As anyone who’s ever worked on a film set can attest, the actual process of making a movie can be a bitch. Whether you’re an A-list director or just some snot-nosed kid with a camera, things tend to go wrong on set. An actor will quit, change lines, or refuse to hit his marks. The equipment will get ruined. If you’re Terry Gilliam, an asteroid will hit the set while God’s hand comes out of the heavens to point and laugh at you. The process is so common that it should be no surprise that plenty of great movies have been made about the difficulty of making movies. Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion isn’t the most famous, but it might be the most relateable.
Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) is a director in production on a rather difficult independent film. Lead actor Chad Palomino (James LeGros) constantly changes the blocking of his scene. Lead actress Nicole (Catherine Keener) is deeply insecure about her talent. Pretentious cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) argues with Nick about creative decisions. Most of the rest of the crew is incompetent. And Tito (Peter Dinklage in his first credited role), a dwarf hired for a dream sequence, isn’t too happy with his role in the film. Nick deals with these stresses while pining for Nicole and trying to just get this damn thing finished.
The film is a bit of a who’s who of 90s independent film stars: Buscemi is perfect as a neurotic DiCillo surrogate who frequently has to either fight for his (sometimes misguided) vision or cater to the demands of his actors, as is Keener as a woman whose insecurities mask genuine talent (one of the film’s best scenes comes from her having a moment of brilliance…while the cameras aren’t rolling). But perhaps LeGros gets the biggest laughs as the pompous movie star (frequently said to be based on Brad Pitt, though DiCillo has dismissed this) whose fickle demands derail one of the film’s biggest scenes (example: LeGros demands the shooting be delayed because he thinks his character should have an eye-patch).
Living in Oblivion was released in 1995 during the independent film boom, and some of the material dates it considerably (a line referencing Tarantino sticks out like a sore thumb). But DiCillo captures the annoyances of filmmaking with great detail, parodying the various types of films made by pretentious 90s filmmakers- low-budget DIY comedy, overwritten family drama, cheap retro throwbacks, and a particularly absurd dream sequence involving Dinklage- using a variety of film stocks. Even better is his depiction of the various problems that come up during most film productions- boom mics in the shot, big name actors who think they’re the second-coming of Brando, and various sound problems that plague indie films. Making movies can be a pain in the ass, but, as DiCillo expertly shows, pains in the ass can be uproariously funny.