Set in and around New York’s meatpacking district in the mid-aughts, Tom DiCillo‘s 2006 drama/comedy Delirious is a film about mercenary paparazzi, venal agents and managers, and the commercial manufacture of fame. That said, the picture, available now on Blu-ray and digital platforms in an official directors cut 15 years after its release, is surprisingly sweet. Set well before Instagram and TikTok created new categories of celebrity, Delirious depicts a world where genuine human emotion can co-exist amidst planted Page Six items and staged photo calls.
In a rich performance snapping from broad comedy to lacerating self-pity Steve Buscemi plays Les Galantine, a hustling paparazzi who spends his weekend nights in the throng outside popular nightclubs hoping to snap celebrities exiting their limousines. A chance encounter connects him with a homeless young man, Toby (Michael Pitt), who he takes on as kind of an apprentice. But another chance encounter, this time between Toby and pop starlet K’harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), leads to both romance and social advancement – a trajectory setting Toby and Les on a violent collision course.
DiCillo began his career as a cinematographer — among his credits are Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and Bette Gordon’s Variety — and broke into directing with 1991’s Johnny Suede, which starred a young and unknown Brad Pitt. His follow-up is an independent classic, the hilarious film-set comedy Living in Oblivion, that is still required viewing for budding indie filmmakers. Box of Moonlight (1996) and The Real Blonde (1997) followed, but when 2001’s Double Whammy went straight to video, DiCillo vowed to make this next film without compromises. That’s why Delirious‘s immediate fate, detailed by the director in a piece at The Talkhouse, became so devastating. Fortunately, the film has received a second chance, with the new cut restoring DiCillo’s original vision.
I spoke to DiCillo via Zoom from Los Angeles, where we went deeper into the journey to restore the film, this transplanted New Yorker’s inspiration for the story and characters, and his thoughts on staying creatively engaged amidst a global pandemic and the seismic disruptions of the independent film world.
Filmmaker: I was excited to talk to you about this film, because I didn’t see it when it came out.
DiCillo: Very few people did. It’s the agony of this business.
Filmmaker: It’s such a time capsule. So many people worked on it who I know from the production community. My old production office was on Gansvoort Street. And then watching Michael Pitt’s performance just reminded me of how exciting he was when he burst on the scene. But, more broadly, the film’s conception of celebrity, despite the venal managers and agents, seems almost innocent and sweet seen from the vantage point of today.
DiCillo: You know, in a strange way, the film feels absolutely new to me. Maybe that’s because I feel that no one saw it. Also, it took years to get it made. I had written it as a New York film. That was very important to me. I had no idea how hard I’d have to fight to get it shot in New York City. Two weeks before we were supposed to start shooting my producer told me, “Tom, we’re moving the entire production to Toronto in a week.” A half an hour later I had to go to a production meeting with my New York team; talk to my production designer, my costume designer, all these people who I would not be able to bring with me. And I had to somehow get through this meeting without telling them that we were going to have to move and they were out of a job. It was excruciating. I went back to the producer after the meeting, and I said, “I wrote this film for New York and we’re going to shoot it here.” My point is that having won these insurmountable victories to make this film that was so meaningful to me, it still seems like a new film.
As for the period, man, I think I just squeaked it in. That area, where the meat market used to be, you can’t shoot there anymore. It doesn’t look anything like that. The whole city’s changing. But my whole intent with this movie was to go back to a style of filmmaking that I started with. Go shoot it, get it done, and don’t try to satisfy anybody but yourself at whatever costs that is. I was fortunate to get the film made. And for that, I am deeply grateful to the people who financed it.
Filmmaker: You wrote the film for Steve?
DiCillo: Yes. I had given him a small part in The Real Blonde, and he was in Double Whammy in a small part. I wanted to write a whole film for him. But it was hard to get him. I sent the script to him, and then never heard from him. Two weeks went by, three weeks, and I ran into him and said, “Hey, Steve, did you get the script?” “Yeah, I got it. I’m not gonna do it, Tom.” I was devastated. He said, “The character, I don’t know, he’s just so intense.” So I went back to the script. I added a few things, but I didn’t do too much to it. It took a year. I set up a staged reading and asked Steve if he would read with us. And he said okay. And it was that staged reading that showed him what the film really was. It was so amazing working with Steve. Whatever his fears were he was completely fearless in the part. He gave me everything. I truly believe if the film had gotten a normal release, he would’ve been recognized for his performance.
Filmmaker: Where did the paparazzi character come from?
DiCillo: Do you know Steve Sands?
Filmmaker: Yeah, I do.
DiCillo: He’s a New York paparazzi that I have literally thrown off the set of every one of my films. I have tried to be nice to him, but he literally doesn’t trust you if you’re nice to him. He doesn’t know how to be around people. But I said to myself, “You’re not going to be able to tell this story unless you really understand the life of the paparazzi.” So I called Steve Sands, and he couldn’t believe it. We got together for coffee, and I said, “I’d like to just hang out with you for a couple of months.” And so I did. He took me to all these events that he went to. He took me to his apartment. I stole everything, almost, from his apartment. Here’s the thing he said that struck me the most. I asked him, “Do you ever feel guilty for taking a shot?” He goes, “Fuck those people, who asked them to be famous? If they’re going to be famous, then this is what comes with it.” And then on the other hand, he says he was in the red carpet line and out of nowhere DeNiro walks by and shakes his hand. He’s telling me this story: “DeNiro shook my hand! These people are gods.”
Filmmaker: And that’s in the movie.
DiCillo: It is. One of the things that motivated me about it was this whole world of celebrity and fame. When people came into audition for some of the parts, like the managers and the agents, the ones that did it really kind of nasty didn’t work. I almost cast a few of those people, but then David Wain came in and did an interpretation that was both emotionally moving and hilarious. And I said, “Wow, interesting, you can still be a fool and not be hateful.” I think we both have encountered people in this business that are absolutely hateful. I can remember them all. But I felt for this film, since it’s a kind of a fairy tale, I felt that I would rather have the people be foolish and not hateful.
Filmmaker: The conversation in the limos where two managers are arguing over the order of appearances at the movie premiere, that scene just felt so accurate, as if it was a verbatim transcript of one of those sorts of arguments.
DiCillo: For me, what made that scene so beautiful was the quality of the acting between Gina Gershon and Callie Thorne. They brought such real human behavior to it that you don’t feel repulsed by them. But I was very excited to try to isolate what is it that makes somebody wildly famous. We’re in an age where it seems fame is the only thing that matters. That if you don’t have fame, then you don’t have value as a human being.
Filmmaker: So let’s talk about the rerelease. Who were the original financiers of the film?
DiCillo: A Canadian company, Peach Arch Entertainment. They went bankrupt about a year after the film was finished. They were young enough at that time to trust me. I had to fight them on many things. I cut the budget, the shooting days. I cut so many things to keep as much control over the film as possible, and to let them permit me to cast who I wanted to cast. One of the biggest fights was over Michael Pitt. They wanted me to cast Orlando Bloom. I won most of the battles, and I think it might’ve been because they were a new company and they didn’t have a lot of experience, and I somehow made them feel I could make them a product that they could sell.
Filmmaker: And without spoiling the film too much for people, what was the original ending of the film, the one that’s no longer there?
DiCillo: I had a lot of pressure from the producers to take this one scene at the end of the film and move it or cut it. And the only place to move it was at the end of the credits, like an Easter egg. Which I did against my better judgment because at least it would keep the scene in the film. It’s that scene with Buscemi on the TV talk show, Access Entertainment. And it just bugged me because that scene ties together every single element of his character and his dream of taking “the shot heard around the world.” Not that he has a fairy tale ending, but something good actually happens to him. But the financiers insisted I end the film when Michael Pitt and Alison Lohman disappear into the TV floodlights. I fought them and fought them and finally they pressured that if I didn’t do it they weren’t going to release the film. So I did it, and from the second I did it, I knew it was wrong. It ends the film on a kind of an existential downer that I never intended.
Filmmaker: When you finished the film, you premiered it at San Sebastian, where you won Best Director and Best Screenplay prizes.
DiCillo: The film was at such a height at that moment. San Sebastian is a very prestigious festival, and winning the awards there was wonderful surprise. The producers, again being novices, were so excited that without telling me they instantly sent DVDs to every independent US distributor. I would have waited and let the film come back to the U.S., with its prizes, and set up screenings. I’m still bewildered how they could have done that. Instead, studio buyers looked at the film on their computers and all passed on it. Peace Arch’s response was to try and release the film themselves–the kiss of death for any film. They hired somebody to release it and it played, I think, two days in New York, and there was no advertising. It was nothing. That’s what happened.
Filmmaker: How did you wind up restoring it to it’s orginal version?
DiCillo: I literally would wake up at night thinking about it because it bothered me so much. I couldn’t bear the thought the film was going to be in that crippled form for eternity. So I spent years trying to get a hold of the Peace Arch people. Even before they went bankrupt, I asked them, “Let me put it back the way it was for the DVD release.” But after they went bankrupt I couldn’t reach anybody who used to work there. It took all these years for me to somehow miraculously get in a position where I could acquire the rights to my own film. A guy who used to be a lawyer for Peace Arch had it on a hard drive–that was the only thing left of the film. Everything else had been destroyed because of the cost of storing all the elements. This guy had purchased Peace Arch’s library after they went bankrupt. I met him completely by accident through a friend. I brokered a deal between this guy and a company called Shout Factory. Shout had done a great job with Living in Oblivion, for which they picked up both streaming and Blu-ray. With this, they said, “You know what, times have changed. We’ll take the streaming only.” I said, “Listen, I’d love to change this ending scene for the streaming release.” The exec at Shout Factory, Jordan Fieds, loved the idea of restoring the film and I was able to make the edit, thanks to him. I was so excited about having the film restored that I made my own deal for the Blu-ray with another company called MVD. I can’t tell you the relief I felt to finally, 13 years later, have my film back in the form I’d originally intended. I called it the Official Director’s Cut
Filmmaker: This was your last fiction feature. Since then you’ve made two documentaries and directed a lot of TV. How did those changes happen?
DiCillo: Not a lot of TV, some. I did several episodes of Law and Order for Dick Wolf. A few years later he came to me to write and direct When You’re Strange, the documentary about The Doors which his company was producing. If I hadn’t had that connection through Wolf I never would have directed the film, which went on to win a Grammy. I was never really wild about network TV but some of the gigs ended up being good experiences. And it did help with insurance. I mean, there was no way that I could have paid my wife’s medical bills at that time. It’s what you have to do to survive. The other documentary, Down In Shadowland, I made entirely by myself. I shot it over the course of seven years, all on the NYC subway. I’d always been fascinated by the life underground and had been shooting stuff since the day I moved to New York. It was great to make a film with no one to answer to but myself. Now I would really love to get back to making features but the landscape seems —
Filmmaker: It’s so different.
DiCillo: It seems unrecognizable to me.
Filmmaker: Did you try to make another feature after Delirious, or were you taking a break from the fiction world?
DiCillo: No, I wrote another script, which I still want to get back to. I spent several years trying to get it financed and could not. It’s still one of my favorite scripts and I think that once things settle down I’ll get back to it. But I think what’s happening in the world is of such a magnitude that it has upended everything we all thought we knew about anything. I feel like everything is different and nothing is recognizable, and I think that’s good because it means new things can come. It also means that whatever you thought you knew, it’s time to rethink it.
Filmmaker: How are you doing that?
DiCillo: I’m just trying to let it settle in and not feel like I have to compete with what is happening right in the present moment that I don’t know yet, because we still don’t know yet what has just happened to us. Honestly the country that I live in seems utterly alien to me. I used to feel like I knew my audience, and if I had this idea, and it titillated or inspired me, it would translate out into the world. I don’t quite know what that is anymore.
Filmmaker: As an artist, how do you feel about that not knowing?
DiCillo: It’s very disorienting. It makes you realize that the only truth that there ever is if something genuinely excites you. And it has to be truthful to you.
Filmmaker: Are you still finding yourself able to be excited like that?
DiCillo: More and more. But with the almost complete loss of theatrical releases and all the focus on streaming, it just feels that people are desperate for content, and some of it is good and some of it is bullshit. It’s like anything else. But I just want to know that if I make something, I’ll know where it’s going to get seen.
Filmmaker: I think making independent film has always required a kind of calculated naivete. You have to sublimate your pessimistic, or maybe just realistic, instincts a bit. After making a number of films and having some tough breaks, it is it harder and harder to have that kind of needed denial? Do you find yourself self-censoring ideas?
DiCillo: That’s a really great question. I watched the new documentary on Frank Zappa. It’s good. One of the things he talks about a lot in it is, “Listen, why am I doing this stuff by myself? It’s because no one else is paying me to do it the way I know it has to be done. If one person sees this, that’s all that matters to me, you know?” And, I respect that but I also say, okay, Frank, that’s interesting, but it is a business. You have to be extremely lucky to have someone give you money to make a film with no requirements or demands. But, yes, somehow I have to believe in that suspension of disbelief, in the naivete that there is still a form and a way to tell stories, to make films, and that someone will help me do that. But is it harder and harder? I think it’s definitely harder. I mean, one of the things that I’ve been doing for the last two years is recording an album of original songs. I’ve got some great guest musicians on there and it at least gives me the sense that I am creating something and that I don’t have to allow someone to allow me to do it.
This is a time of tremendous change and upheaval. And I don’t know how art fits into it just yet. Maybe it fits into it by acknowledging exactly where we are at.