TriBeCa 2011: Michael & Gerald Cuesta, Ron Eldard talk ROADIE
by Sanela Djokovic
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This year the TriBeCa Film Festival’s roster features impressive films from Mexico, Egypt, South Africa, Serbia, China, France, Iceland and several other countries, but it’s an undisguised and honest New York gem that just may be this year’s pride. Director Michael Cuesta, co-writer Gerald Cuesta and lead actor Ron Eldard, all New Yorkers, sat down with me to discuss their film ROADIE, about a career roadie for the Blue Oyster Cult that gets fired and goes home to Queens after twenty years, sharing fascinating insight and engaging stories from its origins to the on-set experiences and what the film means to them.
Michael Cuesta has enjoyed critical success with L.I.E., Twelve and Holding and Tell Tale— strong, thought-provoking films that deal with bold, heavy and disturbing themes. But, with ROADIE, he and his brother Gerald, set out to make something with as much depth but not as much darkness.
Michael Cuesta: I wanted to make something very minimal. I didn’t want a lot of fucked-up psychological stuff or a provocative subject. I just really wanted to make a story about a character. a real story about a real person. And, that was it. It’s funny, it ended up being a lot more, to Ron’s credit, a lot more honest than I thought it was going to turn out. It really did. [Addressing Ron Eldard] I know you talk about the film’s honesty and its dignity— I didn’t know.
Ron Eldard: Well, actually we’ve talked about this— When Gerald wrote the first pass it had a different tone. It was maybe more of a comical?
Gerald Cuesta: It was more comical.
Michael: It was broader. It was much more of a Hollywood film, if I could say in a cliché way.
Ron: I lean towards dark work. But, always in dark work, there has to be at least a flashbulb of light. There has to be this moment of love or beauty. I don’t like nasty for nasty. I don’t like violence for violence. It’s not true to me. It doesn’t touch my heart. [To Michael and Gerald] And, what you guys did, it’s funny because in the end you can’t help but write stuff that has psychological trouble. Because, if you write anything true, even a great romantic comedy— a great romantic comedy, if it’s great, there’s fucked-up psychological stuff in there. How can you have love and romance without fucked-up psychological stuff?
There is a rare authenticity made manifest by the depth of the ROADIE cast, which includes Bobby Cannavale, Jill Hennessy and Lois Smith, that is proof of a very thoughtful casting process. These were not names just thrown together, but were carefully chosen as to not present caricatures and stereotypes.
On Bobby Cannavale as Randy…
Ron: After we met and I got the job Michael would ask ‘do you have any ideas who could play Nikki or how about Randy?’ He’d call me and say ‘you know we’re thinking about this person’ and I was like Bobby Cannavale? I had worked with Bobby before, I know him. I was like ‘well that’s it. That is dead on.’ I love Bobby’s work. I think this is Bobby’s best work, because he is innately likable first of all. I think he’s great in everything. Here he gets to be a genuinely dark, dark, bad dude, and also a real charming guy. Bobby Cannavale, that’s perfect. And, Lois Smith is one of the great living actors on the planet.
Michael: He came in, he wanted the role. He auditioned, and he read a few times for it and he tried a line and I was blown away. He made choices that didn’t make it into the film, but they were really interesting. His choice was actually go way, way darker in the scene in the motel room and he ended up pulling it back. It wasn’t right.
On Jill Hennessy as Nikki…
Ron: Jill was the surprise. I knew her from her TV stuff and I knew that she sang. I knew that she played, but you know, I’m from Queens and she did not strike me as a girl who roams Queens. I think she does some of her best work in this.
Michael: There was this one scene and it was where Ron kept pushing me to make her a little dirtier, a little darker. [To Ron] You did, you kept saying it and man, you were right.. I knew it, but I’m very careful with my actors and I sort of wanna get there in a more organic way, but there was one scene where she’s kissing Bobby on the bed when Jimmy first comes in she started playing the scene like that [crosses legs]. I’m like ‘Jill what are you doing? You gotta just let go.’
Ron: You can’t have your legs crossed.
Michael: As soon as she changed that the scene changed.
Ron: And, she’s a classy chick— a good, classy woman.
Michael: She’s a classy woman, but I cast her based on her singing at first. I know she can act. And, she can play. She actually had an album out. We used one of her songs. All of that was true and it totally worked. And, I didn’t want her to play New York, because as soon as you try to play new york you start to sound like a cartoon character.
Michael: I recorded my mother. We had a long conversation about growing up. My mom’s from the South Bronx, first generation Italian- American and I recorded her and I gave Lois Smith the recording. She was very curious about the character and she actually said in our first meeting ‘I think there’s a some of your mom in there.’ I had that first lunch with Lois and it was a wonderful lunch. So, I gave her the recording and she found it useful, like the cadence. Lois Smith is a real actress.
Ron: You give her some stuff, she’ll go and do her work.
Michael: Yeah, she does the homework.
Later, when discussing the Jimmy’s relationship with his mother in the film, the men had this to say about Smith and Eldard’s interesting dynamic and the theme of returning home…
Michael: We very much pull from our own experience being home and I think anyone can relate to it, going home and feeling like you don’t want to be there.
Gerald: There’s not a day I can walk into my mother’s house without her reminding me that I gained weight. I mean there’s always a flaw.
Ron: What I love about this whole movie is that even knowing his mother is rough with him in certain ways, its so clear she loves him. She’s struggling, but there’s such a deep love there. Its really touching to me. Its really beautifully unwritten, as far as what they actually say to each other. [To Michael and Gerald] You guys don’t show and tell. You just show. Mostly you just let it breathe. And, Lois and I? I’ve never had this on any film or any play— she and I never had one conversation ever. Never about a scene, never about our characters. I’ve never had that. Lois said she’s never had that either. At the very end we both has a very deep conversation. I love her, I am very touched by her. She said ‘you realize we didn’t talk. I didn’t want to break the spell.’
Michael: Ron showed up for the read through before rehearsals or anything and they read it— and it was there. I was like ‘that was the best read through I’ve ever been to.’
Each actor showed a special interest and dedication to the film, but Eldard felt a profound connection to his character and his passion for the film is palpable. Eldard offers some final insight into what makes Jimmy such a great character and what makes ROADIE a great film…
Ron: This is really one of the best scripts I’ve read that I’ve not been part of and certainly its one of the best I’ve ever read that I’ve been part of. [To Michael and Gerald] I think you guys should really win awards for this script. The odds are I will not get a chance to have many things that will ever match this. The thing that I loved in that coke-run scene— I mean I’m totally ambushed and humiliated in a away, but there is a moment that is the truth. Even though he hasn’t been honest completely yet, when he says to them ‘you’re pretending and I lived it for real.’ He’s done things that they could only dream of doing. And, when he’s able to say and ‘you’re THAT.’ I think that he shows such dignity…such dignity.
ROADIE premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival on Saturday, April 23.
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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