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INT: D.J. Caruso

04.13.2007by: JimmyO

D.J. Caruso has had an interesting career. He makes movies that are around twenty million and he makes them well. His films have drawn much critical praise, with THE SALTON SEA, to critical and box office disappointment, with TWO FOR THE MONEY. And he has also made a mark with television including the FX hit series "The Shield". He has also worked with a number of impressive actors including Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, and now the criminally underrated David Morse. Morse plays Shia LaBeouf’s next door neighbor who may just be a killer in the popcorn thriller DISTURBIA. A film that could have failed miserably in another’s hands but works well with Caruso’s flair and ability to make a movie work that mostly plays in one location. This is a surprisingly effective teen chiller that also works with a strong show from its talented cast.

When I got the chance to go one-on-one with D.J. when he stopped by The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills , I really enjoyed the experience. He is very friendly and is able to look back at his career in a surprisingly unbiased manner. He is a very real person and is someone that seems to really respect his work but is able to dissect it in a positive way to learn from past mistakes. We talked a lot about DISTURBIA which opens Friday. And we also spoke of his respect for Shia and a surprising story of working with Al Pacino. After speaking with D.J., I really am impressed by him not only as a filmmaker but as a human being who is open and honest. So read on about the new film, voyeurism and the ideal box office weekend. The dude is a class act.

D.J. Caruso

So, let’s talk about “Disturbia”. I actually liked the film a lot.

Well, thank you.

What was it like working with a younger cast then what you are used to?

It was fun working with a younger cast because I think there is a lot more of really looking to the director as the leader, and for guidance. And not having some of the experience that the other actors had, not that we didn’t have great relationships, but I felt more responsibility in guiding and having a hand on how you can shape the performance. It was fun. And also, making the movie for a younger audience with a younger cast, I really relied on them to help me with the teen speak. And to keep things real and not kind of let it get over in that bullshit, sort of like, fabricating teen emotion and trying to capture the real teen stuff. So it was very helpful. I got a lot from them, and hopefully they got a lot from me.

They were saying how collaborative you are as a director. Does that sometimes create a problem?

It does. It can create a problem if you have an actor that’s not as skilled as some of the others that are working because… you might have an actor as gifted as Shia or Vincent D’Onofrio or Val Kilmer, Angelina [Jolie], or even [Al] Pacino. Where you give them a little freedom and they can explore it, come up with some gold. Other actors who don’t quite have that depth or have not learned that technique; if you give them some of that freedom, they get lost. So you have to find that fine line between who you give that freedom too, and how you give that freedom to an actor is also something that can be very personal, and not maybe something in front of the others that you don’t feel are ready to take that next step. Unless, sometimes to… you’ll be surprised at how organic things can become, just by changing the one actor or the one actors performance. That you trust the most, you know.

Shia was comfortable with this?

Yeah, he was very comfortable. Because he just wants it to be real. He’s one of those actors that, it’s gotta be real, it’s gotta feel real, and he has his own bullshit meter if its feeling forced or fabricated. You can see him just wrestling with it, trying to make it work, and trying to make it be real. And, you know, most of the time a great actor like Shia or even like when I had Pacino; it’s the expositional stuff that’s in the story to sort of explain things that never feels real to an actor. You know what I mean, how do you make that exposition real or how do you write it, and that’s what Carl and Christopher did pretty well, in this movie, was not have the expositional stuff get in the way of what real human emotion is.

How would you have gone about advertising the film as opposed to how it is being sold? Are you worried about how it’s being shown?

I’m a little bit worried but I think in a way too it also might still be working out. Because I think there’s a certain way the studio knows how to get people interested in the movie. And then what I find in all these… cuz I’m not going to all the sneak previews they are doing, but I get all the comments back and people are pleasantly surprised. ‘It’s much funnier than I thought, and then I was really scared’ or ‘It’s much sweeter… Shia’s so sexy… and then I get scared.’ So I think its surprising people.

But I just somehow wish, in a way, the campaign – cuz I think, if there’s anything special about this movie, because it is a popcorn great genre movie – is that we kind of blended these two genres and we actually… it’s a lot more of a character piece, then most movies are in this genre. I would love for that to somehow come across in the advertising. But I think, you know, in Paramount’s defense, it gets kind of confusing in a thirty second commercial to have that, boy sees girl, boy falls in love with girl and all of a sudden, scare the shit out of you. I think scaring the shit out of you is always easier to sell for a studio.

When I saw the film, the woman next to me was literally jumping out of her seat…

Was she really?

Yes she did, especially with the car accident… How hard was that sequence to shoot?

That was pretty hard to shoot but we wanted to make it so realistic that I think, in making it realistic it sort of simplifies what you can do in the shooting of it. But it was about two or three days and Conrad Palmisano did the second unit… he’s a really great second unit director. But we were a forty-three day movie made for under twenty, which sounds like a lot for independent, but in a studio movie, that twenty million dollars goes pretty fast.

We were very efficient, we were very committed, there was a bigger scope of that accident that went on that I decided to scale down and to actually spend those days just to make it as realistic as we can. As far as the logistics go, it was probably the most difficult, logistically, to put together. But that stuff is kind of fun to shoot, you know. For me it was fun to shoot, also we’re outside and the whole movie is inside. [Laughing] That was the last scene that we shot so it actually made it nice to go outside and get some air.

That’s cool. Now do you consider yourself an actor’s director or a visual director because you’re pretty damn good at the technical side and you’re also very good at the “character” side?

Well, I tend to think when I go back and look at movies… you look at “JAWS” and you realize that “JAWS” is a monster movie in the water but what makes “JAWS” JAWS is, how great the characters are. And that’s sort of what I aspire to do... no matter what genre Steven [Spielberg] or some of these great directors are working in, it’s the characters within the genre that actually make it a satisfying movie.

So I’m very, very character oriented, like the main character, the lead character is everybody and they really help me design the whole purpose and how I shoot a movie. And the way the movie looks is all designed from the main characters point of view. And then that help’s me, I think, fit the genre because it’s a character based piece within the genre. I’m not sure if I could do a full out comedy but as long as I have a lead character that I can grab on to and get a hold of, then I feel like that’s my main anchor and that can take me through any genre.

With the characters, I liked these guys and I was willing to go for the ride. I also really liked David Morse. How did that come about? How did he get involved?

One thing I thought about David, he’s always so strong in sort of the ambiguity. He’s a sweet, nice, soft-spoken man but he’s also six foot six inches tall and he has this incredible power. And I just think that David uses that to such an advantage because you can cast David as the wonderful doctor next door who takes care of everybody and heals little puppies. And at the same time he could be the same guy who could break a puppy in half. There’s that interesting thing where you just don’t know how to read him and he is like that as a person.

He’s a sweet guy, completely sweet guy but there’s something he does that keeps you off-balance and I think he enjoys the power of keeping you off-balance. And the way that his thought process works, the way that he approaches the character, the things that he thought about the character and what Kale was doing to screw his character, Turner’s life up. And how that’s what was really starting to drive him, it got less about these girls and taking over these girls it became more about, I wanna get this little shit out of my life. And so David’s process was very, very interesting to me. I honestly think you can cast him in anything but this was such a perfect role for him, for me seeing him do this role because you just never know which way he’s leaning. And that’s kind of the gift of David as an actor.

Is it hard to direct someone who is as “method” an actor as that?

No. I’ll tell you why it’s not. Because he gives you what you want and then he’ll say to you, ‘got it?’ and then he’ll say, ‘do you mind if I explore this one where I’m going to be really shy, really… I have no social skills to talk to a girl alone in a car.’ So he would do one like that, and it might not all work, but there’s a moment of that take where you pull that take out. Because he’s not interested in doing the same thing over and over again, which I think is very nice. So it was really a joy to direct him.

Each actor, in every movie I’ve ever done, there’s no one universal directing technique I have. You have to sort of adapt to the actor as if they’re your own children, how do you discipline them, how do you guide them. How do you get them to do something that they really don’t want to do but you need them to do. I don’t wanna say manipulate, but there are different ways, each actor requires a different [way]. But David, I always got what I needed with David and I would always give him something to do more.

Speaking of actors, Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino, David Morse… who was the most fascinating to work with?

Hmmmmm.

It’s a hard one, I know.

No, it’s a hard one because they all have their different processes. But I think it was interesting to work with Al because what you really tend to get is… you know, you would think that Al Pacino would not need to have a director. But what he really wanted to be was directed… badly. Like he just really was reaching out in being directed and also really, really tough on himself about how not good he is and…

Really?

Yes, so it was very interesting to me, it was very eye-opening and he’s genuine. He just wants to be good and so it was interesting to me that I was really directing Al and really guiding him and really supporting him on his journey. Whereas you’ve got a guy like David who is there and I loved talking to David, but I probably didn’t have to talk to David at all. As opposed to… you know, because he was just there, he was dialed in, he was confidant in what he was doing. So every personality is different, and Angelina, the thing that I always was amazed with her was the commitment to being good. Like the commitment it would take.

I remember one time; we had two days of complete weathered out at this bridge in Quebec City. It was just the worst weather you could possibly have. And it was pouring, pouring, pouring, pouring, and what happened was, they said, there is gonna be a weather break in ten minutes. And base camp was like an hour away. And Angie just said, you know what I’ll do… I was up all night because I had to do a promo for something… she slept in the car right next to my director’s chair, so that the second the rain stopped, we could wake her up and put her in the car.

And that’s like, to me, that’s a movie star, but a committed movie star. You know what I mean? So each one, and with Shia, I can just see the future is just wide open for him because he’s just so gifted and he loves acting, he loves being on the set so much that the crew loves him. He became like the son of the crew. I swear to God this crew would die, they would kill for that kid, they loved him so much. So every actor is different, but I learned a lot from them all and was just most surprised at how Pacino, being an actor from the Seventies with a director and the actors working with was really, really respectful and just wanted to be directed.

I think it’s healthy.

Well, it is… but I was surprised.

How did you react to the lack of success of “Two for the Money”?

Well, you know, it hurts. It really hurts because I was really, really into that movie, particularly from Matthew’s [McConaughey] point of view, with the whole gambling aspect, you know. It’s interesting, in a way there is such a media backlash on how that I didn’t really ever experience until after the movie came out. And you realize, people don’t want to give Al a chance anymore if he’s doing the mentor sort of role. But then… it hurts, it definitely hurts because it was not well received and it didn’t do well. Again, I only make movies for twenty million dollars so it didn’t lose money. And I also got some wonderful notes, and even Spielberg sent me a note that said, ‘this by far, and I’ve directed him, was Mathew McConaughey’s best performance that he has ever given in a film. You should be very proud.” So I got a lot of that but it hurts. You want to make movies that people go see and people enjoy and it felt like, I guess I missed, you know.

Was there ever a point where you said, “I know this is a good film…”?

I do and I think what happened was, I think as I look back, I think the movie is too long. I think there is like a fifteen minute segment towards the end of act two that I think the movie would still be the same movie, now that I’m backed away from it. It would have kind of moved the movie forward a little bit more and ultimately, that is a downer ending. I mean, in a way, where a guy has to walk away from something. But I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the performances, but you know, I guess you really can’t control that aspect of it, you know. And it’s interesting because, that was a twenty million dollar movie that made like twenty-four, twenty-five million dollars. It did okay overseas and the video was good. So it didn’t lose money. But here, we have another thing… a twenty million dollar movie now, but I feel more pressure on this movie because people like it. And also because some of the expectations are high and… like on “Two for the Money” I barely saw a commercial on TV.

I know… you’re right.

Now I’m seeing commercials for “Disturbia” all the time. So all of a sudden I’m feeling more pressure then I would on that one. So we’ll see. They’re all different; they’re all like your babies.

Well are you the kind the kind of guy that says, “I need to see the paper. I need to see the box office.”?

No. I’m the kind that gets out of town. Because it gets too much, I don’t know why, it’s probably like passive aggressive fear. Where you just go, I really just hope I can come to work on Monday and open the paper and see, “Okay, we did really well.” But unfortunately with these phones [cellular] and all that other shit, you know.

Yeah.

[Laughing] With the technology it’s hard. But I would, you know, in a perfect world, I’d go to Las Vegas, I’d stay away from the world. I’d gamble. I’d win. I’d come back on Monday morning and I’d open up the Los Angeles Times and go, “hey, we did really well.” That would be the perfect directorial opening weekend for me. I’m not sure if that ones gonna happen, but that would be perfect.

It seems like a very audience friendly movie.

It does. It’s definitely a film that I think, I consciously knowing that it has the best chance to be like… this is like a popcorn movie. A good popcorn movie and I think commercially this is probably the most… I’ve been out on a line saying okay, I made a commercial movie. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah.

So that’s how I feel about this. So hopefully it will make its money back and then some.

Earlier we were talking about you and Shia’s character. How much of a “voyeur” were you when you were like, fifteen or sixteen?

I was a big voyeur. I think I told ya I had a girl who moved in next door and watched her and was always… you know, there’s something about that “thing” or that girl that you always… it’s like a fantasy that you want to reach out and get it. But that you don’t, you keep that perpetual… you keep that going because, it’s hope. I think being a voyeur actually instills hope in you. That there is more out there, there is something out there. I remember when I was young, on a clear day when I grew up in Connecticut; you could see just the tip of the Manhattan skyline. And of course it would be The World Trade Center. And I would be like, “Someday I’m getting out of this town.” You know what I mean?

Yeah.

It sort of represented like Oz or some other place I can go. And I think me as a voyeur growing up, it was always about like, fantasizing about certain things or like places that I couldn’t really go or girls that I really couldn’t get. But there is something about, like, placing her on that pedestal and that experience. And I still am a voyeur now as a director, that’s what I do.

The world is open to it now. You have YouTube or you’ve got reality television shows that are taking off.

And people are saying, “Watch me!” You know what I mean? It’s not so much… it’s watch my private moment, watch this. Yeah, it’s, “I want you to experience this with me.” It’s a whole different culture and like you said, you can go to an office cubicle with a hundred people who are supposedly selling insurance and God knows on twenty-five or thirty of those computers what the f*ck people are doing. I’d be one of those twenty-five or thirty by the way. [Laughing]

Let me know what you think. Send questions and comments to jimmyo@joblo.com.

Source: JoBlo.comAITH

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