A Conversation with "Real Blonde" Tom DiCillo
by Tom Cunha
"The Real Blonde" stars (from left) Bridgette Wilson,
Catherine Keener, and Marlo Thomas.
Photo Credit: Randall Michelson
Writer/director Tom DiCillo has long been synonymous with the
independent film world, dating back to his first feature, 1991's "Johnny
Suede" (which starred an up-and-coming Brad Pitt) followed by his highly
praised "Living in Oblivion," a witty and clever film about the trials
and tribulations of a low budget film crew. All four of his films to
date have screened at the Sundance Film Festival including his latest
outing, "The Real Blonde," which is, despite being put out by the same
company that gave us "Titanic," an independent film (a point DiCillo
wishes to make very clear).
Set against the backdrop of the television, music and fashion industries
of Manhattan, the film follows an ensemble of industry wanna-bes all
striving for the ideal, both professionally and romantically, and the
disillusionment that ultimately ensues. The story centers around
struggling actor Matthew Modine and his girlfriend (DiCillo regular
Catherine Keener) and features some amusing supporting turns by Daryl
Hannah, Maxwell Caulfield, Marlo Thomas, Elizabeth Berkley and Bridgette
Wilson. "The Real Blonde" opens in selected cities today.
indieWIRE: All four of your films have played at the Sundance Film
Festival including your most recent, "The Real Blonde." How has the
festival changed in your opinion?
Tom DiCillo: It's become bigger in terms of the media attention. I
don't think that's a bad thing. It forces you to be really clear in your
mind about why you're coming here. Someone said to me after the first
screening, "So now you've made a studio movie." No. We did not make a
studio movie. We made an independent film that Paramount happened to
pick up. I wanted to identify the film as an independent film. To
establish, again, my support and appreciation for the festival, which
has really helped me a lot, and to just launch the film. I thought this
would be a good way to just make people aware of the film. That was our
purpose. We were very fortunate to get the opening night Park City
iW: Explain what the title "The Real Blonde" means to you.
DiCillo: It's a title that forces you to think twice. And I think the
film asks you to think twice. If you take a look at the title, on a
surface level, it almost appears to be a serious thing. But if you think
about what it's really saying, with the "e" on the end "Blonde"
(feminizing it), it's pertaining to a woman. Pertaining particularly to
a very specific area of a woman. If a woman is the real blonde, her hair
on top and on the bottom is going to be blonde. The title itself just
forces you to go there which I think is great. Every element of
authority or what is perceived as real in the film deserves a second
look. My idea was that the real blonde represents this ideal, this image
of perfection that we all sort of create. We place it just outside of
our grasp and exert this tremendous energy to try to attain it. Most of
the time the energy is absolutely misplaced. It causes us to literally
exhaust ourselves. It sometimes can be really destructive and ultimately
is a fruitless exercise. The belief that if I had that car, I would be
happy or if I made $85,000 a year then I'd be happy. It's my belief that
our society has become an entertainment society. We are fixated on show,
which is really bizarre in a way. We are much more interested in the
recreation of things than the real things. We've become unable to tell
the difference between what's real and what isn't real.
iW: Have you struggled with this yourself?
DiCillo: After I got out of film school, with a master's degree in
directing, I started studying directing for actors. One of the things I
didn't learn in film school was anything to do with acting. It was just
so frustrating to have everything set up and here were these people in
front of the camera and I had no idea how to relate to them or what to
say to them. So, for whatever reason, I fell into acting myself and I
pursued it for eight years, going to these auditions and I was as naive
as Joe (Modine's character). I'd walk in with 2 things on my resume, one
of which was made up. I had a meeting with a casting director just like
Dee Dee Taylor (Kathleen Turner's character) and she said, "You have
nothing on here. No soaps, no TV." I said, "I'm not interested in doing
soaps. It's not acting, it's total bullshit." and she said, "Get out of
my office. Get out!" But I think we have all had experiences being
forced to do something that we feel is beneath us. I can relate to
iW: Do you want to continue making independent films?
DiCillo: No question. I don't really have anything against Hollywood
films. In some ways I respect the studio system because it says what its
gonna do and it does it. When you go see "Twister," what you're seeing
is a movie guaranteed to thrill you. Very rarely does a Hollywood film
come out and say "this is an art movie." They tell you what they're
doing. It's a commercial money-making enterprise and everyone openly
acknowledges it. In that respect, to make a Hollywood film means that
you're gonna have forty-five people talking about the tiniest idea, so
that any creativity immediately just goes into this communal swamp that
is completely antithetical to the way I work, which is when you get an
idea, you don't know where its gonna go. You have to trust it. I want
to just keep that freedom.
iW: How was it dealing with Paramount?
DiCillo: They were amazingly open about the film. I think its because
they really looked at the film and really understood what they had
bought. Sherry Lansing suggested putting a scene back in that I had cut
because I thought the pacing was a little slow. In hindsight it was a
really good decision.
iW: Which scene was it?
DiCillo: The scene in which Modine almost starts a fight on the street
with the guy who's hitting this woman. What I love about that scene is
that it shows Joe [Modine] at the point where he has just completely let
go, which shows me that he is now in an emotional state that leads him
to this audition where he's gonna do "Death of a Salesman" the best he's
ever done it. So that was a good decision.
iW: How did you get into directing?
DiCillo: Some of the acting that I was doing was a one man show I wrote
called "Johnny Suede." I wrote it and turned it into a screenplay. Eight
years after I got out of film school I directed it as my first feature.
iW: So what do you think of all these independent studios being bought
by major studios?
DiCillo: Anything that generates energy and vitality into the
independent film world is good. At the same time I just think you need
to know that, as you see this entire commercial venture developing and
being drawn forward, you have to realize that now everything becomes a
little bit more simplified. The films that will get financed with the
potential of making more money start having rules apply to them that
used to apply only to Hollywood films. So, if an independent distributor
wants to distribute an independent film or finance one, they're gonna
now think twice about who they cast in it. They're gonna say, "well get
me a Nick Nolte, get me a Kevin Costner." The kinds of films that
they're financing might be geared a little bit more towards general
audiences as opposed to all the little independent films that I
respected when I was coming up, like "Stranger Than Paradise". Jim
[Jarmusch] made that movie with, like, money he had in his pockets.
That's how the film was made, so there was no one around saying to us,
"Don't do that. Don't cast John Lurie. Don't cast Eszter Balint in the
film." With this emergence of independent distributors being backed by
bigger studios, I believe that has changed. I think all that means
though is that now, as the bigger movement of independent film proceeds,
the peripheral people will be where the real freedom and expression of
ideas will be. Miramax is advertising "Good Will Hunting" on
"Seinfeld." Now that is a clear commercial powerplay. If it helps the
film, great. I would certainly love to see "The Real Blonde" advertised
if it was done showing the film the way it is and not misrepresenting
Independent film or cinema itself has become the glamorous profession of
the decade. For some reason everybody wants to do it. Even actors want
to do it. The most horrifying thoughts to me are some of our greatest
actors are turning down acting roles because they want to direct. And
the pool of really talented actors is really small anyway.
iW: Has working with Jim Jarmusch influenced your work at all?
DiCillo: Jim and I were friends. We were both going to film school
together and he was in my class. We were both directors. There was never
a sense of "he was a director and I wasn't." That friendship is
actually how I began working with him. When you choose a cinematographer
on a film it is a very tricky thing. What you want is someone who is
really gonna be there for you and in some ways provide a visual dialogue
to what you've written. I had never shot anything and never planned to.
So my work with him was almost like two directors working together. Even
though I'd only shot two films with him ("Stranger Than Paradise" and
his first feature "Permanent Vacation"), people still identify me as the
guy who shot for Jim Jarmusch. I take it as a compliment because it
shows me that my work for him was of such focus that it established my
vision in some way. If anything, what Jim showed me was that you can
have a personal image or belief and you can make a film. I was amazed
that he could pull it all together and make a feature film. That's what
impressed me and I said, "If he can do it, I can do it." And I think a
lot of people felt that way. That was one of the most inspiring things
about "Stranger Than Paradise." I think it really opened the door for a
lot of independent filmmakers.
iW: Which of your films was the most difficult to get financed?
DiCillo: The first three. (laughs) "Johnny Suede" took me four years to
get funding for and I finally made it for $400,000. My next film, "Box
of Moonlight," I spent five years trying to make and couldn't get a cent
for it, had to put it aside. I made "Living in Oblivion," really from
the generosity of my cast, and just raising money. We made that movie
completely by ourselves. All the independent distributors passed on it.
All the financiers passed on it. We did it all by ourselves. We brought
it to Sundance, we got a little buzz on it and still it didn't open the
door to the financing on "Box of Moonlight." I figured I had to put that
movie away. I wrote the script to the "The Real Blonde." Suddenly, after
I'd just finished the script to the "The Real Blonde," Lakeshore
Entertainment came in and said here's some money for "Box of Moonlight."
So that's how that happened. So the money for the "The Real Blonde"came
much easier and I already have financing for my next film.
iW: Did you get offers to do other projects in the meantime?
DiCillo: Yes, but nothing I would want to do. I would be a millionaire
now but I would be miserable with some of the idiotic projects I was