New York independent filmmaker Tom DiCillo had the misfortune of a late start in a rapidly changing game. A graduate of the same film school gene pool as Spike Lee and Jim Jarmush, DiCillo's place in American independent film's so-called golden age was fixed first with his acclaimed work as a cinematographer for Jarmush, whose "Stranger than Paradise" (1984) enjoyed a brief reign as the apex of New York indie cinema. DiCillo did not complete his own directorial debut until he was nearly 40 years old; in the four-year interim between "Johnny Suede" (1991) and DiCillo's follow-up, "Living in Oblivion" (1995), the indie scene was transformed irrevocably by the meteoric critical and box office success of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994), warping investor perceptions of reasonable profit margins for DIY filmmakers. Finding it more difficult to secure financing, DiCillo saw his subsequent four features released by four different distributers, among them Paramount Pictures and Lion's Gate, which remaindered his 2001 comedy "Double Whammy" directly to DVD in lieu of a theatrical release. Shoring up his bank account with TV work, DiCillo's association with executive producer Dick Wolf led to a career vindication with his PBS documentary "The Doors: When You're Strange" (2009), which earned DiCillo a shared Grammy Award and fortified his reputation as a principled filmmaker committed more to maintaining a consistent artistic vision than in reserving a place in the cult of personality.
The son of a Marine colonel, Thomas A. DiCillo was born at Camp LeJeune, NC on Aug. 14, 1953. The second of three children, he was raised in a strict household, where a conservative work ethic was encouraged and television expressly forbidden, while life as a member of a military family required frequent relocations to California, Virginia, and even Bangkok, Thailand. By DiCillo's own admission, his primary education was divided between three elementary schools, two high schools, and two reform schools. After earning a BA in creative writing at Virginia's Old Dominion University in 1975, DiCillo headed for New York City the following year, enrolling in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts with the intent to study film. DiCillo completed a number of short films while enrolled at NYU and ultimately won the Paulette Goddard Scholarship while earning his Master's degree in 1979.
Aiming toward a career as a director but wanting to better understand actors, DiCillo spent several years as a performer in off-off Broadway plays and independent films. While at NYU, he had worked on a school project with fellow student Jim Jarmush, shooting a film the latter had directed. Though DiCillo had no formal training as a cinematographer, Jarmush found value in his unstructured, free-form approach to filming and asked DiCillo to go behind the camera for his feature film debut "Permanent Vacation" (1980), which provided acting work for several members of the New York underground film scene, among them musician John Lurie and filmmaker Sara Driver. Developing a reputation within the burgeoning American independent film scene, DiCillo was asked to shoot Eric Mitchell's "Underground, U.S.A." (1980) and Bette Gordon's "Variety" (1983), and to be one of seven cameramen for Howard Brookner's documentary "Burroughs" (1983), a rambling profile of Beat Generation muse William S. Burroughs.
DiCillo shot Jarmush's "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984), filmed over two years in New York, Ohio and Florida. Championed at festivals around the globe, where it picked up the Golden Camera award at Cannes and a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, "Stranger in Paradise" was regarded as emblematic of the new wave of American independent cinema. In 1987, DiCillo performed his one-man show "Johnny Suede" at New York's Home for Contemporary Theatre and repurposed the material for his own feature film directorial debut. With a budget of $40,000, DiCillo cast "Johnny Suede" (1991) out of a Los Angeles motel room and awarded the title role of a wannabe musician with a Ricky Nelson fetish to an up-and-coming Brad Pitt. To round out his cast of supporting characters, DiCillo also tapped musician Nick Cave, aging TV star Tina Louise, New York actor Samuel L. Jackson, and Catherine Keener, who would go on to become a member of DiCillo's stock company.
Shot in New York - the location for the majority of DiCillo's subsequent feature films - "Johnny Suede" was acquired for distribution by Miramax Films, based solely on the recommendation of a stringer for company founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein. A Golden Leopard award from the Locarno Film Festival and kudos at Sundance notwithstanding, "Johnny Suede" under-performed at the box office, having been given only a platform release by Miramax before being remaindered onto video cassette. Though DiCillo had intended his sophomore feature to be the existential comedy-drama "Box of Moonlight," he had difficulty raising the financing and settled instead on "Living in Oblivion" (1994), an acerbic satire of the dark side of independent filmmaking that DiCillo adapted from his 17-minute short subject "Scene 6, Take 1" (1993). Again, DiCillo cobbled together a dynamic cast, including Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Steve Buscemi, Peter Dinklage and James LeGros, with the latter subbing at the last minute for Brad Pitt in the role of a self-absorbed film actor.
Budgeted at just over half a million dollars, "Living in Oblivion" more than doubled its investment on the American art house circuit, while drawing critical hosannas for its unblinking insider's perspective on the power plays that occur even within the most impoverished levels of the entertainment industry. The film's relative success - including a screenwriting award from the Sundance Film Festival - allowed DiCillo to turn down a number of for-hire jobs as a director, choosing instead to realize the more personal project "Box of Moonlight" (1996), starring John Turturro as an unemployed engineer searching for meaning in a seemingly random existence. The film drew encouraging, if not rave reviews from the major critics, who reserved higher praise for DiCillo's supporting cast, which included Sam Rockwell and a returning Catherine Keener, who was at this point in their association referred to as DiCillo's muse.
DiCillo's "The Real Blonde" (1997) boasted a high-profile cast in Keener, Matthew Modine, Daryl Hannah, Kathleen Turner, Denis Leary and Elizabeth Berkley, whose turn as a leggy pole dancer in Paul Verhoeven's "Show Girls" (1996) added value to the production in terms of advance publicity. Set within the conjoined demimondes of entertainment and fashion, the film was a worthy companion piece to "Living in Oblivion" but never found its audience, even given the push by Paramount Pictures, who acquired the feature after a good showing at Sundance. DiCillo had worse luck with "Double Whammy" (2001), which Lion's Gate withheld from theatrical distribution in favor of a DVD release. The experience left an already cynical DiCillo embittered, not only in proportion to the downgrading of his fifth feature, but also in regard to the American independent film scene, which had in his eyes been rendered merely an adjunct of the big Hollywood studios.
Before mounting his sixth feature film, DiCillo helmed a 2003 episode of the critically-lauded USA Network series "Monk" (2002-09), starring Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive, germaphobic detective. A meditation on the American fascination with celebrity, DiCillo's "Delirious" (2006) starred Steve Buscemi as a lumpen Manhattan paparazzo who makes an assistant out of homeless youth Michael Pitt, with the pair's professional relationship complicated by the attention of A-list pop diva Alison Lohman and the mercenary machinations of talent scout Gina Gershon. Though it garnered the writer-director his best reviews since "Living in Oblivion" a decade earlier and boasted a wry cameo by British musician Elvis Costello, "Delirious" sank at the box office, its failure stamping DiCillo's also-ran status among a generation of New York-based filmmakers whose brightest lights remained by critical consensus Jim Jarmush, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee and Abel Ferrara.
Beginning in 2006, DiCillo began to work in network television, directing episodes of NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (2001-2011), "Law & Order: LA" (NBC, 2010-11), and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 2001- ). DiCillo's association with executive producer Dick Wolf led to an invitation to direct the documentary "The Doors: When You're Strange" (2009) for the long-running PBS series "American Masters" (1983- ). Chronicling the career of the legendary L.A. rock band, as well as the rise and fall of its messianic frontman Jim Morrison, "The Doors: When You're Strange" eschewed standard issue talking heads to relate the history through vintage footage, much of it unseen for decades, and with the loose ends knitted together via narration by Johnny Depp. Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary won DiCillo a Grammy that same year for Best Long Form Music Video.
By Richard Harland Smith
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Cinematography (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
First credit as director of photography, "Underground U.S.A."
First collaboration with director Jim Jarmusch, "Permanent Vacation"
Feature debut as an actor, "Stranger Than Paradise" (also served as cinematographer)
Last collaboration with Jim Jarmusch, "Coffee and Cigarettes"
Wrote and performed a one man show, "Johnny Suede" at the Home for Contemporary Theater
Feature directing and screenwriting debut, Johnny Suede" (adapted from his play)
Second film, "Living in Oblivion"