Title: The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out
Author: Wayne Byrne
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Released: September 2017
As the author of this insightful and entertaining book, he delves in deep and comes up with the goods. Through his conversations with Tom we see the thought processes and strategies on each of his films, his hopes and frustrations, and everything in between. One thing about Tom, he doesn’t hold back. We also hear from many of Tom’s collaborators, and he has worked with some of the best in this business.
In short, this wonderful book details the ultimate triumphant journey of one of independent cinema’s smartest, funniest and fiercest warriors. ~ Steve Buscemi
As a long-time fan of the award-winning, independent, New York filmmaker and recording artist, I was very excited to be among the first readers of Wayne Byrne’s well-written, fascinating, detailed analysis of The Cinema of Tom DiCillo. Irish author Wayne Byrne’s book is comprised of a series of essays about each of DiCillo’s eight films – Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy, Delirious, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, and Down in Shadowland – embellished with insider insight from some of the films’ stars.
Wayne, congratulations on your auspicious debut as a writer! I read somewhere that you never intended to be a writer, so how was it that you became one?
Thank you, Christine. It’s such a great feeling whenever I hear those words. It reminds me that the book is a real thing. I’m getting used to the thrill of walking into a book store and seeing it on the shelf.
What I meant by that reference to never intending to be a writer was that I never consciously set out to become one, in the sense that I never said, “I would love to be a writer when I grow up,” nor ever pursued it academically. It just wasn’t on my radar when wondering what to do with myself. I always thought writers were Ivy League academic types, an exclusive club that I would never be privy to, and my not being academically inclined meant it was just never a consideration.
I wrote this book out of necessity. I wanted to own a book on Tom DiCillo and for that to happen I had to write it myself. That is the essence of the “accidental writer” quote you are referring to.
Even though writing is now my life, there’s an element of accident, or perhaps fate, to my professional breakthroughs. At some stage many years ago, I started writing my own movie reviews for nothing other than the fun of cataloging what I was watching. At the suggestion of my friend I submitted this massive portfolio of amateur scribbling to the editor of a newspaper just for the sake of doing something with them. I didn’t think anything would come of it, and looking back on those writings now, I’m surprised something did. The editor replied to set up a meeting with me. So, I went in and he pretty much hired me then and there as their film critic and columnist. I couldn’t believe it! I did that for two years, before the Arts pages were cut from the paper to allow for more advertising inches. But it was the springboard for my professional writing career.
I’m currently a music journalist, again not something I intentionally set out to do. I was asked by the editor of a highly-regarded magazine here in Ireland called Hot Press if I would be interested in joining them as a regular contributor. This was after I had sold to them what I thought was a one-off freelance piece that I wrote about a musician friend of mine. I’ve been an avid reader of that magazine for twenty years so it’s very exciting to now be part of it. What an honor to be asked to join them.
I’m familiar with Hot Press as I’ve been to Ireland three times and read it while I was there. It’s an excellent magazine! I think that being a music journalist is possibly one of the coolest jobs in the world. Do you still have fun with it or is it simply work?
Oh I absolutely have fun. Of course there are occasions where you don’t necessarily like a band that you are reviewing, either live or their album, or you’re not familiar with an artist that you have to interview, but you have to be fair and diligent and go do your homework and have some context going in. Often I end up very surprised that I like an album that I would normally have reservations about. If I’m unfamiliar with a band who I’m reviewing I will often go and listen to their back catalogue. But yes, I am fully aware of how cool a job it is. Getting paid to go to a Morrissey concert or listen to the new Weezer album? Hell yes! But it is an important magazine and I treat it as such, with absolute professionalism.
Can you speak to your process as a writer? Where do you like to write? Do you listen to music when you’re writing?
My process has certainly changed over time, having become busier and juggling various writing jobs. When I began writing The Cinema of Tom DiCillo, I wasn’t under any contract, I had no publishing deal, and so I had no deadline. While there was a certain level of uncertainty there in not knowing if all of this work was ever going to be published or not, it also gave me complete freedom of time and effort. It allowed me to write the book I truly wanted to write. It meant I could wait for people to become free to interview them. If a very busy actor said they could talk to me in two months that was fine, I would wait, rather than having to move on without them. Only when I was ready and happy with my book, and had satisfactorily covered everything I wanted to, did I say, “it’s finished!” It took me nearly five years, from developing the idea, research, interviews, writing, editing, getting a publishing deal, proofreading the final text, arranging the illustrative materials, coordinating all the Interview Release Forms, and then seeing it published.
It sounds like a long time, but it is time-consuming, especially in wanting it to be of an extremely high quality and a definitive study of Tom’s work, and I was also learning to become a writer as I wrote. I have no formal training and I’ve never taken a class on writing or literature; I learned as I was doing it. I don’t know if that would work for everyone, but it worked for me. And after it was finished, I submitted the manuscript to some publishing houses and there weren’t too many people I sent it to before I got the reply that I wanted. I knew I wanted to sign with Columbia because they own Wallflower Press, an imprint that has released some of the absolute best books on films and directors. It was the company I had always wished would release a book on Tom DiCillo. And now they have, but I wrote it, which is still surreal to me.
I tend to write exclusively, at home. If I don’t have my easy chair by the fireplace, then I don’t write. I don’t listen to music while working on the books, but when I’m writing about a specific film I will have it playing in the background, so I can jump in at any time to analyze a particular scene for any number of reasons: thematically, aesthetically, technically.
But when writing for the magazine I do listen to music, because I have to if I’m discussing a particular album or song, and so I will inevitably end up hearing something, some small musical flourish or nuance in a song that I didn’t hear upon first listen but I can now work it into the article or review.
One thing that you and I have in common is that we have both met Tom DiCillo and have had the pleasure of getting to know him. How did you initially meet Tom and how long did you know him before you decided to write a book about his films?
My first contact with Tom was just as a fan, contributing conversation to his blog posts. Soon enough I had cause to contact him in a professional capacity to request an interview for the release of When You’re Strange, as I was writing about it in my coverage of various film festivals. The idea for the book came about a year into being acquainted with Tom personally, having written him several times and covered his work for various publications. It was during this period that I mentioned to Tom that I had wanted to buy a book on his work for many years but all I could find were some career overviews in film encyclopedias and reference books; no books wholly devoted to him. So, at some stage I put forward the idea that I wanted to write the first book on his career.
As Tom is my favorite director, I knew I was in this rare position of being able to talk to him and pick his brain. Before I began the actual work I experienced some moments of insecurity, not knowing a single thing about how to write a book, and I started questioning how you go about doing that – do you have to go to college to be a writer? How do you become a published author? I really didn’t know how the whole system of professional writing worked. But when Tom gave me his blessing and support it encouraged me to just go for it, to write it and worry about becoming published later.
How difficult was it to gain access to the actors that you interviewed for the book?
Not difficult at all, thankfully, for 99% of them. In almost all cases Tom introduced me personally to the actor and we talked and arranged everything between us. Brad Pitt was a different story. There was a team of “people” I had to maneuver through. I would get some positive responses such as “Brad is considering it but is very busy at the moment and will get back to you.” This went on for a period of time and at this stage I was close to finishing the book. I felt it was just about ready, so spending more time waiting on responses from people was starting to drag the whole endeavor out. I asked once more, stating that I needed to know if Brad was in or out because I had to finish the book and they came back and said Brad had, after carefully considering it, decided he could not contribute at that time. While it wasn’t the answer I would have liked, especially after the kernels of hope I had received, I appreciated that it was at least a firm answer.
Who would you say provided you with the most detailed insight into Tom’s process as a filmmaker, aside from Tom?
It’s hard to name any one person. Everyone brought their own great insights into Tom, but Catherine Keener, Steve Buscemi, and Chris Noth gave me perhaps the most detailed account of what Tom is like as a person and as a filmmaker, because they have either worked with him a lot or have known him for a long time. In the case of Chris Noth, he and Tom’s friendship goes back to their acting class and cater-waiting days in the early-eighties. Chris gave me so much insight. We spoke at length about their very long friendship, reminiscing about the old days of trying to make it in movies in New York in the 1980s, and their time working together on Law & Order. Likewise, Steve Buscemi has known Tom since around that time as well and so there’s a great history there between them.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned about him?
It was fascinating to discover the intimate details of his life before the films and the fame: his background, his family life, his influences, his world view, and the relationships created early on with other artists. It was those more personal moments that were revelatory, and very interesting and rewarding to me as a writer. No detail was too minor or superfluous. It all added up to help me create what I hope is a definitive work of this great artist.
I believe your book is the definitive work about Tom DiCillo.
I really appreciate that, Christine. I’m happy to have written something that would be considered definitive, but I also always look forward to any other film commentators or scholars writing about Tom, I would always be interested to hear of other people’s opinions on the films, maybe spotting something I didn’t see or analyzing something from a different perspective. The great thing about any arts criticism is that it’s completely subjective. Every person brings their own personal history and sensibilities to their experience of a work that makes it exclusively their own. What I see in Tom’s work could be completely different to what another writer sees, and I would always be interested to hear what other people see in his work.
I find it difficult to pick a favorite of Tom’s films, can you?
It depends on what day of the week it is. I find it hard to pick one favorite, but I do know the ones I connect most immediately with for different reasons. Johnny Suede will always be the most important film for me, so it is probably my personal favorite, as it was the film that opened my eyes to cinema. It’s because of that film that we’re having this interview. While Living In Oblivion is perhaps the definitive DiCillo film, being so perfect in every way, and being released at the time it was, it’s such a crucial piece of American Independent Cinema. But, objectively speaking, I do think that Delirious is a frontrunner as his best work.
That said, I have programmed Tom’s films at many events (festivals, clubs, etc.) and the film that most people tell me is their favorite is Box of Moonlight. Something about that film really clicks with audiences. What Al Fountain (John Turturro) experiences in that film is probably something many people experience in their lives at some point, and Tom pulls it off with such cinematic skill, a deft surrealist aesthetic, and with great humor and pathos, those elements which are so distinctly DiCillo.
I agree with you about Delirious.
It’s a masterpiece. It has such a vital energy, such a range of emotion, and a stunning command of style. Tom was really firing on all cylinders on that one; the performances speak for themselves, and it has some of the best scenes of Tom’s entire catalogue. For me it is easily the best American film of the last decade. Certainly it’s my favorite film to come out since Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
For me, one of the things I enjoyed the most about your book was that you elaborated on the themes that run throughout Tom’s films. Can you reiterate those themes for my readers?
Yes, of course. It is one of the main objectives of the book, to acknowledge and analyze the crucial and relevant themes that run throughout Tom’s films. I have always been very unsatisfied with critical commentary of Tom’s work, because very few, if any, acknowledge the themes at the heart of the films. Rather, they look to the immediate context of satire, trying to pick up on sly digs here and there at these venerated institutions, painting Tom as purely an iconoclast. And that’s fine, but there is so much more to Tom’s films than that. I think a lot of critics overlook the pathos of Tom’s work.
Look at the thread of familial discord that runs through from Johnny Suede right up to Down in Shadowland. Even When You’re Strange, a film about The Doors, shares many of the same themes as other DiCillo films, such as the illusion of fame, the fragility of ego, identity crises, the severed connection of family and the toll that takes on someone. It’s amazing that all of these ideas remain present in a documentary ostensibly about one of the biggest rock bands of the last fifty years. Because of Tom’s ability to weave these deeply personal themes throughout, the film becomes less an objective biography of a band, but, for those familiar with DiCillo and his work, a very intimate portrait of two artists: Jim Morrison and Tom DiCillo.
You’re so right! That’s something I’ve never been able to put into words, but you’ve nailed it. When You’re Strange is how I first connected with Tom so it will always have a special place in my heart as a result, but I also happen to be a big Doors fan.
I was very familiar with The Doors but never a “fan”. But, testament to the power of Tom’s film, I am now a fan. I now deeply admire their mysterious style of music and their prodigious musicianship. I love the whole social and political historical context that was going on around them, which makes them a fascinating band to write about. The chapter on When You’re Strange is one of my favorite chapters in the book. I interviewed drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger for it, which is a pretty cool thing, to have those guys in there.
I love that you mention how wonderfully eclectic the soundtrack to Box of Moonlight (Wall of Voodoo, Peter Murphy, Nick Cave) is as it was a highlight for me. One of the things that so attracted me to Tom’s personal music project, The Black and Blue Orkestre, was how his musical influences resonated throughout their first album. Tom’s taste in music really endeared me to him. Do you feel the same way?
Tom’s involvement in music is very important to me and to our friendship. We have spent a lot of time working on music together. I played guitar and piano on the Black and Blue Orkestre track In Your Dreams. I’m very proud of it. It was very exciting working with Tom on vocals and the actor Kevin Corrigan on bass – my job was made easier working with such skilled performers. I love Tom’s voice and the sonic universe that he creates. It just makes you want to grab the guitar and start recording, it’s so inspiring.
Tom’s use of music in his films is also wonderful, it is so crucial to the tone and atmosphere that he creates. And the fact that he uses some of my favorite bands – such as those you just mentioned – just sweetens the deal.
I had no idea that you played guitar and piano on In Your Dreams! That’s fantastic! I can’t wait for Tom to release the new songs that he’s recording with The Black and Blue Orkestre. Have you collaborated with him on any of them?
Thank you, I appreciate that. Yes, that song is pretty amazing. I love how Tom mixed that song, it sounds terrific. I have worked on a number of tunes, but I’m not sure what songs will end up on the next release, as this is Tom’s project and I just came in and did some guitar. I like that session player aspect of working with the bones of a track, fleshing out the sound and my work is done. Tom then does his production and engineering work on it and I just look forward to hearing the finished version just like any other fan.
Who are some of your favorite recording artists?
Music is a big part of me. I love everything from 1930s dance bands, to 60s surf music, to 80s pop, to hardcore punk. I’m inspired by every kind of music. If you are over at my house for dinner or a beer, you could hear anything from The Circle Jerks to Slim Whitman to John Denver to Madonna. I’ve started collecting vinyl, so I’m going back to albums I really love and relishing the great sound of records, so I’ve recently been listening to the first two albums from Bruce Hornsby and The Range (The Way It Is and Scenes from the Southside), Heartbeat City by The Cars, Lives in the Balance by Jackson Browne, Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil, Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell.
I know I probably sound like some nostalgic dinosaur pining for my lost youth, when there is a whole world of new music out there, but I hear enough of the new stuff in my job writing for Hot Press (legendary Irish music magazine), so when I’m home and relaxing I tend to listen to the albums that continue to thrill and comfort. I’m tragically unhip when it comes to music – I just like what I like.
My favorite albums would include:
Tango in the Night by Fleetwood Mac
Midnight to Midnight by The Psychedelic Furs
Déjà vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Book of Love by Book of Love
Heaven on Earth by Belinda Carlisle
Candy Apple Grey by Husker Du
Heaven or Las Vegas by The Cocteau Twins
In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs
Famous Monsters by The Misfits
Straight to Goodbye by Pale Divine
Wow, that’s an eclectic collection of favorite albums, but I love it! If it’s any consolation, I’m probably just as tragically unhip when it comes to music because I still love listening to 70s and 80s music the most but maybe that’s the same for everyone who came of age in a certain time period. The music of our youth remains special to us forever. Are you familiar with The Tragically Hip who are from my hometown of Kingston, Ontario? I couldn’t resist slipping that in here…
Yes absolutely, I am a great admirer of The Tragically Hip. Road Apples is a great album, and I absolutely love Small Town Bringdown EP – which has, for me, some of their best songs – Small Town Bringdown, Last American Exit, I’m a Werewolf Baby…just sublime! The production is fantastic, very much of that late-80s era. Just sublime! You must have been able to see them live during those times, which would have been great.
What has writing this book taught you about filmmaking and The Arts in general?
That I know almost nothing about filmmaking. I am truly in awe of filmmakers. They’re part of my intense interest in the subject of cinema. Yes, I detailed a lot of the production methods and behind the scenes activity of Tom’s films, but filmmaking is still a mystery to me, and I hope it always is a mystery. I want whatever magic is conjured in creating the art to remain elusive. I want to retain some of that awe that was instilled in me upon seeing Masters of the Universe in the movie theatre when I was four.
I do sometimes ask the question of myself, “Who am I to write about or teach film?” I have never been on a film set. I have never acted or directed. All I can offer are my opinions and thoughts on the films, back it up with some words from those who were there and have actually made the films, and then try and edit it into some kind of legible or readable context. That, really, is my job. I’m just spreading the word about movies and artists I love. I consider myself less a writer and more a proactive fan.
Of the Arts in general, writing this book has made me appreciate the dedication of every other writer who takes the time to write about a subject that fascinates them, no matter what discipline they work in, because their passion fuels the passion of others. I hope my book fills the gap on the shelf that Tom DiCillo fans have been waiting to fill, and I hope it inspires others in the way that other film commentators have inspired me.
Who or what will your next book be about?
This has taken a lot of people by surprise, because it’s a completely different cinematic universe to that which I cover in The Cinema of Tom DiCillo, but my next book will be on Burt Reynolds.
Some people think that because you love art films and write about independent cinema that you wouldn’t have any time for the kind of stuff that Burt Reynolds is known for, but I always ask, “well, what do you know of Burt?” and the answer is inevitably Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit, and The Cannonball Run. They aren’t aware of or haven’t seen the eighty other films he has made, some of which are simply fantastic works of cinema. Reynolds has worked with some of the greatest directors, and to name just a few of the brilliant films he has starred in with these filmmakers: Hustle (by Robert Aldrich), Starting Over (by Alan J. Pakula), Breaking In (by Bill Forsyth), At Long Last Love (Peter Bogdanovich), Navajo Joe (by Sergio Corbucci), Semi-Tough (by Michael Ritchie), White Lightning (by Joseph Sargeant).
My writing process on this one is completely different to that of The Cinema of Tom DiCillo. On that book I spent five years writing about eight films. On the Burt Reynolds book, I have one year to write about eighty films and several entire TV shows, the major ones that Burt starred in, which means Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, Dan August, B.L. Stryker, and Evening Shade. And I couldn’t be happier, but it means I am extremely busy. There’s a lot of people to interview, a lot of films to analyze and write about, and I still have my bill-paying day and night jobs (librarian and journalist) to keep me busy. So when I’m not in work I’m still at work.
Will it be published by Columbia University Press?
No, this book isn’t the kind of thing that Columbia would go for. Columbia is really focused on publishing works on contemporary, influential directors who are presently relevant throughout the entire spectrum of World Cinema, and whose work has immediate academic currency, all of which applies to Tom DiCillo. Burt Reynolds, however, doesn’t necessarily fall into those categories because he hasn’t directed a film in nearly two decades, is mainly celebrated for his acting work rather than his directing, and some people might not see the “academic” value of my writing about Cop and a Half or Smokey and the Bandit II.
My Burt Reynolds book needed a publisher who understands and shares my perspective on Burt Reynolds; that he is one of the truly great American film stars and an enduring icon of US cinema. There is something absolutely compelling about him every moment he is on the screen, and he’s one of the few actors left who you can genuinely call a living legend. As a book of film history and film criticism it will benefit from Reynolds’ prolific and expansive work which spans many important movements through American film history, going from the Golden Age studio system of the late 50s, through the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s, to the blockbuster world of the 80s, and indie cinema of the 90s and up to today. For this book I’ve already been talking to some great directors, cinematographers, and actors – some truly fascinating people.
I signed with a distinguished publisher who have an amazing catalogue of film books to their name and who immediately understood what I wanted to do and shared my enthusiasm for the man. They also saw the gap in the market for a book on Burt Reynolds’ actual films because while there have been books on him in the past, they were more concerned with his personal life. I have no interest in his personal life, but I absolutely love his films. He’s probably my favorite movie star, alongside John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Steve Buscemi, and Dennis Hopper.
I’ve definitely enjoyed some of Burt Reynolds’ work that I’ve seen but I’m sure that after I read your new book, I’ll want to revisit his work. I’ll look forward to that!
Thanks Christine! Yeah, I hope it encourages people to check out his work which has gone under the radar or is simply forgotten. It’s also a celebration of and tribute to this great figure of cinema and his vast body of work, as well as an opportunity to appreciate the art of the films. Burt has recurrently worked with some of the finest cinematographers, such as William A. Fraker, Nick McLean Sr., Vilmos Zsigmond, to name just a few. You don’t read much technical and aesthetic analysis of many of Burt’s films, and so that’s partly what I’m doing.
I think I could talk to you for days, Wayne, but I should probably end our conversation here. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me and for sharing your passions with my readers.
It was my pleasure, Christine. I hope people enjoy the book and go out and watch Tom DiCillo films. That’s really what it’s all about.