Among the many American independent films made in the ‘90s, few reflect the climate better than “In the Soup.” Director Alexandre Rockwell’s black-and-white comedy, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, follows wannabe New York filmmaker Adolpho Rolo (a young Steve Buscemi) as he attempts to turn his 500-page screenplay into a movie starring his next-door neighbor Angelica (Jennifer Beals). Adolpho’s ambitions are exploited by the mysterious Joe (Seymour Cassel in one of his most endearing performances). The alternately charming and confrontational cigar-chomping raconteur proclaims his desire to produce Adolpho’s movie, while forcing him into a series of strange criminal antics, as Adolpho’s project drifts further away from his original intentions.
The scrappy movie resembles the indie-filmmaking energy at the time — not for nothing does Jim Jarmusch make a cameo — and remains a charming statement on the conflict between artistic passion and the practical challenges of living hand-to-mouth. (It’s also a snapshat of white male hubris, and a certain archetype of crude producer types back in the spotlight.) However, “In the Soup” fell short of capitalizing on its Sundance acclaim, instead facing a series of setbacks: The company that released it went out of business shortly after the release, and the original print was so badly damaged that the movie has been out of circulation for years — until now.
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign by Factory 25’s Matt Grady, a restored 35mm print of “In the Soup” premiered to a boisterous crowd at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, where Rockwell, Buscemi, Beals, and cinematographer Phil Parmet all sat through the movie before participating in a lengthy post-screening Q&A (I was the moderator).
“Back in the day, being a filmmaker was like rock ’n’ roll,” Rockwell told the audience. “It felt exciting. We’d go to see punk music and hang out at the Mudd Club. I just felt like it we were inventing the world with music and filmmaking. There weren’t tons of people that were doing it.” He mentioned the cameo by Jarmusch, who plays the seedy producer of a TV show in which participants strip nude (Adolpho, strapped for cash, goes along with the gig). “I called Jim on the phone after I saw ‘Permanent Midnight,’” Rockwell said, referring to Jarmusch’s 1980 directorial debut. “I said, ‘Man, you gotta keep being a filmmaker,’ and he said, ‘No man, I want to play rock ’n’ roll.’ That was what it was like down there.”
Beals, who was married to Rockwell at the time (they remain friends), concurred. “The whole thing was transformative,” she said, “not only in terms of the content but in the process of making film.” She helped Rockwell by producing the project and even typed up the script from his handwritten notes. “We never knew if it was going to get financed,” she said.
She said that one beguiling shot, in which the romantic Adolpho films Angelica on their snowy rooftop, happened before production had started. “Alex grabbed the camera and we ran to the roof to shoot. I didn’t have anything ready. It was just like, let’s go, it’s beautiful, it’s the feeling of the film. We were just creating this moment. That’s what the whole film felt like.”
For Buscemi, “In the Soup” arrived at a pivotal moment in his career. The movie played in competition alongside Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” though the actor completed Rockwell’s movie first. “In the Soup” helped the actor crystallize his penchant for projects made outside of the studio system, a tendency that continues to distinguish his career to this day. “I had just come off my first commercial film,” he said, referring to “Billy Bathgate,” the Disney-produced E.L. Doctorow adaptation starring Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman. “I was on set with not much to do. I loved the people I was working with, but it was frustrating to me as an actor to see how much time it took to set up the shots. Then to go from that to this film where I was in almost every scene and working every day, I loved it. That was why I wanted to become an actor.”
It was tricky gamble that paid off with the next several productive years, with memorable roles ranging from the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” to “The Big Lebowski,” but Buscemi said it wasn’t easy to convey the direction he wanted to take. “I had an agent who was trying to get me more commercial work,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Why do you want to make these low budget indies?’ But I like working with people who have a point of view.” Rockwell said that as the bare-bones production kept running out of money, they couldn’t afford Buscemi’s rate. “We ran out of money and told Steve, and he’d keep giving back the money,” Rockwell said. “He gave back his salary even though he was broke.”
For Buscemi, however, it was worth it act alongside Cassel, already a living legend from John Cassavetes’ films. “It was amazing to be on set with everybody with Seymour, whom I knew so well from the Cassavetes film,” Buscemi said. “He made it worth it. We put in long days, we just lived it.” Rockwell said that Cassel was as much a live-wire on set as his character in the film. “He was incredibly annoying at times. I’d fight him physically sometimes,” Rockwell said. “But that was him.” The filmmaker remained friends with Cassel, who’s currently hospitalized with dementia, and at the Q&A he taped a greeting from the audience that he planned to send the actor.
It was a warm moment tinged with the bittersweet memories of the challenges Rockwell faced after releasing “In the Soup.” While the Sundance prize flagged Rockwell as a talent to watch, and he contributed to the 1995 omnibus film “Four Rooms,” he struggled to get his own projects off the ground and failed to gel with studio offers.
“You were courted after Sundance,” Beals said, turning to her ex. “Agencies would send you hot chocolate cookies at our hotels. People would want you to do all these different films. I remember there was this one particular film that went on to be a huge hit and they wanted this big movie star. You said, ‘He’d be terrible for that part!’ You were dedicated to your truth. That’s how you start as an artist. You don’t need the warm chocolate chip cookie.”
Rockwell acknowledged that the aftermath of “In the Soup” left him disillusioned. “For a couple of years I got a little lost,” he said. “I started not liking making movies, I didn’t like trying to raise money. I really meant it when I said I’d rather be a drug dealer or a gangster than Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein, OK? I really had to deal with that guy! They’re much scummier. Believe me. It was a terrible moment.”
The excitement of filmmaking drifted away from him. “The thing I loved — like Adolpho loves — I had to go through this shit storm to get to it. I don’t mind the shit storm of life. But liars, cheaters, horrible people! I started losing love. It was just a really weird time. Things got difficult financially. It was tough.”
Years later, Rockwell found renewed stability teaching filmmaking at NYU, and in 2013 he made the joyful black-and-white feature “Little Feet,” a Kickstarter-backed effort that found critical acclaim when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I rediscovered an aspect of ‘In the Soup’ when I made ‘Little Feet,’” he said. “It’s just the joy of making the goddamn thing. It’s that goddamn simple. What stops us from doing anything in our lives, except some weird fear of doing something? It’s hard, life’s hard. I’ve just decided I’ll make films. I don’t give a shit. The money will come.”
He turned to the cast and crew sitting next to him onstage. “These guys made this film,” he said. “I love you guys. I’m so lucky I made a film with them. I want to keep making films like that. Some will get seen, and some won’t get seen, because that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.”