Here is what director William H. Macy had to say about Rudderless:
IAR: To begin with, after several decades as a celebrated actor you recently made your feature film directorial debut with Rudderless. Have you always wanted to direct?
William H. Macy: No, It sort of came up recently. I had a birthday and my wife in her inimitable fashion said, “Now that you’re in your third act, what do you think you’d like to do?” My blood ran cold because third acts are notoriously short. I think I wanted to move into directing because a couple of things came together. I’ve been taking a lot of photographs ever since my daughters were born and at a point I thought, I’m not a bad photographer. I can compose a shot with the best of them. I’ve been writing for many years, so I had the raw materials to be a director. Finally, an actor’s purview is so narrow, so small. On one hand we’re very powerful and on another hand what we do is a full time job. It’s very difficult, but our purview is the moment, tiny little moments and we just stream them all together. It’s the mark of a good actor that he does one thing at a time. One little moment and you put them all together and you’ve done Hamlet. A director on the other hand is in charge of creating a world that you’ve got to see from horizon to horizon. I really wanted to try that, so I threw my hat in the ring. It took a couple of years to find a film that I could get off the ground. So I’m very pleased with Rudderless.
As an actor you’ve worked with some extremely acclaimed directors such as David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen brothers. What did you learn from the filmmakers you’ve worked with throughout your career that you were able to apply to directing Rudderless?
Macy: Well certainly. I think it falls into two categories. One, the movies they made and two, the way they ran their sets. Interestingly I had to go back and educate myself as to the movies they made. Somebody told me a trick, which is watch the movie with the sound down and then you can really get an idea of their shots, how they put them together and where they cut. I think all along I was picking up tips from everybody on where they decided to begin the scene and where they decided to end the scene, which is more of a function of writing I guess. Also, the way they blocked the scene, and then how they ran their set. All three of those people that you mentioned were pretty formative for me. First of all, Dave Mamet runs his set like a fraternity: everybody’s in and everybody’s a part of the film. He empowers people. I’ve seen him say, “Hello,” to twenty five or thirty extras at 6:15AM and then say, “Goodnight” to them by name twelve hours later. David’s famous for one time saying to the transportation department, “Can you get me a van?” They said, “No, we don’t have any drivers.” He said, “What do you mean you don’t have any drivers?” They said, “Because you’ve got them all in costume! They’re all on set! They’re all in the freaking movie! We don’t have any drives left.” He loves to do that stuff. He would start a newsletter that was published once a week and it got to the point by the fourth or fifth week of shooting that people were more interested in their article in the newsletter than they were in the movie or their job. It would form a tight unit. Plus, he has a wicked sense of humor. He loves practical jokes. Paul Thomas Anderson brings this energy to the set, which is infectious. He loves to make movies. He would rather be nowhere than on that set at that time. He also has an indefatigable knowledge of film. He’s seen everything and he can reference it. He said without guile one day, “Steal from the best. Everything been done, just repackage it.” I think he underestimated himself, but almost anything he does he could reference two or three films where he got the idea. The Coen brothers are a picture of apparition. They are the most exquisitely prepared filmmakers I’ve ever encountered. They know exactly what they’re going to do every minute of the way and yet they have this great ability to leave room for improvisation and those happy surprises.
I think Billy Crudup is an excellent and perhaps, very underrated actor. How did you come to cast him in your film?
Macy: I’d known Billy’s work. I think I’ve seen him on stage, and of course Almost Famous, and a couple of other films. The casting process is long and torturous for an independent film. At a point we decided to lower the ages of the characters and then of course Billy went to the top of the list. God bless him, I will be in his debt forever. I sent him the script on a Wednesday, and he called me the next day and said, “I got your script and I’ll read it tonight.” I’ll be dog gone if he didn’t read it that night. He said, “It’s a great script let me think about it. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He did and for that I will forever be in his debt. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to work with actors. They’re just awful. They’ll get a script and they’ll sit on it for a month and a half. It sits on their desk and they won’t even bother to read it.
As an actor yourself, have you ever done that before?
Macy: I’m afraid I did. I used to do that. But I’ll tell you ever since I started directing I try to turn these things around more or less in a week. If I can’t I at least get my agent to call and say, “William’s up to his ass in alligators, please give him another week.” But I will never do that again. I try to read the scripts as quickly as I can. It’s a tall order. Actors have my sympathy. A script comes across the transom and it’s by an unknown director, it’s not set up, and they want you to read it in order to use your name to get the financing for it. Sometimes the scripts can come fast and furious and you spend all day reading. They have my sympathy. The only thing that always made me cranky is that it’s not just some guy … it’s me!
Did you know Laurence Fishburne personally before you cast him in your movie?
Macy: Yes, we’re neighbors. He lives in the neighborhood. We have too many friends in common. I’ve run into him many times through the years. He’s the real deal. It was a bit of a Hail Mary pass to send him this script, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t say yes.
The music in Rudderless is pivotal to the plot of the film. Can you talk about choosing the songs that you thought would work best with the story?
Macy: I was very aware that the music, and the fact that it was about music, was one of the things that had attracted me the most. Music is really important in my life. I have very little to no talent, but I sure do love it. I’ve played guitar my whole life. It’s how I got into this business. I play ukulele now several times a day. I’ve got ukuleles all over my house and I can’t pass one without picking it up. Personally, I feel people who play ukuleles are slightly more evolved than the rest of the world. I knew from the very beginning that the music was going to be a big player and it scared me to death. We hired a woman named Liz Gallacher who was the music supervisor and she put the word out on the wire in the indie world and I got a lot of submissions. It was very flattering. Some people wrote songs on set. Early on I decided that you really get to know (the character of) Josh through the music, so it had to be his personality. Without apology I said, I wanted top songs, and I wanted them to be complicated with a bridge and a chorus. I wanted them to be funny or ironic. I did not want them to be about the movie per se. They could write about anything they wanted, but not the plot. I got this song by Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman, and I liked it so I looked at some of their other stuff.
Finally, what did you learn from directing your first feature film that will help you the next time you direct a movie? Also, do you think that your experience directing will change your approach as an actor going forward?
Macy: That’s an excellent question. I learned a bit about story structure, what’s important and what’s not. I learned there’s a whole lot about directing I don’t know yet. I learned that I really don’t want to do anything, but direct. As far as my acting, I certainly have a lot more sympathy (or at least empathy) for directors, having seen what they go through and what a difficult job it is. I think I learned a lot from Billy about simplicity and depth, going deep. He had this wonderful way, both he and Felicity (Huffman). I’ve watched them. They both dug deep into their souls and really exposed themselves, and yet they used such a light touch. It’s something I want to emulate. I’d love to be able to do that more in my own acting.
Rudderless will be available on DVD beginning January 20th.