Mike Ragogna: Bill, what an original, emotional movie this was to have directed. If this wasn’t a life-changer for you, it certainly must have been a life-enhancer.
William H. Macy: Yes! Separate from the story we told and how well I might have succeeded or failed it’s a life-changer because it’s the first time I’ve directed a feature and at this point in my career it’s completely new. The result of it is I haven’t felt this challeneged and alive in a long time. It was a shot in the arm at the perfect time in my career. I also just fell in love with our business all over again. I mean schoolboy, knock-kneed, cross-eyed in love with this business.
MR: Was that because you were able to make a film that examines a bigger concept as opposed to something glamorous?
WM: I’ve been in a bunch of films. Some were fluffier than others, some were deep, some were not. It’s more sitting there at Video Village being the guy in charge of this small army of workmen. I got a different perspective than the actor normally gets. All I can say is that to see a hundred-plus people from completely disparate backgrounds all pulling together in the same direction and their goal is to make a piece of art is humbling. It moves me to tears sometimes. To bring these people together like this and we’re all pulling in the same direction, it’s the glory of humanity that we can do this every once in a while. Put everything else aside and all work with all our cleverness and energy towards a common goal. That’s what making movies is about when it works really, really well.
MR: So you think you’ll want to direct more films and do you think the things you’ve learned while directing will help your performance as an actor?
WM: Well, first, yes. I desperately want to direct again. As a matter of fact I could say it’s all I want to do from now on. As I told you I’m directing an episode of Shameless, this TV show I’m on. It’s the first television I’ve ever directed. In both Rudderless andShameless I do have the benefit of being the new guy, the newbie. I’ve encountered a tremendous amount of goodwill so that both of these crews have gone above and beyond to get my back when I do something foolish or when I get lost. They really cover me. It’s humbling. As for the acting, I don’t know the answer to that. I think the worst-case scenario would be that I would be dissatisfied with acting and letting someone else be in charge, but I don’t think I’ll do that. My partner Steven Schachter and I have written about a dozen movies of the week and he directed all of them. I’ve developed the skill of taking off that writer’s hat and putting on the actor’s hat and letting him direct because the director is the beginning, middle and end of everything. He is the leader. It’s a benign dictatorship and things go horribly awry when people try to take the director’s power, whether it’s an actor or a producer. The director has to be in charge. And I’ve gotten good at letting Steven direct the thing.
So when I show up to the set and he has made two scenes into one scene and changed it from a drug store to a coffeeshop, I’m good with that. It’s okay. I trust him. I guess this answers your first question, having been a director I can see sometimes you have to change the script to fit what’s possible. The director’s job is to say, “We’ve got X amount of money and X amount of time, how can I tell this story?” Sometimes you have to roll with the punches when you get to the day. That’s good filmmaking. I was pretty good as a writer saying, “okay, you go with it, you do your job, that’s okay with me.” I hope when I’m acting next week on Shameless and not directing and acting I will be able to say, “You go, director. I’ve got your back. You tell me what you need and I will do my best to service it and let you direct it.” I’m pretty sure I’m going to be able to do that. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve seen what happens when people step outside their purview and try to do other people’s jobs. It’s a disaster.
MR: Let’s apply that to Rudderless. Did the actors really sit down and explore the script with you? Did you allow that to happen?
WM: What a good question. They dug the script as it was, which is not to say that they didn’t have a few notes. Some of them I said, “Yeah, no,” and the others–probably half and half–I said, “Ooh, good idea!” They were also really good at looking at the details because it’s such a jigsaw puzzle you’re putting together because you’re shooting out of order and dealing with the logic of everything. They were really good at backing me up and saying, “Hold on, I didn’t know that at this point, I had on this, not that, can you answer me the throughline logic?” and I’d go, “Oops, we’ve got a mistake here.” They were good about that. As far as the actors, they kind of came with it. My memory of it is that I didn’t direct them that much. They showed up and they were stunning from the beginning. All I had to do is take pictures of it. They’re really quite the cast. Once or twice with some of the local folks a scene just fell flatter than a pancake and I had to figure out a way to make the scene work. I did talk to those actors and luckily I’ve got forty five years of experience so there were no unmitigated disasters. I was able to figure out the scene in a way that was successful. But mostly they brought their A game.
MR: Billy Crudup was in Almost Famous, and the rest of the cast is somewhat musical. The subject matter of this film must have resonated with many of the actors already, right?
WM: Yes. You know, Billy’s actually not that musical a guy. He plays guitar and he loves music but I wouldn’t call him a musician. I think now after this he learned a bunch of stuff, he was playing guitar for a long time. Also we had ukuleles on the set all the time and Billy’s been playing his ukulele, and Anton also. That was my wrap gift: ukuleles for everybody. Anton [Yelchin] plays in a band, he loves to play music. Ben Kweller who played the bass, you know Ben, he’s an actual rock star. He brought a lot of verisimilitude to the whole band. And Ryan [Dean] the drummer is a real drummer. Anton and Ryan were pals before, they had played together. Ryan and Ben brought some of the rock ‘n’ roll knowhow and their moves and they helped Billy and Anton with that. Luckily the nature of the story was that these weren’t seasoned musicians. It’s one of the plot points that Sam, Billy’s character is a little in over his head musically in this band. They were well-cast and they were comfortable with what they had to do. Also there’s a technical problem, it’s one of the first we faced: I had this cherished fantasy that we would rehearse these songs a whole lot and we’d get so good that we’d actually do a couple of tour dates and then when we got to the day we’d record it live. It was Charlton Pettus who wrote a lot of the music and he said, “Dude, if you cast The Rolling Stones I would tell you to do it to playback. It’s the way it’s done.
If you’re going to do multiple takes and you’re going to cut it together, give it up. Just give it up. You’re not going to do it live, you can’t repeat that stuff.” Plus they’d have to record it in a sound studio to make it sound any good. So we did a very clever thing. We rolled sound, they did it to playback, that’s them singing, but we recorded them singing to their own playback. We did the sound mix up in San Francisco at Skywalker Sound and you hear the squeak of the strings and apparently with the drums in particular there’s a sound mix when you record it live, and some of the ad-libs and the grunts and the groans and they mix that stuff in so it sounds like they’re recording it live. Everyone told me that’s one of the big problems with music in movies: making it sound like it’s not them lip-synching to a recorded song. I think we did really well. It sounds like it’s live, doesn’t it?
MR: Absolutely. And I admire your other musical contributors on the project, for instance Eef Barzelay from Clem Snide. How did you come across Clem Snide? It…and Eef…are like the world’s best-kept secrets.
WM: Despite the fact that I’ve been doing this for a long time, when they would say, “Who do you want for a composer? Who do you want for a DP?” I went braindead. All I could think of was the last three people I had worked with. I went back over all the films I had done and in all candor I vastly underestimated the power of score in a movie. I’ve since educated myself a little bit. It’s vitally important. It can change not only a scene, it can change and entire film. The best example is that I did this film called The Cooler, and the director kept telling me, “Wait ’til you hear the score.” All I could think was, “If he thinks the score is going to save us, we’re in trouble.” Well guess what: the score made a completely different movie. Not a completely different movie; the score moved it up four notches. It was stunning. The producer and our musical supervisor Liz Gallacher sent me oh perhaps ten composers that were available, that we could afford, that they thought were appropriate and I listened to all the music and I chose Eef and I can’t tell you more about why, I just had a feeling. With so much of the stuff I realized it’s not an intellectual process, you just take in the person as much as you can and you kind of let your subconscious speak up.
MR: Was there a subtext speaking up from the script? I feel like Josh’s death supplied the eponymous “rudder.” Everything that happened after a certain point, it was like the son was raising the father.
WM: Ah, that’s great man, I like that. Me, personally, what do I want to see when I go to the cinema or even the theater? I want to be told stories that make me feel good, that entertain me and challenge me. I believe in humanity. I think we’re the most astounding thing that’s ever happened. We are an astounding species. There’s lots of talk about our killer angels as Lincoln called them, but we are an astounding species. I would like to hear a story of redemption–which is not to say I just want fluffy comedies, sometimes you can be wildly and successfully entertained by crying your eyes out. You need that, too. I’ve always looked at it as a story of redemption and how you keep going after something like this. The question is, “What must it be like to get that phone call?” What must that be like? Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, the two writers, and myself kept coming up with, “I have no idea. I just have no idea.” It’s beyond the pale. In an instant you have no son, you can’t mourn him and your life is forever changed. You live with shame and regret for the rest of your life, and it happened right after “Hello?” Everything changes. Where do you find support? What must that be like? That’s what we kept nibbling away at and telling whatever we knew of the story, because there’s no simple answer. To lose a kid like that, how do you go on, and you’re exactly right. I don’t know, but the human animal survives. This is a story of redemption, and I love your notion that the son teaches the father.
MR: Thanks. It was as though Sam couldn’t save Josh, Josh saved Sam.
WM: Yeah. Josh saved Sam. It was interesting, there was a scene or two at the end that took Sam down the path of redemption a little bit and then we said, “Forget it! Forget it! It’s over.” That lovely moment that Billy has at the microphone, everyone said, “Movie’s over, man,” so we cut the ending. Lovely scenes, too. It was all a thing of paring it down, “What’s the essential?” which is I guess what every director does. The music was the other big great white shark that I was afraid of. I looked at a lot of films that have music in them and I faulted many of them because they were lovely films but the music wasn’t great. It wasn’t scintillating. It wasn’t as good as the film. I realized that’s the first decision I have to make and it’s the first thing I did. This woman Liz Gallacher came on as the music supervisor, she put out the word in the indie world, she sent the script around, I wrote a letter to accompany the script where I unashamedly said, “I need pop songs, I need the audience to be able to hum the hook after hearing it one time, I need lyrics that can be about anything except the plot, so these songs can be about anything. You can write about your typewriter, you can write about anything you want.” I said in the letter, “They must be clever lyrics, they must be funny and ironic where possible,” I wanted complex songs with a chorus and verse and the middle eight as John Lennon called them, three different distinct parts. Sophisticated music but with catchy hooks.
In the script, we just put placeholders where the songs came. Jeff and Casey and I said, “What would be good here is a song about, ‘what if I was an asshole, would you still like me?'” “This would be a good place for a song about regret.” “This would be a good place to sing about some broad that dumped you.” Let me get back to the indie world. A lot of songs came in, it was very flattering. A lot of people did demos and sent them in. One of them was a song called “Home” and I really liked it. It’s the first song Billy sings, “Well I’m trying to get home but it seems like another life,” I really like that song.
Then I looked at some other stuff that Simon Steadman and Charlton had written and “I’m An Asshole” was on there, and I loved it. So I looked closer and closer and I thought, “These are the guys. Why keep looking? These are the guys.” I called them up and said, “Okay, get to writing.” They had some stuff in the trunk that they altered for us, and they wrote a bunch of songs. With one exception, which was “Over Your Shoulder” which was written by Fin, and his band is called Fink, Simon and Charlton wrote all the music. They were tireless. Charlton has a studio at his home so all the actors went there and we recorded it. Charlton and Simon stayed with us all through the thing. We put in little things like when Anton says, “One thing I really hate is when Sam is always late,” it seems like an ad-lib but if you think about it, it was recorded seven weeks before we shot that scene.
MR: Did you have any experieneces in your acting career where you’ve had this kind of holistic connection to a project? Fargo comes to mind for me.
WM: An actor’s purview is seconds, really. Maybe minutes. As an actor you enjoy the film, you enjoy whatever number of weeks you worked on the film, but what sticks in your memory is certain scenes where you–I don’t know what happens, the muse? I don’t know. It’s when you step out of yourself a little bit. Every actor will know what I’m talking about. If you’re lucky once, twice in your career you are visited by the muse. It’s only happened to me on stage in the theater, but literally you have an out of body experience. You are so hot that you sort of step back and look at yourself saying, “Well you go, boy. I’m not going to mess this up. You just go, whatever you want to do,” and you’re sort of watching yourself and the audience is snugly and happily in the palm of your hand. It only lasts for about thirty or forty seconds but it is a stunning experience. I’ve had some moments like that on film, it’s tough because you’ve got a crew of about thirty people standing there looking at you whereas on stage you’re really up there alone.
But I’ve had it on film. I’ve had it writing with Steven, where we would be wrestling with a scene and all of a sudden it comes together, particularly when it’s a funny joke and we just roll around on the floor laughing at our own cleverness and it is a lovely, lovely experience. You come up with an elegant solution and it just makes you pee your pants your laugh so hard. But it’s different for a director, because a director’s purview is the world. The whole bleeding world. When you’re in prep you have to see the whole story in its totality, you have to make sure that every single tiny element tells the story and fits with the next piece and fits with the preceeding piece, it’s a big jigsaw puzzle, it’s wonderful, and then there’s a whole new part once you start shooting, and then it gets into generalship and it’s all abbout marshalling this army of people to pull in the same direction and with whatever money you’ve got and whatever time you’ve got you budget it properly so that you squeeze every last cent out of a dollar that you can. It’s more generalship than making art. And then you go to editing and that’s a whole new animal itself.
MR: Did you discover in editing that it was a different movie than you thought it was?
WM: It wasn’t a different movie, but I falttered myself that I had pared the script down to just essential when we started shooting. I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to impress people, there’ll be about a foot and a half of film left over when we cut this together.” Well I slammed it. All of this stuff I thought, “You can’t tell the story without that scene.” Boomp, it’s gone. I shot all this stuff that wasn’t necessary, wasn’t essential. And I forgave myself because everybody said, “No, you’ve got to do that, man. That’s what film making is. Shoot everything you think you might need so that when you tell the story in the edit you’ve got it. There’s no shame, no harm, no fowl.” So it wasn’t a different story, it’s just that the telling of it could be more efficient than I had thought at first. I fancy myself a raconteur and I particularly love telling jokes. When people blow jokes it’s because they give you too much information. The essence of a joke, if it’s got a good punchline, is to get to the punchline as fast and efficiently and as richly as you can with a minimum number of words and sentences so that it’s set up, throw the punchline and that makes peopel roar. You give them too much information, you water down your punchline. Well a movie’s just one big, long, extended joke.
MR: [laughs] And you could say that about the music as well.
WM: Same thing with the songs. It’s got to have a beginning, middle and end, which is another thing that I said in that latter. “All these songs have to tell a bit of a story.”
MR: I always ask everybody what advice they have for new artists. In this case, it’s twice as good since you’ve worked with both musicians and actors. First, what advice do you have for musicians?
WM: For writing for film? I guess my take is I’m a storyteller. When I hear pop songs that I don’t like it’s because they’ve got a catchy hook and that’s the end of it. They’ve got nothing to say. Those are the songs where you hear the same phrase repeated until you’re ready to put a gun in your mouth, and they try to fix it with production. It’s just one clever little thing that they thought and then they just repeat it for three minutes. The songs that we really love are the ones that take us on a little bit of a story, and the best stories are ones where you don’t see the punchline coming. I took this writing course by Robert McKee one time, he was talking about the climax of the thing and he said, “Your climax must be inevitable, and that’s where the good guy and the bad guy come together. The climax has got to be unexpected.” It unfolds in a way that the audience wasn’t expecting. He said, “If you can do that and then throw another twist after you think it’s over, you too can have two homes.”
MR: [laughs] Nicely said. The other thing I wanted to ask was what advice do you have for actors who are going to play artists and musicians?
WM: I think most actors know how to deal with it. I had seen a lot of Anton’s work and I came to him and said, “Oh, you play the violin, I’m going to put the violin in here.” He said, “I don’t play the violin!” I said, “I saw you playing a violin,” and he said, “I was faking it!” I said, “Well you faked it really well, so you’ve got to fake it again.” He does! He played a violinist and they taught him how to get the vibrato and something of the fretboard, and he’s a guitarist so he knows that, and he knew how to bow. He fooled me in that film and he fooled me in this film If you want to laugh you should listen to the recorded track. You should listen to production sound, because it looks like he’s playing this beautiful thing but it sounds like a dog getting run over.
MR: [laughs] What does thi make you want to do now? Where does this lead you? What haven’t you done yet?
WM: Well it’s a brand new career, so when it comes to directing, pretty much everything. Tonight is my last night on Shameless, shotting TV is quite an experience. I thought Rudderless was fast; TV is astounding. And I believe we’re in a golden age of TV. There’s so much good stuff on television now I don’t even nearly have enough time to watch it all. It’s fantastic. The best and brightest are in television now. It ain’t in feature films, it’s not even in indie films. They’re all in television. Great storytelling, great acting, great writing and stunning film making. Bold stuff. The film I’m going to do next is called Crystal, written by Will Aldis. My dear friend Rachel Winter is producing with Keith Kjarval who produced Rudderless, we shoot February fifteenth in Atlanta, Georgia. It ain’t a done deal yet but it’s getting close. It’s easier to get a second film made. It’ll be a higher budget, I’ll have some more toys to play with, it won’t all be handheld. And it’s a comedy! It’s a crazy freakin’ comedy and I’m looking forward to it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne