William H. Macy has played some great characters in some of our favorite films over the years, including “Fargo,” Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Now Macy has taken a dive into the deep end by directing his first feature film. “Rudderless” stars Billy Crudup as a grieving father who has lost his son in a terrible tragedy. With the help of a young man played by Anton Yelchin, he turns to music to begin the healing process. Thus, the film features an entire soundtrack’s worth of original songs, turning the film practically into a musical. But a big twist at the halfway mark explores the idea of art that stems from tragedy, and who has the right to express themselves.
Indiewire chatted with Macy about his directing style and why he jumped into the deep end of the pool. “Rudderless” opens in limited release and on VOD tomorrow, October 17.
When did the directing bug strike for you?
About ten years ago. I think it was a combination of getting older — I’m at a point in my career where it’s time to try something a little more dangerous. I’ve always fancied myself something of a raconteur. And then “Rudderless” came around. These two guys from Oklahoma City sent it to me, Jeff [Robison] and Casey [Twenter], and we worked on the script together. By indie standards it was laser speed. It took about two years to put it together.
What touched you about the story?
It checked a lot of boxes that I was looking for. First of all, it was shootable on an indie budget. It’s a smallish story — although I blithely skipped the part where it has 50 sailboats and six songs in playback. Those are tough to shoot on a tight budget, but we did it anyway. It told a profound story, I felt. A story I hadn’t seen before. The music is near and dear to my heart. I’m sort of a musical guy. I’m pretty much without talent, but boy do I love it. It had humor. I felt it was eminently castable, because it had those great roles, which turned out to be true.
Tell me a bit about your writing process. Was this all new to you?
We worked on this script — Casey, Jeff, and I — for about a year. I think my process is mostly, first of all, “What is the story we’re telling? And what is essential and what can we cut?” Then there’s that reveal at the one hour mark, and that was big medicine. A tricky part of the writing was to be truthful to that reveal, all the way to the beginning without giving it away and without manipulating the audience. Everything was there for you to see. In theory, if you see the film the second time, you’ll see it always existed. I must say, it’s such a touchy subject and such an explosive subject! The unknowns in this story kept coming up. So all the way, even through shooting, we would say “Wait, let’s talk about this again. Where does the truth lie?” We did tweaks all the way through shooting. Minor, but as you can well imagine, it was the topic of conversation a lot: “What about this gun violence? What do we feel about it? Where do our sympathies lie? What should be done? What do we say?”
Something I was thinking about was: When people commit atrocities, is their art still valuable? Do they get to share their art? How do audiences take that in? Was that also in your mind?
Big, big topic of discussion, and rewrites on that. We of course came down on the side of no. No, you can’t play that music, because it would be too painful for the victims. You can’t do that. We had a line in there, “Hey! Charlie Manson wrote some songs, we could cover those. And Adolf Hitler did watercolors, we could do those on the backdrop!” Because he knew you can’t play that music. Where did you fall?
It was really hard! Some controversial people have made some great art. But if I heard it and enjoyed it and then found out later who it was written by, I’d be angry.
Yep, that’s where we came to. Interestingly, I have a friend who’s a filmmaker and his first comment after he saw a rough cut was, “Hold on! But why? That music is the engine of his redemption. I’m not quite sure, why can’t you play it? I mean, can’t we look at that separately?” It just brings up what dangerous territory this film is swimming in.
So tell me about how music fits into your life. Do you play music? How did the music aspect come into something that you wanted to direct?
Mostly just because I like it. My brother taught me to play the guitar and I sang a very off color song in my local high school talent show and I got into showbiz through that. So I’ve always played guitar. A couple years ago I picked up the ukelele, which changed my life. Or ruined my life! You could look at it any way. I play a lot of music, as do my kids. And my wife bought me a piano and I took piano lessons. There’s music around my house all the time — we’re not good, but boy do we like it.
How did you go about finding the other musicians and musical acts for the film?
They all were local. They all came from Oklahoma City. I’m really happy with them. They were all so specific, and some were funny. Kate Micucci, who did that ukelele song “Don’t Call Me at Four in the Morning” — she’s a pal and she wrote that just for us. I found the music. The first thing I did was I set the sights on the music being great. I’d watched a lot of films with music and even though I’d liked the films, I had to admit, the songs were forgettable. I didn’t remember them. I wanted to songs to be great. So Liz Gallacher came on as the music supervisor. She hooked me up with the indie scene, and I listened to a lot a lot a lot of songs. It was very flattering, a lot of people wrote spec songs just for the script! I heard one called “Home,” which is this first song Billy [Crudup] sings. And it was written by Simon [Steadman] and Charlton [Pettus]. I listened to another song, “I’m An Asshole,” and I liked that one too. I said to myself, “These are the guys.”
When you were casting, what demanding things did you have your actors do, to prove they were the right musicians for these roles?
First of all, I said “I’m gonna hold myself to getting great musicians, we’ll form the band, we’ll sing the songs, we’ll do gigs around town then we’ll do it live when we shoot the movie.” And Charlton [Pettus] said “If you cast the Rolling Stones, I would try to talk you out of that. It’s a bad idea.” You’re going to do it with playback, everyone’s trying to do it your way, it’s a nightmare. You’re going to do it with playback, irrespective of the quality of the musicians you hire. He said “Go hire your actors. I will tell you if they can do it or not.” In fact, Billy does not sing, and Charlton fixed it for him! There’s a thing called auto tune, and Billy’s got a lovely voice. He’s made a lot of money doing voiceovers — the quality of his voice is great.
Ben Kweller and [Ryan] Dean, they’re real musicians. And Anton [Yelchin] plays guitar, and he had a little band, and he’s a good guitar player and a good singer. Charlton was exactly right, the music took care of itself.
So, as an actor yourself, how did you approach the directing process and directing the actors? Having worked with directors maybe you picked up tips here and there or you just decided on your own method?
I’m sure I picked up stuff from everyone. I think I come to this from more of a theatrical sense. I grew up on stage. I did 20 years before I started making movies! First of all when I block things, I block them not for camera but for some unseen audience, which is a big difference. It’s hell for the cinematographer. I just did an episode of “Shameless” — I directed an episode of that, and I block things expensively. I block for the scene and the truth of the scene, not for the camera. I’m getting better at trying to combine the two, so it has verisimilitude when you watch it just standing in the room, and yet, it’s shootable.
One of the things I was aware of was that it would be death if I acted all the roles in my head and tried to get everyone to act it the way I would act it. So I gave myself a good talking-to about “Let people do their jobs.” I talk about objectives, what people want. I talk about what’s different at the end of the scene than the beginning of the scene. So, I just talk about script analysis, perhaps a little more than some directors but not all directors.
Were there any directors who you’ve worked with who inspired you?
Yeah. Steven Schachter, the guy I write with, I’ve watched him direct. I learned a lot from him, especially about the prep. He’s a good general. 75% of directing, especially when you’re shooting, is general shit. It’s not making art, it’s invading Normandy. You need a good general: sticking to the schedule, knowing what’s important, knowing when to move on, knowing when to dig in your heels when you don’t have it yet. Also, setting the tone of the way people are gonna work. Paul Thomas Anderson — love the way he directs. There’s an exuberance about it. He’s got this great bravery about throwing out the rules. Shooting it any way he jolly well pleases. I like his take on stories.
So now that you’ve accomplished this, do you see directing as something you’re going to transition into?
I desperately want to do it again. To tell the truth, it’s all I want to do. I’ve got a film called “Crystal,” which I’ll start shooting February 15 in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s another indie, but this time it’s a comedy. A bust-out, slamming door farce comedy. I directed an episode of “Shameless,” which separates the men from the boys, I can tell you! They used to say “Yeah, he’s directed television but has he ever done a feature?” But that just shows you how stupid they are! What you really should say “Yeah, he’s done a feature but can he direct television?” If you can, you can direct anything.
How is it different? How is television harder?
There’s not a single facet of directing TV that isn’t harder. Big fat feature? They shoot a quarter of a page in one day, normally, page and a half? Television? Nine-and-a-half pages: one day. And we do gags, we do explosions. We do everything like in a big feature, but it’s run and gun. You better have your shit in one sock or the train’s gonna roll over you.