The name DJ Caruso may not be familiar to most moviegoers. He's been in the director's seat for a couple of movies that, despite starring the likes of Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, and Val Kilmer, have not been seen by large audiences. Taking Lives was a forgettable thriller released after some time on the shelf, and the sports betting movie Two for the Money came and went without a sizzle. In between big screen projects, he's been working steadily in television, directing everything from Smallville to Dark Angel to The Shield.
Despite his sort of low profile, DJ Caruso came to the mind of Steven Spielberg when his DreamWorks Pictures were looking for a director to put a modern spin on Rear Window and update it for a younger audience. The film Disturbia, which drops into theaters this weekend following an extensive advertising campaign and word of record-setting test screenings in its young teenage demographics, made its debut last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, home of Harry Knowles and Ain't It Cool News. Just ahead of its opening, I had the chance to talk with DJ Caruso via phone from Toronto, and we spoke about everything from casting relative newcomers to his thoughts on shooting a lot of TV and working in Vancouver. Here's how it all went down.
DJ Caruso: Hello, Mark.
Mark McLeod: Hi, how's it going?
DJC: Not too bad, how are you?
MM: Not bad here either, although I have to apologize for any background noise as someone just decided to start taking some sort of chainsaw to a tree, right outside my office window.
DJC: That's always fantastic, isn't it? At least they aren't coming through the door going after you.
MM: That wouldn't be too good, hopefully you'll be able to hear me all right.
DJC: I can hear you fine right now.
MM: Excellent, then lets get right into it before the noise comes back. How did you become involved with the film?
DJC: Basically, I got a call when I was shooting an episode of The Shield. I got the call from Steven Spielberg and didn't believe it was real, obviously, and I thought it was a joke. He said I really think you should consider this project, it's something I really love with its contemporary sort of voyeuristic approach thing, and make it a contemporary movie and not sort of a direct remake of Rear Window, and make it more of an homage. I think you'd be really great for it. So I read the script the next day and had some problems with it and told him what I'd love to do with it to make it better. It was really him that was instrumental in getting me involved.
MM: You touched on the fact that it does sort of pay homage to Rear Window and also sort of reminded me of The Simpsons episode with Bart house-ridden for the summer and spying on Flanders.
DJC: That's right, actually that's fantastic. Wasn't that a genius episode?
MM: Yeah it was a good one, actually I mentioned that to a studio employee at the screening out here and she hadn't seen it, so she didn't get the reference. Which I found very odd.
DJC: She hadn't seen it?
MM: Yeah, she told me she doesn't really watch The Simpsons, which I thought was very strange. I mean, everyone watches The Simpsons, right? So with the story sort of done before for various generations, what did you do to make it fresh and new again?
DJC: Basically, I made it fresh and hip by telling a completely different story. It's really about Shia's character and all the technology and all the pain he goes through. It really made it different to me, at least. I mean, there are a couple little things in there like a flashbulb and the little dog that I sort of said "thank you very much"... but I was never really interested in remaking it. Besides that, everyone that's tried to remake Hitchcock movies have sort of come across as failures. DePalma was skirting on remaking a lot of Hitchcock in the 70s and 80s, some good, some bad. I just really wanted it to become my own movie. I was more influenced by movies like Say Anything and The Conversation with Gene Hackman, which was the movie that I made Shia watch the most in terms of character. I just wanted to make a good movie, I was never like, "let's steer it away from the original this way or steer it more that way," I just wanted to make the best movie that I could.
MM: Your last couple of movies have had bigger name cast members like Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey, and Al Pacino. You're going more with a sort of lesser-known cast, more sort of fresh faces and strong character actors like David Morse. How did you approach casting this movie?
DJC: I just really wanted to cast the best people for the role. By the way, this movie was made for 19 million and for an independent filmmaker, that's a lot of money, but for a studio movie that's barely anything at all. I just prefer to have someone, you know, and I don't want to say unknown, but the role of Cale really required someone who could hit a whole lot of different emotions. And even though we are a popcorn movie made for entertainment, this guy loses his dad in the beginning and it's sort of a tragedy that hits him, and a little later we get to see the anger, and even later we get to see him fall in love with a girl. So it was important that I got some one who had the range and was also the right age for the story. I had seen Shia in Holes, and where I really got to know him was the Project Greenlight film, and the show where he was with his mom, but he was a little younger and goofier back then. Then when he came in, he reminded me of a young John Cusack from Say Anything and he just made the dialogue so real, and that he really was the best person for the role. For the rest of the cast, it was important to me that this was a girl that no one had really seen before, and I wanted her to be the girl next door and not have any baggage from past roles people may have seen her in. I felt really liberated that the film wasn't going to rest on a typical movie star and that the movie was actually bigger than the stars.
MM: I think you've accomplished that because when I saw the trailer, I didn't recognize the girl at all.
DJC: Which I think is good, don't you?
MM: Yeah, because I didn't picture her as someone I had seen running around in a slasher movie or on a teen soap on TV, and I didn't have any idea of what to expect from her.
DJC: It works for the film because you start to form your own opinions of her before you have any preconceived judgments.
MM: It's very realistic that this type of girl could just move in next door to any teenage guy in America, as opposed to someone I had seen before.
DJC: It's like instant recognization, I'll put on late night television and see something like a bar scene, and the camera dollies, and I'll see a stuntman I know or worked with and I'll know that sh*t is going to hit the fan.
MM: Now you have David Morse in the picture as sort of the main villain. Now he's an actor I've loved in quite a few roles, especially his recent stint on House. I don't know if you saw that.
DJC: Of course I saw that, his run on House was phenomenal.
MM: Oh yeah I totally agree, it sort of reshaped that series which had sort of become stale with the constant, "oh he's cured them but there's still 20 minutes left, so they must relapse".
DJC: It changes the dynamic when you think that someone could do what he did to House and the power he had over him. David was fantastic and I'm praying that he gets nominated.
MM: Did you always have David in mind for the role?
DJC: Right away. I had met him through a dear friend, Frank Darabont, who had directed The Green Mile, and I was on the set and I sort of fell in love with his acting, watching him throughout the whole process. I had been a fan of St. Elsewhere on TV, which was probably before your time.
MM: I've seen some episodes but yeah, I was pretty young when it aired originally.
DJC: Well on the show he played this guy Boomer, the most endearing doctor, and some awful things happened to him during that series. For me, I wanted someone who could keep you off balance -- he's got this big physical presence, but I love sort of that odd acting rhythm that David has with being such a big man and having such a gentle and endearing voice. It's so wonderful to see him work and try and figure out what's going on, because the film isn't really a "whodunit", it's more like "did he do it, and if he did do it and we find out, then oh sh*t we're in trouble". David's pretty much a method actor and Shia kept coming up to me saying, "that guy hates me and he won't talk to me." It's part of David's psyche to not want to get close to Shia at all and until they started to do the fight scene and throwing each other around, I'd say that's when they started interacting the most. It's sort of funny to see David's method and how it worked on Shia.
MM: He does sort of have a quiet intensity where you're not quite sure what he's going to do next. So we touched briefly on Sarah and the casting process, but where did you find her, because I had checked her IMDb credits and she hadn't really done much.
DJC: She had done a little part in a movie called Wristcutters, A Love Story, which I never saw and was a really small thing, and when I cast her she went off to do a brief role in The Grudge 2, so she had a little bit of experience. I'd say though, if I read 100 guys for Shia's role, I read 200 girls for Sarah's. I just couldn't find the right one as I didn't want her to be overtly sexy. I wanted to find someone who could also be a tomboy and want to hang with the guys, but at the same time have some sexuality that would make her attractive to them. I was getting off the elevator and there she was, and that was the girl. I got her in, got her to read with Shia, and the chemistry between the two of them is great. So she came out of the casting process, but it was a long process.
MM: Yeah I did see that she was in The Grudge 2, but I honestly can't remember her in it.
DJC: I must confess that I haven't seen it.
MM: You've worked a lot in Vancouver on some TV stuff and you shot Two for the Money here. How would you say it's different working in Vancouver or on location than say, in Hollywood?
DJC: It's not that different, but for me personally as a filmmaker, I like to work close to home and sleep in my own bed. What I find is with Vancouver, it's such a great city, I love the water and being near the water. But for me, in Vancouver you don't have the life distractions you'd have in Hollywood, like the wife and kids. And the crews in Vancouver are very, very good. Even with all the television series that they do up there, they have a great knowledge base. It allows me to focus totally on the work when I'm up there and not have outside factors like any family problems come into play.
MM: Actually you shot one scene in Two for the Money right next to my mom's business.
DJC: On Two for the Money, I knew I was going to New York for a few days and they were like, "you've got to shoot in Toronto." Al Pacino was in some sort of custody battle and needed to keep close to L.A., and for me it's always nice to know you're in the same time zone that your family is, you know what I mean? So even if it's just a telephone call, you're not worrying about the three hours. I really, really love Vancouver.
MM: I like to ask everyone I talk to about how they would describe themselves in one word and the reason they chose that word.
DJC: One word... hmmm... child-like, because I'm allowed to not act like an adult when I'm a director.
MM: Now do the same thing for the film.
MM: Just pure popcorn entertainment.
DJC: Yeah that's exactly it. You know what I'm proud of, for a movie that's been heavily marketed as a thriller/horror movie, there's a lot more humour than one would expect. I just think it's sort of a fun popcorn ride that takes you into a combined genre.
MM: Now you premiered down at South by Southwest.
DJC: Have you been to the Drafthouse?
MM: No, but I hear I have to.
DJC: You have to go to the Alamo Drafthouse. It's the great theater in North America. I kid you not. Actually, a theater like that would do well up in Vancouver.
MM: Really, I do have some friends in the exhibition business, maybe I'll run that by them.
DJC: Basically, the crowd was fantastic and the Ain't It Cool guys introduced it and they loved the movie. Thank god. Now the Drafthouse, they remove every other row and put a table that goes across the entire aisle and the trailer in front of your movie shows how to order food and drink without talking. There's a white piece of paper that you stick up on the table in front of you and the waitresses walk below so they are not blocking your line of sight. I knew the movie was a 6 reel movie and I wanted a beer every 20 minutes, so basically every 20 minutes she came and plopped down my beer. It's so festive and it's so fun. You wouldn't want to see Reds that way, but it's so much fun and that theater is just so fantastic.
MM: I don't know if you've heard this, but I read an article in the last couple of days that they are moving the Drafthouse.
DJC: No I didn't.
MM: Yeah the main one downtown, I guess they were in danger of losing their lease cause the area is getting developed, so they actually are going to renovate a theater a couple blocks away and turn that into the new Drafthouse.
DJC: I hope they keep the sign.
MM: Let's talk the DVD. You've gone out theatrically at PG-13. Are we going to be seeing an unrated DVD?
DJC: There's some stuff on the DVD that the MPAA made us cut out. The Blu-ray high def version is also going to have a commentary with Shia, Sarah, and I sitting on the couch while we drank, ate, and commented on the movie.
MM: Well, looks like we're out of time, man.
DJC: Thanks for taking the time and talking to me.
MM: You too. Have a good one and good luck with the movie.
Disturbia opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, April 13th, 2007.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.