Mark Ruffalo on His Directing Debut, Avengers Hype and Listening to David Fincher

sympathy_delicious300.jpgIt only took a decade, but veteran actor and recent Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo finally has his feature directorial debut, Sympathy For Delicious, in theaters. Written by and starring Ruffalo's longtime theater comrade Christopher Thornton, the film follows the rise and fall of a paralyzed street dweller and aspiring DJ who discovers an uncanny gift for healing the sick, wounded and infirm -- with the exception of himself. The paradox throws him into conflict with everybody from a service- (and money-) minded Catholic priest (played by Ruffalo) to a pair of debased rockers (Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis) hoping to enliven their show with a big new thrill. Why not a healer?

Satire, tragedy, dark comedy and strangely inspirational drama ensue -- a wild tonal cocktail about which Ruffalo spoke this week with Movieline.

It took you roughly 10 years to get this off the ground. How did you determine this was the first thing you wanted to direct?

Because I'm crazy. Because I'm a glutton for punishment. No, it's that my best friend -- we went to acting school together, he had a climbing accident and ended up in a wheelchair -- handed me this script. I'd already directed him in a lot of plays; I'd worked very closely with him in the theater. We went to school together. First of all, it was wildly imaginative; it's a story I'd never seen anyone really come close to telling. And I thought, "Hey man, if you're going to do it, you might as well go for it and do it with people you know and you love and you trust."

Did you always intend to act in this?


Did you have a choice in the end?

No, I didn't have a choice in the end. It was either act in it, or there's no movie. You know? It wasn't bad. It was tough, just because we shot the movie in 23 days, and I didn't have time to sit at a monitor and watch myself in playback. But once I got the gist of it, it was OK.

Were there any directors you'd worked with previously from who you taken any techniques or tips or tricks of the trade?

Yeah -- all of them. When I was first working on it, I was shooting In the Cut. That was the first time the movie was looking like it might get made. So I sat down with Jane Campion and I said, "Can you give me a little master class in directing?" And she sort of took a couple hours with me and went through the whole process. That was very helpful for me. And since then, I just went from picture to picture just knowing one day I'd be directing. Or hoping that would happen. And so with everybody from Fincher to Scorsese to Brian Goodman -- who was a first-time director who directed What Doesn't Kill You -- I was taking bits and pieces from them all along the way.

What did you get from Fincher?

Fincher is a stickler for detail and storytelling. Fincher, actually, was the first person to see my rough cut, and he gave me a five-hour master class. We went through the whole film. It took five hours to watch it, and he really gave me great critiques.

Like what?

Most of it was story. There's a lot of the movie that was cut out; he said, "We don't need this for the story." He really helped me to focus on what was just essential for the movie. Scorsese, when I asked him what he had to say, he said that as a director, you have to be true to your own vision -- that a lot of people were going to come tinker with the movie, but don't let a studio or producer take a movie over from you. Stay strong [regarding] how you see it and what your beliefs are. Or the way Martin Scorsese moves a camera; the last half of the movie is pretty much panning shots or dolly moves or push-ins without any pans. There are some crab moves. That's something I stole from him.

No one shoots on dollies anymore. Everyone uses Steadicams. What's up with that?

Yeah. Or handhelds. Scorsese uses Steadicam, too, quite a bit. But who else? I don't know. I've spent a lot of years on movie sets, so I've gotten a good chance to suck that up.

Let's talk about the spiritual influence. Some of this film is pretty cynical -- maybe not at Network levels, or Dr. Strangelove...

Well, Network is big.

sympathy_delicious300.jpgDid that come up while you were making this?

Yeah, because [Network director Sidney Lumet] goes from real cynicism to kind of beautiful humanity to drama to comedy to really broad social satire -- all in the same film. The characters get very broad, the situations get very broad, but it's all really still grounded beautifully. And that's more like theater, which is where Chris and I come from. I really liked that type of filmmaking. It's not something we see often. People gave him a lot of shit for it back in the day -- those disparate tonal shifts. But I find that incredibly exciting. So yeah, the movie does kind of move between different pathoses and styles in a strange way. But I like to think it's held together by a certain reality.

Without giving too much away, there's an extraordinary jump cut in this film between a rock concert and a courtroom. They should teach this film schools along with the ones from the beginning of 2001 or the end of North by Northwest. How was it conceived?

Budgetary! We knew we didn't want it to be a long courtroom drama, and so we knew we had to cover a lot of ground once we got in there. The only way we knew we could do it was by doing a jump cut. Chris and I were sort of struggling with this, and then we came up with the idea that all of these people had all of this footage, and that they would use that in the courtroom. And again. The more we could switch gears and the more we could throw people off and have them think they know where they're headed and then change that up, the better a movie it would be. The more exciting it would be. And that was one of those moments: How do we slam them into a courtroom from here without having to do A, B, C, D, E, F, and G? How do we go from A to T? That was one way we though of doing it: Just hold it on that shot and pull back.

Everything's media now. Our whole lives are recorded and played back to us everywhere we turn. It's all social media content. So that was another cool thing to be playing with.

The Avengers started shooting this week. Are you excited?

Very. Very.

When do you go in?

My first day is opening day of this movie -- the 29th. It's amazing.

Are you generally a big summer move fan? Blockbusters and the like?

I do end up going to them. It's not my bread and butter as a film, as someone who loves movies, but I certainly get enjoyment from them.

More and more art-house or auteurist filmmakers are getting into them, though. There's Christopher Nolan, obviously. Even Terrence Malick has a summer movie this year. What do you make of that trend? Can these spirits coexist?

I think it's interesting what I see happening. It started in the indie world, a little bit: They started making indies that wanted to be little studio films. And it sort of worked its way along. It's an interesting combination of indie films superseding studio movies as far as awards go; there was a time when the only people who were getting awards were the big studio movies. Now it's almost 50/50, or swapped. And that's informed this idea of, "Oh, you can take these two and meld them together." It actually works, and it's lucrative. And the idea of bringing real, interesting characters and complex stories to these big summer movies is actually economically feasible and smart.

I mean, Kenneth Branagh is directing Thor.

I know! For crying out loud.

But does that make you more interested in Thor than you would be just by virtue of being in The Avengers?

It's definitely compelling that he's directing Thor. A big, histrionic, Shakespearean drama made out of Thor would be very, very cool. Or you see [Christopher Nolan] go from Memento to Batman -- that's really interesting. Those are the people who should be directing those movies. They're the one who have the chops and the imaginations. It's not enough just to do a spectacle anymore. We're desensitized to the spectacles. Now we want storytelling in spectacle form. That's the transition that I see being made. And I'm happy about it.

You're a part of it!

And I'm part of it now. Amazing.

[Top photo: WireImage]

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