After playing an aspiring indie filmmaker in Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup and a practicing one in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, it was inevitable that Steve Buscemi would choose to step behind the camera himself. After cutting his teeth with the 1992 short What Happened to Pete, in which he wrote, directed, and starred, he made his feature debut with Trees Lounge, which premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival (where it competed for the Camera d’Or), the first of four features he directed over the next decade. Ranging from a serious prison drama to a quirky small-town comedy to a contentious two-hander set in New York, Buscemi’s directing CV doesn’t lack for variety – and that’s not even counting his television work – but there are common themes running through it.
One is that of biography – or autobiography in the case of Trees Lounge, which Buscemi set and partially filmed in the Long Island suburb where he grew up. That wasn’t his intention, though, until his frequent writing/performing partner Mark Boone Junior suggested it. “I was in denial about where I was from and what the whole experience was,” Buscemi says in the book My First Movie. “[…] the more I thought about it, the only way I could think about writing about it was, what if I hadn’t left? What would I be doing?” For his character, unemployed auto mechanic Tommy Basilio, that translated to spending a lot of time drinking at the titular watering hole, a lot less looking for gainful employment, pining for his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and driving his uncle’s ice cream truck, something Buscemi actually did for a few summers after high school.
As a busy and well-liked character actor, Buscemi had little trouble filling out his supporting cast with performers he’d worked with. From In the Soup alone, he recruited Seymour Cassel (who also appeared in What Happened to Pete), Elizabeth Bracco, Debi Mazar, and Carol Kane. To their ranks, he added Boone, Anthony LaPaglia, Brooke Smith, Kevin Corrigan, Chloë Sevigny, Samuel L. Jackson, Daniel Baldwin, and Mimi Rogers, and cast his brother Michael as Tommy’s brother Raymond, which he repeated in 2007’s Interview. The most important ancillary character, though, is old-timer Bill, played by Bronson Dudley. A permanent fixture at “the Trees” who shares the apartment above the bar with Tommy, Bill is a handy object lesson should he begin to ponder where a life of aimlessness and near-constant inebriation might lead him.
Following Trees Lounge – and in between acting jobs for Robert Altman, John Carpenter, the Coen Brothers, Stanley Tucci, and Michael Bay – Buscemi was tapped to direct episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz, the latter a good warm-up for his second feature. Based on a novel by Edward Bunker, with whom Buscemi had acted in Reservoir Dogs, 2000’s Animal Factory confirmed his preference for shooting on location (in this case, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary). This allowed him to accentuate the harsh realities of being sent to prison with hardened felons, the fate of 21-year-old Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), who’s described as “intelligent” and “from a good family,” but gets sent up for possession of marijuana to be made an example of.
Fortunately for Ron (or unfortunately, depending on who you ask), he’s soon taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), the joint’s self-proclaimed “man with the juice” and the film’s most charismatic figure. Along with his gang (anchored by Mark Boone Junior and Danny Trejo, who brought authenticity to the role since he did time with Bunker in the ’70s), Earl rules the roost, using his job as a clerk to fix things up for the cons he wants to fix things for. “This is my prison,” he boasts. “Everybody knows that.” (Those who don’t learn fast.) To create both leads, Bunker drew from his multiple prison stints, essentially making his older self the mentor/protector of his younger self. (When Earl says he’s “done a total of 18 calendar years in this place,” that’s the same amount of time Bunker spent behind bars.) He even has a small role as a lifer named Buzzard who serves the same function for Earl as Bill did for Tommy.
Role models of any kind aren’t easy to come by in 2005’s Lonesome Jim, by far the most conventional of Buscemi’s features. Like Trees Lounge and Animal Factory before it, it’s inspired by the life experiences of its author, James C. Strouse, who lent his name and family’s Indiana ladder factory to sad-sack protagonist Jim, a depressed washout at 27 played by Casey Affleck. Returning to his insular hometown just after Christmas (which he likely missed on purpose), Jim slips back into old routines with his parents (Mary Kay Place and Seymour Cassel) and older brother (Kevin Corrigan), who precipitates the first of many family crises when he drives into a tree and ends up in a coma. The rest of their misfortunes can be traced to Jim’s scumbag uncle (Mark Boone Junior), who’s using the factory as a front for drug deals. (That’s another theme that runs through Buscemi’s films: the general availability and casual use of hard drugs.) If not for the love of a good woman (specifically, a nurse played by Liv Tyler) and admiration of her adorable moppet of a son, Jim’s lonesomeness would surely be incurable.
With Lonesome Jim, Buscemi moved from shooting on film to handheld DV, an aesthetic he carried over to 2007’s Interview. His first remake – of the 2003 Dutch film of the same name by Theo van Gogh – it’s also his shortest at 85 minutes, but he’s made a habit of keeping his work on the lean side. (His longest film, Trees Lounge, is still only 96 minutes.) It also saw him sharing screenplay credit and taking the leading role of disgruntled journalist Pierre Peders, who resents being saddled with a fluff piece on self-absorbed actress Katya (Sienna Miller) while there’s a political scandal brewing in Washington that he’d rather be covering. They get off on the wrong foot when Katya is an hour late, but she has cause to rebuke Pierre for his unprofessionalism when he proves wholly unprepared. Their testy back-and-forth continues when circumstances compel her to bring him up to her loft, where the battle for the upper hand goes on unabated. And to top things off, the film ends with a cameo by Katja Schuurman, the star (and ostensible subject) of van Gogh’s original.
Between Animal Factory and Interview, Buscemi directed another episode of Oz and four of The Sopranos, but since then his credits have included Nurse Jackie, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Portlandia (as well as Vampire Weekend’s “Unstaged” concert video, placing him in the rarified company of Anton Corbijn, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Gary Oldman). Along with his steady acting work, that’s kept him busy enough, but should he return to features, a straight comedy seems like it would be a natural fit. His willingness to poke fun at himself, especially when he pops up in Adam Sandler’s oeuvre, is evidence enough that he has the skills and the sense of humor to pull off whatever he sets his mind to.