Interview: William H. Macy Talks Directing RUDDERLESS, MPAA, And Co-Starring In Paul Thomas Anderson Films.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published on Twitch Film.]

Deadbeat father. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith. 70’s porn assistant director. Down-on-his luck car salesman who hires the wrong goons to kidnap his wife to collect some ransom money.  These are some of the many prominent characters actor William H. Macy has played on screens big and little. Now he has something new to add to his prolific portfolio: filmmaker. 

Last year, his directorial debut Rudderless had its world premiere at the renowned Sundance Film Festival. It had a small theatrical run and tomorrow it’s available on DVD. I reviewed it while at Sundance and recommend adding this film to your collection. 

Rudderless is a poignant and strangely inspiring movie about loss, pain, and bearing your heart to the world while coming apart at the seams. It stars  Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman (Macy’s beautiful and talented wife), Laurence Fishburne, Selena Gomez, and musician Ben Kweller.

Last week I spoke on the phone with Macy about his experience making Rudderless — what worked and what he needed help on, and so forth.

Moreover, we talked about the MPAA, Shameless, and two films he co-starred in that had a huge impact in my life (as well as yours, I’m sure), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia

Chase Whale: Hey Bill, how’s it going? 

William H. Macy: Very well. Very well. 

Excellent. Thanks for sending me a RUDDERLESS poster. Being quoted on it is very special to me. 

Well then congratulations on your excellent taste. (laughs)

Congratulations on making an excellent movie! Let’s go ahead and jump into this before time runs out. One major thing that makes the industry work is folks taking a chance or a leap of faith on others. As an actor you’ve done this with great success regarding acclaimed directors before they got all the acclaim most notably for a then unknown 20-something director with a little movie called BOOGIE NIGHTS. For your directorial debut, what about the RUDDERLESS screenplay made you want it to be your first leap of faith as a filmmaker? 

The short answer is a lot of things fell together at the same time. It’s my experience I read a lot of stuff that I think is worthy of being made that is difficult to get made. It’s tough to get anything made but I read a lot of stuff. I loved the music. I loved that music was such a central part of it because music is a big thing to me. I loved the notion of dealing with violence. Talking about violence from a point of view that I don’t believe has been covered in the past. I thought it was of a size that I could handle. I was a bit naïve on that part. It was a much bigger movie than I thought. I was talking to a friend about shooting on sailboats and he said, “Oh man it’s a nightmare. Avoid it. Don’t do it”. Worse than that is music. But I thought it was a size that I could manage and then finally Keith Kjarval who produced it read the thing and he said “I can get this made” and he did. 

Do you remember the moment when it hit you that you wanted to direct a movie? 

It really wasn’t a moment. I think I turned 50 or maybe when I turned 55 or something like that my wife said, “Well you’re in your 3rd act what do you want to do with your career?”. And with that (then?) my blood ran cold for a while. Third acts are so short.  I think I’ve been coming at it slowly but surely. I love acting and I love the actors purview which is the minutia.  You know we deal with really nanoseconds. Sometimes you’ll do a scene where you really have one little moment and the whole scene is about 40 seconds long. I love that concentrating like that and I love having something difficult to do with 65 people watching you and as soon as you get it right they all get to go home. I love that pressure. Slowly but surely I wanted to be in charge of telling the entire story. I want to tell the whole joke. I want to set it up and throw the punchline myself. Other than thinking of minutes I thought, “Well I want to think about the whole world”. 

Now that you’ve made your first feature what have you learned as a filmmaker after filming wraps that you didn’t know or really think about before shooting?

That’s a great question. I learned a lot about. I had a great lesson about story structure and particularly set-up. I discovered that I thought the audience needed a lot more help getting into the story than they actually do. I shot a lot of stuff on set-up, on background that I ended up not using. I think I knew that somewhere in my DNA, but it was brought home. You know you want to get to the story as fast as you can [but you] really just need a couple of moments to give them their bearings and then you can go off to your story.  In other words, you can say he’s a successful business man. You don’t need four scenes to prove it. Just say it. 

That makes sense. Okay I want to talk a little bit about acting for a moment and then we’ll go back to RUDDERLESS. These are throwback and it kind of goes into taking chances and this and that. Back to BOOGIE NIGHTS. It’s such a filthy, but great story and a lot of amazing actors like yourself took a chance on it when Paul was super young and unknown. Do you remember what it was about the script that made you want to take a chance on starring in the film? 

I was off working some place and I got this script and I read the thing and it was a lot more bold than the final product. I mean he had to tone it down a little bit. I called my agent and I said, “Am I being pranked? This is a porn film”. There was just so much sex in it. He said, “No, no people really like this and you should see his first film which was called Hard Eight…”

Great movie. 

I loved that it dealt with the porn industry. I feel like in this country we are so skittish about sex much to our detriment. I look at the MPAA board and the way they rate movies and I just feel like all of those people need therapy. They are allergic to sex which I find to be very good. Even the bad sex I’ve had is pretty good. And yet they are so permissive about violence, ugly pornographic violence. They think our 12 and 14 year olds can see that shit and I think they’re sick. So Paul’s film sort of was a half grapefruit in the face of our morals that way. It told a very interesting story with a good moral code at its core do you know what I mean? They’re really good people. 

Oh yeah absolutely. I really liked how they showed the madness and mayhem that goes behind-the-scenes of it and how it’s not all glitz and glamour. 

Man I saw Hard Eight and I walked out of the theater, it was a screening, and I said, “Dude if you want to direct the Yellow Pages count me in”. 

So going on another one of Paul’s films you starred in one of the best films of the 20th century and the most important film in my life, MAGNOLIA. There’s a rumor that Paul wrote most of the screenplay while at your cabin and I wanted to see if that’s true. 

I know he went up there to do one of his final drafts before going into production. There is usually a bit of a production draft that has to do with mechanics more than art. Yeah he went up to the cabin way out in the wild of Vermont and no one will bother you. 

Regarding an important decoration of your character in MAGNOLIA, if you can remember, how many times did you have to listen to Gabriel’s “Dreams” during shooting? 

I guess I listened to it a lot, didn’t I? Every driving scene, yeah… I thought you first meant that Aimee Mann song…

"Wise Up!"

I just loved that. And I loved his bit where everyone sang a little bit of it. I thought that was so novel. 

Absolutely. “Wise Up” is an amazing song and that’s one of the most fascinating scenes in film history. I could go on and on about that movie, but I know we’re on limited time. So back to RUDDERLESS. You were talking about a little bit of the violence and everything. The film deals with a very sensitive subject, but handles it in a very professional and caring manner. How did you find the right balance with what happens in the beginning all the way with the rest of the story where everything eventually unfolds and plays out? You know some parts are funny. It’s a really good balance of comedy, drama, and honesty. 


Well I have a tendency to go for levity anyway it’s just in my personality. I always look for the joke. I think it’s a truism in this business if you really, really want to get people upset and emotional, get them laughing first. And the opposite is true also. If you want to really land a joke put it in the midst of a rather sad scene and then throw the joke. It sets us up. We knew, Casey, Jeff, and me, we knew that we were really playing with fire. One with subject matter. The big thing was are we trying to explain or excuse the kid and what happened? We went through great pains. There was a re-write late in the shooting where we had Laurence Fishburne say, “They were all somebody’s kid and your boy killed ‘em”. We felt like it just needed to be said. It was just us bending over backwards to make sure we were telling the story we thought we were telling and that it couldn’t be misinterpreted. The thing we were very aware of is that there is a great danger of being manipulative when you have a reveal like that and we moved it farther and farther into the body of the film before the reveal came. I felt compelled to make sure that I told the truth about everything you saw at the funeral and everything. I didn’t want the audience to feel manipulated. As a matter of fact, I wanted them to look back and say, “Oh yeah it was all there. Nobody said it, but it was all there”.  I feel like we succeeded. I know I got raked over the coals by some press and I think they’re wrong. 

That’s gonna happen. Like you said, they’re wrong. I think you did a very…

You know everybody makes mistakes. 

I think you did a very noble job with it. You were saying music is very important to you and music plays a very important part in the film. To me it became its own character. What was the process of building the (hit?) music that they play and most notably what made you want to bring on Ben Kweller? I’m a huge fan of his so it was a great delight, but why Ben? 

Casey Twenter, one of the writers, said “you should see Ben”. This was one of the first casting choices made. I think I saw him at the Wiltern and I heard him play and I said, “Ben I’m doing this movie would you read it?” and he said, “Yeah”. I knew that the chances of me getting 4 accomplished musicians was thin, so Ben was my ringer. And in fact, he really helped the other guys Billy and Anton play but they are not professional musicians. He really helped us a whole lot. The process of finding the music. We hired a musical director named Liz Gallagher and she put the word out in the indie scene. You said it, the music is a character; the kid. So I put the word out that I wanted top songs. I wanted the audience to be able to hum the hook after just one hearing. I wanted them to be complicated. I wanted three parts: a chorus, verse, and a middle eighth as the Beatles called it. I wanted the lyrics to be funny and I wanted them to have irony and I did not want them to be about the movie. I said you can write about anything you want but not about the movie. 

I actually know Casey and he told me to tell you hello because I told him that I was interviewing you today. Speaking of Gallagher because you mentioned the name Gallagher, I just wanted to say congrats on 6th season of SHAMELESS already being picked up. I think it’s one of the greatest television families ever created. The first show where I love and give a damn about every character, congratulations on that. Congratulations on the film. Looking forward to everything you have coming up Bill. Great work. 

It’s a good season. Wait until you see it. Man, I finish big in this season too. 

Awesome I can’t wait.  Well thanks a lot for your time and looking forward to everything in the future. 

Thank you, Chase. Say hello to Casey for me if you see him before I do and thank you for your support man. Thank you for being there. 

Absolutely. Thank you for making a great film. 

I’m going to try to do another one.

Looking forward to it!

Rudderless is now available on DVD.

Sundance Review: 'Rudderless' Is A Remarkable Directorial Debut From William H. Macy


Note: This review was originally written and posted for Indiewire’s The Playlist. Please click on this link and support their site. 

So let it be known throughout the land: William H. Macy has balls of steel. In addition to juggling a busy, successful film and television career, he’s taken on a new role—filmmaker. His first feature film, “Rudderless,” is a poignant story that explores finding happiness in the midst of loss and pain. And you know what? It’s really damn good.

“Rudderless” follows the wonderful, horrible life of Sam (Billy Crudup), a successful advertising executive whose life is shaken up when his teenage son shoots six students at his college, and takes his own life. Sam isn’t coping with this well—his life now revolves around microwave pizza and hitting the bottle hard; fast forward a few years later and Sam is living on a boat and making money by painting houses for a contractor. He’s sobered up and just trying to live his life as best as he can. While going through the remainder of his son’s possessions, Sam stumbles across music his son made in the time leading up to the shootings. As a former musician himself, Sam works out his angst by learning his son’s songs and playing them. Soon after, he finds it therapeutic to play these songs at a local bar. But when a young musician (Anton Yelchin) finds this music intoxicating, the two team up and start a band (with Ben Kweller!), changing their lives forever.

You’re probably thinking the movie sounds odd or inconsiderate—school shootings are a very sensitive subject and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But at the heart of “Rudderless” is a story about moving on; at a certain point, dwelling on the past becomes poisonous. On the other end of the spectrum from films like “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Elephant”, and other films with school violence at the center—”Rudderless” is about really, truly moving forward with your life and doing your best not to focus on the past. Sam doesn’t want to become a famous musician, he doesn’t want to forget about his son and pretend nothing ever happened, he just wants to find a way to carry on. No parent ever wants to be the father or mother of a child who takes the lives of others, but that possibility lingers ever more prominently as violence increases in the world around us.

Sam is the type of person who makes friends one year only to lose them the next. A guy who manages to keep his ragged and uncouth confidence, no matter what emotional state he’s in, which makes Crudup the perfect fit, carrying arrogance and confidence together with sincerity. Crudup’s Sam is a coward for not dealing with his son’s brutal and tragic ending, but he’s filled with more hurt than he can process and his healing begins when his regret ends. And yes, you Selenators, Selena Gomez does have a pivotal role in the film and is great, showing plenty of potential for becoming a leading lady one day.

“Rudderless” is a very impressive directorial debut from the acclaimed Macy. Not a coming-of-age or let-the-tears-fly movie with a Sigur Ros-filled soundtrack—it’s a fairly easy-to-digest look at how to cope, before worse becomes intolerable. Any movie dealing with such heartbreaking violence is going to rattle your soul, but it’s about how the filmmaker tenderly dismantles the story, and shows us so much more. It’s an ambitious and strong first start for Macy’s filmmaking career as he’s clearly taken a note or two from some of the great filmmakers he’s worked for. Don’t let the title of this film fool you—“Rudderless” is solid. [B]



Bikinis. Boobs. Bongs. Booze. Blasphemy. Bullets. Bloodshed. Bad bitches.

Welcome to Harmony Korine’s vision of that great week of brainless college self-indulgence, Spring Breakers. By now, you’ve seen some kind of viral marketing – Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Selena Gomez with Rachel Korine (Harmony’s wife) in neon-colored bikinis, holding guns or wearing pink masks with the great tagline, “A coming-of-rage story.” Disney girls gone wild and batshit crazy, with a little help from mysterious James Franco and weirdo auteur filmmaker Korine. This group’s camaraderie is intoxicating.

Here’s the setup: Faith (Gomez), Brit (Benson), Candy (Hudgens), and Cotty (Korine) are in college, bored as hell, and ready to take off for a soberless week of fun in the sun – SPRING BREAAAAK. But here lies a big, big problem: they’re four very broke college girls. To get to the place where inebriated dreams come to true, they need a lot of cash.

Like any desperate college kids in the movies who need a lot of cash and quick, they steal a professor’s car and rob a diner. The girls are now off for a week of debauchery, madness, and more chaos than they could ever imagine. After a few days of raging, the girls land in jail, only to be quickly bailed out by Alien (James Franco), who sees potential in these four misfits aching for chaos. They’d be good help for his business. He’s in the robbing clueless-college-bros-on-spring-break-vacation business and, dear reader, business is booming.

When going into a Harmony Korine movie, one should know this is one of the most unconventional filmmakers of our time. At 19, he wrote a very controversial feature called Kids, surrounding skateboarders and the AIDS epidemic. He followed that up with his directorial debut centered on a bunch of white trash kids (starring Chloë Sevigny) doing white trash things called Gummo. And before Spring Breakers, he released a shot-on-VHS movie called Trash Humpers, about a group of misfits that, yep, hump trash, break in and destroy homes, and wreak havoc in their town. Korine doesn’t live by Hollywood rules. He smashes the shit out of them and makes the films he wants to make. He’s not weird for the sake of being weird. He’s just fucking weird. Take it or leave it. This man knows exactly what he’s doing.

I’ve been saving the best part for last – James Franco as the dreadlocked, tattooed up, silver grill-wearing rapper-gangster, Alien. Let’s get this out of the way – Franco’s Alien isn’t based on the popular real life rapper Riff Raff. According to Franco himself, he’s based off an underground rapper named Dangeruss, who does look like Riff Raff. (But if us girls are going to get real for a minute, we can all agree the best white gangster with dreads is Gary Oldman’s Drexl Spivey from True Romance.) This what I love about Franco – his brain is a mountain of curiosity. That’s why you see him in so many diverse roles: “General Hospital,” playing a scientist in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a stoner in Pineapple Express, and all of the other odd roles you’ve seen him in. The dude really wants to challenge himself and take on projects and roles that are not something he’d normally do. It’s beautiful.

If this review hasn’t sold you yet, here are five more important reasons why you need to see Spring Breakers: it comes with an adrenaline-fueled soundtrack by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez (the brilliant mind behind Drive’s score), there’s a hypnotic scene of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” performed by Alien and the girls, real life gangster rapper Gucci Mane stars as the film’s villain, and there’s as much balls to the wall madness as one can really, honestly, truly expect to see on spring break. And a lot of boobs. I’m going to write the first nine words of this review again, and in bold, to really drive it home: Bikinis. Boobs. Bongs. Booze. Blasphemy. Bullets. Bloodshed. Bad bitches. Spring Breakers is the rawest (and perhaps greatest) movie about spring break ever.