After our rave review of Rudderless from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and our initial interview with director William H. Macy (the Oscar-nominated star of “Fargo” and TV’s “Shameless”), there was something left unsaid.
If you’ve seen the film – it opened in VOD and select theaters last weekend – you know exactly what we’re talking about. If you didn’t, this interview may not be for you, since it delves into the film’s finale in great detail. In an era in which some people complain about “spoilers’ if you mention a plot point that happens in the freaking trailers, we wanted to be sensitive about this.
So if you haven’t seen Rudderless, do so. It’s an emotionally overwhelming film about a man named Sam, played by Billy Crudup, who plays songs at open mic nights written by his son, who died in a school shooting. The music is catchy and wonderful, the performances are touching, and overall, it’s an impressive directorial debut by William H. Macy.
But if you have seen Rudderless, you’re probably curious about some things that it would be rude to discuss openly without a MAJOR SPOILER WARNING. We tracked William H. Macy down to go in depth about the specific plot points that got everyone talking after they left the theater. And also to get one question in about his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the blaxploitation classic Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. Just because we couldn’t resist.
So be warned, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. Please be respectful of other audience members (and the filmmakers) by not ruining the dramatic turn of events towards the end of Rudderless, and please enjoy our exclusive interview about them.
CraveOnline: I was really taken aback, at first just how wonderfully you were telling a story through music, and then the twist. I thought to myself, “That was really, really clever.” Was the twist there from the beginning? Did you always want to pull a reversal?
William H. Macy: Good for you. No, when I first read it it was about a father’s guilt. He had been an absent father, and we worked on it a good bit because they’re good writers. It crackles, their dialogue, and I liked the character and it was good. The music… One of them, Casey [Twenter] called me and said, “Okay, wacky idea… What if Josh is the shooter?”
And I got a chills, literally. I had been spending time with that family and I knew them, and that just blasted it out of the water for me. And then I thought, “Well, wait, how do we tell that? What…?” As soon as I realized how it had thrown me into complete confusion, I thought, well there’s the movie, dude. That’s a movie to tell! That, I’ve not seen before.
Even before that twist comes along, there’s a sense of guilt for singing the songs anyway. I’m picking up that he doesn’t want anyone to know, but is it just that he’s ashamed he’s plagiarizing his son…?
Well, ain’t you a smart guy…?
But was that sense in the script before that, or was he just proudly singing those songs?
No, no… The second we realized the twist, we rewrote the entire thing. So it was a brand new script. The only thing to happen was, where do we put that reveal? And I kept moving it deeper and deeper into the film. I realized that there was a point where if I went too deep it’s just manipulating the audience.
It’d just be a “gotcha” moment at the end.
Yeah. It’s filmmakers farting around with you. So that’s as far as I thought we could take it. As far as what you thought you sensed… So that the audience didn’t feel manipulated, I held myself, and I asked others to look over my shoulder make sure that everything existed in the funeral, and everything. That it was there. It wasn’t stated but it was clear that we’re acting the story that their son had just done this horrible thing. So that if you saw the film again, you wouldn’t say, “Well, you ran the tables on me.” You’d say, “No, it was there, I just didn’t pick up on it.” And in fact some people do. They see the press and the helicopters and that gaggle of press, and they go, “This wouldn’t be just for a victim.” They guess early on. And luckily they still enjoy the film, so it’s not dependent on that, but help us out. We’re trying to keep it…
“I cry every time he says it.”
I’m actually going to hold on to this interview, because I really want to talk about this part of it. I’m going to hold off until after this movie has been released and I’m going to call it a “spoiler interview.” Because yeah, I would have enjoyed the film had the twist been ruined for me ahead of time, but it’s such a great moment.
It’s pretty stunning.
Even the way you visually reveal it though, with the defaced tombstone. Where did you come up with that? Was that the original concept or did you come up with other ideas?
[Thinks.] I… I can’t remember. It just seemed logical. I don’t know when that came in. There’s a story from Columbine though that they put up a plaque and planted a tree for all the victims, including the two shooters. And a month later, someone destroyed and defaced the plaque and cut down all the trees. So they redid it without the two boys, and since that time the shooters are never mentioned. It became an unspoken rule.
One of my favorite moments is when Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup are talking in the car, and Fishburne says, “Those are sons are daughters,” and Crudup says, “But he was MY son.”
I cry every time he says it.
It’s such a beautiful thought, and I don’t even know how to…
It’s imponderable. We were really careful about not… We don’t know. I don’t have any answers to this. This isn’t about Josh. Nobody knows and it would be presumptuous to say. Because health care professionals all over the world are trying to figure out what’s going on, and they can’t. But a father’s grief, and also Felicity [Huffman, Macy’s wife] did some research and if you have a support system, you can feel guilt for the rest of your life. But if you don’t have a support system you feel shame. And in fact many of them change their names and move away, and that was the jumping off point for us. Go online, try to find out… There’s two fathers recently, [they] talked, and that was a game changer.
And it’s not always up to them. If you stay in the same community you’re going to be reminded constantly.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, did you see that movie?
Tackled a similar issue, but there wasn’t any sort of redemption in it.
No, and I was very clear I didn’t want to make that movie. I don’t like those movies. I like to feel better.
And it’s interesting how funny this movie can be. There’s a scene, and I’m terrible with nautical terminology… it’s a regatta?
He just plows through the regatta, but it’s after the shit has hit the fan emotionally and the audience is really reeling. Had you ever thought about about putting that scene earlier, or were you always trying to lighten things up a bit towards the end?
It’s funky storytelling. I know he’s acting out… [Thinks.] I think that he places in that guy that runs the thing, Alaird, the rage and the anger he feels, and he takes it out on this poor schmuck. I don’t know. That whole regatta was a real caution to shoot. It cost a lot of money and it took a lot of our capital, and I cut it and put it back, cut it and put it back and cut it and put it back.
I like it where it is, but it’s interesting to me because, the audience has just learned this information but we’re at a different emotional place. We just received this information, but he’s known it all along and he’s on a different journey than we are at that moment. So he can have that moment because we don’t realize what he’s really been going through.
Also, it really sets up that moment, “Because he was my son.” Because now the audience is on the same page and it is a way to get to that moment without being maudlin. You know, in every script… every script you always get to the point where you have to write what the movie is about, what the story is.
“Statement of theme” I think it’s called.
Yes, and if you write the script well that comes and goes on its own, and it’s organic and it’s beautiful and it’s fantastic. If you don’t write the script well, you have to write that scene. The scene for us, and I think it’s pretty successful, is Billy going in to talk to Anton [Yelchin], when he says, “Keep playing. When I played I saw my son Josh.” And it works because it’s earned, emotionally, and they act the shit out of it. I had a couple, you could tell what I was thinking… I put the lady in the thing, you know? Just to give an audience to it, just to give a little levity to it, and then there’s the green guitar that he passes on. So I gave everything I could to ameliorate that whole… “Well, as you all know, this is a story about redemption.”
“The curtain went up and there’s Macy, flying on his side!”
What I like about that scene… there’s something very simple about it. It’s almost commenting on itself, but it’s also very natural. We established early on that Billy Crudup’s character kind of gives terrible advice. “You have stage fright? Well… don’t.”
Anton shoves it back in his face. “That’s it? That’s all that you’ve got?” “Well… yeah.” Because… yeah, what else is there?
I know, and he says, “Quitters never win.” It’s trite, but god, it’s also very profound.
I feel like a lot of advice is so contrite and simple that we don’t believe it until after we’ve learned from real-life experience why it is that simple. You know, like we don’t trust it at all, and then, “Oh yeah, quitters never win.”
I’ll take up all your time, but I was going to open on Broadway replacing somebody, and I had two weeks to learn Speed-the-Plow, which is impossible. So I went to New York, I had two put-in rehearsals and then I was going on. And Felicity kept saying, “Remember to breathe.” And then finally I blew up at her and I said, “You keep saying ‘Remember to…’ What the fuck does that mean?! I don’t know the lines! I’ve never been through it! ‘Remember to breathe.’ What is that?!”
So I’m sitting there, there’s an act curtain, the place is packed. The stage manager says, “Are you ready?” I go, “Yeah,” and then I thought, “Oh dear god, I’m passing out! I can feel it.” And I took a deep breath, and I took another deep breath, and I remembered to breathe! So the play went off and I got through it. Had she not… I might have… The curtain went up and there’s Macy, flying on his side!
I haven’t really done much acting since college and I still have nightmares. “Oh god, we’re going up in two weeks and I don’t know my lines!”
Two weeks! No, you’re on stage and you don’t know the lines.
I was just relating, because you actually did that. You came this close…
Never again. Never again.
That’s insane. Were you always going to play the owner of the bar in Rudderless? Was that for you?
[Thinks.] Yes. Everyone wanted me to play Alaird […] and it was just too many scenes. Recently I directed a “Shameless” and I had about six or seven scenes in it, and I didn’t act well in those scenes.
I’m always fascinated by people who have to direct themselves. How do you know when you’re good, right?
It can’t be done. It can’t be done. At least I can’t do it. Something’s going to suffer. You’ll direct badly or you’ll act badly, and probably you’ll do both mediocre.
Especially in TV since the pace is so fast.
I hated it. I hated it.
So never again?
Do you have any other films…?
Crystal. It’s called Crystal. It’s the original film, when I said I wanted to direct I found that script. It went to the eleventh hour about three times, [then] the money fell apart. This time it’s working!
It gets better.
Rudderless probably helps.
It broke the back of it. We start February 15. Sienna Miller, Josh Hutcherson, John Hawkes, Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman. It’s a comedy. Southern gothic, slamming door comedy.
Oh good! I like those. I think it was Ebert who said the only difference between that kind of comedy and a tragedy is timing.
Let it play out longer and it’s sad. Keep it zippy.
Tell me your favorite memory about working on Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.
[Laughs.] That jacket. Didn’t they give me the…?
The clothes… Why didn’t I keep those? They wouldn’t have let me. They probably cost more than they paid me. I remember those women were improbably beautiful and perfect. Vanity and who was the other one…?
She had that great musical number.
It was one those things when I ran into them in the hall and went, “Uh… Aw…” Just perfect skin, perfect body, perfect everything. Stunning. And Berry Gordy was running around a lot. He was on set. Weird. I was just a New York City actor. I didn’t know what I was into.
I love that movie.
This little Lutheran white boy running around these great rock ’n’ rollers. Interesting.