That was an interesting screening, I was really interested in talking to people who attended, I wanted to hear their thoughts on the film because it’s a distinctly unique piece of work, and to some people it may even be an esoteric experience. So, unless audiences are going in with an open mind to the myriad sensibilities and possibilities of cinema, there’s the potential for some to clam up and get angry at anything deemed subversive or alternative. It’s not a documentary in the traditional sense but more akin to something like Koyaanisqatsi. It’s a visual poem, and I don’t care if that sounds pretentious because it is a master class of film grammar – it was made with literally no budget, just the resolve of a filmmaker with the burning passion to make a film. The use of editing, framing, and music is superb. It’s a wonderfully empathetic, humanist slice of pure cinema.

Q: This book draws on primary sources, your subject and those who have worked on his films. Can you tell us about those interviews and how you managed to secure such a lineup of contributors?

Wayne: I was lucky that 99% of the people I approached for an interview happily agreed. I didn’t want to recycle quotes sourced from elsewhere, although it is sometimes necessary to do this – I did such for Ray Manzarek’s quotes, because I never had the opportunity to interview him as he had unfortunately passed away. But for the sake of balancing the voices of The Doors throughout my chapter on When You’re Strange, I felt it appropriate to quote Manzarek from interviews he did whilst on the promotional campaign for When You’re Strange and have his voice present alongside my own interviews with Robby Krieger and John Densmore.

In saying that, it was never my intention from the beginning to interview as many people as I did. I had intended on speaking to one person and that was Tom DiCillo. I spent a week in New York City interviewing Tom at length. Once I was home and putting the first drafts of the chapters together I just felt like it would be interesting to hear from Catherine Keener, because she and Tom had a fruitful professional relationship spanning fours films, as well as a personal history as friends that I thought would bring an intimacy to the book. Tom thought it was a good idea but he hadn’t spoken to Catherine in quite a long time, so I wasn’t sure if we’d successfully reach her. But I made contact with her and she was more than accommodating. Catherine and I spent several days and many hours speaking. I was so grateful to her, and felt a little spoiled that I had all this material from Tom and Catherine. I don’t know if it was ego or just naivety, but I thought, “hey, let’s ask Steve Buscemi, and Chris Noth, and Sam Rockwell, and…” They all came on board.

Q: You mention in the book that you reached out to Brad Pitt, but he is absent. Can you elaborate?

Wayne: Yes. Although, it is rather boring in its simple bureaucratic nature – I had made contact with his people, and their people, and those people’s people, and it came back positive that he was considering it but was busy at that particular time. Then the word came through that he was passing on it. That’s it.

Ultimately I didn’t feel too bereft, there’s a solid line-up of people in the book. It’s a pity; his would have been another interesting voice in there, especially considering the friendship that had existed between Brad and Tom. It could have been another interesting personal angle into my subject.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with this book?

Wayne: The celebration of great art and a great artist. I want to encourage conversation on and study of DiCillo as a filmmaker worth talking about and analysing. This is the first published study devoted entirely to DiCillo’s films, and it’s about time the grand canvas of a book has been afforded his work. I think it will be beneficial to anybody looking to get into filmmaking, or any section of the film industry, to have this book to reference. On a grand scale, the reader will experience first-hand accounts of a career in filmmaking: writing scripts, finding finance, dealing with executives, manoeuvring through negotiations, working independently and with major studios; a general insight into the life of an acclaimed filmmaker.

Personally, it was an opportunity for me to attempt to understand what it is about DiCillo and his films that I find so fascinating; it was a cathartic and truly exciting experience to write about my passion for these films. And if, along the way, this book proves useful in inspiring or guiding young filmmakers, actors, writers, or students of cinema, well that’s an even greater achievement than my own selfish reasons for wanting to have a book on DiCillo exist.

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