Weepy Indie Director Tom DiCillo Brings His Big Gamble to Sundance

When Sundance Film Festival programming director Geoff Gilmore stood before a sold-out crowd at the 1,300-seat Eccles Theater in Park

When Sundance Film Festival programming director Geoff Gilmore stood before a sold-out crowd at the 1,300-seat Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 20 and introduced Tom DiCillo as “one of the best living American independent directors,” Mr. DiCillo did what might not be expected of a New York filmmaker, especially one who had accepted long ago that his profession required regular and extended descents into hell. Up there, in front of the crowd that had come to see the premiere of his latest film, Double Whammy, Mr. DiCillo hung his head and started to cry.

The episode lasted what seemed like a good 30 seconds. Mr. DiCillo stood there, his head bowed, choking back sobs, while the audience sat in stunned silence. Who could blame him? Mr. DiCillo came to Sundance knowing that he would have to confront the anxiety-inducing chasm that exists between his considerable professional achievements and–the standard by which all filmmakers are increasingly judged–his minimal box-office performance. Although Mr. DiCillo’s four previous films, including the critically lauded Living in Oblivion, have all been small-budget affairs (Double Whammy cost $5 million to make), not a single one has made money. And at 47, an age which he disclosed with reluctance, rejection isn’t the character-building experience that it used to be. When he came to Park City, Mr. DiCillo was painfully aware that if he wanted to continue in this profession that bedeviled and beguiled him, he had to convince some distributor to take a chance on his new film.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a guy whose résumé should put him in the New York wing of independent filmmaking’s hall of fame. Back in the 1980’s Mr. DiCillo, a former actor, served as the cinematographer for Jim Jarmusch’s dark ground-breaking hit, Stranger Than Paradise. Then he set out on his own, using New York as a backdrop in every one of his five films. He gave a young Brad Pitt one of his first screen roles as a pompadoured would-be Ricky Nelson in Johnny Suede. He virtually made the career of actress Catherine Keener, who co-starred in three of Mr. DiCillo’s films before moving on to big-budget Hollywood pictures and an Academy Award nomination for Being John Malkovich. And, most significantly, critics often rank Living in Oblivion, Mr. DiCillo’s wry spoof about an independent-film shoot (which starred Ms. Keener), among the best independent comedies of the 90’s.

Certainly, Mr. DiCillo is not some starving artist living in a Williamsburg walk-up. He and his wife, Jane Gil, a successful horticulturist, share a three-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive that overlooks the Hudson River. And the long blue overcoat he wore throughout the festival looked like it came straight from Barneys.

Yet when it comes to his professional life, Mr. DiCillo has never stopped struggling. The process of funding, producing and marketing his films remains fraught with misery. A good part of Mr. DiCillo’s difficulties stem, no doubt, from the fact that his four previous movies opened to general indifference. When it comes to the unprofitability of his films, Mr. DiCillo tends to lay the blame–in angry heaps–at the feet of his distributors. “My films aren’t hip and underground, nor are they Hollywood movies. They’re somewhere in between. I think people just don’t know quite what to do with them,” he said.

And even though Double Whammy, a comedy about a hapless New York City cop, was one of just a dozen movies that picked up distributors at this year’s festival, Mr. DiCillo left little doubt among the Park City crowd that the independent-picture business has been one long chain of pain for him. “I’m not being overly negative. I’m not being cynical. This is my fifth movie,” he said following the film’s premiere. “Every one of them has been an excruciating series of trying to get people to give me minuscule amounts of money.”

Although Sundance’s founder, the actor and director Robert Redford, and Mr. Gilmore are clearly fans of Mr. DiCillo, and have invited him to coach younger talent at Sundance’s summer institute, the festival they preside over has arguably become less hospitable to filmmakers like him. Mr. Redford conceived of Sundance in 1981 with the idea that grosses weren’t everything. The box office was Hollywood’s standard, and Sundance was different. The more personal the film, the better, the mantra went. But that perspective has faded in the 10-day buying and talent-hunting spree that Sundance has become. The term “independent” has been stretched to apply to anything from a no-budget hand-held video to high-budget spectacles such as Miramax’s Chocolat and USA Films’ Traffic. And the grosses and the promise of sell-through now mean a great deal.

Like the film industry, Sundance now focuses on youth–which Mr. DiCillo no longer has in his corner–and celebrity. Even though there was a relative dearth of stars at this year’s festival–not even Mr. Redford showed–Mr. DiCillo has never benefited from a cult of personality in Park City. While Quentin Tarantino and even Michael Moore are swarmed by fans and Entertainment Weekly reporters, Mr. DiCillo can walk down Main Street without much risk of being recognized.

Still, as he wiped away his tears at the Eccles Theater, Mr. DiCillo told the crowd that Sundance had been “one island of security in this vast ocean of emptiness.” But once he regained his composure, the director returned to a familiar refrain. He told the crowd how funding for Double Whammy had collapsed repeatedly over three years and had experienced a financing meltdown as recently as nine months ago. “I was in an extremely dark state of mind,” he said.

Slight, handsome, with a shock of dark hair, Mr. DiCillo has an actor’s careful grooming and bearing–from certain sides he resembles François Truffaut’s alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud, complete with Mr. Léaud’s distrusting look. But Mr. DiCillo’s European-film-star looks are offset by a Rodney Dangerfield–like demeanor. Despite his many liabilities, he continues to make films.

And he has a knack for talking about how little respect he gets. At the Double Whammy premiere, Mr. DiCillo told the crowd that he approached the festival expecting the worst. “In my defense, I would say that the essence of my films was never presented to the public,” he said. It is something that he has often said about his career.

Double Whammy is much like Mr. DiCillo’s other comedies, which tend to be of the screwball variety. Set and shot entirely in New York and New Jersey, the film opens with a serial killer ramming his pickup truck through the glass façade of a burger joint and opening fire. Detective Ray Pluto (Denis Leary), a customer, pulls out his gun, but slips and injures his back. It’s left to a young boy to pull the trigger on the psychopath. Pilloried in the press as a “loser cop,” Pluto fights depression, while his partner (Steve Buscemi) decides to come out of the closet. To keep his job, Pluto seeks out a chiropractor (Elizabeth Hurley), and a love affair blossoms.

Meanwhile, Pluto’s West Side building seems to have a subplot in every apartment. Downstairs, two screenwriters dressed like Tarantino-esque hoods assemble a script from independent clichés, and the irascible super’s daughter, whose father won’t let her get a tattoo, arranges for two drug dealers to murder him in exchange for her dad’s Christmas tips.

The crime takes its cues from actual headlines. In October 1995, Arelis Batista, 18, a student at Mother Cabrini High School, arranged for two neighborhood toughs to kill her overprotective father. In a twist worthy of a student’s caper script, the armed duo showed up at the family’s 152nd Street apartment when the father, William Batista, was still at work. Their visit ended with Arelis shot and her mother and brother murdered in their sleep.

But though Double Whammy features Mr. DiCillo’s comic take on a New York story, it is also holds a funhouse mirror up to his career. “This film was in reaction to some of the ways people had responded to my films,” Mr. DiCillo said as he attacked a plate of eggs following the second sold-out screening of his film. It wasn’t just that Pluto, like Mr. DiCillo, has a bad back that can turn on him any second, or that the director has had to cohabit with Tarantino clones. “When the lieutenant says at the beginning, ‘Do I have your attention now?’, that’s me asking: ‘Is that what it takes to get your attention, to have a guy walk into a burger joint and blow people away? Is that what it takes?’” He shook his head in anger, then added: “I don’t see this as just a cop movie. It’s about how our emotional life can keep us from seeing things.”

By the time Mr. DiCillo reached Park City, Double Whammy had already tasted rejection. The script left distributors cold, even with Ms. Hurley and Mr. Leary attached. (Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Michael Keaton were among the actors considered to play Pluto. Mr. DiCillo insisted Mr. Leary was the best.)

No mini-studios raced to produce the quirky tale. Sony Pictures Classics, Fine Line Features, the Shooting Gallery and Fox Searchlight passed on the project, as did Mark Urman, president of Lions Gate Films, which ended up buying North American rights to Double Whammy for $1 million and agreeing to commit another $1 million in advertising. “A script is all promise and a movie is a finished product,” Mr. Urman said when asked why he had changed his mind.

“We weren’t sure what kind of performance Denis Leary would give,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. After the premiere, he conceded that Mr. Leary “gives a good one.”

Fox Searchlight vice president Joe Pichirallo also chose not to produce it. “As a former reporter who covered cops, I would love to find a police story, a procedural,” he said. But in Mr. Pichirallo’s opinion, Double Whammy was not the kind of project that “the critics and others are going to say … is a distinctive, unusual piece of work that ordinarily Hollywood wouldn’t make or that the mainstream studios are not making.

“I loved Living in Oblivion,” Mr. Pichirallo added. “Here, I just didn’t find the story that compelling. I wasn’t afraid of it. I just didn’t know where it was going to find an audience.”

That kind of talk infuriates Mr. DiCillo, who has been lectured repeatedly that Living in Oblivion died at theaters between New York and Los Angeles because it was an inside joke presented to a largely ignorant public. “Isn’t that the distributor’s job, to make people aware of the film?” Mr. DiCillo asked. “Is Apollo 13 only a film for astronauts? Is Backdraft only a film for firefighters?”

“DiCillo’s had four films with four distributors, so it’s always their fault?” wondered Eamonn Bowles, president of the Shooting Gallery, a film company that also passed on Double Whammy.

Annoyed that distributors snubbed his project on the front end, Mr. DiCillo refused to screen Double Whammy for them before Sundance. The movie’s fate was too fragile to risk any rumors stigmatizing it in the marketplace. He had reason to be wary. Johnny Suede, which Miramax bought sight-unseen on the advice of a stringer who saw it at a European festival, died after a tepid review from the New York Times film critic at the time, Vincent Canby. Living in Oblivion, initiated with money loaned by the actors who believed in it, failed to reach an audience beyond the critics.

Mr. DiCillo’s last two films, 1996’s Box of Moonlight and 1997’s The Real Blonde, also suffered from brief runs in theaters. The latter film, a $10 million entertainment-business satire that starred Ms. Keener, Matthew Modine and Daryl Hannah, was perhaps the bigger disappointment. After producers at Lakeshore Entertainment “bullied” Mr. DiCillo into cutting a scene of frontal nudity, the distributor, Paramount, pulled its ads when the movie opened weakly. “I still wake up at night thinking about that,” Mr. DiCillo said. “I don’t ever want to go through that again.”

After several tries, Mr. DiCillo found a protector to guarantee that Double Whammy would get made. Nine months earlier, when financing had dried up for the third time, Mr. Leary’s agent showed the script to a new company, Gold Circle Films, a three-person firm in Beverly Hills that links investors to film projects. Much of the money behind Gold Circle comes from former Gateway Computers executive Norm Waitt, who is listed as the firm’s executive chairman and one of the film’s executive producers. Gold Circle president David Kronemyer told The Observer that Mr. DiCillo’s track record wasn’t a problem. “I think the elements were being criminally undervalued by everybody who looked at it,” he said.

Indeed, he had enough faith in Mr. DiCillo’s script to add another million to the $4 million budget. Early indications proved him right. A company called Myriad Pictures recently paid Gold Circle $5 million for the foreign rights to Double Whammy, a price justified partly by the physical comedy and New York locations, but mostly by Ms. Hurley’s international salability. By the time Double Whammy premiered at Sundance, the Myriad sale had already earned back the film’s entire budget.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the Jan. 20 premiere of Double Whammy, Mr. DiCillo, without naming names, denounced his previous distributors and the financiers who had abandoned him as “the sleaziest, freakiest people I have ever encountered in this business.” Then he headed to the post-premiere party at the River Horse Café, where bidding for the film intensified.

With Miramax retreating from the aggressive, scorched-earth acquisitions strategy it has used in past festivals, other buyers could afford to take more of a wait-and-see posture. (Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein made a brief appearance, most visibly in the lobby of the Eccles, wearing a hat from the effects-heavy suburban drama Donnie Darko.) Still, according to Mr. Kronemyer, Miramax was interested in the film, as were Universal Focus, Lions Gate and HBO. “All the people who turned it down beforehand came back,” he said.

At a post-screening question-and-answer session the following morning, the cheering crowd revived Mr. DiCillo from the effects of the previous night’s revelries. When someone asked him whether he had thought of working in Hollywood, a sly expression crossed the director’s face. He responded that he had passed on a number of teenage vampire films that were offered to him after Johnny Suede opened. He said he had also foregone a chance to direct Mr. Pitt’s actress wife, Jennifer Aniston, in a script in which she dies and comes back to life as a prostitute. “I thought it was too complicated,” Mr. DiCillo smirked, and his adoring audience laughed away.

Though Double Whammy was still unsold at this point, Mr. DiCillo indulged his penchant for distributor-bashing at the screening. “I cannot in any way comprehend why The Real Blonde did not play in theaters as long as five other movies released at that time,” he told the appreciative crowd–although when asked to name those films, he could only recall Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy.

And the critics who maligned him for, among other things, casting a celebrity such as Ms. Hurley in an “independent” film were even lower forms of life. “Why don’t they say that about Sean Penn’s stupid fucking shit with Jack Nicholson?” he fumed.

The next day, Jan. 22, Mr. DiCillo was vindicated. Before a midnight screening, the director announced that Lions Gate had bought the film for $1 million, plus a promise to spend at least $1 million on advertising. Mr. DiCillo’s team had turned down higher offers from HBO (to make sure the film got a strong theatrical release) and from Gabriel Films, a company no one had heard of. Mr. DiCillo would not risk being frustrated again by an inexperienced distributor. While his exhausted wife waited in the lobby nursing a cold that she blamed on the stress of selling the film, Mr. DiCillo stood proudly in the back of the auditorium, watching Double Whammy unspool. “Just look at that dissolve,” he said, as the image of a hash-zonked Leary watching a TV workout show played on the screen.

At that moment, Mr. DiCillo’s pain seemed endurable. His father, a Marine Corps colonel, had taught him to finish anything he started. “Sure, I’ve thought of opening a women’s lingerie store,” he said. “But what else am I going to do, work in an office somewhere?”

Lions Gate has plans for Double Whammy, which will probably hit theaters in the fall. Ms. Hurley, a photogenic darling of both men’s and women’s fashion magazines, should bring Mr. DiCillo the kind of press that could lead to a large, more mainstream audience. “You can put her on every talk show on the planet, and you can’t necessarily do that with Steve Buscemi or James LeGros,” Mr. Urman said. He should know. Though he is currently the co-president of Lions Gate, Mr. Urman was the publicist who handled Mr. DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion.

That wry look crossed Mr. DiCillo’s face again. Noting that the loser cop becomes a hero and lands Manhattan’s sexiest chiropractor, he predicted that Double Whammy would attract wider audiences than his previous films. “Even police might come to see Pluto’s story,” he said. “Look who he ends up with.”

After much death, mayhem and depression, and a few erotic spinal adjustments, everything turns out O.K. at the end of Double Whammy. But Mr. DiCillo has a way to go before he can say that everything’s copacetic with him as well. At press time, few critics had weighed in on his film, save for Variety’s David Rooney, who wrote that Double Whammy was “slight,” with “erratic energy levels and inconsistent rhythm,” and “fragile” commercial prospects. On the phone from New York, Mr. DiCillo was disappointed and, once again, angry: “This film’s going to be really dependent on reviews to build its audience. I’m just disgusted. I see the shit out there and people salivating. All I can say to him is, ‘Thanks, man.’”

Weepy Indie Director Tom DiCillo Brings His Big Gamble to Sundance