I'll be honest. I was a little nervous about meeting Vincent D'Onofrio, not that I'd heard he was a tough interview or anything like that. D'Onofrio has just struck me as the kind of guy who gets intense about his work, maybe to the point where he might grow weary about going over some of his pivotal older work, such as his first major film role as the unforgettable Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET or the obsessive hopeless romantic in HOUSEHOLD SAINTS, or the slighty off Robert E. Howard in THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD.
But then I started thinking about the more off-the-wall roles he's tackled since the mid-1980s, and I realized that only a risk taker like D'Onofrio could take on lighter fare in MYSTIC PIZZA or ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING alongside his insanely funny performance in MEN IN BLACK or just playing insane in CELL. Lest we forget his charming cameo as Orson Welles in Tim Burton's ED WOOD or inhabiting Abbie Hoffman in STEAL THIS MOVIE. One of my personal favorites from the D'Onofrio canon is as Sam Deed in HAPPY ACCIDENTS, a man who may or may.
For 10 years, D'Onofrio has played the wildly intelligent and damange Det. Robert Goren on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and one of his first orders of business after leaving that show was completing his directorial debut, the movie musical DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, about a band that goes on retreat in a remote area of the woods to see if they can kick start the creative juices. It's a fascinating movie that has been playing the festival circuit for over a year and is getting a limited release as part of the traveling arm of the Tribecca Film Festival, which is were I saw it when it passed through Chicago recently.
I ended up having a terrific time talking to D'Onofrio about DON'T GO IN THE WOODS and a couple of his older works. This wouldn't qualify as a Legends interview, but if we'd had more time and covered more ground, he's exactly the kind of guy I'd love to grill about his entire career. Please enjoy my talk with Vincent D'Onofrio…
Vincent D’Onofrio: Hi, Steve.
Capone: It’s great to meet you.
VD: It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: So I mean this in the best possible way, your film…
VD: Did you see it?
Capone: Yeah, I did see it over the weekend. It has a very youthful energy to it.
VD: It should, yeah.
Capone: Beyond just like the cast itself, the fact that you chose a slasher film format and the singing, it feels like a young person’s movie. Why did you go with the horror framework for this story?
VD: Well, the horror film genre is a very easy genre to do. Basically the whole idea was that the guys that I write with, we were in the middle of getting the rights to something else and we were waiting a very long time for all of the lawyers to do their thing, and so I was getting bored, and I have a house upstate in New York. I was driving home from upstate with my wife and I was just telling her, “I really would like to just direct something. I don’t know what we could do right away,” and she said “Well what do you have available to you?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, let’s see.
I have a friend who is a composer, we have a bunch of woods upstate in our backyard, and friends that are writers. I have a whole shooting crew ready to go whenever I ask them,” and so I just thought “Why don’t we just do like a horror movie and make it a musical and let Sam write all of the music?” So the next day, I told Sam, and two months later we were shooting it. You’ve got to remember, it only cost a hundred grand, and it was shot in 12 days. Basically the whole genre, the whole young, simplistic feeling about it has to do with the way it was made and why it was made--because we wanted to do something. So we did, and also the other aspect is that there’s a lot of non-actors in it.
Capone: That was actually my next question. Without knowing anything about the film when I was sat down to watch it, it does feel like I’m watching musicians act. Were those kids musicians?
VD: Yeah, they're all musicians. All of the girls and all of the guys… there’s only a couple of the girls that don’t actually play an instrument, but mostly all of the girls and all of the guys played for real, and that’s them playing and that’s them singing. There were a couple of actresses in it, but they had never done anything professional before, and then everybody else is basically non actors, and most of them don’t want to be actors.
The reason why I did that is because I wanted to have that kind of SLACKER feel, you know? I thought it would be strange. I didn’t know if it was going to work in any capacity and I still don’t really know if it works, because when you make a film, you don’t know if anybody ever tells you the truth whether it’s any good or not, you just wait until a real audience can see it. But I thought that the SLACKER feel of it that comes from their acting as opposed to the musical aspect of it, which I thought was a really cool thing to try, because they are so far apart. The musical aspect gets bigger and bigger until the actual score comes in and people are singing without instruments around, and the acting feel of it is very old Linklater films and Kevin Smith films. Their first couple of films have that kind of SLACKER feel.
Capone: Yeah, I was going to ask you when you said “slacker” I wasn’t sure if you meant small “s” or Linklater with a capitol “S”. But I guess it’s both. I also love that with non-actors, they don’t know what their good side is. They don’t know how to exactly angle themselves so the camera catches them at the right angle. They're just talking.
VD: Exactly, yeah.
Capone: It’s a great sort of aesthetic quality to the performances. There’s also an underlying idea that, especially with the one lead character who has the idea to bring them into woods, that he’s trying to maintain some sort of artistic integrity with this experiment. He’s fighting against the rock star cliché that the other guys seem to want to live. Is that what this film is about to you, maintaining this motivation and artistic integrity?
VD: I actually think that he is the most ambitious out of all of them. Obviously, right?
VD: And that’s the way it happens in real life. People become huge, I would say 99 percent of the time the reason why people are huge artists in the end is not because they didn’t try. The most ambitious ones most of the times are the ones that are the most successful, and then there’s tiers that go down where people that are less ambitious and less adoration junkies have different sized careers, but again very successful careers.
There’s a difference between people that have press agents and people that don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with ambition, because some of those people are extremely talented people. But some times it depends on your personality, it requires you to be your most ambitious, and so that’s who he is really. He just wants to write a hit album and he wants whatever comes, whatever anybody is ready for when it comes to him. But the world turns for him.
Capone: I noticed this film is a couple of years old now at this point--there’s a 2009 copyright on it--but in the time since you made it and now it seems like the whole world is singing. Between music competition shows and "Glee," there’s a resurgence in musicals now. I assume that has to have helped the progress of this film?
VD: It does, but it also influenced it too. Everything that’s getting more and more popular. Popularity all depends on how many people are into any certain thing. That stuff like "Glee" and that movie ONCE, all of that was happening right at the same time we made the movie, so it comes from that same thing. Yes, it’s all more popular now, but it does come from the fact that the musicals and the sense of a musical is different now than it used to me back when I was a kid. It’s not MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS or anything, which is an incredible musical.
Capone: You were not a kid when that came out.
VD: [laughs] It’s a little before my time, but it’s one of the films that I saw when I was a kid on television and it’s a Vincente Minnelli film; it’s an amazing film. But as far as musicals everything is changing as we all know, so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but just to be clear, this did get made at the same time that that sense was around already. Now it’s just become huge with "Glee" and "High School Musical" and all of these shows on television. Now it's about all of these reality shows where it’s all about the singers and sing offs.
Capone: Exactly. As I looked over all of the things you have done over the years--with one notable exception being "Law and Order"--you could never be accused of repeating yourself. Is that something that’s really important to you?
VD: Well I mean "Law and Order" is still one character. I’ve never played that character before, and I’ll never play him again.
VD: But you're right, I’ve jumped all over the genre field. I don’t know, I did two movies last summer and again I jumped from one genre to another. I don’t make the best choices in the world when it comes to the decisions that I make when I do movies as an actor. I’ve never made the best choices. If a part interests me and I think the story can work on some level and I haven’t played the part before, my interest gets really strong , but it doesn’t mean that in the end it’s going to be a good movie, because I’ve been in a lot of bad movies too.
Capone: Is that what you mean when you say you’re “not good at making decisions,” that you're not good at predicting which movies are going to be successful?
VD: I’m not and I can see that I’ll be the same way if I keep directing. The thing that I have to do that works for me, and I guess it works for everybody, though I’m not sure, but I just have to keep doing what I want to do and going where my interest lies, and I have to hope that like in my movie career, there are a few movies that everybody will know forever. So I’m lucky that I am in a couple of movies as an actor that people will know forever.
Capone: Without a doubt.
VD: So you know if they let me direct--“they,” you know the big “they”--if they let me direct another movie after this little experimental piece DON’T GO IN THE WOODS, it seems like I’m going to be on the same type of paths with the films that I either produce or direct.
Capone: You mentioned you were trying to get the rights to something to direct. Do you have something lined up?
VD: Yeah, that’s all done. The next thing that I direct, I think if I can get the script together--I’ve been working on a script for two years now and I’m still not happy with it--is called JOHNNY AND ME, and it’s a father-daughter relationship film, but the father has Aspergers syndrome, and he only communicates through Johnny Cash’s music. I have the Cash estate wanting to make it with me, but the script is not there yet, but I think it will be there by the end of this summer.
Capone: Is somebody else writing it, or are you writing it?
VD: I’m writing it with writers. I always write with writers, and it’s always my story. Then I team up with the best talent I can find for the cheapest amount of money possible, because I don’t like to spend a lot of money on films. I’ve been in so many films that have cost so much money and I just think it’s such a waste, and I know for a fact that films can be made for a lot less than what they are made for and still be great. So I make as little as possible, and everybody else makes as little as possible, yet we still try to do something really cool.
Capone: I remember reading an old interview with you where you were talking about the transition you made from the character you played in FULL METAL JACKET to I think it was ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING or MYSTIC PIZZA, and you wanted to drop the weight and your hair was completely different…
VD: It was MYSTIC PIZZA. Yeah, because that was the second movie. I think what you are talking about is the fact that I didn’t go up for anything until I took the weight back off. I had a sense from what people told me, I hadn’t seen it, that it was going to be a dynamic movie and a dynamic role to play in a movie.
Capone: FULL METAL JACKET?
VD: And I had my first agent for the first time, because of that movie, so there were some offers like a bad guy in a James Bond movie, but they wanted these bald-headed big guys, like I was in FULL METAL JACKET. So nobody quite--and how could they--understood who I was as an actor? Or who I thought I was at the time. So I figured the only way to explain it is to just be patient and just wait until that part is completely gone from me, take the weight off and once the weight is shed, then I could approach another role from zero, and then people might get a better sense eventually. Not that I thought that was going to happen in the next film I did, but I knew that eventually if I approached each part like that, that eventually people in the business would get a sense of what kind of actor that I am and that I would be better off for it.
Capone: That being said, to have someone as prestigious as Stanley Kubrick pick you for that role right out the gate had to be the biggest confidence booster of your career.
VD: I was pretty lucky, yeah. Believe me, I think about it now and again; think about Stanley mostly and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do any of this stuff if it wasn’t for him.
Capone: One of the things that I really remember that you did fairly early on, and I think it was the only other TV thing that you have done was that episode of "Homicide" where you are pinned by the subway car. In my mind, that episode like a great movie.
VD: It was written so well.
Capone: I want to say it was on maybe PBS where they made a documentary about the making of and I saw that. I don’t think I had ever seen a documentary about the making of a single episode of any show before.
VD: I think it was the first time that anybody had ever done that, yeah, especially in a format like PBS. I just remember it being written so well. I remember being in just a hotel room in Baltimore just learning dialog. There was so much dialog and no rehearsal, and that’s mainly my memories from it. I knew that it was an incredible part that had this incredible arc to it, and it was so emotional in a certain way. My memory as one of the actors who did it is just taking it all in, learning the dialog, and figuring it all out emotionally. It all happened in that hotel in Baltimore, because the only outdoors I saw was on the way from the hotel to the train station, because the train station was indoors underground.
It was the only time I have ever been in Baltimore, because that’s where they shot the show, and all I saw was the route from the hotel because of the abundance of work that had to be done with no time; they were doing eight-day episodes just like we used to do on "Criminal Intent." It was a lot of work.
Capone: Not to harp on TV, but I did see that you were working on another show with Ethan Hawke? Is that still happening?
VD: Ethan and I are going to do a pilot for NBC called "Blue Tilt," which we're hoping that they will like. It’s a really cool thing. “Blue Tilt” is an expression that is used when the job rubs off on cops a bit too much. So this show is about family and kids and ex-wives, friends, a friendship between the two partners. It’s more about that than it is about crime solving, and then the other aspect is that it’s two tilted cops, two sort of crazy cops dealing with crazy situations. So we're going to shoot the pilot in probably the first week of February or so, and NBC is being so great to us and we're just hoping that we make a kick-ass pilot and they'll pick it up.
Capone: Thank you very much. It was great to meet you.