The independent drama Sympathy for Delicious marks the feature directorial debut for actor Mark Ruffalo, from a script written by his friend of 20 years, Christopher Thornton, who also stars in the film. The story follows Dead O’Dwyer (Thornton), also known as “Delicious D,” an up-and-coming DJ on the underground music scene in Los Angeles, until a motorcycle accident leaves him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Now living in his car on skid row, Father Joe Roselli (Mark Ruffalo) tries to steer Dean down a better path, and soon discovers that he possesses the otherworldly power to heal people. When Dean decides to turn his back on the priest and exploit his gift, joining a rock band led by frontman The Stain (Orlando Bloom) and bass player Ariel (Juliette Lewis), he becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to heal himself.
At the film’s press day, Mark Ruffalo and Christopher Thornton talked about the 10-year journey from script to screen, overcoming the trepidation and fear in being the one at the helm, improvising when necessary, and keeping the end of the film intact, even with all of the rewrites the script went through. Mark also talked about the preparation he’s currently going through to take on the role of The Hulk in Joss Whedon’s upcoming The Avengers. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
CHRISTOPHER THORNTON: Well, he’s having a hard time, isn’t he? He’s had a terrible thing happen to him and it’s very early on from it, which is a particular stage. The hardest part is probably the early days. He’s down and out and he’s struggling with it. That, more than anything, affects his bad choices. He’s just had a tragedy in his life, and he’s reeling from it.
Mark, as a director, do you have to sympathize with the main character?
MARK RUFFALO: He’s very human. In time, maybe we could come to sympathize with him. The story is about a selfish man who makes a journey to do one selfless act. People would say that this character is unlikable on the page, but I’d say that you don’t get the visual affect of seeing a guy in a wheelchair. I don’t know about you, but I see someone in a wheelchair and I immediately sympathize with them. I immediately say, “That person has it a little bit tougher than I do.” Somehow, they got to the point where they’re in that chair.” I hope that visual cue carries us through some of the more unsympathetic things that the character does.
THORNTON: I don’t think it’s that important to sympathize with a character in a film, as long as you empathize with him. Some of the great characters have been really unlikable, but empathy is important. You have to understand and go, “That’s a really hard place to be. Who knows what I’d do in that situation.” I think that empathy is the most important thing.
THORNTON: Winning the Jury Prize was an amazing moment, and then you have to transition from that into the whole struggle for distribution. It was a big roller coaster because it was a love fest when we were there, and then the reality of it was like, “Okay, now we actually have to get the movie out.” The climate, the market and the economy were bad. It was a wake-up call, right after Sundance.
RUFFALO: It was disheartening, for a long period of time, because it was that time where no one bought any movies out of Sundance that year. So many of the distribution of houses had closed, and the media was talking about the end of independent cinema in America. We were like, “Not now! Please, not now! We just won the Jury Prize at Sundance.” My producers at Corner Store were given some totally crap-ass, low-ball deals. We also had a deal with a guy that was a total crazy man.
THORNTON: The truth is that we wasted a good four months with that guy.
RUFFALO: He was totally out of his mind.
THORNTON: He offered the world and we thought, “This is going to be an amazing release,” but it turned out to be a total lie.
RUFFALO: He was a fraud and a total phony.
THORNTON: He wasted a good four months. We could’ve been talking to Maya then, who’s putting us out now.
RUFFALO: We ended up at the right place, but it was a long journey.
THORNTON: It took a long time. Of course, taking as long as it took, there were many times, along the way, that I thought it wasn’t going to happen. One thing that kept happening was that the movie kept coming together and then falling apart, which I guess a lot of independents go through, but that’s really soul crushing. It’s very difficult when you think it’s finally actually going to happen, and then, for whatever reason, the money goes away or someone falls out of it, or whatever. So, for a long time, it didn’t seem like it would ever actually come together for real.
RUFFALO: It was a long journey and, when we started working on this, I don’t think I was even actually able to support myself as an actor. I was actually still bartending. I was just starting to get work and, over that time period, so many things happened. I had my own brain tumor and the struggle of our lives started to seep into the script. Our own journeys were oddly in it, with redemption, looking for faith, and trying to make meaning of really meaningless things. There was this collaboration going on, throughout those 10 years of rewrites, where our own lives were actually seeping into the script, in a strange way. I like to say about the movie that none of it happened, but it’s all true.
RUFFALO: Oh, yeah. There are two or three scenes that never changed, the ending being one of them. Around those, it changed many, many times.
Chris, what was your writing process, over the 10 years of development?
THORNTON: I wrote the first draft and gave it to Mark. He was really enthusiastic about it and suggested himself as the director. I said, “Yes!,” immediately to that. Then, we sat down and talked about it and hashed it out. I went away and did another draft. Then, he’d give me a ton of notes and I’d do another draft. Eventually, we kept getting closer and closer to where we were really on top of it, by hashing it out, page by page. Out of those long sessions just came tons of notes, or we would improv dialogue and tape it. He’d say, “Okay, take that and clean that up.” He was very hands on with the rewrites, especially towards the later part of it.
THORNTON: That evolved. For whatever reason, when I was writing the very first draft, something just popped out and I trusted it. For some reason, I wanted him to be a DJ. Originally, he was a failed radio jockey, in the first draft, but his DJ name was always Delicious D. Then, it just kept evolving, with him joining a band, and then I knew that he had to be more of a performer. So, I started looking into all of the people of the world like Moby. And then, we hit on bands like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, who actually have guys onstage scratching. There was also the metaphor of the hands. He has to lay his hands on the turntable. That felt like a nice marriage. I didn’t want him joining a band as a disabled guitar player. At one point, when we working on the script, we were at the big Guitar Center on Sunset and we were talking to this guitar salesman. He was depressed and said, “There used to be a day when the kids came in and all they wanted was a great guitar demo. Now, they’re all looking at the turntables, wanting a scratcher.”
RUFFALO: He said they were selling more turntables than guitars.
RUFFALO: That was really important to me. L.A. brings a certain kind of person to it, unlike any other place. It brings people with big dreams. I felt that was real important. All those people had dreams that they’re struggling to achieve, whether it’s Joe with the dream of a homeless shelter, or Dean with the dream of fame and to be walking. Each of them had their own agenda that causes them to do things that are questionable at times, but that’s what dreams do. The fact that we have a very big homeless population here, it is like it’s own city. It’s totally segregated from the rest of the city. I used to live down there, so I knew it very well. When we mulled it over and thought about it, I just couldn’t see it being shot anywhere else. I couldn’t see these kinds of people being anywhere else.
THORNTON: It’s such a specific place. Also, that band would be in L.A.
RUFFALO: That band is in L.A. They’re ripped off from a real band.
THORNTON: We stole most of that from a real band.
THORNTON: Yeah, they know. They’re not happy about it, but they know.
Mark, was directing everything you imagined it would be?
RUFFALO: I really was scared. Once I got over the trepidation and fear and self-loathing, I actually really loved it. It was everything that I thought that it would be, and more. I realized that I had actually learned something, in all those years that I’d been on sets with really great directors. I hope that it’s something that they’ll allow me to keep doing. It felt much easier for me than acting does, to be completely frank with you.
Do you understand why there are a lot of actor/directors now?
RUFFALO: I could see why actors like directing. I love actors and, to be able to work with them the way that I was, is something that I’d like to keep doing. Only an actor really understands the way that another actor ticks. I think it’s an interesting transition, and it feels like a natural transition to me.
THORNTON: He went kicking and screaming. He didn’t want to act in it.
RUFFALO: Part of this game is, to cancel myself out as a first-time director, I had to act in the movie. No one will sign onto a movie until you have a movie going. No one’s agents will let you do it. I had to sign on first, before I could get anyone else’s agents to even take me seriously. So, my plan was to get them all in, and then jump off and bring in someone who I thought would be great for the part. The day that I went in to do that, we had to change our schedule. I had lost two of my lead actors because of scheduling conflicts.
THORNTON: We had to push the movie seven weeks, which really screwed us up. We lost a lot of stuff.
RUFFALO: That’s when I got Orlando Bloom and Laura Linney. The movie was falling apart in my hands, so when I came in to quit, they were like, “You’re not doing any such thing, dude. You’re all we have left.”
THORNTON: He loved the part, but he just didn’t want to do both, at the same time.
RUFFALO: It was a lot. It was a big thing to take on.
THORNTON: He goes on a leave of absence. In the script, he actually did go back. The last shot of Father Joe, in the script, was that he was back in his collar, re-engaging on skid row, and we shot that, but lost it in the editing room. It didn’t feel that you needed to go back to him.
Did you have a third eye on you, during the scenes that you were acting in?
RUFFALO: Chris and my D.P. I actually ended up asking Laura Linney to direct that final climax scene with the Chris and I. That’s a great scene. She was there that day and I said, “Can you give me a hand? I don’t know what I’m doing.” At first, I had a monitor playback. I had to trade 12 extras and a smoke machine to get it. And then, I did one day of that and it was such a nightmare. It took 18 minutes to just watch the scene enough to be able to direct myself. I said, “I want my extras back. I want my smoke machine back. You guys can take that monitor and throw it out in the road.” Then, after that, I was just pretty much doing three takes, like everybody else. There was 23 days of shooting, and 18 minutes in a day is literally a chunk of gold that, once it’s gone, you can never get back. I was like, “This is just taking too much time. Unless something terribly wrong happens, then we’re moving on.” That ended up working. The self-consciousness disappeared because I couldn’t worry about it anymore.
THORNTON: There were some scenes that were exactly word for word, but there are a lot of scenes though that are completely off page, for all kinds of different reasons, like the page wasn’t working or an actor had a better idea.
RUFFALO: When you’re shooting 23 days on a movie, you don’t have time to create the magic. You have to grab the magic where it’s happening. I would see an actor, and Juliette [Lewis] is a perfect example, struggling with what’s there. She knew, essentially, where I wanted to go, emotionally. So, I’d say, “Listen, go after it. I know it’s not written like this, but you’re either going to fight him or fuck him, after that scene. You don’t witness a miracle like that and not have it affect you, so this is a fight scene. I want that. I don’t care. Throw out the dialogue. We need this emotional response right now.” I saw that she was ready for that. There were places like that where, if I had a day for one scene, I could work with it and get it to where it was on the page. When you’re moving that fast, you just have to grab the lightning when you see it. There were a couple of places where we went off script like that.
THORNTON: I know, it’s crazy. Right now, I’m in the pinching myself stage. For so long, it didn’t seem like it was going to get made, which was really depressing, after putting work into a script for so long. I’m just really thrilled that it’s coming out. It still hasn’t sunk in yet that all this is really happening. I’m just really grateful that the planets lined up, and I’m just hopeful that people like the film and see the things in it that we see in it. As cliché as it is, I’m happy to be here.
Were there drafts of the script that didn’t end with the kind of hope that the film has?
THORNTON: That ending is one thing that really didn’t change. It was there, right in the first draft, almost word for word. There were a few little tweaks. But, there was some debate about whether we needed the very last scene. There were some suggestions of snipping that. The movie goes to such a dark place, and it needed to go there, but I didn’t want to end on that note. I wanted something much more hopeful. I wanted him to redeem himself. That was my very first thought about it, when I was first doing the draft, and Mark always agreed with that. It stayed pretty much that way, all the way through.
RUFFALO: Yeah. Orlando wasn’t my first choice for this movie. I sat down with him and we talked about it and he said, “I really broken right now and I need an acting experience. I need something where I can really dig in and change myself.” As a director, you fall in love with the talented people around you. The act of acting is very vulnerable. I think that, for people to be great, they need a lot of trust and encouragement and love. I’ve seen everybody at their best and their worst, in this movie. They’re all incredibly talented people and they have a lot to offer. All of them have a huge reservoir of things to give. It’s just about creating the right work environment, in order to bring it out of them.
Mark, what do you have to do to get ready for The Avengers?
RUFFALO: We have to get the script. We’ve been working on the script, which has been fun. I’ve lost 15 pounds. They don’t want me all ripped up, but they want me to be lean and mean. It’s about trying to get the psychology of somebody who knows, at any moment, they could literally tear the roof off of wherever they are and trying to bring something real to that and totally fantastic. I’ve been working with Joss Whedon on the script, with the rest of the cast, and we start rehearsals soon. Hopefully, we’ll have the mother of all comic book movies for you soon.
When will you start shooting?
RUFFALO: In the first week of May.
Does being the third actor in 10 years to play The Hulk give you any kind of pause?
RUFFALO: Yeah, are you kidding me? I’ve got some big shoes to fill. I kind of look at it as my generation’s Hamlet. We’re all going to get a shot at it.