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Stalking a celebrity shutterbug

In 'Delirious,' Tom DiCillo scopes out an obnoxious photographer who wants to be an artist -- and contemplates that special quality that makes somebody a star.

August 16, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK-based indie filmmaker Tom DiCillo has never been personally pursued by paparazzi. But he's been deluged with such photographers while making his offbeat comedies such as "The Real Blonde" on the streets of the Big Apple. "I have kicked this one guy off the set of all my movies," DiCillo says with a sigh.

Yet he turned around and spent two months with the annoying shutterbug as research for his latest film, "Delirious," which opens Friday. Steve Buscemi, who starred as a harassed director in DiCillo's acclaimed 1994 film "Living in Oblivion," plays an obnoxious celebrity photographer with aspirations of becoming a serious artist.

"He was reviled in New York as the worst guy you ever wanted to meet," DiCillo says of the photographer, whose name he won't reveal. "But I glimpsed something else in him, and my instinct was correct. There was a real sort of vulnerable, emotionally crippled side to him. In some ways, he had had a tough life."

Not anymore, though. "He took a shot that got placed on the cover of a magazine of somebody's baby," DiCillo says. "Now he gets invited to every prestige event."

"Delirious" revolves around Buscemi's Les Galantine, who one evening meets Toby (Michael Pitt), a young man who came to New York to seek fame and fortune but now lives on the streets. Les hires Toby as his unpaid assistant and makes him live in the closet of his tiny apartment. The two become unlikely friends until Toby accidentally meets K'Harma (Alison Lohman), a beautiful but talentless pop diva. As Toby and K'Harma's attraction makes news, he catches the attention of a casting director (Gina Gershon), who hires him for a TV series that makes him an overnight sensation. Les, though, isn't going to let Toby go without a fight.

When he began the script six years ago, the film was a series of "unconnected ideas that were really interesting to me," DiCillo says. "One was the idea of the paparazzi -- this person who is universally reviled, who occupies the lowest rung on the celebrity status bar. I began to ask myself, 'Why do they do the things they do?' "

As he began to sketch out the photographer, he contemplated the notion of stardom. "Since stardom is created on a weekly basis now, what is it that makes somebody a real star? What is it that makes anybody a star? I began thinking about the real stars and how they affected us all. I began to think of Elizabeth Taylor in 'A Place in the Sun,' when you see her close-ups . . . or Bogart and Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman."

DiCillo concluded that all of these enduring performers had an openness in their souls, so that when they were on the screen, "you fell into them and they transported you."

"So I said, 'Let me write a character like that and see what happens, and let me put him together with the paparazzi and see what happens.' " The plot turned into a human relationship story that becomes "infected by the current fascination [with] and addiction to celebrity."

"I don't want in any way to say that this movie is immensely complex," he adds. "But I am saying it isn't simply a take on celebrity."

DICILLO wrote the role of Les specifically for Buscemi. "I was alone for four months in my apartment writing this script pretending that I was Steve Buscemi," he says. "That's how I do it. I know what excites him as an actor. It was exhilarating to write it with him in mind."

So why do they work so well together?

"The director's job is the most complex and overwhelming you can ever imagine," DiCillo explains. "It has very little to do with directing. It has more to do with making sure that someone's trailer is not parked next to the generator -- I'm serious. Or when you encounter any sort of difficulties on the set -- let's say an actor decides to give you resistance -- it throws you into a state."

But he's never encountered any such problems with Buscemi. "It's not that he does everything I say, but we have a trust with each other."

And Buscemi knows the basic rule of acting, "which is to take the attention off of yourself and it put it on the other actors," DiCillo says. "Very few actors know that."

Since making his feature directorial debut 16 years ago with the quirky "Johnny Suede," starring a young Brad Pitt, DiCillo has made only five additional films.

"It's hard to make a movie that isn't written to fit into some sort of niche," he says.

Although DiCillo says he doesn't feel great about his output, he adds, "The movies I made are so particularly mine, I invest a lot of time and energy into doing them." Plus, it takes years to get funding for his comedies.

DiCillo has been courted by Hollywood but has turned down offers because "usually the scripts are so awful you can't comprehend them."

"And this idea of editing by committee, I have a tough time with it," he says.

DiCillo compares Hollywood to a shoe manufacturer. "They say, 'We are going to make these shoes for the fall,' and then someone says, 'Let's make the heel two inches longer.' They don't care about the product. It's not art to them. It's purely factory-line, industry decisions."

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