With feral features, stooping shoulders and a mouth full of somebody else's teeth, Steve Buscemi was never destined for screen romance. The unsavoury roles began with "a scumbag" on Miami Vice and it was downhill from there, Buscemi's wasted visage popping up in everything from Reservoir Dogs to Escape From LA. In Pulp Fiction he took Travolta's steak order: "Burnt to a crisp, or bloody as hell?" In the Coen brothers' black comedy, Fargo, he disappeared face first into a wood chipper. And in the soon to be released Con Air, he's cast as a serial killer. John Waters, the indie film industry's razor-thin avatar of bad taste, wants Buscemi to play him in a biopic of his life.
Given this history it's not altogether surprising to discover that Buscemi's first outing as a writer / director is a somewhat downbeat affair. A mordant comedy, Trees Lounge has a loose, character-driven plot that owes much to the work of Buscemi's idol, John Cassevetes. The film centres on the seedy bar of the title, a dingy place colonised by the kind of washed- up soaks who see life's glass as half empty, and are probably right to do so. It's fitting therefore that we meet in a bar, although thankfully a slightly more upbeat one than that favoured by Buscemi's character Tommy; a wheedling guy who's lost his job, his girlfriend and may just lose the use of his legs if he gives way to temptation and sleeps with the sexy 17-year-old niece of a burly acquaintance. Filmed on location in Buscemi's home town, it's a portrait of what the star might have become, had he stayed.
Born in 1958, Buscemi was one of four sons of a blue collar Irish-Italian family, which migrated from Brooklyn to Long Island in the 1960s. Growing up in the conservative suburb of Valley Stream, Buscemi listened to Peter Frampton and, in his first election, voted with "the rest of the neighbourhood" for General Ford. Writing Trees Lounge, Buscemi says he "tried to imagine what life would have been like if I'd never moved to Manhattan and pursued acting. There wasn't a lot to do there when I was young, so I spent a lot of time hanging around in bars."
As a skinny 16-year-old, he squeezed through the back window of a bar to steal crates of beer for his mates "because I was the only one that would fit" and got himself arrested for trespassing in a Burger King parking lot. Like Tommy, he worked at a gas station and drove an ice-cream van. "My world got very small," he muses.
After a string of interviews, this is history repeating itself for Buscemi, but his glassy eyes light up at the arrival of co-star Mark Boone Junior. "Haven't you got anything better to do Bub?" he asks delightedly, as the beefy figure arranges himself on a neighbouring stool. Boone, who plays Tommy's lugubrious drinking buddy Mike, is a friend from Buscemi's early days in New York. A time when the director was working for the local fire department by day and pursuing his acting career by night. After an unhappy stint on the stand-up circuit, Buscemi linked up with Boone to improvise a deadpan double act they toured round basements and church halls. They slip into it with ease.
How was it for the friends to work together?
"We're not friends," drawls Boone. "We worked together for a long time, but as a business associate you tolerate certain kinds of behaviour that as a friend you don't."
With a business associate, then?
"This is always the best question," says Boone, allowing a malicious smirk through his goatee.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" repeats Buscemi, in the familiar, querulous wail of the underdog.
"We'd written and produced stuff for so long that we knew each other inside out," says Boone as Buscemi, now feigning disinterest, picks up a video camera from the table and begins filming another co-star, Chloe Sevigny, being interviewed across the room. "He knew what to look out for with me and I knew what to look out for with him - but I couldn't say much because he was in control, so the production was a kind of cat and mouse game. He won, most of the time."
Although he's played film directors in both In the Soup and Tom diCillo's Living in Oblivion it took Buscemi some time to achieve this position of power. "I began this script six years ago," he says, "but I didn't have the confidence to make it then." Instead, he carved out a lucrative career as a villain. But while Buscemi's shifty alter-ego insinuated his way into blood-soaked thrillers, the boy from Valley Stream continued to plot his directorial debut. "When the old Trees Lounge was pulled down and turned into a Sports Bar, I bought the neon sign," he confesses, "and stored it behind my parents' garage."
As well as gathering props, Buscemi was developing a network of friends in the film world. This meant that when the film finally came to be made, on a tiny budget - $1m - he was able to populate it with the likes of Samuel Jackson, Mimi Rogers and Seymour Cassel.
"It was important that they were good actors first," says Buscemi, "but it helped that they were my friends. Film-making's hard enough; to do it with people that you don't get along with makes it that much tougher." Buscemi's brother and father both put in an appearance. What was it like directing his family?
"Easy. My brother Michael's an actor, this was the perfect opportunity to work with him."
"His father was impossible," says Boone. "He had a lot of ideas, you know."
"My father had a non-speaking role," laughs Buscemi, "but he was very interested in what was going on. If I'd more time ... I mean I seriously considered casting him as my own father, but I knew I wouldn't have the time to work with him. I ended up getting an actor who could just do it straight off. I just wanted to get Dad in."
Boone: "Him and his buddies"
Buscemi: "Yeah, he brought along a couple of friends, but you know, he's my father, he looks like somebody in my family, it fit to have him in the funeral scene."
It transpires that Buscemi's first film role was directed by his Dad. "Like every father in the early Sixties, he had a Super 8 camera," explains Buscemi, "but he'd make these little stories. I had a Superman outfit, and I don't know how it happened but my brother got to be Superman and I played the bad guy. I guess that kind of cemented my fate."
"But," I say to Buscemi, "you've cast yourself in another ..."
"Don't say it."
"Unheroic, that's very kind of you," he sniggers, before turning triumphantly to Boone. "She didn't call me a loser"n
`Trees Lounge' is reviewed with the other releases of the week on page 8
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