INTERVIEW: Steve Buscemi Does Time; Directing "Animal Factory"
by Suzanne Ely
(indieWIRE/ 11.3.00) — If anything, Steve Buscemi is a study in contrasts. Throughout his career, Buscemi has balanced roles in archetypal independent films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Fargo” and “Living in Oblivion” with acting gigs in big-budget productions like “Con Air” and “28 Days.” Buscemi pulls off comedy and drama, brutal violence and subtle emotion with equal aplomb. He’s soft-spoken and sometimes even hesitant, but Buscemi isn’t afraid to take on difficult subject matter in his films. Even while he is busy carving out a niche as one of the hardest working actors in independent film, Buscemi is still looking for new challenges. In 1996, he added writer/director to his feature film resume with the critically acclaimed “Trees Lounge.” For his second directorial feature, Buscemi has chosen an adaptation of Edward Bunker‘s gritty “The Animal Factory,” the story of a young man’s (Eddie Furlong) initiation into the fractured world of prison life.
With a script by Bunker and John Steppling, Buscemi inspires convincing and touching performances by an eclectic cast — Furlong, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold and Danny Trejo. Buscemi shot the film in 29 days at Holmsburg State Prison, just outside Philadelphia. At the heart of the story is the tender and touching relationship that develops between a hardened convict, Earl Copen (Dafoe), and Ron Decker (Furlong), an educated 25-year-old pretty-boy who has squandered his relatively cushy station in life after getting caught up in drugs.
indieWIRE talked to Buscemi about adaptation, prison research, directing real-life convicts, his eclectic cast, and his next challenge, a film adaptation of William Burroughs‘ “Queer.” “Animal Factory” is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles next week.
indieWIRE: It’s been four years since “Trees Lounge.” What took you?
Buscemi: It took a little time to find something that interested me. And then it took a couple of years to secure the financing. But it also took a little while, once I found the material, to hone it. “Animal Factory” is taken from Eddie Bunker’s book, but we still worked on the screenplay a lot. I tried to get more of the book into the final draft. For me, the screenplay was really important; that it be layered and to make sure that it wasn’t a typical genre prison film.
iW: Was it difficult to direct an adaptation of a book by a fairly high-profile ex-con? And where did you discover him?
Buscemi: Well, I worked with Eddie Bunker on “Reservoir Dogs.” He played Mr. Blue. And then later on, I worked with Danny Trejo, who is an actor in the film and he’s also co-producer. I worked with Danny on “Desperado” and “Con Air.” Danny and Eddie have a partnership and they try to get films done, and they came to me with this script. And I liked them so much that I was interested to see what the material was. When I first read the screenplay, I wasn’t quite sure if I was the right guy to direct it, but when I read the book, I thought I had a better understanding of what the story was about. I just suggested that we take the screenplay back to more of what the book is about. So Eddie and I worked on that and we also brought in another writer, John Steppling. Eddie didn’t have that much time, because he was writing his new book that is out now, “Education of a Felon.” Together, we reworked the script and got it to a place where I thought it should be.
iW: As far as the prison genre, did directing an episode of the HBO series, “Oz” whet your appetite?
Buscemi: That all just happened by coincidence. When Danny and Eddie first brought me the material is when I first started to hear that there was a prison show that was going to premiere on HBO. It all sort of happened at the same time. And I had worked for Tom Fontana on “Homicide” once as an actor and once as a director. So when the opportunity came to direct an episode of “Oz,” it wasn’t like I was looking to direct something in the prison genre to prepare me for my film. It’s just that I really like “Homicide.” I like Tom and I like his writing. I like the actors he has on that show.
iW: Did you spent time in prisons for research for your film?
Buscemi: Yeah, Eddie and Danny and I went to San Quentin, where the book takes place and where Eddie did a lot of his time. In the film, we changed it to an East Coast prison. We shot the film in Philadelphia, in a real prison that is no longer active — Holmsburg State Prison. But we also visited surrounding prisons and we got a lot of help and support from the commissioner of the prisons. And then, of course, I had Eddie Bunker as my main source. He was around for pre-production and also during the shooting. I felt like I was in good hands to make the film authentic.
iW: The prison definitely takes on a life of its own. It feels like a living breathing character.
Buscemi: The prison itself is really architecturally amazing. It was important for me to find a place that was visually interesting to shoot because I knew that the whole film was going to take place there. The film doesn’t take place in just one part of the prison and we tried to use as much of the prison as possible, with different locations within the prison. We were lucky enough to have the prisoners from the surrounding prisons who volunteered to be extras and so everyday we had anywhere from 5 to 150 extras who were real convicts. Of course, it instantly lends an air of authenticity to the look of the film.
iW: What was it like to direct real convicts?
Buscemi: It took them awhile to sort of understand why they had to wait around so much (laughs), and why they had to repeat so much of what they were asked to do. But we tried to explain everything and they were really great about it. The biggest problem we had was that sometimes they thought they were having too much fun, like during the riot scene. That’s when we used probably our biggest numbers of real convicts, when they are being chased by the riot police. A lot of them would laugh, so I had to remind them that this is not supposed to be fun. It was just little stuff like that. But they were really great; they really got into it, and I tried to impress upon them how important they were to the film and that I really couldn’t do it without them. They responded to that and felt good about what they were doing.
iW: The acting is super. Do you feel, as an actor, that you have an advantage in helping your cast deliver?
Buscemi: I don’t know if I have an advantage or not. I’ve certainly worked with really great directors who haven’t acted. I don’t think it’s necessary to be an actor to get great performances out of an actor. But I do think it helps me, as a director, because I know what I like as an actor and I try to get that to the actors who I’m working with. I like to give them room and try not to get in the way. But if there is something I feel like maybe they are not getting, then I try to help them get there. But I also like being surprised by actors. I think it’s important to create an atmosphere where actors feel like they can try things out. It doesn’t mean that I’ll take every suggestion, but I want there to be some room for actors to grow.
iW: The casting was also wonderful. Did you always imagine Mickey Rourke in the role of Jan the Actress?
Buscemi: He was the first one that we went to, but we didn’t always imagine Mickey in that role. It was something that Sheila Jaffe thought about, who was my casting director. We knew that we wanted a really strong actor to play that role. We thought it would be a good opportunity for an actor. Once he signed on, I think he may have been a little sensitive at first, but once he committed, he really committed. He showed up on set practically in character. He did his own nails, he did his hair, he brought his own wardrobe. He even wrote that monologue when his character talks about becoming a butterfly and flying beyond the bars and flying to Paris. That was all his. I only had him for like a day and a half and I just remember not wanting to stop filming because he was just so fascinating to watch.
iW: What about Tom Arnold? Another surprising choice.
Buscemi: I thought it was a really brave performance because Tom played, easily, the most despicable character in the film. It certainly is not a comedic role. But I’ve seen other films of his, where he’s played dramatic roles, they’re just not good films. I knew that he could do it. And I was glad that he was able to play a part that is so extreme. Also, working with Willem, I’ve known him for years and we’ve been looking for something to do together on film because we’ve never worked together on film before. It was a great opportunity for the both of us.
iW: Your director of photography, Phil Parmet, really captured the grittiness. He’s an accomplished still photographer; how did you come to work together?
Buscemi: I first worked with Phil on Alexander Rockwell‘s film, “In the Soup.” When I did my first film, called “What Happened to Pete?” Phil shot that, and we did that in one weekend. So I know that he knows how to work quickly without compromising what he needs. I love his still photography. He’s also done a lot of documentary work. We get along really well, so it was a nice opportunity to have him work on the film. I was also very inspired by a film that he made in the 70s, a documentary, about the Tombs here in New York. It was shown in its entirety on “60 Minutes,” and resulted in the closing down of the Tombs at that time. So I knew that he would give everything he had for the film, and he did. It’s nice to work with people that you’ve worked with before that you can trust and to give somebody that opportunity to really shine.
iW: And John Lurie who scored “Animal Factory”?
Buscemi: Again, I’ve known him for years. Again, it’s almost like a family thing. He and Willem go back. And I just love John’s music. I think with his score, it adds so much to the movie. To me, score is really important. I would rather not have any score if it’s something that’s going to detract from the film. So often when I watch films, the score is what really bothers me. In this, John really wanted my input and it’s not easy for me, because I’m not musically articulate. For me it’s a slow process of trying to figure out what the music should be. But I’m really pleased with how the music came out.
iW: Are you enjoying directing so much that we may start to see you less as an actor?
Buscemi: I don’t think so. (laughs) I have a few things that are coming out. I just worked with Tim Blake Nelson, an actor/director who is in the latest Coen brothers movie. He wrote and directed a film called “The Grey Zone,” which takes place in Auschwitz and deals with the Sonderkomando, the Jewish detail who were forced to run the crematorium. It’s an intense film, but I really enjoyed working with Tim. I’ve also worked with Terry Zwigoff, who did “Crumb,” on a comedy-dramatic piece called “Ghost World,” based on a Dan Clowes comic. And I did another film with Tom DiCillo called “Double Whammy“?
iW: So what do you prefer, directing or acting?
Buscemi: Now directing is like a new beginning for me. It’s definitely more challenging. And I want to do more of it. When I was doing theater, I worked a lot with Mark Boone Junior, who was in “Trees Lounge” and “Animal Factory.” We used to write and perform our own work. We didn’t wait around for things to come to us. We just did it ourselves. I think that’s part of the reason why I did this film, because I miss having the creative input. You know, I don’t want to sit and just wait by the phone for the next job.
iW: Can you choose whatever project you want and get it made?
Buscemi: (Laughs) No. This film took awhile to get off the ground and right now, I’m in the process of trying to get another film off the ground — a book by William Burroughs called “Queer.” We will get it made, but I want to make sure the right people are involved. It’s not always easy to find the right company that really supports what you’re doing. I’m more concerned with how the film turns out than who’s in it. So many of these companies only want to know who is in the movie.
[Suzanne Ely is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.]