Tom DiCillo’s Road in and Out of Oblivion

The Time: The mid-’90s
The Place: Downtown New York City
The Setting: A nondescript warehouse/film studio
The Scene: “Ellen and Damian Kiss”

When it arrives, the blow-up has been a long time coming. Ever since he showed up on the set of the indie film he’s agreed to be in, egotistical actor Chad Palomino has been a source of irritation and constant disruption, but writer/director Nick Reve has put up with his self-aggrandizing behavior and suggestions — many of which are at the expense of the film’s leading lady, Nicole — because he’s a Hollywood star on the rise and his participation could mean the difference between Nick’s film getting seen and being buried. It’s Chad who throws down the gauntlet first, though, dismissively saying he only took the part because someone said Nick was “tight with Quentin Tarantino.” In short order, insults and fists are thrown, Chad is ejected from the set, and Nick is left to placate Nicole, who feels left out to dry by the whole experience.

The irony here is that Nick, the main character in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion — which premiered at Sundance 25 years ago — is played by Steve Buscemi, who actually was tight with Tarantino, having just been in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Meanwhile, Chad was originally going to be played by Brad Pitt, who was the lead in DiCillo’s debut, Johnny Suede (1991), and eventually would hook up with Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. When the increasingly busy Pitt was unable to fit the role into his schedule, though, it went to indie fixture James Le Gros, who based his performance on a temperamental actor he had just worked with. Journalists covering Living in Oblivion’s Sundance premiere, though, jumped to the conclusion that the character was DiCillo’s way of getting back at Pitt, who they assumed had been difficult to work with on Johnny Suede. That the rumor persists to this day in spite of his protestations to the contrary (in interviews, the Living in Oblivion book, and on the commentaries for both films) is a testament to how much people want to believe things long after they’ve been refuted.

Taken on its own terms, Johnny Suede is an odd kettle of fish, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of DiCillo’s offbeat sense of humor. The title character, a wannabe rockabilly singer who idolizes Ricky Nelson, grew out of the acting classes he took to better understand the actor’s craft after graduating from NYU. That morphed into a one-man show DiCillo wrote and performed in the mid-’80s and a screenplay that got some traction after he took part in the Sundance Directors Lab. (After spending a decade as a cinematographer-for-hire, most notably for fellow NYU alum Jim Jarmusch, DiCillo was eager to get back to doing what he originally went to film school for.) The central role proved so difficult to cast, though, that DiCillo considered playing it himself and having longtime friend Steve Buscemi play Johnny’s best friend Deke. It was only during an eleventh-hour casting session in Los Angeles that Pitt entered the picture, having just wrapped Thelma & Louise. That film already had industry types talking about his star potential, but all DiCillo cared about was that he was the only actor who seemed to understand how to play the character, an important consideration since this “exaggerated fable” (as DiCillo calls it on the commentary) could have easily tipped over into the cartoonish.

The other key casting decision was the addition of Catherine Keener as Johnny’s would-be girlfriend Yvonne, a role she similarly made her own. Production brought with it a whole different set of problems, though, including the theft of Johnny’s wardrobe (all of which came out of DiCillo’s own closet), a shooting location being condemned in the middle of the shoot, and a change in cinematographers necessitated by the first one’s near-sabotage of Pitt’s most challenging emotional scene. DiCillo doesn’t name names on the commentary, but he got the last laugh by co-opting the guy’s look — black beret, fingerless gloves, leather vest — for the character of Wolf, the pretentious d.p. played by Dermot Mulroney in Living in Oblivion. He also channeled his frustrations into the script for a short film when Johnny Suede’s failure at the box office in the summer of 1992 (a disappointment for DiCillo since it had won Best Picture at the Locarno Film Festival the previous year) caused the financing for his proposed second feature, Box of Moonlight, to fall through. Good thing he had a back-up that wound up turning things around for him.

The Scene: “Ellen Talks to Mom”

The first 25 minutes of Living in Oblivion depict the array of technical problems that plague a low-budget film shoot on the day the director is determined to get his script’s big, emotional scene in one shot. The early takes, when lead actress Nicole (Keener, naturally) is most focused, are marred by the boom appearing in shot, focus problems, and street noise spoiling the sound. After they break to switch to radio mikes, the hits keep coming when one of Wolf’s lights explodes, literally shattering the delicate mood. By the time they’re ready to go again, Nicole’s performance is rapidly deteriorating and Cora, the older actress playing her mother, has started forgetting her lines. A miracle happens, though, when Nick gives the crew a break to let the actors run the scene and a simple gesture by Cora opens up a wellspring of emotion in Nicole and they play it as truthfully as Nick could have ever wanted. Pity it’s the one time the camera isn’t rolling because Wolf, having drunk some bad milk, is busy puking his guts out. Such is the heartbreak of low-budget film, where — as DiCillo says on Johnny Suede’s commentary — “when something goes wrong, you are screwed.”

As delighted as he was by the end result, DiCillo knew Living in Oblivion had little chance of being seen by a general audience in its abbreviated form, so with the encouragement of his actors, some of whom had put their own money into the short’s budget, he expanded the concept to feature length by adding two more parts, the second of which involved a preening Hollywood star threatening to capsize the entire production with his enormous ego. Over the course of an increasingly tense shooting day — made all the more awkward by the fact that co-stars Chad and Nicole slept together the night before — Chad does everything he can to upstage his scene partner, mostly by changing the blocking on the fly and consistently failing to hit his marks. (One of the funniest line deliveries in the film comes when he asks for his original cue and the script assistant steps forward to say, “The cue for the original blocking is ‘professional.’”)

Finally, Nicole loses patience with Chad and snaps, precipitating the aforementioned brawl that ends with Chad getting thrown off the set and Nick and Nicole playing the scene he wrote for her for real. As in the first segment, which turns out to be a dream had by Nick, this is revealed to be Nicole’s dream, although she wonders how much basis it has in reality. When they subsequently compare notes, Nick ruefully shakes his head. “Great. I freak out in your dream. I freak out in my dream. No wonder I’m f***ing exhausted.”

The Scene: “The Dream Sequence”

Exhausted as he may be — physically, mentally, maybe even creatively — Nick is determined to roll with the punches, even if that includes shooting a dream sequence in place of the scene he originally planned to do that day. This is complicated by a number of factors ranging from a malfunctioning smoke machine to the unexpected arrival of his mother on set to a dwarf actor named Tito with a giant chip on his shoulder. Played with scene-stealing panache by Peter Dinklage (in his screen debut), Tito lurks ominously in the background of DiCillo’s shots whenever the crew is discussing the workings of the unreliable smoke machine, and his refusal to give Nick the maniacal laugh he’s looking for at the end of each take comes to a head when he angrily questions why his character has to be a dwarf and storms off. (“Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them.”)

Of all the potential disasters that could break his spirit, this is the moment that inspires Nick to throw in the towel, but a miracle occurs and his crew gets the shot with the help of his mother (Rica Martens, who played Cora in the first part of the film). A hard-won happy ending, to be sure, it inspires Nick to fantasize about winning the Golden Apple for Best Film Ever Made by a Human Being while his sound man is recording 30 seconds of room tone. That found its echo in real life when Living in Oblivion was accepted into Sundance, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, a fitting tribute to DiCillo’s tenacity. Even better, he finally got the green light to make Box of Moonlight after years of struggling to get it off the ground.

Like with Johnny Suede and Brad Pitt, Box of Moonlight continued the trend of showcasing an up-and-coming actor — in this case, Sam Rockwell, who plays an iconoclast living “off the grid” who helps tightly wound electrical engineer John Turturro unwind a little when they’re thrown together by chance for a few days. And DiCillo was able to follow it in quick succession with The Real Blonde in 1997. That film not only saw him working with stars like Matthew Modine, Daryl Hannah, Denis Leary, Christopher Lloyd, and Kathleen Turner, it also brought back Steve Buscemi for an encore as Nick Reve, who has gone from directing his passion project to a Madonna video in which Modine’s character, a struggling actor, is incongruously cast and summarily fired from by assistant director Dave Chappelle.

In the two decades since then, DiCillo has directed two more features (2001’s Double Whammy with Leary and Elizabeth Hurley and 2006’s Delirious with Buscemi and Michael Pitt), a pair of documentaries, and a succession of television episodes. Should be ever decide to make a Living in Oblivion 2 at some point, though, he’s sure to have enough material stockpiled for it. And who knows? He may even get Brad Pitt to return to the fold. Stranger things have happened.

Join our  mailing list! Follow us on  Twitter! Write for us!

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

Back to top