Film: Happily hanging out in oblivion

Director Tom DiCillo finally got a decent budget for his satire 'The Real Blonde', but there's still no danger of this director joining the movie mainstream
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Talking up his new movie, Tom DiCillo, the King of New York indie filmmakers, sounds more and more like any other studio director as he parrots blandishments. "Making The Real Blonde was an amazing experience," he begins. "To my utter amazement and complete joy, everybody working on this film was completely egoless." Next, he pays fulsome tribute to his cast: "Darryl Hannah does some of her best work"; "Christopher Lloyd loved the idea that I was asking him to do something different." He even compliments his far-sighted financiers.

Given that The Real Blonde is largely concerned with satirising the phoney, two-faced New York fashion, film and media world, it's a fair bet thatDiCillo is quietly sending up the whole rigmarole of the director interview. Then again, DiCillo needs us to like his film. His problem is that The Real Blonde cost $10m, small change by James Cameron's standards, but a considerable hike-up on Living In Oblivion (his cult low budget comedy about the perils of making cult low budget comedies), and his two other features, Johnny Suede and Box Of Moonlight.

With the money came responsibility. "When they gave me the budget, they trusted me not to make a three-hour movie about two people staring at each other," he says solemnly. "Films nowadays have to get the public's attention. If you're given a choice between something quiet and ruminative or a film in which seven sisters, all making love to each other, rob Jewish stores and kill everybody, you know which film is going to be made."

The Real Blonde isn't three hours long (it clocks in at a crisp 105 minutes), but contrary to what DiCillo has just claimed, large parts of the film are indeed about two people staring at each other. When he is not lampooning the antics of soap opera producers, pop promo directors, couturiers and casting agents, he is busy dissecting the relationship between Joe (Matthew Modine), an out-of-work actor, and Mary (Catherine Keener), his make-up artist girlfriend.

They're the quintessential New York thirty-something couple: in love in theory, but driving each other up the wall in practice. DiCillo claims that he saw Joe and Mary as the American equivalent to the bickering spousees played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage. He wanted, he says, to capture those sticky, claustrophobic moments which most love stories miss out. Instead of whispering romantic endearments to each other, Joe and Mary are more likely to be grumbling that they can't find the toothpaste top.

"In America, at the moment, 'real' is a concept for selling things - this is 'real cheese', this is 'real coke,' this is the 'real' thing. 'Real' has actually become something you should be suspicious of," suggets Matthew Modine when asked why he agreed to be in the film. "Tom has a really angry, acerbic sense of humour, and the same things that were bothering him are bothering me."

DiCillo, however, insists that The Real Blonde's sabre-cut into the New York media crowd comes tinged with at least a little affection. "Those people in fashion, soap operas or even music videos all take their work very seriously," he frowns. "And some of them are very gifted. On the other hand, when it gets to having that intense concentration, frustration and anxiety about, say, a choice of underwear - that's where I step in." He designed the poster for The Real Blonde himself. "If there was ever a movie that you could sell with sex," he explains with evident pride, "it's this one." And he points to the image which somebody has stuck to the wall of the Rotterdam hotel room where he is giving interviews - a blonde Madonna lookalike in a bikini flanked by two black bodybuilders. "The title is a flip-flop," he says, "which really says we're talking about a woman's pubic hair."

There is something infinitely endearing, he suggests, about grown adults choreographing commercials and pop promos with the same effort and self- importance as doctors performing open heart surgery. "You have to respect them," he says. DiCillo himself, seems at least mildly narcissistic. He dresses in black and has the same tousled haircut as James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, a film he cites as a key formative influence. He first watched it when he was a kid growing up on a military base. By all accounts, back then he was a classic tearaway. "By the time he was 17," reads the potted biography in the press pack, "he had lived in one foreign country, four states, and nine cities and attended three high schools and two reform schools."

At the start of his career, DiCillo admits, he was shaping up as a "loser director". Critics and audiences alike seemed to miss the slow-burning irony in his debut feature, Johnny Suede (1991), mistaking the film as a vanity project deigned to show off Brad Pitt's quiff. When it flopped, DiCillo came close to quitting the business. He persevered, but not always with more reward. Even Living In Oblivion was looked at as a curiosity in the United States.

"The critics thought it was a one joke film for film-makers. I made it only by approaching the actors and saying: listen, if you give me some money, you can be in the film." He claims that American audiences automatically dismiss any new movie that strays too far from the norm, and that he is often left to look to Europe for approval.

He still has an affection for underdogs. His next film, Double Whammy, which he promises will be very violent indeed, is about "a loser cop" who's in the right place at the right time but still isn't able to stop the crime. He wants Nick Nolte to play the cop in question. "I'm just really impressed by his physical stature.

He looks bigger than life and I want that for the cop in my film. There's much more irony if the guy has all the potential for being a hero, but isn't one." Adamant that he will never go to Hollywood ("LA is just this big amorphous blob of industry that I don't feel any part of"), DiCillo is likely to have to stay scrambling at the margins of the business.

As his father, a retired soldier based in North Carolina, keeps on telling him: "Tom, the problem is that your films are original. So for better or for worse, you'll never be a part of the mainstream."

'The Real Blonde' opens today

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