INTERVIEW: Blood, Guts, DV; Joe Maggio's Searing "Virgil Bliss"
by Matthew Ross/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE: 06.11.02) — In the director’s statement included in the press notes for his debut feature “Virgil Bliss,” writer-director-producer Joe Maggio writes: “My film education has come from watching the movies of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and the late John Cassavetes and it is to these masters that I dedicate ‘Virgil Bliss’… The result is a movie of remarkable naturalness and simplicity.” Bold words, but Maggio manages to live up to his own proclamations.
“Virgil Bliss” is a raw, dirty piece of low-budget DV storytelling about raw, dirty characters and their fucked-up lives. Shot on the super-cheap in less than two weeks, the film enjoyed a successful run on the 2001 world festival circuit (Slamdance, LAFF, Seattle, Atlanta, Karlovy Vary, Mill Valley, among others), received two Independent Spirit Award nominations, and was broadcast earlier this year on the Sundance Channel. This Friday, “Virgil Bliss” finally gets its limited theatrical release, courtesy of First Run Features.
The film follows Virgil (played with fierce intensity by Clint Jordan), a recently paroled career thief determined to make a life for himself despite his dire prospects. Following his release from a halfway house, Virgil moves in with a junkie prostitute and gets a job cleaning toilets, all the while fantasizing about starting a family and living a good life. But almost before it begins, Virgil’s world begins to disintegrate despite its hero’s noble intentions. indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross spoke with Maggio about money, depression, and the festival circuit.
indieWIRE: What was your history as a filmmaker before you made “Virgil Bliss?”
Joe Maggio: I came to NY really wanting to make films, and I really had no idea how to go about doing it. I thought that if I just surrounded myself with film people working on film shoots, that I would eventually meet the people I needed to meet and learn how to get either a short film or feature or something off the ground. That really didn’t happen. I started working as a soundman, doing mostly television stuff, still always writing scripts. For years I was writing really big action type movies, things that would have taken millions and millions of dollars to produce, and they really weren’t very well written. Really psychological and pretentious and heavy-handed. Then sometime around 1997-8, I decided to just throw everything away, and just start over again. I started writing stories that were a little bit more personal, a little bit smaller in scope. At that point my friend Matt Myers suggested that if I wrote something specifically for DV, he would produce it. It would be like film school. I never went to film school, but you can shoot a DV film so cheaply that if it’s a disaster, it’s not really a disaster.
So I did that, I wrote “Virgil Bliss,” really quickly, in about two weeks. Matt read it, loved it and I started working with the actors: Clint Jordan, who I had known for a while, and Kirsten Russell, who Clint knew. We just started a workshop, and worked the script as much as we possibly could while we were getting the money and the production together. For months we would just get together a few times a week, and discuss the script and characters. Clint and Kirsten knew other actors and actresses and we brought them on and got them involved, and little by little just put it together, We shot it in ten days. It was a very quick process. And then I spent a couple of months cutting it, and that was it. People responded very favorably to it right from the get go.
iW: What was the inspiration for you while you writing the script?
Maggio: I think the biggest inspiration was just depression. I do suffer horrible bouts of depression. In hits me hard in February and March. It was February, I was broke, I was like five months behind in rent, and when I get depressed, I can’t sleep, I get this terrible insomnia. So I would be up all night, maybe sleep for about 1/2 hour or an hour in the morning, and then sort of just drift through the day and come midnight I was wide awake. I thought I was just going to write a love story, but I wanted it to be a really down and dirty love story, like Johnny Cash meets “Romeo and Juliet.” Completely unsentimental, unforgiving. Basically I thought I wanted to see how low I could take two characters and still have them redeemed in the eyes of the audience.
iW: Where did you get the financing for the film?
Maggio: I actually got the money in 1998. I had gone to the Cannes film Festival to write for a magazine called Icon. While I was there I saw Lars Von Trier‘s “The Idiots” and “Celebration,” by Thomas Vinterberg and they were shot on DV. I remember I came back, I was having dinner with my older brother and I was complaining that if I only had $6,000, I could make a feature film on DV. So he must have told my parents that. My parents called me; and they are not very wealthy by any means (my father is an artist and a musician), but they are insanely devoted to their sons. So they asked me how much I would need, and I told them $5,000. They said, “All right, when you get ready to do this, tell us and we’ll send you the money.”
They sent me $5,000. I think that was one of the reasons why I worked so hard, because my parents have no money and I knew that they had given me a big chunk of what they had. So at every turn I thought: I have to do this for my parents. I have to make this as good as it can possibly be. If someone showed up late, I would be furious. I wouldn’t show it, but I’d be furious. I felt like they were undermining my parents in some way. It was pretty intense.
iW: What was the rehearsal process like?
Maggio: Once we had the final script, we went into workshop, and pulled it apart, completely dissected it. We tried all different kinds of things, and improvised all these different scenes, but in the end, we came back to the original script. There were no new lines added, but I think the actors understood the characters a little bit differently after going through all that, and were able to put different spins on what the original script had intended. I wanted an improvisational feel, so I thought it was really important for the actors to drop into their characters. I knew that when we started filming we were going to be moving very quickly. So we just rehearsed it and rehearsed it, and rehearsed it, did all that work before hand and once we were on the set it was pretty traditional.
iW: So you didn’t really improvise…
Maggio: No. The only improvisation came in how we shot it. We would get to a location and realize that it wouldn’t really work the way I planned on doing it. So we started shooting what we called the floating masters. We would just run scenes from head to toe, these super long scenes, not break them up at all, not worry about getting close-ups or reversals, just cover them 10,11,12 times, head to toe. Sometimes we’d pop in and go tight around one actor, and then go tight around the other. We would just run these scenes over and over again, and eventually the camera was always right where it was supposed to be. Just moving around trying out lots of different things. So, most of the improvisational things were with actual camera work, in the shooting.
iW: For a small DV film with no commercial production values or recognizable talent, submitting to the festival process must have been a scary experience. How did you approach the whole festival process?
Maggio: Had I known what I know now, it would have been much more of a depressing experience. But I was very high in the sky. I really liked the movie. I have seen a lot of films and I have worked on a lot of films, and I thought “Damn it! This is a good movie.” And so I thought I’d apply and see what happened. We took a rough cut to the IFP Market. It was accepted into what was called the “rough cuts,” where they select 10 works-in- progress and they would give them two full free screenings. A lot of people saw it there. That was a really big help because I was invited to a lot of festivals. We were invited to Munich and Atlanta and Santa Barbara. Not huge festivals, but I think the word started to get around a little bit. We were hoping for Sundance, but we didn’t get it in. We did get into Slamdance. I never really applied to any other festivals after that. People would contact me.
One of the great gratifying moments was when it was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. [Sundance programmer] Geoff Gilmore was on the nominating committee. In my mind, I think that Sundance really missed the boat on “Virgil Bliss,” but made up for it later with these nominations. After getting into Slamdance, the floodgate opened and we just started going wherever people were inviting us. Got a lot of good press, had a lot of good times, met a lot of people. It was fabulous.