Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi has acted in well over 100 films, including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Fargo, The Wedding Singer, The Big Lebowski, and Big Fish.
As for directing credits, he’s helmed the independent features Trees Lounge, Animal Factory, and Interview as well as several episodes of The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, and 30 Rock. In 2006, Steve Buscemi shared 13 of his “golden rules” of filmmaking with us. Here they are in their full, enlightening glory.
Note: The following “rules” are from the unbalanced mind of a relatively novice moviemaker.
1. Ask yourself, “Am I sure I want to make this movie?” Then ask yourself, “Why?” A good follow up question is, “Am I insane?”
2. The script is everything—a living thing that needs to breathe, to be fed and to grow. Take care of your script; don’t let anybody mess with it.
3. As Abel Ferrara once said, “A script ain’t a movie.” Okay, so maybe the script isn’t everything. But it’s a good start.
4. It’s not a bad idea to make a short film before you attempt a feature. But don’t think of it as your “calling card film.” It can of course become that, but it should be your first film, first. Make the film you want to make—not the film you think financiers will be impressed with.
5. Be aware: Finding financing for your feature can be a potentially soul-crushing endeavor. You may find yourself in a sterile room, pitching your film to a humorless executive and desperately blurting out stupid things like, “Well, you know, it’s kinda like Leaving Las Vegas meets Barfly.”
6. No two movies should ever meet each other.
7. Okay, no shit, as I am writing this, I get a call from my agent saying there is a “situation” brewing that could possibly undo the financing of the current film I am slated to direct—a remake of the Theo van Gogh film, Interview. We already lost the original Dutch financing a few weeks ago and I’m scheduled to start shooting in a couple of weeks. This also happened two years ago with my previous film, Lonesome Jim. We lost our studio deal in the eleventh hour. Luckily, InDigEnt, a New York-based, Mini-DV movie company, came to our rescue. The budget dropped from $3 million to $500,000 and our shooting schedule of 30 days was reduced to 17, but we were able to make the film we wanted to make. Financing never comes easy. Trees Lounge took a good five years to find its way and my second film, Animal Factory, based on the great Eddie Bunker book, took three years. What? You never heard of the film Animal Factory?
8. Try to get a good distribution deal.
9. Number 9 makes me think of John Lennon. If there’s one business that’s perhaps more challenging and insane than the movies, it’s the music industry. And yet there’s all this inspiring work from artists like Lennon, Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk and countless others. It’s true in film, as well. I know John Cassavetes didn’t have it easy. Buster Keaton? It’s the love for his work that kept him going, not the opening weekend box office receipts. Whenever I get down, I think of the great ones and their struggles against all odds, fighting an uphill battle against commerce and mediocrity, and it gives me strength.
10. Find the back issue of MovieMaker that lists the rules (or non-rules) of Jim Jarmusch. He rules. He’s never made a film he didn’t put his complete heart and soul into—and he’s able to make his living at making movies! I admire any director who makes his living solely from directing. I’m fortunate enough to earn a decent wage by occasionally playing psychopaths in other people’s movies, allowing me the luxury of not having to depend on the movies I direct to put food on the table. I especially admire independent directors like Tom DiCillo and Alexandre Rockwell, who never stop trying to create their own way.
11. Let people do their jobs. Phil Parmet, my friend and cinematographer, told me that once. If you give your crew the responsibility and opportunity to do their best, and you appreciate their efforts, your film will only benefit from their collaboration. Hire the best people to fulfill your film’s needs, then trust them to do their jobs.
12. If the scene you are about to shoot is troublesome, take the time you need to figure it out. This may mean clearing the set of the crew and producers so that it’s just you and the actors. Sometimes the organic instincts of the actors can solve a problem in blocking or problematic writing. But not always. In any case, allow yourself to be surprised by your actors
13. Actually, I have no rule number 13; it’s just my lucky number. I guess if I had to come up with a rule number 13 it would be: Break a leg. And don’t be superstitious. MM
(Editor’s Note: Steve Buscemi was neither prompted nor paid to promote the Winter 2004 issue of MM. But we appreciate the support.)