Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The "Roadie" Who Came Back Home

roadiecuestas.jpg Michael (L) and Gerald Cuesta
I'm glad Michael Cuesta's impressive indie "Roadie," is being released in early January so it doesn't compete with all the blockbusters that opened in December to get Academy Award consideration. However, it's also a shame that it doesn't go head-to-head with the studio films because star Ron Eldard, who--in a role of a lifetime--plays the failed musician and Blue Oyster Cult's recently-fired roadie, Jimmy Testagross, and supporting actress Lois Smith, who is as fabulous as his Alzheimer-stricken mother, are as worthy of Oscar nominations as anyone out there. In fact, if there as an Oscar given for an ensemble, this little picture, which also boasts terrific performances by TV star Jill Hennessy, as Nikki, the guitar-playing girl Jimmy loved but left 20 years before to pursue his dream, and Bobby Cannavale, as the slick Randy, her successful husband and his rival, would deserve to win. I saw the picture at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival but wasnt able to interview Michael Cuesta ("L.I.E." the pilot and final episode of "Homeland"), his brother Gerald, who cowrote the screenplay, and Eldard and Hennessy, until a few weeks ago. I hope to someday post one-on-ones I did with the two stars in the future--though this, regrettably, will be my final posting on if it shuts down--but below are two unedited roundtables in which I took part. I note my questions.
Michael and Gerald Cuesta Roundtable
Q: Why was the Blue Oyster Cult the band you chose as the one your roadie worked for?
Michael Cuesta: We grew up with them. We were among the few people who thought they were the best band at that time. We'd listen to them and go to their shows. They were only marginally famous for a time.
Gerald Cuesta: They were kind eclectic. Everybody knows them for "(Dont Fear) The Reaper" and "Burnin' for You," but their first four albums were kind of eclectic--odd, dark records that were really attractive to 13-year-old boys. They felt dangerous and cool, and they didn't fit into any category. Sometimes the music felt heavy, sometimes it felt country, sometimes it was pop with psychedelic influences, it was all over the place and we were attracted to that.
MC: Gerald wrote the first draft of what we ultimately created, and it was different from the film, on-page and on-screen. He wrote of a fictional band. Once we decided to move ahead with this film, we rewrote the script and gave it what is pretty much a 24-hour timeline and made the film very personal. Once it became personal, we figured a made-up band is wrong, we had to have the band we felt passionate about. I love other bands too--I was a Clashhead--and listened to all types of music, but BOC was first for me and "Secret Treaties," their third album was my first record.
Danny Peary: Did you have a romantic vision of what a roadie is at that time and is it different today?
GC: At a time, I had a romantic vision of it as being something I wanted to do. I'm sort of a drummer but never thought I was good enough to actually be on stage, just as Jimmy wasn't good enough as a guitarist and writer. So there was a time in my life when I thought that would be a great job to have. When Michael and I rewrote the script and he said to take the character and make it more personal, it got to that idea that you become too old to rock 'n' roll.
MC: The reason for making the movie for me was less about doing an ode to roadies than having Jimmy being representative of an Everyman. Many people have experienced what he's going through in the film, his sense of living his life in a certain way, always having his dream but never being able to obtain it and ultimately coming to terms with that. That's something that usually happens at our age! That's what appealed to me. It was very much in line with what is going on in Gerald's life and my life, and everyone's life. The roadie represents that, but he could just as easily be a grip in a film crew who has always wanted to direct. Or a journalist.
GC: It's also about holding on to something that has passed its due date and it's holding you back and you can't move on till you face that. I think that's a big part of it.
DP: After 20 years as a roadie, and being fired, it's also too late for Jimmy to realize his dream of becoming a star musician. Although he might not admit it to anyone.
MC: There is a sense of melancholy to it and I knew that, but part of me always thought that when he admits to his situation that maybe he can do anything. Anything is still possible. That was my idea. I don't think the film wraps up things at the end. I think there's a future for him.
Q: Talk about choosing a Forest Hills, Queens location.
GC: The original script was a broader comedy, actually, than how the film ended up. I was living in Forest Hills between Ascan and Metropolitan Avenues. I was there for about seven years and it felt like the perfect place for Jimmy to come home.
MC: We both grew up on Long Island, and I made earlier films that are Long Island-based or suburban based. Jimmy's experience of coming back to a neighborhood he grew up in, where you run into people you knew than, is familiar to me. I live in Huntington Bay on Long Island but we grew up in Dix Hills,
which is not far away and I run into people all the time and half the time I'm running from the Randy type. And there's the Nikki type, too, the girl that got away. I'm married twenty years now and that's all good, but that milieu where you run into high school buddies and girlfriends works for this story. Also there's the idea of being stuck. Nikki says, I'm Queens, but Jimmy tells her, "No, youre more than that. What about all our dreams? I know you can do better." A lot of people on Long Island or in Queens who never left feel a little bit stuck. That may sound like a cynical view, but it's the truth. I'm in Huntington Bay. I'm by the water and it is different now but every once in a while I feel stuck and think that it's the same fucking road, maybe I should move.
Q: Do you think the movie has a happy ending?
MC: It's not a "happy" ending. I think it's sad in a way. I can take something Gerald starts with and once it's in my hands it becomes sad. Thats what we did on this film. Jimmy has to go through a healing process that is sad before he can move on. In "L.I.E.," "Twelve and Holding," and even in the other film that I don't like to talk about, there has been that journey. Sometimes it has to be hard, and you have to hit rock bottom or a brick wall before things get better. That's how I like to end movies.
GC: It ends in a way that there's room for a lot more story, there's more places to go. There's a lot of story to deal with, including what happens with his mother.
DP: Why does he come home?
MC: He has been fired by the band and I think his coming home gives us a chance to explore all the things were talking about. It's the place where we can explore all the things he's afraid of. He doesn't want to be home.
DP: It seems like he doesnt want to come home, but there's something that makes him come home.
GC: A big part of it is that he has nowhere else to go. He's even willing to sleep on somebodys couch but anybody he is reaching out to isn't responding. We don't say this explicitly, but someone who has been on the road for 20 years has no connections. He's thinking that maybe by going home he can regroup a little bit and figure things out.
MC: When you're afraid to face something, you don't want to go there but you know there's something there you want to deal with. I think that with Jimmy it's partly his mother. He loves her. There's also the part about his being a liar and being able to go to a place where he thinks he can get away with it. He can walk down Main Street and run into Nikki or Randy and he has his leather jacket and can present himself as a guy who has fulfilled his dreams. In his little town, he can get away with it. Going home he tests the waters--we all do that. We don't know if we want to go, but go anyway. And when you are there, you have a lot of defense mechanisms. You put that suit on like Jimmy, who wears his leather jacket and his glasses and has his cigarette. It's all bullshit.
When we started writing the film it was very objective but we decided we needed to get into Jimmy's head, always, and needed to find a reason that he's noble. He may think he's pathetic, especially in the drunk scene, but it's not how he sees himself, that's the key, but how we see him. If you stay objective and write it from the outside and don't have total respect for Jimmy because he's a liar and you may not like what he's doing, you make it into a comedy. But you have to be empathetic.
Q: How did you avoid that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll path?
GC: We wrote a new script! Because there was originally that in it. There was more sex and violence in an early draft.
MC: We got off that quickly.
GC: We kept pulling back and pulling back, trying to make it more and more real.
MC: I direct a lot of television but if you're going to make a personal film, you make it as honest and personal as you can. Fuck selling it. I'm getting paid $2 to do this so if it's not fun and artful, it's not worth it.
Q: In the earlier version, did you have scenes on the road with the band?
GC: Part of it was set on the road and it was broader. The character was the same and he ended up back home in Forest Hills, but a lot of the circumstances around it were different. Nikki's character was completely different. She was an underage girl who Jimmy thought was of age. He thought she was Randy's daughter but it turned out they were really lovers. There was all this crap that was going on. Michael and I talked and we said that what is true about going back to the old neighborhood is that you bump into the girl that got away. That other script was broader and more lurid.
MC: For no reason. I couldnt find any reason to it and I couldnt relate.
Q: In the film Nikki is older and Jimmy lets her believe he can help her realize her dream of being a singer. How did the idea of making Nikki an aspiring singer evolve?
MC: Nikki is the local girl who plays gigs and is married to Randy who is doing well. She's a do-it-yourself singer-songwriter who has unfilled dreams just like Jimmy has of life being a little bigger. Jimmy gives her some confidence. The two of them are similar with unfulfilled dreams. There is a moment when you think they're going to get together and that they're the couple that should have happened--she went with the wrong guy. There are so many things in the story that could have gone down a trite path, so we fought cliche. I sometimes cut my nose to spite my face and don't do things because they've been done before even if they still work. Sometimes it's okay. But I'll do it only on television, where 95% of it is cliche.
Q: The actors seem very natural with each other. How much freedom did you allow them?
MC: Ron Eldard paid the script a great compliment. Early in the filming I told him, "It's so great to watch you, you're always in character." And he said, "It's so easy because the dialogue"--which Gerald mostly writes--"just flows." So there was very little veering off the script; it just happened. The motel sequence with Jimmy, Nikki and Randy, which is kind of the second act climax, was the one time there was a lot of improvisation. I sat with Ron, Jill, and Bobby in a room, with Jill's guitar. There had been a rough draft of the scene but I changed it a lot. I'd say almost half was improvised. It had to be so it could be messy and have a lot of yelling. You cast it well, and you let the actors go. People have this idea that directing actors is a learned craft. I don't think it is. I didn't go to film school or theater school. I was a graphic artist and photographer and I learned just by doing and knowing when something is working--and hopefully having an instinct for casting. We saw Ron's picture on the Internet and said, "Theres Jimmy."
GC: Also, he came from around the corner to where we shot the film, only one neighborhood over.
MC: Bobby's from east Jersey. And Jill is from Canada but she's been here for so long that she's become a New York girl. And there was Lois Smith. It was the best read-through I've ever done and I've done them on giant TV shows and the films I've done. It was amazing.
DP: Why did you name your lead character Testagross?
GC: Testagross was a guy we grew up with.
MC: A mean mother. He may come after us after he sees this.
GC: It was also a name that was easy to create a nickname from.
MC: It is an easy name to make fun of. No one did because they would have taken our testacles.
DP: Talk about how in your films, you always seem to be age specific.
MC: I wasnt aware of that but it's all pulled from what we know. I know a lot of Jimmys, Nikkis, and Randys who are all in their forties; and Jimmys mother is very much based on our mother. Lines she says came straight out of my mother's mouth.
I made a tape of my mother and gave it to Lois. My mom's Bronx not Queens, but Lois listened to my mothers quickness--Lois is not like that. The films are about the ages where I had the most shit going on, where I was feeling the most. The age I'm at right now is the age Jimmy is. "L.I.E." was semiautobiographical, me growing up on Long Island. Gerald and I wrote the first draft of that one. The first draft I sent Gerald was completely incoherent. But we wanted to do a story about growing up on the Long Island Expressway.
GC: Then we just went back and remembered there was a guy driving around in a van who propositioned me twice to get into the van. The other writer really molded it into something strong.
Q: Has anyone in the Blue Oyster Cult seen this film?
MC: We know that their manager saw it. I went to see BOC a couple of months ago when we heard that Magnolia was releasing the film on VOD and theatrically in New York in January. They performed in a new theater in Huntington, New York. Steve invited me up and when he came into the green room he was so excited that the film was coming out. But he hadn't seen it. I did run into BOC during the making of this film. Ron actually did a loading for the band in Long Island. It was perfect timing, on Halloween night. One of the BOC members didnt really know about the guy. I hope they all see it: It's a love letter that celebrates them.
Ron Eldard and Jill Hennessy RoundtableQ: If you could go on the road with any band, who would it be and why?
Jill Hennessy: I'd go with U2. I've always been obsessed with them. When I first started playing the guitar in subways, Tracy Chapman and U2 was my music. I'd travel the world with U2 and bring Bono his cappuccinos--that would be awesome.
RE: You could always say the Beatles because you know you'd have the greatest trip ever. Being in the band it would have to be the Beatles because there was no trip like that. As a roadie, it might be the Stones of the late sixties and early seventies.
Danny Peary: What about Blue Oyster Cult? Are you curious about the experiences a roadie would have with them?
RE: When we were making the movie they were playing in Long Island. So I asked Michael to call them and asked if I could load in their show with them and it could be filmed. When you see me being their roadie in the movie, that's me working and that's their real roadie. I told him, "I'll come in and be your bitch, I'll work and do whatever you want." We went in there with just two Bullox cameras, the six of us, and that's me loading their show, so I had a little idea of what they do. I got to do everything but touch the serious, serious guitars. That they wouldn't let me do.
DP: How old was their roadie?
RE: He was probably in his early forties. He didn't start when he was a teenager. He said he'd been doing it for about eleven years. A great guy and beautiful guitar player. He was sick as a dog that day but couldn't have been nicer. The whole group couldn't have been nicer. It was awesome.
DP: When was this shoot?
RE: We shot in fall and winter last year, I loaded their show on Halloween.
Q: Did you get to keep any of Jimmy's LPs or magazines from his room?
RE: I didn't keep them. But I must say that was as authentic a room as you could get. Obviously this movie is Michael and Gerald's life and everything was perfect. But they did almost nothing to that house. The woman who lived there had passed and there was almost nothing that needed to be done. The car rotting in the driveway? It was already there! We put some photos of me as a kid around the house but that's about it. JH: Even the candy bowl had the old candy.
Q: Jill, can you talk about your life experience as a singer-songwriter and bringing that to the role?
JH: Oh, bless you. Thank god I got to audition for this because I started out as a street musician. I always loved music and as a kid sang with my sister. When I was eighteen, I would literally take my guitar out to the street to earn money and pay my rent and for acting classes. I got to connect with people and that was one of my favorite jobs of all-time. What has been really cool over the last seven years is that I have really focused in earnest on writing and my albums and touring. It's something I want to do now. So it was the right time for "Roadie" to come along and for Michael Cuesta to make this movie that so obviously came from his heart. Music is a place for us to hide, especially in our adolescent years, and is where I find comfort and inspiration, and that's what I got from this script. There are all these characters with dreams that they had to give up at some time and don't want to confront that. They are living in some form of denial but still holding on to a flicker hope. There's no black or white. I loved that. So to be able to play Nikki was terribly satisfying and cathartic. It was cool to act in something with two of my favorite actors and play one of my own songs from my album. It is a personal song that has to do with something Nikki is going through. Nikki and her husband Randy were never able to have kids and there's a sense of loss there, and that is what the song is about.
Michael was cool and wanted to utilize that. It was a joy. Now that I'm focusing on my music it seems like a lot of acting things are coming into play, which is odd. As soon as you stop searching for acting opportunities they come your way. Music generates other things. I write and sing my own material, it's very personal--I'll sing about my childhood, relationships, and things that scare the crap out of me--and I have had the most thrilling connection I've ever had with an audience. When you're acting you're doing similar things with someone else's words. You're a cog in the wheel as an actor, and you never know what the finished product will be. With the music, it's just me on stage and all the people I'm talking and singing to.
DP: Did you bring your guitar to your audition?
JH: Oh, yes. My agent called and said the part is a singer-songwriter, and I asked if I should bring my guitar. They called and checked. I didn't get an answer but brought it anyway. I remembered Michael had said something about an '80s heavy metal band, so I prepared Guns N' Roses and Poison.
RE: Jill, Michael told me you were coming in. He'd said he'd gotten Lois Smith to play Jimmy's mother and I said, Wow! He's not kidding around. She is one of the greatest living American actors. I think he'd already cast Bobby Cannavale as Randy. And now you were coming in. I knew you sang but I didn't know more than that. You came in with your own guitar. You walked in, you played, and the search for Nikki was over.
JH: It was so much fun. We were just yakking and playing. Michael was even singing.
Q: Talk about Jimmy's personality. He maybe chose this profession to get away from his hometown.
RE: You're a teenager and you get a chance to travel with a band you really love--who wouldnt do that? Being on the road with Blue Oyster Cult is pretty cool for awhile. He was with them when they were a huge band and he has the chance to go everywhere in the world. Then 5 years pass, and 10 years, and now it's 20 years. As the roadie, he'd get to play backup with them sometimes but then he stared drinking too much and I think he got lost out there. I think he's a beautiful guy. He's screwed up but he's a good guy. Originally when they wrote this film it was more of a comedy and the joke was on Jimmy. That wouldnt have interested me very much. I think he has a real personality, not different from lots of people I know.
JH: For men and women who are on the road constantly on the music circuit, it does provide them with a convenient escape from things in life they don't want to confront.
RE: You're gone from home all the time. There are people in lots of jobs who may have a better dressing but have been doing it a long time and have a certain front. That's everywhere.
Q: Ron, you've worked with Bobby Cannavale before.
RE: That's right. I love Bobby, I love his acting and I think this is one of his best performances. Bobby is great at playing a real asshole and a sweet guy with a heart of gold, and here he gets to be both. Randy is an asshole, not a cool dude, but he's also very charming. We had tons of fun.
Q: Jill, you and Ron are so natural together, especially since this is your first project. It was almost like a documentary.
JH: That's the best review. Thank god Michael is really into rehearsing. We did a lot of rehearsal.
RE: Usually you don't get to do much rehearsing on an indie, but here we got almost two weeks. We were low maintenance and it wouldn't have worked otherwise. We didn't have trailers or anything. Also: Michael didnt direct it hard. He said he didn't want to see the acting. And it was natural for me because I grew up around there.
JH: It made things resonate when I'd walk around with Ron and he'd point things out.
It was so cool that we'd pass a bakery and he'd remember buying a girl chocolates there. Oh, I shouldnt have brought her up!
RE: Also, the script is what made things so real. About fifteen pages into it, I called my agent and said, "Im in!" As I read it, I would think it would go in one direction and it would go in another. That script is so tight and beautifully written. I could tell that the writers and director knew how to make an independent film. This movie has basically four main characters and, other than the road trip, about five locations. Michael would encourage us to change the script but I'd say, "Dude, can we just do it as you wrote it? What you wrote is really good. Can we try it your way first?" We played a little with the scene in the motel and my last scene with Jill but otherwise we stuck to the script. Often you're told, "Well, you'll make it great, and I appreciate their confidence but really it has got to be there in the script, as it is on this film.
DP: Did Michael and Gerald want you to understand your characters more than they did?
RE: When I first read it I loved it but there were a few remnants of the old script, in which I think Jimmy lacked a little dignity. I think in most films, working class characters are talked down to. The writers dont know anything about them and talk down to them. I come from working-class people and it bothers me when arrogant writers present them as a joke.
But not these two guys. I just said let this guy have his dignity, and then it's okay if he does shitty things because everybody does shitty things. He is what he is, but I wanted him to have pride and dignity.
Q: Did you stay in character when you werent shooting scenes?
RE: It was tricky not to. But it's not like you had to call me his name off camera. I really liked the character but it wasnt so easy to like everything he was doing. It was stressful. It was a short shoot, which I like. I was in every scene so it was best to let the characgter hang on to me, so that's what I did.
Q: Talk about Lois Smith, who is super in this film.
JH: She's so funny, approachable, calm, she's been there, done that. She has the laurels to prove it. David Margulies, who plays her neighbor, is her real life boyfriend and together they're a frigging hoot. To work in a scene with her is fun as hell. I found myself watching her and it's so much fun to watch Lois Smith. I'm also acting with her! It was such a gift. She's incredibly aware, much more than other actors. She just jumps on every little thing you do.
RE: She's so hip! I almost did two plays with her with Steppenwolf but I wasn't able to do them. But I've seen her in plays and I've met her. Finally we worked together and you know she and I never talked even once about a scene. We never had a discussion about their relationship or a scene, zero. I never had that experience before and it seemed quite beautiful. She really touched my heart. We had a great relationship. We hung out all the time. Something really special happened. I knew Michael was serious when he hired her because she's not going to help sell the video or spark foreign sales; he hired her because shes one of the greatest actors walking the planet and she'll do something nobody else will do. Nobody.
Q: Ron, you changed your diet for this film to put on weight. How challenging was it?
RE: It was fun at first. It wasnt until Michael hired Lois Smith that I told him I had put on weight because I thought he'd think it a joke. I put on 20 pounds in about two weeks, doing no exercise and eating late at night. Pizza, milkshakes.
JH: It was scary. He'd have a cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake before bed. He was having nightsweats.
RE: I'd come to rehearsals in the middle of winter and I'd be sweating. Then I put on another 20 pounds in the next couple of weeks. Keeping the weight on his hard and not fun. Then you just say to yourself that this is how Im going to be for a short time. I lost all of it very fast. I can gain weight and lose weight very fast.
DP: Good luck with your movie!
JH&RE: Thank you!


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