Book Review: Burt Reynolds on Screen by Wayne Byrne (Featuring Q&A with Author)


BOOK REVIEW

Title: Burt Reynolds on Screen
Author:  Wayne Byrne
Publisher: McFarland & Company Inc.
Released: December 19, 2019
Pages: 314
ISBN: 978-1476674988
Stars: 5

In 1972, Burt Reynolds became famous with his breakthrough role in Deliverance. The actor also posed as Cosmopolitan’s first-ever nude male centerfold in 1972, “marking a milestone in the sexual revolution.” From 1977 to 1982, Reynolds was Hollywood’s top box office-grossing movie star, appearing in the hits Smokey and the Bandit, The End, Hooper, The Cannonball Run, Sharky’s Machine, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas among other notable films that made him a household name. Anyone who was watching movies in the 70s and early 80s knew who Burt Reynolds was and they were reminded again in the 90s through his hit television series Evening Shade and 1997 comeback film, Boogie Nights.

Burt Reynolds on Screen by Wayne Byrne is the definitive work of film criticism and long-form tribute to one of Hollywood’s most enduring and well-liked actors. It discusses, in-depth, “many films which haven’t been previously covered in critical, historical or aesthetic contexts of any great scope or consideration” and covers his most popular films as well as some of his “most interesting works which have been grossly overlooked or forgotten.” The book “analyzes Reynolds’ films and television series in chronological order, relating behind-the-scenes production information and discussing their respective places in history, while making sub textual allusions between the man and the characters he played.” It also features exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and many films’ stills in black and white.

Its Foreword was written by American cinematographer Nick McLean, Sr. who worked with Reynolds as his camera operator and director of photography on several movies as well as his television series B.L. Stryker and Evening Shade and went on to be DOP on the television series Cybill, Friends, and Joey among other well-known shows. Byrne has since written a book about him, too, entitled Nick McLean, Sr. Behind the Camera.

Cinematographer Nick McLean and author Wayne Byrne in Naas, Co. Kildare, March 2019


Burt Reynolds on Screen
features an Afterword by C. James Lewis, who, as well as being an actor who graduated from the Burt Reynolds Institute of Theater Training (BRITT), also worked as Burt’s stand-in, photo double and stunt double for many years. It’s this kind of insider knowledge as well as the author’s remarkable attention to detail that establishes the validity of this book.

Although you’re probably aware that Burton Leon Reynolds Jr. was best known for being an action star, you might not know that Reynolds was originally typecast as a Native American in many of his early films or that he gave successful performances in almost every genre of film from romantic comedy to satire to film noir.

Film historian Joe Baltake was quoted in the Introduction for his “astute estimation of the actor’s appeal”:

Burt Reynolds, in a nutshell, is the movie star who’s a pal…but there’s something else, something deeper, something sad that makes Reynolds’ playfulness and flippancy wrenching…In his eyes, we see Reynolds’ integrity. They’re what make him original in a business full of clones. We look at Reynolds and we see a man who’s believed in old movies, the American Dream and loyalty; we look in his eyes and we see how difficult it’s been. Today’s devoted film aficionados and even our critics can’t fully appreciate what Burt Reynolds represents. Yes, he’s out of joint. He may be too good for today’s movies. His secret with audiences is that he’s one of us.

Wayne Byrne grew up a child of the 80s and first saw Burt Reynolds in a trailer for the film Heat in 1988 when he was “roughly six years old.” He spoke to numerous friends and collaborators of Burt Reynolds for this book, and one word recurred more than most: generous. Many of them recall with wonder the actor’s resolutely giving nature – giving of his time, talent and experience; giving financially, emotionally and morally. These interviews are absolute gems for Reynolds’ fans, and one which particularly surprised and delighted me was with actress Rachel Ward, Burt’s co-star in Sharky’s Machine and the made-for-TV movie Johnson County War. I became a fan of Rachel’s when I saw her in Against All Odds and The Thorn Birds in the 80s. Rachel’s career might have never taken off without the influence of Reynolds who cast her in Sharky’s Machine which he also directed. Byrne also interviewed Bobby Goldsboro, Bill Bennett and Adam Rifkin, among other Hollywood producers and directors.

Reading this book completely reinforces what kind of man Reynolds was. Throughout his career as an actor and a director, he often worked with friends (Jerry Reed, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, stuntman turned director, Hal Needham, Nick McLean, Sr.) and was loyal, kind, good-natured and unfailingly generous which is something one doesn’t hear much these days about the movie stars of the 21st Century.

I considered myself to be a fan of Burt Reynolds to a moderate degree, but after reading this book, I fully understand his appeal as an actor and how very talented he really was. I find myself wanting to make a trip to our local video store to rent some of his most distinguished, memorable films and watch them (some for the first time) to experience the genius that Wayne Byrne has so reverently and respectfully reviewed in this exceptionally well-written book. However, if you are a big fan of Burt Reynolds, this book is a must-read, must-own treasure for your collection.

Nick McLean and Wayne Byrne

Q&A with Wayne Byrne


Wayne, why did you choose to write a book about Burt Reynolds for your second book?

My first book, The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out, was written out of absolute necessity. Tom is my favourite director and I really wanted a book on his career. I couldn’t buy one, so I wrote one. I never set out on a path to become a writer of books but working on that book and seeing it be published was the greatest thing to me. So, I wanted to write more, but the question was ‘what do I want to write about?’ I couldn’t ever imagine writing about a filmmaker, a film, or any art or artist, which I don’t adore. I’ve experienced that in shorter form when writing for magazines and newspapers and you are profiling someone you aren’t particularly interested in, or they aren’t particularly interesting, and it’s a drag; I definitely couldn’t imagine writing something in book-length on something or someone you aren’t in awe of. So, I thought, ‘okay, that’s my favourite director taken care of, how about my favourite actor?’

And I’m not really a “film star” kind of guy, as in I’m not usually overawed at film stars, I am usually much more interested in the people behind the scenes – directors, cinematographers, editors – those guys are the heroes of cinema, they craft what we experience. Which is all to say I have a very short list of ‘favourite’ actors, and in that I would include Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Dennis Hopper, Steve Buscemi, Groucho Marx, and maybe a few more. But at the very top of that list is Burt Reynolds. I guess I had more of an emotional connection to Burt. While Eastwood and Wayne can make you excited and rouse the senses with their heroic feats, they would rarely make you laugh or cry. Burt can rouse excitement and make you laugh and cry, sometimes all in the same film. I’ve been aware of Burt’s presence since I was very young, he has always been there, even when I wasn’t fully paying attention, and then when I began to pay attention I just fell in love with this absolutely compelling performer whose mere presence commands your attention.

I understand how you feel about not being able to write about someone or something that you’re not in awe of as it is very difficult! As a big fan of Tom DiCillo as well, I thank you again for writing such a fantastic book about his films! One can certainly tell from reading this book that you truly love Burt Reynolds. 

How hard was it to write a film synopsis for every film?

Plot synopses are always a grind, and there are a hundred-plus films covered in this book. They are the most laborious thing about writing on film, whether you are reviewing for a magazine, speaking on the radio, or writing in a book. I mean all you are doing is hammering out the plot and trying not to reveal too much or to simply explain the film to people. And that inevitably ends up happening, because in the case of a book like this, you know most of your readers have not seen every film in there, so you do have to offer a lot more than a brief overview; you want them to feel that they have a substantive enough idea of the film so that they can appreciate the author’s commentary and criticism. Although, admittedly, some of the films only needed a cursory account of the plot.

Did you watch every single movie and television series that Burt starred in? 

You could say I re-watched 99% of them all. I had already seen and owned them before the book began. There weren’t that many films that I had to track down specifically for this book. There were a small handful of films he did in the last few years of his life, in which he mainly provided a cameo, and I literally couldn’t get my hands on them to see them. In most cases, they hadn’t yet received official releases in theatres or on DVD. So those few are the only films with Burt that I haven’t watched. And for the TV shows, I went back and watched the ones he was the star or co-star of, which are the ones which have chapters devoted to them – Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, Dan August, B.L. Stryker, Evening Shade. But for my own sense of completion, I also watched the shows where he is in one episode, such as Route 66, M Squad, The Lawless Years, The Twilight Zone, The Lawless Years, Naked City.

Wow, that is truly impressive and a major commitment on your part, as well!

How long did it take you to write the book?

From signing the contract to publication, I would say that was a little less than two years. The writing took around fourteen months. It was a very intense time. I was working two jobs – librarian and journalist – and halfway through the Burt Reynolds book, I signed a contract for another book, which I began work on during this period. Then I went on a nationwide tour of Ireland with my subject, Nick McLean, appearing at events all over the country celebrating his career. Nick has a lot to do with Burt’s career as well, so it tied in nicely. So, I had all of this going on, plus interviews with directors, actors and friends of Burt’s, and re-watching every film and TV show again, sometimes repeatedly. They were the busiest two years I’ve ever experienced, and I loved it. I came out of it with two books and some wonderful friends.

How did you choose which quotes to use from Reynolds’ characters in each specific film?

They had to tickle me somehow, if they were funny or if they encapsulated some intrinsic characteristic of the film. One of my favourite quotes is from The Last Movie Star, “You were the one who loved me before anybody even knew my name,” because it is loaded with a sense of history and a lifetime of regret, tinged with the melancholy and wisdom of someone who experienced the zenith of fame, fortune, and adoration, that which came at the price of losing people who cared for them long before the stardom and stature. I also love the quote from A Bunch of Amateurs – “Richard III it is! – What’s that about again?” – because it speaks to the absurdity and irony of Burt’s humour. He was so playful. I don’t know anybody in today’s Hollywood who has such a mixture of beauty, humour, grace, volatility, masculinity, and humility all in one package.

You interviewed some very interesting people for this book. How did the interview with actress Rachel Ward come about?

I was lucky to get Rachel because she was hard enough to find. She didn’t have any social media, so I couldn’t make direct contact with her, and none of my Hollywood friends or acquaintances knew her personally anymore, so it seemed like a dead end. But then I remembered that she is now a producer and director, which means she must have a company listing. So, I found out the name of her production company and approached them. My letter eventually found its way to Rachel through that avenue and we arranged some Skype chats, which were fun. These things can be a little surreal at times, and one instance of that with Rachel was when we were chatting it was breakfast time over in Australia and at one stage in our conversation her husband came into view bringing her a cup of coffee. I’m just sitting there thinking, “That’s Bryan Brown from that movie F/X!” She is gorgeous and graceful and all the things you would expect of her. I know many people fell in love with her in Sharky’s Machine, and it’s very hard not to, though I think she was even more beautiful and brilliant in Johnson County War twenty years after Sharky’s Machine.

Your interview with Tempted director, Bill Bennett, was also quite fascinating because of his unusual method of filmmaking and what he asks his actors to do. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Bill was a very intriguing guy to talk to. He made some really interesting Australian films throughout the eighties and nineties and then he made a Hollywood rom-com with Denis Leary and Sandra Bullock called Stolen Hearts (which is titled Two if by Sea in North America) which seems entirely random in the middle of his filmography, and then made another cool Aussie film called Kiss or Kill before doing Tempted. Anyway, he is the kind of filmmaker I love to talk to. Someone who has experienced both sides of the industry: the indie hustle and the studio system, and he has ideas on doing things differently, and one of those was to shoot his film using only improvisation. His “script” laid out scenarios and had a structure, but he wanted his actors to create their own dialogue based on the relationships which they built early in rehearsals. Given that he was working with a star of the old studio system in Burt, and with some hot, young up-and-comers, it was interesting to hear how they reacted to this method and how Bill made it all work. Tempted is a fiercely underrated film in the Burt canon, a very well-made contemporary noir.

Was Charles Durning, Reynolds’ most frequent co-star? Were they close friends in real life? 

Charles was certainly one of Burt’s most frequent co-stars. Then again, there were a few people who worked with Burt just as often. Burt and Charles had immense love and affection for each other, and I think you can see that throughout the work. It took on a bittersweet note in the later films when you see them as older men; you could see Charles wasn’t in the best of health in some of the films, but they still have an immense spark between them, amazing chemistry. My favourite story of their friendship was one Burt told about Charles being a brilliant dancer and dance teacher – which not a lot of people knew about – and one night at Burt’s house, during one of his famous shindigs, Fred Astaire and Charles Durning danced the night away. The way Burt described it; it was magical. They sounded like good nights at Burt’s place.

Many people may not know that Reynolds taught acting for many years. Can you tell us about what you know about that?

A lot of people that I spoke to for the book told me that, first and foremost, Burt was a teacher. At the height of his fame, in the midst of him being one of the world’s most famous film stars, he opened an acting institute in Florida and a dinner theatre. It became an apprenticeship program for many people who would go on to have great careers, and many established stars and Hollywood legends would grace his theatre stage or go and coach the students. Burt was hands-on in the early days, he would nurture and develop the talent, offer them a chance at acting in his films if they succeeded at the audition, of course, it wasn’t just handed to them. They had to work hard, and when they did, Burt offered them a chance at something great. I think Jim Lewis, who wrote my afterword is a great example; while he was at the acting program he ended up with roles in The Cannonball Run and Sharky’s Machine, which meant he got his union card, but Burt insisted he still go back and finish his apprenticeship. Jim then became Burt’s stunt man and stand-in, was offered even more substantial roles, and later became a camera assistant. And they remained close friends until Burt passed away. That’s an amazing career, and amazing life, all because of Burt. But Burt really gave himself to people, both onscreen and off.

What did you find out about Reynolds during your research that you didn’t already know as a fan of his work? 

The extent of his teaching work, and the sheer scope of his generosity. And that he made a really lovely album in 1973 called Ask Me What I Am. It’s now one of my favourite records, but I had never been able to find a copy of it until halfway through writing the book, and I ended up interviewing its producer, the legendary Bobby Goldsboro because of it. It went from something I had only ever heard about, to something I was digging deep into with Bobby.

I found Ask Me What I Am on Spotify so I’m happy to have a chance to listen to it. 

Reynolds died before your book was published. What do you wish you could have asked him if you’d had the chance?

I would have asked him if I could shake his hand.

What do you think Reynolds was most proud of in his career?

His students. I would imagine that seeing his students become successful actors and writers and directors was a great source of joy to him.

What do you think he regretted most? 

He has famously regretted several things publicly, such as his failed relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field, and he has also regretted not taking roles in big movies such as Star Wars and Terms of Endearment, but I think – and this is only me speculating – that his biggest regret may have been not having had the chance to enjoy a solid life with a family of his own, a life that he clearly yearned for. It is there all through his films, it is in his books, and it is on his musical album. Just when it looked like he had found that life with Loni and their adoptive son, Quinton, it was ruptured through the divorce; it is unfortunate that it ended the way it did and that all the upheaval was documented in a very messy and very public way. I think he must have been heartbroken to see it all come apart. But that’s only my observation; he may have said that he regretted something else entirely different. Perhaps not having had the chance to become the professional football player that he seemed destined to become. To have that taken away after an injury hurt him immensely. But then again, without that injury and his subsequent embrace of acting, he never would have become the greatest movie star in the world. 

What are your Top 5 favourite Burt Reynolds films?

I’m terrible at this question, which is one most interviewers ask of me. It depends on what day of the week it is, but today is Monday, so here goes, in no particular order…

Stick – Objectively speaking, it’s not exactly a classic film, but I’m not being objective, and I love it dearly. I think some of Nick McLean’s best cinematography is in there; I love the score; Burt nails the image of Elmore Leonard’s character of Ernest Stickley, and the villain Moke (played by Dar Robinson) is so menacing. Just a great 1980s action film. Candice Bergen and Burt make for a hot on-screen pairing.

White Lightning – Burt just as he was taking off into the stratosphere. He could be effortlessly charming and loveable while being mean and uncouth, as he is here as the iconic Gator McClusky. I love both this and its sequel Gator, which is a completely different film, it’s loud, brash, and big whereas White Lightning is taut, lean, gritty, and suspenseful. And Ned Beatty is a beast in it. I just gave you a two-for-one there: White Lightning and Gator. I’m feeling generous today.

Hustle – Now this is what you call a classic neo-noir. Directed by Robert Aldrich, who he worked with on the brilliant The Longest Yard, but this is a serious film, a great murder mystery with political intrigue and a sleazy journey into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. Aldrich’s visual style is superb, and Burt gives a brilliant performance as the fatalist, cynical, morally questionable anti-hero detective. As a neo-noir film, I much prefer this to the likes of The Long Goodbye and Body Heat, both of which tend to be much more lauded than this. Hustle needs to be rediscovered.

Stroker Ace – Most people, including Burt, didn’t think too fondly of this, but for me, it encapsulates that period where Burt had this great Saturday matinee thing going that I recall fondly and nostalgically, where it was all about silly gags, fast cars, wild stunts, and some beautiful women. It is totally lowbrow stuff, but it helps when you have Burt being Burt, Loni looking gorgeous, Hal Needham directing, and Nick McLean shooting it.

Starting Over – For when I’m feeling a little bit more sophisticated, I put away Stroker Ace and reach for Starting Over, which is a classy melodramatic comedy featuring Burt as a down-on-his-luck loser-in-love, cast aside by Candice Bergen and embraced by Jill Clayburgh. Burt is playing against type here, a comfortably middle-class and urbane writer, shorn of moustache and masculine virility, and he really fought to get this role, because nobody would believe that he could play such a churlish loner who couldn’t find love. Alan J. Pakula directed it, and erstwhile Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen cinematographer Sven Niekvist shot it, which means it looks stunning. A beautiful, warm, funny, and tender work, featuring some of Burt’s finest acting.

And a bonus sixth film – Sharky’s Machine – because it’s Sharky’s Machine and needs no other reason.

The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out by Wayne Byrne

The Cinema of Tom DiCilloBook Review
Title: The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out
Author:  Wayne Byrne
Publisher: Wallflower Press
Released: September 2017
Pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-0231185356
Book Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  4.5

I admit that I can’t review The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out by Wayne Byrne without bias, but I can say that my bias is formed by a deep appreciation of Tom DiCillo’s films and Tom DiCillo, the man. I was fortunate to receive a review copy of the book from Columbia University Press’ Wallflower division and am pleased to give you my honest opinion about it.

I believe that the first of DiCillo’s films that I ever saw was Living in Oblivion, when I rented it on DVD soon after it was released – likely in 1996. As a life-long film fan, Living in Oblivion, a humourous, heartfelt film about the making of an independent film, was an absolute treasure to discover and has since become DiCillo’s seminal masterpiece. It wasn’t long after that when I also rented and enjoyed watching Johnny Suede, the now cult film with a cool surf music score that helped to launch Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener’s careers. Because I’ve always enjoyed Keener’s work and because she was in four of DiCillo’s films, I kept watching them and had seen at least four of them before I got to know a lot more about the filmmaker.

Then, in a strange, albeit serendipitous twist of fate, I became friends with Tom DiCillo when I discovered his blog as he was writing about the process of releasing and trying to find a distributor for When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (which won a Grammy in 2011), over seven years ago. The Doors are on my Top 5 Favourite Bands of All Time list and as such they formed the basis for our original conversation. However, we have continued to stay in touch ever since, because Tom is a very accessible, generous man with a kind heart and genuine appreciation for his fans. Not only am I a fan of his body of work, but I admire and respect him as an artist and a human being.  I’m equally enamored with Tom’s music project, The Black and Blue Orkestre, because I love his singing voice and the combination of Spaghetti Western, Surf and Cinematic Gothic Rockabilly grooves that form the music.

But back to the book. This volume by Irish author and Film Studies lecturer / education consultant Wayne Byrne is an extremely well-written, intelligent, enthralling addition to the Directors’ Cuts series published by Wallflower Press and a must-read for any cineaste or film student. It took Byrne five years to complete, but during that time he interviewed not only Tom DiCillo, at length, but also many of the actors in his films, including Steve Buscemi who wrote the foreword.

“In short, this wonderful book details the ultimate triumphant journey of one of independent cinema’s smartest, funniest, and fiercest warriors.” ~ Steve Buscemi

Byrne’s book is an interesting in-depth look at all of DiCillo’s eight independent films (seven of which premiered at Sundance) the agony and the ecstasy of birthing them, as well as an honest, insider’s view into the independent film industry and the machinations of the Hollywood system.

In his book, Byrne analyzes the themes of identity, family, and masculinity in DiCillo’s work and supports it with “in-depth coverage of the generic and aesthetic aspects of DiCillo’s distinctive and influential film style.” Through detailed chapters on each of his feature films, readers receive “…a candid look behind-the-scenes of both the American independent film industry – from the No Wave movement of the 1980s, through the Indie boom of the 1990s, to the contemporary milieu – and the Hollywood studio system.”

Byrne studied the writing, production, and release of each of DiCillo’s films and followed them with an extensive and intriguing Q&A with him, as well as exclusive interviews with many actors and collaborators including Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Peter Dinklage, Sam Rockwell, John Turturro, Chris Noth, Maxwell Caulfield, Matthew Modine, Gina Gershon, Kevin Corrigan, Alison Lohman and John Densmore and Robby Krieger of The Doors.

Johnny Suede (1991)
Living in Oblivion (1995)
Box of Moonlight (1996)
The Real Blonde (1997)
Double Whammy (2001)
Delirious (2006)
When You’re Strange (2009)
Down in Shadowland (2014)

I own all DiCillo’s films and have watched them all again with new eyes after reading Byrne’s book, getting something new from each of them even though I’ve seen six of them previously, at least a couple of times. Perhaps that is what allows DiCillo’s work to endure throughout the years. It is clever, often subversive and upon first viewing you may think, “Well, what was that all about? That was a bit bizarre…”, but upon further viewing, you really get a feel for the director’s unique style and voice, use of colour, choice of music (often created by composer Jim Farmer) as well as the themes that inspire him. It is DiCillo’s way of viewing and expressing humanity in his work with his distinct sense of humour and pathos that makes these films stand out in the crowd of slick, violent, comic-book infested, often soulless, unoriginal movies from Hollywood that we’re seeing today. Give me the work of Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, The Coen Brothers, Michael Winterbottom, Tim Burton and Tom DiCillo any day. If you agree, read this book.

Drunk Film School: 9 Simple Classes with Independent Writer/Director TOM DiCILLO

DRUNK FILM SCHOOL

Tom DiCillo Drunk Film School

Have you ever thought about going to film school?

Have you ever thought, “I’d like to try it but it’s just too much money.”

Have you ever thought, “Fuck that shit; who needs it?”

IF SO THEN THIS COURSE IS FOR YOU.

9 simple classes with independent writer/director TOM DiCILLO.

Hosted by Duane Andersen, professor and filmmaker at Utah Valley University. All episodes constructed and edited by Tom DiCillo

This is Part 5 of a 9-part series called DRUNK FILM SCHOOL with Tom DiCillo.

Watch all 9 episodes of DRUNK FILM SCHOOL here:

www.tomdicillo.com/blog/drunk-film-school/

God Save The King: Tom DiCillo’s 1977 Student Film Started His Career

Tom DiCilloA few months ago, one of my favorite award-winning filmmakers, Tom DiCillo – (Living in Oblivion, Delirious, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors) considered one of the founding fathers of New York independent film – found one of his student films, GOD SAVE THE KING.

GOD SAVE THE KING was DiCillo’s first sync sound film when he was in NYU film school. Back in 1977, student films were shot on real film and the move from silent to sound was considered a huge step. The original 16 mm print was recently discovered in a box under a bed in the basement of a juvenile correctional institution near Miami.

DiCillo wrote and directed the film, starring Liz Roker, Jay McCormack and Joe d’Angerio in his 2nd year at NYU. It was loosely based on an incident that had happened to him one steamy August night a few months earlier. The punk movement was in full spasm. For some performance photos needed for the film he went to CBGB’s one afternoon and they let him shoot Joe and Jay on the stage for 20 minutes.


After graduation DiCillo decided for some reason to scrape some money together and re-edit the film. He added titles, did a sound mix and made something that was almost unheard of for an ex NYU student with no job–a real 16mm print.

Eight years later when he submitted his first screenplay Johnny Suede to the National Endowment for the Arts, DiCillo sent the print of God Save The King as an example of his work. They gave him $25,000.

A year later he submitted the Johnny Suede screenplay to the Sundance Director’s Lab. Once again, he sent this only print of God Save The King as a directing sample. He got accepted.

In some ways you could say this little film started Tom DiCillo’s career.

(Published with permission from Tom DiCillo.)

Interview with Writer/Director Tom DiCillo of When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors

I’ve been following writer/director Tom DiCillo’s (Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion, Delirious) blog at www.tomdicillo.com for the past six months, ever since I heard of the impending release of his rock documentary, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Tom’s passion and commitment to his projects is visceral, both on the page and on the screen, and he is extremely gracious and forthright with his fans and fellow film lovers. Tom, thank you for agreeing to talk to Press+1 (Note: Sept. 18/15: This interview was originally published at a now defunct online entertainment magazine).

What was the single most important thing that you took away from the experience of writing and directing When You’re Strange?

Making the film affected me in a surprisingly large number of ways, and still does. But, the thing that struck me the most was the band’s commitment to artistic integrity. They had it from the beginning and they kept it throughout. They made the music they wanted to hear. As an independent filmmaker it was deeply inspiring to be reminded that not everything is for sale.

What was your first thought when you learned that the documentary had been nominated for an Emmy?

Utter bewilderment.

What do you say to those who have said that When You’re Strange is unflattering towards Jim Morrison?

I say that my sole intent with this film was to portray Jim, and the entire band, as truthfully as possible. So much has been said about Jim and The Doors. Much of it is superstition, legend and frankly bullshit. I think it is obvious the enormous respect and admiration I have for Jim and for Ray, John and Robby. The footage I immersed myself in for two years provided an incredibly intimate view of all of them. To me, truth and honesty are the only things that matter. Jim Morrison is immensely more interesting to me as a human being than as a god or a devil. He was a man. He lived and breathed. He was human. To accept all the things that made him human was the only way I could show how deeply I was impressed by him.

Have you read Ray Manzarek’s (Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors) or John Densmore’s (Riders On The Storm) books about The Doors? If so, did you take anything from them for the script? I ask because some of the narration sounds a lot like what I’ve heard Ray say about them.

I read both books. And I spoke at length to Ray, John and Robby. If the narration echoes some of what they wrote that is purely accidental. The fact is the story of the Doors is relatively clear and straightforward. What happened is what happened. There really are not too many ways to describe how Jim was arrested at New Haven.

I was very much aware that many things have been written or said about the band by historians or experts much more experienced than me. I had to find something truthful for myself in order to make this film. And that truth was that the Doors were made up of four intensely gifted musicians. And although Jim was the front man, dominating the spotlight, each of them contributed something invaluable to the music.

Much of the narration is really a reflection of my subconscious thought patterns as I was originally watching all the footage. Most of it was silent and so it freed my mind to just look at what was happening and think about what I was seeing.

I heard on a recent Today is Boring podcast that you did that Jim’s film HWY is going to be released as a feature film in the not too distant future. Do you know any more details about this release?

That is all I know. The rights to the film, as well as all of Jim’s writing, reverted to Pam Courson’s mother after Pam’s death and are now jointly owned by the Courson’s and Morrison’s brother and sister. I’m not sure why they’ve waited so long to put the film out there on its own.

Did you ever see The Doors perform live?

Regrettably, no. I envy anyone who did.

What is your favourite Doors song?

Very hard to pick one. “Roadhouse Blues” always blows my mind. It sounds like it was written yesterday.

Do you think that The Doors have had any influence in your own new music project, The Black and Blue Orkestre?

Perhaps. Making the film has opened my eyes to the idea that all artistic impulses have value and none should be dismissed, or diminished. Believe me, the critics will do that for you.

Can you describe The Black and Blue Orkestre and how it was born?

The Black and Blue Orkestre is a transatlantic musical crew consisting of three people; me, Will Crewdson in the UK, and Grog in LA. It began about 3 years ago when Will wrote into my blog (www.tomdicillo.com) inquiring about my last film, Delirious. He was very supportive and offered to help bring it to the attention of some sluggish UK distributors.

We kept in contact and eventually he revealed his musical interests to me. He’s been very active in some cool UK bands for several years. How I ever decided to reveal to him that I’d just recorded my own version of “16 Tons” I can’t quite recall. But, I did. And then I took the even stranger step of sending it to him. He laid down an incredible guitar track and suddenly this little home-recording I’d made took on an entirely different sound.

I’ve never really played with other musicians. To have Will integrate a many-layered guitar part, as well as adding synth and some percussion, opened me up to working with real musicians; people who could actually play and contribute other levels to the song.

We sent a few more songs back and forth, including two that I’d written myself. I’d never let anyone hear me sing before. Will not only did not laugh, he quietly encouraged me. The collaboration kept bringing new dimension to the songs. Will knew Grog from a tour they did together. I met her when they played in NYC. Will asked her to write the bass part for one of my songs “Will Been Done”, and we were both blown away. And so she joined the trio.

Who are some of your musical influences?

I like a wide variety of music. I’m keenly into the Eastern/Western hiphop fusion that’s been going on for several years. Rachid Taha, Khaled, Natascha Atlas to name only a very few. African guitar-based music is inspiring; Salif Keita, Mama Sissoko.

I love underground American surf music from the late 50’s and 60’s. There were some amazing bands that few people ever get acquainted with because the genre was so quickly homogenized. The Fireballs, The Trashmen, Dick Dale, Link Wray.

I think Nick Cave rivals Neil Young in consistency and his constant quest to make new music that no one has heard before.

And I think Eminem’s latest album has some incredible stuff on it. I’m inspired by anyone who brings something truly new and original to my ears.

Tom, your bio on imdb.com states that a trademark of your films is that they often contain a dream sequence that is central to the plot. Are you a lucid dreamer and do you immediately write down visions for film that come to you that way?

I don’t know who wrote that bio but, I don’t think it is too accurate. Box of Moonlight has no dreams in it; nor does The Real Blonde or Delirious. However, many people smarter than me have described film as the art form closest to dream and I would agree.

I think if they are handled carefully, dropping dreams into a film can provide the audience with a deeply rewarding surprise. The fact is we all dream every night. And never during our dreams is there any pink smoke or ominous dwarf roaming around to indicate, or assure us, it is only a dream. When we dream we are convinced at that moment that what we are experiencing is absolutely REAL.

This is why dreams are so powerful. My dreams are intensely vivid and complex. I frequently wake up exhausted. I don’t tend to draw from them specifically. I actually see life most of the time as some kind of strange dream where the edges are blurred, where danger and intense joy lie around every corner.

Your films are often described as satires or black comedies. Why do you enjoy – excuse the phrase – taking the piss out of a subject on film?

Well, partly this comes from looking around me and seeing a world that appears to be frantically going blind. More, the things people are obsessed with seem completely bewildering to me. If anyone inspired me in this world-view it was Mark Twain. One of his central themes is how relentlessly the world shrinks away from anything close to the truth.

So, for example, making Living In Oblivion was a definite attempt to show the world what being an independent film director was REALLY like. To most people the indie director embodies the essence of cool; leather jacket, shades, a cigarette. In my experience, every independent director I’ve ever seen on the set (including myself) is a bundle of nerves, fear, ego and complete insecurity.

So I said, f—k it, let me just show it as it is.

Do you think you have a twisted sense of humour?

Only to the degree that I enjoy helping some people see how stupid they are.

Were the Delirious Marketing Meeting videos including the ones you made with Steve Buscemi and Kieran Culkin on YouTube for real?

I’m glad you had to ask me that. I worked very hard on those videos to make them seem like they were real. Actually, they were all scripted and acted. I was assisted by a young filmmaker Chioke Nasoor who had the original idea. He’d heard me talking at a pre-release screening of Delirious about how the distributor was not spending any money on advertising.

He approached me and suggested the idea of doing some web-based video skits that might grab people’s attention and help promote the film. At the time there was great interest in the leaked video of director David O. Russell freaking out on set of I Heart Huckabees. We used that as a model and tried to devise a series of “real” videos that would place me in the most frustrating and demeaning positions possible.

For the Buscemi piece Chioke and I actually crashed the press day for Steve’s own film, Interview. So, it was a combination of scripted stuff and complete improvisation. I greatly enjoyed acting in them.

Have you ever attended the Toronto International Film Festival or would you when you don’t have a film to present?

I attended Toronto with all of my films except the last three. I’m not sure I would see the need to go there without a film.

Are you working on another film project now or are you concentrating on your music for a while?

I have two narrative feature scripts I’ve written in development. That is a strange word which really means that I’m actively trying to arrange financing and casting on a daily basis. This process can take years. But, I’m very excited about both scripts. One is a contemporary sex comedy called Lost In Blue and the other is a tense, sexually complex crime thriller called Lighthouse Road.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom you can share with struggling filmmakers and musicians?

The only words I can say have been said so many times they probably seem meaningless. Keep going. The easiest thing for producers, agents, critics, distributors or financiers to say is NO. And so, they do. As disappointing as the rejection is the only response is to keep going and not take it personally.

Because, it isn’t personal. These people don’t know you. They know nothing about you. So why would you let someone like this tell you who you are? No one can tell you what you can do. Most of these people have no idea who they are themselves and are terrified of taking responsibility to make any kind of decision about anything.

You just have to keep going. It is not easy. Actually, it is incredibly hard. Because we all have to survive somehow. We all need to generate income, to pay the rent, to eat. And if pursuing an artistic career does not provide these things then life can seem pretty bleak and scary.

How do you stay optimistic? How do you keep going when it seems like you’re all alone and no one in the entire world seems to give a sh-t if you give up tomorrow?

I’m not sure I know the exact answer. But your question takes me back to your first one; what I learned from making When You’re Strange. Jim Morrison’s belief in the power of artistic integrity was unshakeable. He left home when he was 17. No one in his family had any faith in his ability to sing or write music. His father actually advised a friend not to invest money in the Doors.

And yet, Jim kept going. Some part of him already knew that there was little if any value in waiting for approval and validation from other people.

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors by Tom DiCillo

When You're StrangeI don’t normally blog about movies but this particular film is an exception because it’s a documentary about one of my all-time favourite bands, The Doors, narrated by my favourite actor, Johnny Depp. As my good friend Tracie said, (and I concur) “It’s a win win for me!”

We’re going to see the special event screening of Tom DiCillo’s film on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 at 7:00 pm at the Cineplex-Odeon in Kingston. I’m very excited about this because I’ve been a big fan of Jim Morrison and The Doors for as long as I can remember, have read numerous books written about them and by them, and even had the privilege of meeting Ray Manzarek at a book signing in Toronto in 1999 when he was promoting Light My Fire: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors.

I am hereby joining The Doors Street Team (you can too!) and am going to pass along their information about When You’re Strange here. From the official website:

Following a prestigious festival run, WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE: A FILM ABOUT THE DOORS will receive a theatrical release in select markets on Friday, April 9. The crowd-pleasing documentary has been featured at the Sundance, Berlin, Deauville and San Sebastian Film Festivals and most recently played to sold-out shows at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Produced by Wolf Films/Strange Pictures, in association with Rhino Entertainment, and released by Abramorama, the 90-minute film is the first feature documentary about The Doors.

“They say if you remember the ‘60s you weren’t there,” said producer Dick Wolf. “I can state definitively that one of the things I do remember is buying THE DOORS first album the day it came out and then listening to it about ten or twelve times in a row. Both sides. Every song. I’ve been a fan ever since. This movie is the story of the band but it is also an insight into a moment in time that will never be repeated.”

WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE uncovers historic and previously unseen footage of the illustrious rock quartet and provides new insight into the revolutionary impact of its music and legacy. Directed by award-winning writer/director Tom DiCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, the film is a riveting account of the band’s history.

Said Depp, “Watching the hypnotic, hitherto unreleased footage of Jim, John, Ray and Robby, I felt like I experienced it all through their eyes. As a rock n’ roll documentary, or any kind of documentary for that matter, it simply doesn’t get any better than this. What an honor to have been involved. I am as proud of this as anything I have ever done.”

The film reveals an intimate perspective on the creative chemistry between drummer John Densmore, guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and singer Jim Morrison — four brilliant artists who made The Doors one of America’s most iconic and influential rock bands. Using footage shot between the band’s 1965 formation and Morrison’s 1971 death, WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE follows the band from the corridors of UCLA’s film school, where Manzarek and Morrison met, to the stages of sold-out arenas.

Shortly before the film’s theatrical release, its soundtrack will be available March 30 and features 13-songs chronicling The Doors’ six landmark albums with studio versions of classic tracks mixed with legendary live cuts including performances from The Ed Sullivan Show and The Isle Of Wight Festival.

The film is produced by Wolf Films/Strange Pictures, in association with Rhino Entertainment, and released by Abramorama. Additional credits for WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE include producers Dick Wolf, John Beug, Jeff Jampol, and Peter Jankowski. The film is written and directed by Tom DiCillo (“Johnny Suede,” “Living in Oblivion”). Narrated by Johnny Depp.