'Delirious' examines what makes paparazzi tick

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"Delirious" discussion: Paparazzi have a reputation for being vicious dogs when it comes to hounding celebutards like Paris, Britney and Lindsay, but in some cases, at least, there may actually be human beings behind those popping flashbulbs.

That hard to believe possibility is explored brilliantly by writer-director Tom DiCillo ("Johnny Suede") in the comic drama "Delirious." The film stars Steve Buscemi as Les Galantine, a paparazzo whose human side isn't apparent at first, but is definitely there once we get to know him a little better. Produced by Robert Salerno, it opens Wednesday in New York and Friday in Los Angeles via Peace Arch Entertainment. The film will expand over the next few months to such markets as Cambridge, Chicago, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose, Atlanta, Portland, Seattle and St. Louis.

Also starring are Michael Pitt (as Toby Grace, a handsome homeless young man who becomes Les's unpaid assistant in return for a place to sleep), Alison Lohman (as beautiful pop diva K'Harma Leeds), Gina Gershon (as a reality TV show casting director with a personal and professional interest in Toby) and Elvis Costello (as himself).

DiCillo began his career working as Jim Jarmusch's DP on "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984) and "Coffee and Cigarettes" (1986). He made his feature directing debut with the 1991 romantic comedy "Johnny Suede," starring Brad Pitt, and went on to direct such films as the 1995 comedy drama "Living In Oblivion," starring Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener, and the 1997 romantic comedy drama "The Real Blonde," starring Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener and Daryl Hannah.

After greatly enjoying an early look at "Delirious," I was glad to have an opportunity to focus with DiCillo on the making of the film. "You cannot be in this world today and be oblivious to the fact that the whole entertainment industry and all of the attached paraphernalia is just increasing like a fungus," he told me. "Literally, the tendrils spread around the world. I guarantee you that people in Mozambique woke up and read the news the day that Lindsay Lohan got out of rehab. It prompted a sort of fascination with me in terms of, 'Why are people so fascinated about this stuff?' I don't know the answer to it other than that there seems to be this increasing fascination with celebrity and everything about it.

"So I started with the lowest rung of the celebrity game, which is the paparazzi. That really interested me because they are universally reviled by not only the industry but by most people who know anything about paparazzi. My sense though was, 'What an interesting character.' I said, 'Let me try to find a way to get into this guy and to understand a little bit about why he does what he does. How does he justify some of the outrages that he performs on other human beings just simply because they happen to be celebrities?'"

DiCillo began by doing some personal research: "I started hanging out with this one guy who I had thrown off the set of every one of my movies. He cringed when I approached him. He thought I was going to hit him. Instead, I said, 'Let's spend some time together. I really would like to see what you do.' It was so eye-opening. I hung out with him for about two months and I saw this incredible schizophrenia that revealed itself instantly. When I would ask him, 'Do you ever feel bad about what you're doing?' 'No,' he'd snarl. 'These people are stars. No one told them to be stars. They get what they deserve. They're no better than anybody else. I can take their picture and I can do whatever I want with it. They're nobody.' Then in an instant, I said, 'So what about De Niro? Did you ever (meet him)?' (And he replied,) 'Oh, De Niro. Oh, my God! He shook my hand once. It set this current right through my whole body. He's like a God among men.'

"I saw this every single time -- that on the one hand they believe that they're better than the stars and on the other hand they believe they're the lowest things on the planet. So I said, 'What a great way to write this character.' And that's how the character of Les Galantine was born. (He's) a man struggling to find value for himself in a world that not only treats him like shit, but also that places value on (things that are) really kind of meaningless today. Why does everybody know that Paris Hilton had a tough time in jail?"

What DiCillo decided to find out about, he continued, is, "Since stardom is kind of created on a weekly basis now in this country on TV shows, what is it that makes somebody a real star? Does it exist? And I began to think that some of the most powerful stars that have affected the entertainment world -- going back to people like Elizabeth Taylor in 'A Place In the Sun' or Gary Cooper or Bette Davis -- had something (so) that when they were on the screen you fell into their souls. There was an openness about them. And I said, 'That's it. That's what I'm interested in. Let me create a character who has that instinctive openness -- almost like an innocence and vulnerability.' So that's how the character of Toby was created. The idea was to put these two together, let them have a bond and then let's see how this disease of celebrity infects their relationship. The film is not a satire about the business. It's not. It's really about the human connection that suffers as the result of this fixation on fame."

DiCillo wrote the part of Les specifically for Buscemi to play and he succeeds in bringing him to life amazingly well. "I've known Steve for 30 years," he explained. "There's so many things about him that fascinate me that I'm not sure he's even conscious of. For example, nobody gets angry like Steve Buscemi does in a film. For some reason, the angrier he gets the more hilarious it is. I can't quite figure out why that is, but I think it's part of his humanity as a person, part of this kind of classic clown quality that he has that goes back to medieval times. When you see someone expressing frustration in a certain way to be able to laugh at it is a real gift. And so knowing that, I started acting out.

"You should have seen me in my apartment writing the dialogue. I was Steve Buscemi for six months just doing all those lines. I think I tapped into things that I knew Steve had, but he might not have known how strong they were. The challenge was getting in to really see that and then just flying. And ultimately, that's what he did. In this movie, every single outtake that ended up on the cutting room floor went there with agony because all of the footage of Steve Buscemi is priceless. And that never happens. Usually, what ends up on the floor deserves to be on the floor. (With) this stuff, every single frame of his performance was liquid gold, I'm telling you."

It was way back in 2001 that DiCillo first wrote the film's screenplay and began trying to get the project made. "We're talking about an effort that entailed constant, constant work every single day on the phone, sending out letters, sending out the script, making phone calls to try to pull it together," he said.

Getting "Delirious" financed was difficult, to say the least. "Those stories are excruciating," he pointed out. "I suppose in some ways they're interesting, but they're always very painful for me because what you end up doing is you get a lead, you follow that lead. That lead kind of leads you to maybe someone thinking they're going to give you a million dollars. And that takes maybe seven months just to get that. And then you go to another lead that's going to help you get another million. Maybe you get that other million, but then the first million falls out. And that's what it was like to somehow try to juggle these rocks in the air and get someone to finally commit.

"Ultimately, the end of the story is that I was in this holding pattern for five years of just trying to get financing. I realized that I needed to make this movie so what I did was I cut $2 million out of the script and that made it enticing to one company. I didn't have to deal with 20 other people. This company was Peace Arch Entertainment. They came in. We came up with a budget and a shooting schedule that enabled us to shoot the whole film in 25 days and they felt that with that and with the cast they had something that excited them."

At that point, DiCillo had Buscemi, Pitt and Lohman attached to the project. "That was around 2004 or (early) 2005," he said. "We shot the film in New York in late fall of 2005. We finished it and took the winter to edit it. We entered the first festival that we got invited to, which was San Sebastian and we're very, very fortunate to have won two nice awards there -- Best Director and Best Screenplay -- and an award from the Catholic Church Grand Prize that really, I must say, surprised me and affected me more deeply than any of the other awards. I asked this woman, 'Why did you give me this award? I'm not a religious person, strictly speaking' and this 70-year-old woman took me by the hand and said, 'We gave you this award because in your film you have this damaged boy who reaches out and he heals another human being.' I swear, I was on the verge of tears. This was at San Sebastian.

"Then we sent to Sundance in January and had a very interesting time there. Let's just say that Sundance has become what it's become. I have a great respect for the festival. It's just a very, very difficult now for independent films. The rules that govern success for an independent film right now are exactly the same as (they are for) a Hollywood movie. They're exactly the same -- boxoffice, star power and that's it. There's no difference. The only real difference is that independent films don't have any money to advertise the movie. So how are you going to compete with, you know, 'The Bourne Ultimatum?'"

How did this all change? "It changed when people began to see that you could make money on independent films," he replied. "When Jarmusch made 'Stranger Than Paradise' it was considered a huge success because it grossed worldwide $2 million. Then Tarantino came along with 'Pulp Fiction' and blew that out of the water with a (worldwide gross of about $214 million) and people began to say, 'Yeah, what kind of movie do you want to make?' I think it just means that if independent film is going to survive it may have to create its own sublevel because the kind of independent films that are out there now are about as similar to Hollywood films as you can get. And I've got nothing against Hollywood films, don't get me wrong. I just feel that it would be great for independent films to be able to have even a fraction of the possibility of getting public awareness."

Looking back at production in New York, he noted, "We had to be very careful. We moved very quickly. I developed a kind of shooting style that enabled me to shoot all the stuff in Les's apartment hand-held, but a very eloquent use of the hand-held camera as opposed to this ridiculous arbitrary shaking and shuddering that we see. That helped a lot. But it was a matter of just knowing exactly what we were intending. A lot of it was improvised. The actors were so skilful in improvising they could always improvise with the script as opposed to going off into an area that had nothing to do with the story.

"But don't get me wrong, every word was scripted. It's just some of the behavioral stuff was created by (the actors). It's just a matter of being really focused. To be honest with you, it wasn't that hard. The hardest thing was just maintaining that focus without let up for 25 days because any slip up on my part, any indecision, any giving in to exhaustion would have meant disaster. I was making probably 500 or 600 decisions a day."

As for how he likes to work with his actors, DiCillo told me, "It all depends on the actors I work with. That's why I like to try to get actors who work with a certain style I have. I'm very hands-on and I mean that in a literal sense. When Buscemi and I are on the set together, we're kind of in each other's arms the whole time. I love to just kind of wind somebody up, give them an idea and then let them go. I love the acting process so much and the kind of magic that happens when you get a spontaneous actor coming up with things you could never have thought of and they come alive for you right in front of the camera.

"It's an amazing magical experience and I really, really mean that. So I don't rehearse too much. Of course, you have to kind of set up a blocking of certain scenes so that the cinematographer gets a sense of what you're doing, but I don't like to rehearse. I like to make sure the actor understands what the scene is about and the takes that we do then become the discovery of what we're doing."

Asked if he shoots a lot of takes, he replied, "Sometimes I do, depending on the kind of actor that I'm working with. But in the scope of things eight takes is not that much if it ends up leading to something that is so amazing you can't believe it. I shoot between five and eight takes of everything. Sometimes I shoot one. But I certainly don't waste film."

DiCillo was in the unusual situation of being able to shoot all the scenes between Les and Toby in Les's apartment in their script order. "As you know, filmmaking is entirely about money," he explained. "Money dictates how you make a movie. So if you have two scenes in a film that take place in a diner and you go to that diner to shoot and one of those scenes takes place in the beginning of the film and one takes place at the end of the film, economically the producer's going to tell you to shoot both of those scenes the same day. And you tend to do that. Most actors can kind of get used to that leap -- that break of continuity -- and then do it. But it takes a lot of skill and a lot of explanation and sometimes just stopping for a while and going, 'OK, now we're going into this next scene. Remember, this is five years later -- blah, blah, blah, blah.'

"So shooting everything in that apartment was actually like being on stage. We lucked into that apartment. We rented that apartment and the apartment right next to it so all the equipment went into the adjoining apartment and that one apartment just became the whole stage. We just literally went from scene to scene. What they discovered in one scene, they then brought into the next scene. So it had chronological continuity, which is a real rarity. It was the last five days of the shoot."

While production was full of challenges, he said, "The biggest challenge was that by cutting the $2 million out I knew my task would become harder to differentiate the world of Les the photographer and Toby and the world of celebrity that they wish to break into. I really wanted to give that a visual difference so that the lower depths, kind of Gorkian underworld that Les occupies had a real visual and stylistic difference from the world that K'Harma lives in. So that took a lot of care, especially with no money, to accomplish. I think we did it and on no money.

"What I kind of just gave myself as a mantra for this one was, 'No matter what, it's taken you six years to get behind the camera again (so) no matter what, Tom, you had better enjoy every single second of this no matter what happens.' And I did. That enabled me to solve problems that I never would have been able to."

The film's budget, DiCillo told me, "ended up around $3.5 million to $4 million. We shot 35mm. We did a digital intermediate on it to just sort of tweak the contrast. I've written a blog on the (Web site) www.DeliriousTheMovie.com and if you go to that (you can check out his running commentary during production). Also, to kind of just help this nonexistent promotional budget I came up with this idea of shooting these fake video clips of me having fights with my actors -- one with Steve and one with Gina Gershon. There's a link to them if you go to my blog and you might enjoy them. In their own way, they're cutting a little too close to the edge. You'll see what I'm talking about. They're on YouTube. We did two separate ones and their commitment to the improv (was amazing). They were all improv. We had several cameras going. You have to see them. I'm so proud of them."

The fake fights between DiCillo and his stars look totally real and are not to be missed. DiCillo's tiff with Gershon (http://youtube.com/watch?v=dGHGZvKdavA) is sparked by the suggestion that she do her press interviews for the film wearing a pair of skimpy purple panties decorated on the front with a dog's body! Gershon doesn't take too kindly to the request and before you know it she's out the door -- which is locked as she tries to storm out so DiCillo has to open it for her while they exchange some final parting shots!

In the YouTube piece with Buscemi, he and DiCillo exchange words over the star's assistant not having returned DiCillo's phone calls. Buscemi counters that he hates it when people call him 15 times a day. Then DiCillo pushes Buscemi to do promos for "Delirious," complaining that he's been busy promoting "Interview," which Buscemi directed and stars in. (My column with Buscemi about "Interview" ran here June 27.) Buscemi tells him that he's been talking about "Delirious," too, in his interviews about "Interview" and adds that since that's coming out first (it opened July 13 via Sony Pictures Classic) he has to do those interviews first. You'd never guess watching the piece that it was all made up on the spot and wasn't for real.

Summing it all up, DiCillo said of "Delirious," "I see this film as an entertainment. I think it has an emotional core to it that touches people but without being moralistic or preachy. I love the combination of humor and emotion. The most I can say is I am so proud of what Buscemi does in this movie. I think it's a performance of a lifetime."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 4, 1989's column: "When New Line's 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child' opened this past summer to disappointing business, there were those, myself included, who speculated it could be damaging to the company.

"'It's difficult for any independent company to say that having a $20 million grossing picture is damaging. It certainly was not damaging and continues to be an important component of our production and distribution program,' New Line president and CEO Robert Shaye told me last week.

"What was missing with '5,' he comments, 'is the additional profit component. Over the last two or three years, 'Elm Street; has provided two significant elements. The first is it's done what virtually no other independent company has had the luxury of being able to enjoy, which is it's provided a very, very important library component. It's my perception the majors have their advantage because the library provides a kind of stability for the company. The library is usually sufficient to cover a large portion, if not all, of the overhead of the company.

"'Most independent companies have been forced to scramble from one film to another because their overheads have not matched their ability to generate cash and because they haven't had any kind of stability element. They have really gotten their working capital from investment funds or from borrowed funds. New Line has been able for most of its career to survive based on a careful structuring of its overhead, which has matched in large measures the ability of either its production activities or its library to cover that overhead.'

"Shaye emphasizes that all five 'Elm Street' films have helped cover that overhead: 'Elm Street 5,' even though its boxoffice performance was, in our opinion, not up to par, is still serving the most important function, which is the tentpole -- holding up the overhead burden of the company and allowing the company to make more considered and careful production and marketing decisions.'

"What is disappointing, he observes, 'but it certainly is no tragedy, is that the additional profit that can come out of any particular picture, which is how the company is going to do over and above keeping stability, is not as significant as it was previously. It simply means the company is going to rely on its production activities besides 'Elm Street' to make up any shortfall that it might anticipate from the fact that one picture has not performed as well as it had previously...'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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