Tom DiCillo by Bette Gordon

Tom DiCillo speaks with Bette Gordon on directing his first film, Johnny Suede, and being one of the first to discover Brad Pitt and Catherine Keneer.

BOMB 39 Spring 1992
Issue 39 039  Spring 1992

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Tom DiCillo. Photo © 1992 by Christopher Buck.

Tom DiCillo was best known as a cinematographer, having shot such notable films as Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, Bette Gordon’s Variety, and Eric Mitchell’s Underground USA. And now his film, Johnny Suede, just won Best Picture at the Film Festival Locarno.

He originated Johnny Suede as a one-man show at The Home for Contemporary Theater in New York City (he is also an actor). Tom turned the monologue into a screenplay and was invited to Sundance Institute in 1990 as a Directing Fellow. The film is a dark comic fable about a guy lost somewhere in America.

Bette Gordon The character of Johnny Suede in your movie is a jerk; but a likable one. It’s very difficult to make a character who’s an asshole likable.

Tom DiCillo I agree.

BG You wanted to work with that as an idea?

TD Exactly, to show that somewhere inside there is a glimpse of humanity. I had to make sure that no matter what this guy did, you would always feel that he was doing something genuine, not just “Hey, I’m being an asshole and I’m happy about it.” It’s a side of behavior that is rarely shown on film. I wanted to set up a duality.

BG How did you make us like him? When people looked at the script, you mentioned that they couldn’t see what you saw. How did you work it on film?

TD I worked with the actor. I always said, “Listen, man, whatever you’re doing here has to be because you’re wanting something very much or you’re afraid of something, we have to see that whatever you’re doing is coming out of some sort of desperation.” The key was that you needed to always see that somewhere along the line he was trying.

BG What was the genesis of the character?

TD I actually thought of him in an acting class while performing monologues. My character would speak about his problems and experiences and as he talked, you would get an idea of what really happened as opposed to what he said.

BG I’m split between liking the character and disliking him at the same time. That’s where you get to something more real. The women in the audience seemed to respond more positively than the men. Is it because they’re closer to it?

TD I think so. Essentially, it’s funny. They would laugh when Johnny came out with the typically male things. I never knew if they were laughing because they saw the double joke which was “Hey pal, you’re laughing at yourself.” Or if they thought it was a funny thing for a guy to say. Ironically, Johnny comes across as a fool, in the classical sense.

BG I don’t mean to be insulting to you at all, but I sense a bit of autobiography.

TD Definitely. Unabashedly, some of the things that happened in the film came right out of my life. But I think I was able to elevate it so it wasn’t just about me. Quite surprisingly, as I was working, I said, “Oh my God, am I really that way? Do I really think that way?” I was trying to find a way to become interested in this guy without it being me just being myself. And I didn’t want to make him into an Andrew Dice Clay. At certain points, I thought, I’m not really too sure who this guy is. Part of what excited me as an actor was that underneath everything there was a violence in Johnny, a desperation, a real patheticness. I didn’t know if that fear in him was going to make him do something ugly. A lot of his fantasies were about getting knives and guns.

BG How did you find Brad Pitt, he was unknown at the time?

TD Yes. I thought I was going to be able to cast this part in New York because it’s a New York story. But everybody had gone to L.A., so we had to go out to L.A. My casting director, Marsha Shulman, organized hundreds of actors for the audition, all these quote “great, hot, L.A. actors.” So here comes this guy, Brad Pitt. I wanted Johnny to be a loner from America, like John Voight from Midnight Cowboy. I took a lot from that character, that innocence, the guy who thinks he’s gonna come to New York and be the hottest stud. And he’s dressed like that cowboy. There’s something so beautiful about that.

BG Slightly off, but beautifully off.

TD Exactly. So Brad came in and he’s got that somewhere in America quality. He did this speech about Suede. The other actors didn’t see the irony, they played the male fucked-upness as if it was supposed to be cool; no fear, no little twist. Brad was the only one who got it.

BG At that point you said, “Yes, that’s Johnny!”?

TD Yes, on his resume it said, “Thelma and Louise” but that was before it came out, so no one knew who he was.

BG The casting in the movie is interesting. It’s unexpected. I loved the guy who plays Johnny’s best friend.

TD He’s great. Calvin Levels.

BG I loved his character, too. You think at first that he’s kind of dumb and then you see he’s smarter than Johnny.

TD Yes, that he’s going to move on. He’s a really good actor.

BG How did you find him?

TD Through a casting session. That part was originally written for a white guy, but I saw Calvin and said, “That’s it.”

BG The first third of the film is very stylized. When Yvonne came in, everything changed for me. She countered the emptiness of the first part. When Yvonne appears, the emotional aspect of Johnny and her relationship became the focus and really affected me. Were you playing with that?

TD Definitely. I wish the transition could have been a little more seamless. The first woman, Darlette, is used to set up the support of Johnny’s illusion. He’s Johnny Suede and she’s the perfect thing for him, what he’s dreaming about and his dream comes true.

BG And it’s so empty. What about the actress who plays Yvonne? I thought she was very good.

TD She’s incredible, Catherine Keener. Again, I met her in L.A. She did an interesting audition. It fell apart and she became very angry. I said, “O.K. let’s just do it again.” But you never knew what her anger was going to make her do next. As opposed to this other woman who was very composed and did it perfectly. When it came time for her to be emotional she was very emotional. So I said, “O.K. that’s the one.” But overnight I said, “No, wait a second, I’d rather take a risk. I’d rather work with this woman with whom I don’t know what the hell is going to happen next.” She was willing to go, “O.K. I hear what you’re saying, I’ll try it.” As opposed to the attitude I hate which is, “No.”

BG There’s something very real about her, a freshness in her acting style. From the minute she says, “Fuck you,” you feel like hey, that girl’s on the street. Without her, you might have lost me.

TD That was my intent. She’s the one who guides you emotionally through the whole second half of the film.

BG There’s the obvious connection between being an actor/director. You’re also a D.P. (Director of Photography). How do you see yourself after this?

TD I definitely don’t see myself “D.P.-ing” anymore. I enjoyed working with people like you, like Jim Jarmusch, because I never felt limited to, “Hey man shut up, you’re just behind the camera.” I was designing an intellectual style or an aesthetic for the films, that was consistent with their story. I enjoyed that, but it was time to start doing it for myself. I would like to act again.

BG Did you spend a lot of time in rehearsals? All independent filmmakers have no rehearsal time.

TD None. I had scheduled in two weeks of rehearsal time, and our schedule got totally fucked. We started shooting the day Brad Pitt arrived. Actually, the first two weeks were rehearsal. It was pretty hairy. He definitely had a different idea of the character than I did. We fought a little about it. Brad wanted to make Johnny more of an icon figure. I said, “No, don’t do that, the hair and what you’re wearing is enough. Just be yourself.”

BG Where was the movie shot?

TD In Williamsburg. It was a real conscious decision to make it not look like Manhattan. Even the subways don’t sound like New York subways. I told the sound people to give me some weird clanky sound, so we could be in the outskirts of some American city anywhere in the United States.

BG What was great about working with you as a D.P., was that you were emotionally in sync with the actors, you were able to capture visually the emotion of a scene in a way that is rare. I see the same thing in this film. How would you place “Johnny Suede?” You can’t call it a teenage film like Pump Up The Volume.

TD And he’s not a teenager.

BG He has some of the same concerns, like wanting to play in a band. You have an ironic edge, the film twists this theme. Do you have an idea how to place it?

TD No. I would say there are similarities in style to Drugstore Cowboy. It’s a slightly elevated reality, slightly absurd. I see Johnny Suede as a morality tale, a strange, twisted, contemporary fable.

BG One of my best memories of working with you is your sense of humor. It was interesting to see the film have the same sense of humor.

TD The film is a comedy. Because my film is poking fun at itself and at a certain subculture that sees itself as very hip, some people may dismiss it. It’s really about a simple thing that everybody goes through, which is one day you look in the mirror and say, “Uh oh, I just saw a glimpse of who I really am. What am I going to do about it?” Johnny’s facade is shattered. I’m interested in what happens when people have to deal with facing themselves.  

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Originally published in

BOMB 39, Spring 1992

Featuring interviews with Terry Winters, Sheila Bosworth, Larry Fishburne, Adam Fuss, Tom DiCillo, Kim Wozencraft, Marcus Schubert, Emma Tennant, Todd Graff, Hedda Sterne, and Cucaracha Theatre.

Read the issue
Issue 39 039  Spring 1992