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Tao Ruspoli - Interview
FIX is one of those movies you didn’t know you needed to see until you’re ensconced in the reality that director Tao Ruspoli made a movie with a compelling premise, is shot with a style that blends fiction and reality in a real exciting way, and is a completely independent vision. People can get hung up on particulars when it comes to a movie’s presentation when you are saddled with a low budget but Tao completely bucks that by incorporating his low budget into a style that makes the movie feel more authentic. When you’re able to have Oliver Stone provide a pull-quote for your movie, things are going well.
Based on a story where a filmmaker is on the hunt for his brother in order to find him and deliver him to rehab or have the guy shipped back to prison for a three year sentence, FIX happens all in one day and explores the nuances, pieces of Los Angeles that don’t normally get shown in films that use Tinseltown as a backdrop. The pace is furious, the clock is ticking, and the film couldn’t be any more enjoyable than it is. Tao Ruspoli spent some time talking with me about his film.
FIX is now playing and will soon be out on DVD. (Add it to your Netflix queue)
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Hello, Tao.
TAO RUSPOLI: Hi, how are you doing?
CS: I’m doing fine. What’s this process been like to finally get this movie out in the open, at least theatrically for you?
RUSPOLI: Well, it’s been so gratifying. I’ve gotten used to the idea that it’s an uphill battle for independent films these days, but it’s been gratifying throughout. We’ve gone to 35 film festivals, traveled all over the world, and already, that was beyond anything I expected from the movie. So now a year and a half later for it to come out is just the icing. I’m so happy that the public will be able to see it at last.
CS: Please tell me – and I wanted to save this question for you – it says based on true events and I want to know how true is this movie, it has a great premise, how true is this?
RUSPOLI: The premise is what’s true. What happened was my brother’s battles with addictions throughout his life and he had gotten a deal (this was several years ago) from a judge that said, well, you can either go to rehab or I’m going to send you to prison for 3 years. And of course he chose rehab and the judge gave him 10 days in the rehab. On the 8th day he got arrested for something else.
I was working in San Francisco working on a documentary and I got a call from his lawyer saying someone has to bail him out tomorrow and get him back to rehab by 8:00 o’clock tomorrow night he’s going to prison for 3 years because he’ll be in breech of this judgment. So, that’s what happened. I drove down overnight and picked him up and found out that $5,000 was needed to admit him to rehab and the way we got the $5,000 was not as exciting as it was in the movie. It just was going around and borrowing from friends and my credit card a little bit. So we dropped him off – and I don’t want to give away anything – but those are the true facts. The structure is true but then all of the in between was scripted. I got to spend some time with my brother. Recklessness on one hand is scary for some people but he lives life to the fullest and takes risks that a lot of us are afraid to take and travel into worlds that many of us don’t travel in.
I think our job as filmmakers is to expands people’s worlds a little bit and that’s what the lead character does in the movie. His nickname is Hermes and the precept is it’s his graffiti writing name but actually Hermes was the god of crossing boundaries - guide to the underworld and that’s what he is to us.
CS: Now the film itself, obviously, Olivia was the main attraction in the film as she mentioned to me, you had to work around her schedule, like on the weekends and that sort of approach that we can only do these on certain days. What was that like as a filmmaker to be constrained by when you could shoot this thing?
RUSPOLI: It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Two weeks before we started shooting she got the role on House, and of course I couldn’t ask her not to do that. As much as she loves me I said, OK, we will change the whole schedule around hers. The producer nearly had a heart attack but then what we ended up doing is shooting the film in order and then edited it during the week and could see how it was coming together and because of that and our style, we got to really learn as we went and learned what worked and how we could get the best of both worlds doing like the documentary film but in a dramatic, visceral style.
So we would shoot for a few days and edit the first 10 minutes of the film or whatever it was and then the next weekend we would shoot the next 10 minutes of the movie. It was a wonderful process because we really got to know what we had in the can before we kept going. Usually you cram all this shooting together and then see what you have at the end.
CS: So I assume you were working with Paul Forte the whole time?
RUSPOLI: Yes, exactly. Paul would come on set and he’s here now actually. He came for the premiere. He’s a very close partner of mine and would be on set capturing the footage. One crazy story is that we were in Watts shooting in the projects and Paul was in the RV and we thought it was so nice and welcoming and forgot that we in a rather dangerous part of town and so we let our guard down and someone came in with a gun and held him up and took the laptop he was using to capture the footage. Luckily he had already backed it up and put it on a hard dive that was put away or we wouldn’t have been able to finish the movie because no one would have gone back.
CS: That kind of speaks to the film, showing a different side of LA that not a whole lot of people know about. What was it like shooting in all these different locations? Like you said, some were very welcoming. Did you find anything unique that you never knew about living in LA?
RUSPOLI: Absolutely. First of all, that’s what I love about LA. You have to understand that the movie is about a microcosm of the road movie. It’s a road movie on concentrate. You have to imagine that a road movie takes across a great distance and for a long period of time and you see the characters have all been changed as they proceed through different worlds. Well, this takes that convention and strips it down to it’s essence because you traverse all these worlds that are all in one city and all in one day. All in one 12 hour period.
I think LA is one of the few places you can do that because it’s like a blank slate in a way and has all these local worlds that a lot of people don’t move from one to the other, so you have Boheminan artist community next to the isolated Beverly Hills community and there’s chop shops in east LA and downtown and rural areas and suburban and the lead character is one who easily goes from one to the other which is very unusual in real life to find somebody who can do that and that’s what’s so charming about him and so compelling that he can feel equally comfortable in a mansion in Beverly Hills as he can in the projects in Watts. I always loved that about LA. LA sort of becomes a main character of the movie because it has this very strong presence as this post modern city where there is no center and it’s what you make of it, all decentralized and amazing.
CS: Looking up on your IMDB page, it proclaims you as a documentary filmmaker. To me it almost felt like if Michael Moore were to make a straight up a work of fiction that wasn’t strictly documentary – was this a different change for you as a filmmaker?
RUSPOLI: Absolutely. We wrote a script that was very tight but like about the documentary style is that a) I come from it so I felt comfortable telling a story in that way. Of course a documentarian tells a story as well, right? But it has this visceral immediate truthfulness I think that hopefully when people watch the film feel this is really happening. They will wonder how much is real and how much isn’t and the wonderful thing is in the old day, we’ve come a long way since the Blair Witch Project when documentary style meant shaky camera and horrible image quality.
Now with HD you have the best of both worlds. You have the immediacy of the documentary and you also have this rich color and cinematic quality that is so wonderful that you can achieve now with these high quality digital cameras. So I really thought it was a great way to move from documentary into narrative. It was a smooth transition into it.
CS: I think it’s a natural extension if you – I’m not comparing it to paranormal activity which did gang busters – but people are not used to it through reality television of consuming a story that is done with a verities style. People are now more comfortable with it and I think there’s lots of things now – the movie itself and correct me if I’m wrong – but your film looks ahead of the curve in terms of presenting a narrative but not so much in the traditional style.
RUSPOLI: I think the style is very avant-garde because it doesn’t look like armature camera people. The filmmaker in the movie is a filmmaker so it makes sense that he would pay attention to structure and composition and go back and make the film as cinematically and in a structured way as possible. And that’s what people have responded to so much about this movie is that it has an amazing visual style and incredible sound track and editing. So it doesn’t shy away from making the most of the medium and that’s what I hope is groundbreaking about it.
CS: When you were getting it all together you were obviously creating a sound track adding, it’a like an exponential sum, and in having to keep the costs down, what did you turn to in order to create this musical bed to carry these characters through the film?
RUSPOLI: Again, since we’re crossing all these worlds we had to use music to reinforce that journey. The music also crosses from world to world and we have everything from old jazz to blues to like indie rock to hip hop. Dick Prez did a song just for the movie. We have I’m a Robot and Simon Dawes and all these incredible musicians. We have a music supervisor named Bryan Ling who is just phenomenal and a composer named Isaac Sprintis who also just brought a lot of original compositions to the movie. But, all of it supports that we’re taking a journey through very disparate worlds and the music kind of reflects that.
CS: Going forward with any new projects that you are doing, did you find that you, being ensconced in this world of sort of a hybrid of a documentary and traditional filmmaking, do you find now that you are inspired by different things or are you now “OK, let me get back to what I really feel comfortable with” and that’s documentary filmmaking?
RUSPOLI: No, I’m moving straight up into narrative. I’m working on a documentary now called Being in the World which was just submitted to Sundance, so I did go back to documentaries but I’m really excited to do another narrative. I found the experience so gratifying working with actors. I hadn’t done that before and it felt natural to me and really fulfilling. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts now and I actually would like to do a film – if not in a documentary style, - do something very cinematic. I would love to do something that has more time and with a bigger budget and do something more deliberate and more traditional and cinematic. Hopefully that will come soon.
CS: Well, sir, I have one more question and that would be, just looking at the path this has taken, it wasn’t done just six months ago, it was a long road for this film. You mentioned the process was very fulfilling, the length, the ups and the downs, what did you take away from making this film?
RUSPOLI: Again, I learned that the old world of distribution and finishing your film and hoping that someone just buys it and takes it off your hands – that’s over. On one hand, that makes our job harder as filmmakers but on the other hand it keeps the control in our hands which is great. You have a double edged sword on one hand. A lot of the indie film structures are dying off and on the other hand through the internet and through these new modes of distribution you can have direct access to your audience and you need to do it.
You need to carry the film like your child and nuture it and see it grow and be involved in the whole process being online and the social networks and go to your own fan base. I think that’s daunting at first but then it’s great because you have this direct link to the people who like your work and they can be all over the world. And now, for example, we have this initial theatrical run in New York and if it does well it will spread to other cities.
We have a DVD distributor putting it out in February. It’s exciting and meanwhile while this is happening we have been able to do other projects. Olivia keeps working on House, I’ve done this other documentary, Being in the World, so it hasn’t just been waiting around. I’ve traveled to different festivals all over the world, which is a great way to show your films.
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