Killer Diller might not be a film you know much about. An independent film shot in Fayette, Missouri in only 26 shooting days follows the tale of a group of convicts in a religious themed half-way house as they strive to bring the music of the Lord and eventually play the blues. Quirky? Off-beat? Yes, and also very entertaining. You’ll have to wait a couple days for my full review, but today we’ve got another treat for you. Tricia Brock (the writer/director of the film) sat down for a round table interview recently to tell a few Kansas City journalists about her film and we were lucky enough to be invitied…
Interview with Killer Diller writer/director Tricia Brock
In promoting her first feature film Killer Diller writer/director Tricia Brock came to Kansas City and took part in a round table interview with local journalists. Brock’s independent film (shot in 26 days in Fayette, Missouri for just over $2 million) tells the tale of a group of convicts in a half-way house with the introduction of a guitar playing car thief and the help of a local autistic piano player come together to form the Killer Diller Blues Band.
After two years (the film was finished in 2004) it will finally get a limited regional release this Friday (make sure to check back on Friday for our full review) in Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia, Memphis, and Nashville. Hopefully the film will make enough noise to attract enough fans and garner support for a wider release next month.
How did the novel by Clive Edgerton come to you?
I read a review in the New York Times; one of those little paragraph reviews. And there were two phrases that popped out: one was “quirky characters” and I went right for that of course, and the other was “blues guitar.”
It was those two things that made me want to read the book. And then when I read the book I said this would make a fabulous film; this would be the kind of film that I would want to see.
Did the novel’s author have any input into the movie?
No, but he loves it – which to this day is one of my great thrills. He actually came to location and he is in the movie. The day that he left, now that he’s seen it, he said, “Now I can die a happy man.”
You use the Missouri setting quite a bit in the film. Was the novel set in Missouri?
No, North Carolina. Because I revered the writer and wanted to do justice by his work I was going to shoot it there. I actually went to a festival in Wilmington with a short film I’d made and went location scouting and just couldn’t find it. I just didn’t see any small college campus setting and rolling hills that was appealing. I said to Clyde where was this town you’ve written about? And he said he made it up.
Meanwhile my mother told me I ought to shoot the film in Fayette, Missouri. Luckily we were on the phone so she couldn’t see my eyes rolling. She called Jerry Jones, the head of the Missouri Film Commission, and told him about the project and he went up and photographed several places, one of which was Fayette. The minute I saw it I said that’s it.
Was it hard to get the cast to come to Fayette?
No, RonReaco Lee who plays Ben Ashley, he’s from Georgia and lives in L.A., he turned to me at one point like week three and said it will never be like this again; you just don’t know how special this is. It was a tight-knit community; everybody on that set for whatever reason loved being there, believed in the film, was excited about it.
I had crew from St. Louis, crew from Kansas City, and at one time or another almost everyone came up to me and said this movie is the reason I got into the business, this is the movie I hoped I would get to work on. It was like that the whole time. I was held up by good will and they all killed themselves. Everyone cried when they had to leave.
How was it shooting on a college campus?
|Shooting in Fayette, MO
It was great. Obviously there are places one could go that would not be as accommodating as Central Methodist University. We were also there when they were out of school. I was a little worried about that because I didn’t want the campus to look dead, but enough people showed up, and we had enough extras and we pulled from the university.
For the campus housing did you use sorority or fraternity houses?
No just houses that we saw and of course Vernon’s house out in the country, about ten or fifteen minutes away. You could not set dress [to improve the look]; I defy anyone that could equal that. We didn’t do a thing.
Did Missouri seem different when you returned here to make the film?
No, I mean I come back here all the time. What I loved about it though, where we were, and there’s many parts of Missouri that are like that, is how unspoiled it is and how there’s a timelessness about it. Which is one of those things which has helped me with the release of this film because it was finished two years ago. It’s a film you could look at ten years ago it could have been made it could be made ten years from now.
You said the phrase blues guitar immediately grabbed your attention. Had you been exposed to that sort of music?
I just loved it and I’ve tried to find what that’s grounded in and I can’t. I grew up in Southern Missouri; my parents listened to Mitch Miller or church music. It was something from the time of my early 20’s. I just think it’s one of our greatest American art forms.
What I love [about the film] is the music progression mirrors the character progression. The music really is a character in the film. It starts out very slow when they are estranged from each other and then it starts to warm up when Vernon comes into the mix and then it just takes off and sails when they start playing blues. That was something I wanted to achieve and I hope I did.
You use so much music in the film did you have trouble getting rights to songs?
No, it was all cleared in advance. It was a process and it wasn’t easy. I lost some things I had wanted that we couldn’t afford. If it wasn’t public domain we had to be able to negotiate the rights, but most of the ones I really loved are in there. We had to be very careful because if we didn’t have the rights you couldn’t show it anywhere.
One of the things that was a potential challenge was how would you portray religion in the film?
I found Fred Willard’s character misguided, he was well intentioned, but misguided in how he felt he was going to rehabilitate these kids. Though I found his earnestness not only funny but oddly touching. For me, some of it might be considered tongue-in-cheek but I think for those who are more of that philosophy from what I’ve understood they are not offended. I think, if I’m lucky, what will happen depending on who you are that will affect your response.
Your degree is in journalism; has that had any impact in your filmmaking?
I don’t think so. I think what it did was it opened a door to expose me to production and the world of media. My first job was in advertising, but I found it not very satisfying creatively. I was a girl slave, but I was very inspired being a young girl out of school and being around that group of people. It was just a creative funhouse.
It took a long time to get the courage to call myself a writer then even longer to get the courage to say I wanted to direct. It just took a long time for me to say it out loud.
How was it different writing and directing this film than say an episode of Twin Peaks or other television?
There’s no comparison. Something like Twin Peaks you are serving a project that exists and obviously there’s a collaboration and I thought it was brilliant but you are there to serve that vision. You know you’re a hired gun. So you go in and part of that challenge is to do it in a very limited amount of time and you have to be fast and win over the actors and plan your shots. It’s a crash course in film school in three weeks. Features are a long time, the minimum it would be is two years of my life. So it is nice to go in, it’s not my creation. I have a very specific job to do, to go in and get out. I love all my shows, I love working on The L Word and working on Huff and I’m going to do a Deadwood [episode]. I’m scarred but mainly I just can not wait.
When you are working on your own thing it’s much closer to your heart certainly, you have more responsibility so it’s a little scarier, and ultimately more satisfying because it’s yours. Although I still thought I had to serve the book but at a certain point, it was a long process. I think the last two or three drafts I put the book down and would not pick it up again because you get very hamstrung with the novel. Finally at the end of the day my job was to take his book and make it a movie.
The way you depicted autism must have been a challenge?
Yes, but as you’ll notice we never talk about it, never refer to it, never give it a name. Vernon is just Vernon. And he has his own growth in the movie as he comes out of his shell a little bit. For me it was challenging for that character to have his own dignity, which I think he does, and to be treated like all the other characters as a character in the movie.
Did you have certain people in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
I always saw Fred and I have to say Lucas. I had to fly to Alabama and drive down a long country road to go to Lucas’ house and have dinner with him. He didn’t really want to do the movie; he just wanted to be at home. It was hunting season, but his mom, I owe it to these women – my mother, Mary Willard, and Lucas’ mom. So I could tell to sit at his dinner table and talk to his family and pitch my movie was going to get nowhere. Near the end I started talking to him about the only thing I knew I could engage him in was hunting. That boy got up and went and got his scrapbook. I looked at every bloody carcass of every deer that kid had shot his entire life. Then he went and got his bow, because he’s a bow hunter, and I’m standing in his kitchen and he’s showing me how to hold the bow and that’s how we found our way to each other or I found my way to him. Then a lot more time passed as money fell in and out. Then he came to L.A. to audition for something else and I introduced him to Will and they really liked each other and that helped me a lot.
How did Fred Willard come to the film?
He read the script and with a lot of begging from me. And I have a tremendous debt to his wife Mary who read the script and said Fred you’re doing this.
What about John Michael Higgins?
I’m just crazy about him, he’s hysterical. Fred was on and John Michael came on later and they were just fabulous together. Those were some of my favorite days. Truthfully as a director my job with those two guys was to get out of their way and just let them do what they know how to do.
Fred Willard here is playing a more well-rounded character than his Christopher Guest film roles. Was that a concern?
It’s not that I was worried about it but I knew I didn’t want him to do a parody and we talked about it because I had to be careful. I think he’s amazing. He said how do you see Ned? And I just answered him in one word and that’s all I ever had to say. And I said – real.
Fred was just amazing, I wrote the script and I would be on set watching a scene and watching Fred take what I knew I had written but his timing and his phrasing were so good I didn’t recognize it. He just raised the bar for everybody they loved working with him. Isn’t he kind of vulnerable? I think he is. All of it is scripted but at the end of a line he might throw in something of his own. I’m not saying that every single word Fred says I wrote but the essence was there and he definitely made it his own.
Was it tricky to take no musicians and have them movie and perform as a band?
There were those who said you’re setting yourself up, it’s your first movie and what you are trying to do is impossible. The told me to find another script or take the music out but I never considered it, never wavered, I was going to do this. There were some moments of magic where it all worked.
When you cast the film were you looking for both actors and musicians?
I was. Shanita who’s played by Niki Crawford had to sing. I had a real drummer; you cannot cheat playing the drums. And then the two guitar players and the piano players are [staged]. I was stuck. I had to have actors that could act but if this band does not work as a band I don’t have a movie. I had to have two things work hand in glove.
Of all of them, the best musician, an accomplished musician you should get his CD is Jared Tyler who plays the bald headed kid Raymond. He isn’t an actor but I knew I wanted him in the movie and it adds a wonderful dimension to it. Every night in the motel they would all play music with Jared that just created this atmosphere where they were all just picking stuff up all the time. So that’s why Jared’s there.
How much rehearsal time did you have?
Very little, we had them for about a week. I started them off in L.A. a little bit but Lucas was in Alabama so I didn’t have him, but Lucas is such a natural performer. Like for example the big auditorium scene at the end I had Jeff Balko whose hands we used play the song and then Lucas just stood there and watched him. I had everybody standing by and called action and he was able because there are times I pan down to his hands from his face to match. He just did it.
The addition of one person to the mix made everyone else sound good.
Meaning Vernon, yes. I use the analogy of playing tennis and when you play with somebody better your game improves. He upped the bar and they were all just inspired because before Vernon they’re resisting Wesley they just think he’s blowing more smoke.
You bookend the film with Taj Mahal playing on the National Steel Guitar on an empty stage. Where did that idea come from?
I just think Taj Mahal and the character of JR is the spirit of the movie. And I really felt that blues is an uniquely African-American art form and it’s from that character that Wesley learned so I felt he was the inspiration and the spirit of the film.
You had originally titled the film Bottleneck?
It was originally titled Killer Diller which is the name of the novel but the working title during production was Bottleneck. We’re an independent film, Tom Cruise is not in my movie, Paramount is not distributing it and we are not on 3,500 screens.
Everyone said you are out of your mind to have an independent film with a title like Killer Diller and it’s not a horror film. I listened and listened and I finally said okay. Bottleneck everyone felt more reflected bottleneck blues, more reflected the music, and so that’s what we went with. Then we finished the film and after the experience of seeing the film, if I can just get people in there to see it, the [original] title makes perfect sense. It just felt more true.
With your experience on this film would you want to do another independent film?
I used to say next time I’m doing it for less than three million dollars. I don’t want to do twenty million or fifteen million. That’s not what I aspire to do. I mean five million; I would not know what to do. That would be for me my Titanic. I am of the philosophy of less is more. I really think when you’re creatively smacked up against a wall I love to see the creative solutions that come out of that. When you don’t have the cranes, and you don’t have CGI, all the bells and whistles I think that’s more authentic. I’m never going to be that kind of high concept film maker, I’m much more into character stories. There’s no reason you can’t do them for less money,
How did you finance the film?
After I had a script that I was somewhat happy with I applied to the AFI’s directing workshop for women which is a very prestigious program. This program is three weeks but 75 or 80% of female directors working in Hollywood have been through this program. It’s like a stamp of approval. It took me over five years; I applied three times, and the third time I got in. The year I got in there were 400 applications, they chose 40 for the final interview process, and out of the 40 the picked eight. So that gives you an idea of how hard it is. Since then they’ve kind of teased me about you’re one of those who was going to do it anyway, but I wasn’t. I didn’t have the $50,000 to put on a credit card to go off and make a short film. I didn’t have those resources and I knew this would be my ticket. I got into AFI 2001, and finished in 2002. I’m like their postal child now, they have me back all the time to speak and teach classes.
So I made a short film, that I’m not sure ever worked as a short film. It was called “The Car Kid” and was about when Wesley and Vernon met. And I took a piece of my feature script, which I already had, because I wanted a calling card for the feature. One advantage of being around Hollywood for as long as I have is you have met a few people. So I was able through various contacts to get James Franco played Wesley, Brad Renfro played Vernon, and Meatloaf played the father. I had three amazing actors; it was a five day shoot. I think you can see that film online. People saw what I could do; the music in it was amazing.
Then I had something other than a script. I went out and got a producer, Jason Clark, and we went about trying to finance it. We were budgeted at four million dollars. We got a fianancier in Seattle and then a fiancier in Texas the Seattle fell out two months before we were supposed to shoot and rather than just go to bed for the next ten years I cut the budget in half. I had already made all my deals with my actors. I had to go to Kodak and all the equipment houses and made a four million budget into two, and that’s with all the music, so I could still make the film. By that time we had been given the tax credit by Missouri so that helped; the Missouri Film Commission was instrumental in getting the film made.
It was rough. I sat with the line producer and just started cutting everything. I just told everybody it’s this or it’s never going to happen. You could spend another year, or two years, or ten years looking for two million dollars or just take what you’ve got and go. It was a great shoot, we had a blast.
How did you find the inspiration to stick with this? It sounds like you were beset with doubts?
Not once I started shooting but until then. It’s very lonely having an idea that’s only your idea. It is the artist’s way to have you vision and hold on to it. I always knew it could be what it is, something special. It was a real journey when I started to write it then I thought I would write and produce it and then finally I was going to direct it. It really came in stages and I did other things during those years to make a living.
It’s because of this film I now direct in television and I work a lot for Showtime with The L Word and Huff and will do a Deadwood [episode] next year. I will be the first woman [to direct Deadwood]. It’s taken two years; you’re rolling a boulder up a hill the whole time. It’s a hard business anyway and even harder for women. Someone told me an appalling statistic, what’s the biggest boys club The United State Senate, but there are more women working in the Senate proportionately than women in Hollywood. I did an episode of Grey’s Anatomy a few weeks ago. There is no comparison; it cured me of network television. HBO is impossible to break into, there are very few women, but if I do one that does well… You have to be so determined and tenacious. There’s a great quote I used to read almost daily something about the world is full of unrewarded genius but perseverance is what will take the day.
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