William H. Macy’s directorial debut “Rudderless” is now available on home video. In this interview, Macy discusses the challenges of making his first feature film, his approach working with actors on set, and the lessons he took from the experience going forward:
First of all, greetings from Nashville . . .
I can hear that. (laughter)
I read that you and Eef Barzelay recorded the score for “Rudderless” here.
Yep, we did, at . . . Gosh, I wish I could remember the name of the studio, some guy’s house. Yeah, Eef did a stunning job didn’t he? And he did it in five days. I’ve never . . . oh, that was an intense week. But the guy is a master and I love the score he did.
In fact, one of the scenes I was so worried about, I just couldn’t make it work. It’s that little montage when Billy Crudup comes back and the press sees him and follows him up the steps when he returns from the liquor store. That scene, that little montage, I thought “Why isn’t this working?” until I put Eef’s score to it, and it became one of my favorite scenes in the film.
I noticed in the special features on the DVD, you were playing some guitar. Do you have an extensive background in music?
It’s extensive if you just look at the number of years. My brother taught me to play a guitar in high school, and I sang a wildly inappropriate song in a talent show, and that launched me into showbiz. As my fellow students laughed and howled, I thought “I like this.” So, I played music my whole life. Our house is covered in guitars and ukuleles, which is my instrument of choice, and we’ve got a nice little piano that my wife gave me for my 50th birthday and I can bang out a few chords on that.
This seems like a really ambitious first feature, in terms of the balancing act; there’s drama, there’s comedy, there’s musical performances, there’s satirical jabs at the media . . . did you find the project a bit daunting at times?
I was blessedly ignorant going into it. I talked to a guy . . . you know, there are 50 f—ing sailboats [in the film], and we shot on a boat. I was talking to somebody who had shot on a boat, and he said “Oh man, shooting on a boat is tough. If you can get away from it, don’t do it. I mean, the only thing worse than that is music.” (laughter) I didn’t know it would be such a big film, and by the time I realized what I didn’t know, it was too late. That ship hadn’t sailed . . .
So to speak.
It was a balancing act. I knew that politically I was going to take a chance, in terms of storytelling, to put that stunning reveal halfway through the film is rough on an audience. There’s very little wiggle room for success. So, I didn’t go into it foolishly.
(WARNING: This next question contains major spoilers for “Rudderless.”)
That was a fascinating reveal. The opening was presented ambiguously enough that I was a little curious as to if he might have been the shooter, but after a while I forgot about that, and it was a real gutpunch.
I’ve heard that a couple of times. I felt compelled to tell the truth about all of those scenes, to present them truthfully without giving away the reveal. I think a lot of the audience saw the hounding of this poor victim and it tipped some of them off. But I’ve also heard a lot of people say, as you just said, that they sort of dropped that, they forgot it as the story went off into other areas.
I’ve seen the press hound victims just as much, so I didn’t really think that was unusual.
The songs feel so organic to the story. It feels like the script was written around the songs. Reading further about the film, did you just have “sad song” or “a—hole song” written in the script?
Yes, exactly. The script was pretty much locked down before the songs were written, and we put placeholders and we put suggestions [into the script]. I knew all along that I didn’t want songs that were about the story, so Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman turned out to be the two guys who wrote almost all the songs. My only instructions to them was “Write about anything you want, just make sure it’s got humor and a sense of irony, make them complicated and make them catchy.” I wanted the audience to hum the hook after one hearing, and those guys came through with flying colors. Charlton engineered the whole thing for us.
I watched the deleted scenes, and there is a scene where Sam is teaching a boy to play guitar. I was curious: Was that the original final scene?
It was, yes. I didn’t get to do that many screenings, and that was of course a micro-budget as many indies are . . .
I thought the choice [to use the revised ending] was brilliant. I love the final shot . . .
I kept hearing it. I had this notion that we were picking up the ball and starting again, but after Billy sang that song I thought “we’re done, we’ve said everything we have to say.” I think the notion that Casey and Jeff and I went through was that we wanted the film to be about redemption, just to make sure that we put one more song, one more scene in where he bought the shop from Dell. It just didn’t belong, the story was over. It took some courage. That was one of my favorite scenes too. Scenically, I was pretty crazy about the way that looked. It was sad, but I realized “nope, movie’s over.”
Billy Crudup’s performance is, I think, really incredible . . .
It’s such a difficult thing he has to do because it’s so internalized. So much of [his performance] is just reading his face. Was there a lot of rehearsal and back-and-forth with the actors about striking the right tone?
No, not much. We shot it in 25 days. They came with it, I took pictures of it. (laughter) Once in a while, when I had a different notion about it, we would talk, but there was very little rehearsal, there just wasn’t time for it. We recorded the score for playback two weeks before we started shooting, and in that time we talked about the scenes. Anton (Yelchin) sent me voluminous emails talking about it, so I got to sort of plant my flag as to what it’s about. I have a tendency to talk about action and objectives as opposed to emotion, so I would lead each scene by giving my version of the blocking and what I thought the scene was about and what the big moments were, and then the actors would chip in what they felt and we would arrive at it pretty quickly.
I think I took a page out of the Shameless playbook, the Showtime series that I’m doing. We spend a lot of time on Shameless rehearsing before we start shooting, which is unusual in a film. There are some directors and actors who have the notion, “Man, start the camera immediately, we don’t want to miss anything. Start rolling early.” I’ve always found that that’s actually a waste of time. We did run the scenes perhaps more than a normal indie film of that size would have done. I know we rehearsed the scenes enough to make Keith Kjarval, our producer, very very nervous, but at the end of the day you save time with a little bit more rehearsal, and that’s when I got to put my stamp on things. But I’d say we were all on the same page. What a cast I had! They are thoroughbreds; I just had to point the camera.
I know you mentioned “Crystal” as your (hopefully) next film on the horizon. What lessons can you take from making “Rudderless” that you can then apply to your next film?
Oh, excellent question. Just in terms of the way I comport myself on set, I think I can refine that. I think I’ll be able to expend less energy to get the same amount of work done. I think I learned a little bit about story structure and setup, what an audience needs. I surprised myself. I shot a bunch of scenes that didn’t make it into the film because I thought the audience needed this backstory, and audiences don’t need much. They’re so smart, they get it. So, those are the two lessons that I’ll take.