The FIX is On
Director Tao Ruspoli's first feature film takes on the subject of heroin addiction. In this interview, the founder of the Los Angeles-based film collective LAFCO discusses his work, his vision, and his views on filmmaking in a time of media transformation.FIX opens in NYC November 20th at the Village East Cinema (181 2nd
Ave. at 12th st.) Purchase tickets here. More info at www.fixthemovie.com
DP: What was the genesis of FIX?
TR: FIX is inspired by a true story: My brother, a very charming, larger-than-life character in real life, was struggling with drug addiction. The law caught up with him, and he was offered a deal by the judge: if he didn't check himself into rehab in 10 days, he would be sent to prison for three years. On the 8th day, he was arrested again, for something else. His lawyer called me while I was working on a documentary in San Francisco, and said, "If someone doesn't bail him out of jail and get him to rehab by 8pm tomorrow, he is going to prison for three years." So I drove overnight to bail him out and soon found out that the rehab wouldn't accept him without a nonrefundable $5000 deposit. Since we didn't have the money, the day turned into a race to get the funds before the 8 o'clock deadline.
Four years later, my wife Olivia Wilde and I had the idea of turning this premise into my first narrative feature film. I knew it was time for me to move into scripted features and I was also dying to work with Olivia, who was developing into an incredible actress. We always joked that while we had gotten married after only knowing each other for six months, the real commitment (and risk) it takes to make a film together required four years.
Given my background in guerilla-style documentary filmmaking, I wanted to use the language I had developed in that medium and apply it to my first narrative project. In that way, I hoped to get the best of both worlds: the immediacy and realism of documentary and the structure and story arc of scripted, fictional work. Given advances in digital media, I was also excited by the fact that we could do this without sacrificing my love of photography and "cinematic" imagery.
The process and result turned out to be more gratifying than I ever could have imagined. Seeing Shawn Andrews bring his own vision and spirit to the Leo character was delightful. Shooting was adventurous and fun, and bringing the film to festivals around the world and seeing how the film touched people from so many walks of life was more
than I ever dreamed of. I am excited for the film to now reach an even larger audience with this fall's release.
Tell us about your background. I was watching the Doors movie and noticed there was a character in the Warhol scene with your last name. Was that a relative?
My father is the late Prince Dado Ruspoli, a very well known personality in Italy. He was a great poet and a master in the art of living. They say he inspired La Dolce Vita (not just the Fellini film, but the lifestyle itself).
Dado was an opium smoker for 45 years and had a lot to say about the culture of drugs -- he defended their use in a traditional context and decried the "technologization" of drug use due to prohibition and a desire for efficiency in our culture. It was this type of move, led by the Americans, that turned opium into heroin, coca leaves into cocaine, tobacco into cigarettes. He talks about these ideas in my short film Just Say Know, which discusses drug addiction in my family.
The Ruspolis are one of the oldest families in Rome, having been an important part of the city for the last 1000 years. My ancestors, who received their noble titles from the Vatican, included cardinals, patrons of the arts, and even a saint. My father was a born rebel and somehow wore the nobility of his roots without any sense of entitlement or feeling of superiority. It was this charm that drew great artists to be his friends, including Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and Andy Warhol. As for the Doors film, while I think it was a casual and very loose reference to my father, I don't think the character in the film had much in common with him beyond his name.
What are some of your influences and how are they expressed in this film?
I've been influenced by all the great movements in cinema, especially those that pushed the limits of what could be done with the medium. No group better exemplified this than the Russian avant-garde in the 1920's, led by Sergei Eisenstein, and, my personal favorite, Dziga Vertov, director of The Man with the Movie Camera. Vertov really had a sense that film was capable of saying things that were impossible in other media. He thought it was limiting to simply borrow conventions from theater and literature when making a film. Instead, the job of the filmmaker was to go out and capture life as it was, and then to interpret the footage through the one technique that was unique to filmmaking: montage.
I was also very much influenced by the French New Wave directors, especially Truffaut and Godard. They had a playful relationship to the medium that allowed for a wonderful and honest exploration of relationships between human beings. I tried to keep this in mind while shooting FIX.
Tell us about LAFCO and your documentary projects. What did you learn by doing the first film where you toured across the US? What's your vision for a filmmaking collective?
We started LAFCO in 2000. The Los Angeles Filmmakers Cooperative was an experiment in nomadic and communal creativity; it was a collective of filmmakers based out of a converted school bus. We gutted an old Chevy Bluebird and put editing systems and cameras in it and set out not only to document art and culture that was being ignored by mainstream media in America , but also to share our tools with other creative people who may want to make a film.
I was so excited about the possibilities that digital cameras and editing systems presented in moving us away from the Hollywood hierarchies and financial roadblocks that stopped people from making films in the past. I was very much inspired by a quote I heard of Jean Cocteau in the 1950s: "Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper."
While digital media made it possible to make films in a much smaller, more personal way, much in the same way that a writer or a painter works, I still thought film was essentially a collaborative medium -- hence the need for a collective -- a place where like minded individuals could share ideas and work on projects together.
At one point we got a larger space in Venice, California, and the challenges of running a larger space and coordinating more people began to get in the way of our original intention, which was to make films. So we went back to the bus, realizing that keeping things small and mobile was key to making us stay productive. The bus also went to Burning Man as often as possible and we drank from all the fountains of inspiration that exist in that incredible gathering. We were very influenced by the ethics of Burning Man, which emphasized creativity, community and generosity over financial considerations and competition.
What interests you about addiction as a subject?
Unfortunately, I have witnessed the destructive side of addiction first hand. Both my parents and brother (as well as other family members) have suffered from addiction to heroin. This is no laughing matter. At the same time, I don't think we should vilify drugs outright. As I mentioned earlier, I think that we need to cultivate the right relationship to drugs, and I think it lies in tradition and culture and ritual. I was always amazed to see young Americans come to Italy when I was a kid and seeing them go out and want to get wasted on wine, since there is no real age limit on drinking in Italy. Now, it would never occur to do this to an Italian who grew up with the culture of wine at the table and who learned early on an appreciation for the more subtle effects the wine has in bringing us together in meaningful communities.
What do you hope people take away from seeing the film?
The film is a fun (and often funny) adventure. At the same time, it is an exploration of many senses of what "FIX" means: What does it take to "fix" the problems in our families and relationships, in our world at large, and what are our personal "fixes"? What can't we live without?
In the end, the film asks more questions than it answers, but just by taking a different approach, people have been moved. The film has been in 35 film festivals and has won 14 awards, and while I thought I was dealing with worlds and situations that few people were familiar with, it turns out, unfortunately, that all too many people can relate to what it means to have someone you love be out of control, and not know what to do about it. The film has helped people understand that sometimes just showing up is all we can do; and while that may not fix everything, it may be a step in the right direction.
You are a fan of Terence McKenna's and are considering a film on him. What is it about his ideas that inspires you?
I admire people who help us see the world in a different light. I think that's our primary job as artists, activists, and members of our local and global communities. McKenna, through his eloquence, humor, and daring explorations of psychedelic spaces, opens up new ways of seeing and living in the world. I think more people should be exposed to him, and I wonder if I can help do that with a film.
What are you learning about the film business these days? You must have an interesting perspective being married to an up-and-coming actress who is part of the Hollywood machinery, while concentrating on smaller documentary projects.
Sometimes I feel like I must be on my 1000th reincarnation and I must have done some very good things in the 999 lives I lived before this one, because I am one very lucky human being. I have been able to explore so many aspects of this world, through travel, and filmmaking, and friendships, and family, and marriage. This has taught me, I hope to navigate different worlds in a fluid manner.
This is another thing I tried to capture in FIX: Leo, the character of my brother, is nicknamed Hermes, who, as you may know, was not only the guide of the underworld but also the god of crossing boundaries. FIX takes the conventions of the road movie and concentrates them into one city and one day. In that day you are meant to feel like you have traversed dozens of different worlds, with Leo/Hermes as your guide. Hollywood is one world among many, each with its own set of priorities and limitations. There are a lot of very smart, driven, creative people here, but of course too many of them are focused solely on aspirations of fame and power. Hopefully with my work I can show people other worlds, ones in which other priorities may dominate: family, community, exploration, and love.
Tell us about Being in the World, your new documentary project on craftsmanship and Heidegger. What inspired you to make this film? What did you discover by doing it? Who did you choose to focus on and how did you make those choices?
When I was studying philosophy at UC Berkeley, a professor named Hubert Dreyfus became my mentor. It is thanks to him that I became a filmmaker. He taught a course on "Existentialism in Literature and Film," which showed me that film was a perfect medium for communicating philosophical ideas, because in the end it wasn't ideas that needed to be put across but different approaches to life and ways of interacting with our world. Often, these interactions cannot be reduced to abstract notions, but they can be shown in the context of the worlds one immerses oneself into in a film.
So 10 years later, I wanted to go back and revisit Dreyfus's approach to philosophy, and to do so in a film. Dreyfus is one of the leading Heidegger scholars in the world, and is largely responsible for bringing Heidegger to an American audience. He is now 80 years old, and many of his students are now well known philosophers in their own right, having become professors at Harvard, Columbia, etc. They all appear in the film, which is called Being in the World.
The idea behind Being in the World is that human beings have a unique ability, through skillful behavior, to open up new worlds and meaningful communities. Masters, who have the most highly developed skills, become fulcrums around which we gather and our lives (as well as their's) are given a deep structure and meaning through skillful practices. So, for example, a great chef uses ingredients from his local area to create a meal that is unique to that place, and then gathers the members of their community to share in that meal. You can contrast that with a meal at McDonald's, which requires little or no skill, which is the same everywhere, and which therefore results in a vastly emptier eating experience.
Being in the World is basically a documentary which tells a philosophical story and introduces us to great masters in various fields (cooking, carpentry, music, and athletics) but which also hopefully inspires us to nurture our own skills and to celebrate and not take for granted that which makes us human.
What does a filmmaker need to know about the current state of film? In the recent Toronto film festival, not one film was picked up by a distributor. This seems to suggest the old distribution models are failing. What do you do to bring an audience to your film? What strategies do you use?
We're trying to figure this out right now. While the old models are failing and this may cause distress to some, I see nothing but opportunity. We have an ability that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, to reach our target audiences, and to bypass centralized power and to form direct relationships with our fans. This has to be a good thing. Now we just have to figure out how to really make all this sustainable.
What's the film you would most love to make?
Right now I'm primarily focused on getting FIX out there as well as finishing Being in the World. I would love to find a great script written by someone else that teaches me something in the process of turning it into a film. Of course I am interested in themes of exploration and human relationships more than anything else.