- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Home Theater Forum recently had the pleasure to talk with William H. Macy about his directorial debut, Rudderless, arriving on DVD Tuesday, January 20.
Rudderless tells a powerful, intimate story of loss, grief, and redemption as a father (Sam, played by Billy Crudup) loses his son to a school shooting. In the aftermath of the shooting, Sam descends into his grief, resorts to drinking, and sees his life fall apart. When he discovers recordings of songs made by his son, he finds an important connection to the son he lost. He picks up his guitar, learns one of his son’s songs, and eventually plays it during an open mic event at a local bar, where a young boy in the audience, Quentin, is captured by the song and with whom he eventually forms an unusual band.
Rudderless is a surprising, bold, and impressive directorial debut, featuring an astonishingly good soundtrack and a pulse of acoustic defiance. William H. Macy, who co-wrote the film with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, assembled a terrific cast, which includes Anton Yelchin as Quentin, Felicity Huffman (Macy’s wife,) Laurence Fishburne, and Selena Gomez in a small but important role.
HTF: Congratulations on Rudderless. I must say, after watching the film, I was surprised to find myself with tears in my eyes.
William H. Macy: Oh, I'm so pleased.
HTF: I know that you worked with two other writers on the film (Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison), so where did the ultimate kernel of the story come from, and how did you get onboard to direct?
William H. Macy: Getting one of these independent films off the ground is phenomenally hard. It takes a confluence of lucky incidences to get one off the ground, and there are other films that I've wanted to make for a long time but have not been able to do it. I really liked the writing that Jeff and Casey sent me originally, they wrote it and my contribution was to help with the story. I did a pass to buff up some of the humor which I think I'm pretty good at, and also the pass I did was for mechanics; to make sure I could shoot the thing in the time and the money that I had. But in the process of talking about this story, [the major revelation] was added later and it scared the shit out of all three of us, because it was such a field of quicksand. If we didn't do it right, it could be offensive, because there are a lotta people out there that have gone through this, man. They number in the thousands, and it's a dicey subject. And we knew we had to do it properly, and all three of us agreed that if it frightens us this much, this is the way we have to go. And the second that decision was made, the script quickly fell into a lot sharper focus, and I turned it over to [Producer] Keith Kjarval. I was doing another film that he was producing, and I gave it to him and without batting an eye, he said, “I can get this made.” And he did.
HTF: There is a tough balance between the story that you think you're watching in Rudderless for a good portion of the film, and then, when the major revelation happens, it’s quite a shock and surprise, and I think what that does for an audience, at least what that did for me, was to have them think back over earlier events and ask how it might have been interpreted differently knowing then what I know now. So I think it was a clever and quite brave choice. Anytime you challenge an audience to think about how they're digesting or receiving something, you've done well in your art, don’t you think?
William H. Macy: Yes, and anytime you challenge an audience to think about someone that they haven't thought about before! And the revelation really speaks to me as a father. I mean, I don't know why, but our sympathies for mothers are much easier for us to access, but for fathers, I think there's this nagging suspicion that they must have done something wrong. But the question that we kept asking ourselves was what must it be like to get that phone call, and we realized that here you've had your son, this beautiful boy, whom you adore, and in a matter of seconds, you've lost your son. He's dead.
You cannot mourn him, at least not publicly, and finally, you're a pariah. You have to move, you have to change your name. You live in shame for the rest of your life.
I've been raked over the coals by some of the critics – about half of them, and particularly the big papers. I didn't read them 'cause they hurt my feelings, but, they seem to have fallen into “great” or “awful.” Not much middle ground here. But I'm proud of the fact that all those [aggregation] sites which measure audience reaction to a film, separate from critical reaction, have been consistently high numbers. When you add in the critics, it goes down. I don't know, but I take a perverse pride in that (chuckles.)
HTF: You cast Billy Crudup in the crucial role of Sam, and he’s a terrific actor. How did you did you find your Sam?
William H. Macy: Casting for one of these little indies, especially on a micro-budget like we had is really tough. It takes such a leap of faith for the actors to do it. I mean, dollars to donuts, they're never gonna make a dime outa this, and it's a lot of work under very trying circumstances. So, hats off to the actors who do these little indies. I mean, sometimes it works out gloriously, and you find yourself at the Academy Awards. I know what I'm talking about, but it was one of the luckiest days of my life. We had been trying to cast the film much older. I guess, like most directors I thought Sam was me. Then someone asked why we were sticking with guys, altacockers of your age? And then Billy's name was first out of everybody's mouth. And God bless that guy, I wrote a note and sent him the script, and he called me up and he said, I got your script. I'll read it tomorrow. And I'll be goddamned, he did. And he called me up and he said, I love this script, lemme think about it – I'll call you tonight. And he did. And for that, I will be in his debt for the rest of my days. Some actors I sent the script to, actors whom I've acted with, whom I consider friends, never read it. I’d keep saying, did you read it? And they never responded. I don't know what's up with that. I wish they'd just said, I don't wanna do an indie, which I completely understand, but it was a lucky day when Billy said yes. And Anton [Yelchin]. Felicity [Huffman] had to say yes. I just dragged her into this (laughs.)
HTF: Rudderless was your directorial debut, what was the thing that surprised you most? And what was the thing that challenged you most?
William H. Macy: Well, the amount of work. Don't say that I said this, but acting is a nice, cushy job (laughs.) Every once in a while you work your butt off, but mostly, it's a nice, cushy job. And, it's our job to relax and be ready, you know, 'cause it's tough. But it only lasts for a coupla minutes, when you do your scenes. I was stunned by the, phenomenal concentration that directing required for 14 hours a day. I've never been so tired in my life, but I fell in love with the business all over again. I got this bird's eye view, the director's eye view of what it takes to build, to make a film. All of these disparate people working so hard together, all pulling in the same direction, for very little money, and it just moved me. And I'm crazy about show biz again. It charged my batteries, and it couldn't have come at a better time. But mostly it's the amount of work, the amount of concentration. For an actor, it was, it was doing three marathons back to back.
HTF: Actors are perpetual students, so your years in front of the camera, was that sufficient ‘student’ time for you to feel confident to step behind the camera?
William H. Macy: Excellent, excellent question. I know it helped me. I mean, and this maybe an unlikely response, but one of the things I had going into this as a first-time director was that I did not have to prove myself. I've been an actor for so long, I had people's trust and respect, so I didn't have that couple of weeks of proving myself. So we were right out of the gate. Other than that, I know from spending my life in the theatre and in films, a good bit about telling a story, and I've seen and worked with the best directors and writers, so I know it must have seeped in somewhere, but the skills, directing and acting, are so different, that I was a babe in the woods. And when I look at Rudderless, I see a first-time director. I see silly mistakes, and I know I'll get better at it, but the learning curve is steep, and I've got a lot to learn. But boy do I love it. It's all I wanna do now. I really love it, and feel an affinity for it. I think, I could do it really well, and I'm dying to try it again.
HTF: Well, well we look forward to whatever you got coming out next, so, my, my sincere appreciation for talking with Home Theater Forum today, and all the best.
William H. Macy: Well thank you Neil, and I'm so pleased I made you cry (laughs.)