Chris Blum, director of “Big Time”, answers your questions for the film’s 25th anniversary…
What or who brought you and Tom together in the first place? (Andre Hunt, San Francisco, CA, USA)
In about 1980, a mutual friend who is a private detective introduced us. I think Kathleen was writing a piece about him, as in certain circles he is a famous character. Tom and Kathleen were looking for a place to live in the area that I lived, and the intent was for me to show them around. We immediately became friends and have been ever since. We started working together doing some short little press/promo films for “Rain Dogs“, then we did the “Blow Wind Blow” music video and finally we did “Big Time”. We also worked on the sets for “Frank’s Wild Years” together and recently on the design of the “Real Gone” release.
Were you and Tom ‘on the same page’ when it came to your vision of what kind of film “Big Time” should be? (Jim Williams, Stafford, England)
We were on the exact same page. We both agreed on the story, attitude and overall vibe, and that it should be timeless and appear to have been “hand made”. The coloring of the film is a result of Tom being color blind and the colors you see in the film are the only colors he can see. A lot of the look was pre-determined because we were basically shooting the stage show. Although we pre-designed both the stage and film elements to work for both… for example the large colored light boxes were designed as lighting for the “live” show and to also function as practical “film” lights. We also moved them around as lighting and as props for the in-between sketches.
Were there ever plans to develop more of a narrative in the film? (Jeremy Farrance, Surrey, England)
Yes, there was a lot more narrative planned and even storyboarded but we had one of the infamous “budget cuts” that invariably happen in the Music business while we were shooting, so we had to eliminate a lot of the substory, which was based loosely on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” along with the remnants of Frank’s life – (“Frank’s Wild Years – the stage play presented by Second City in Chicago, which I also designed the sets for). The basic story is… After putting a nail in his wife’s forehead and burning down his house, Frank attempts to start a new life in “show business”. He ends up as janitor, night watchman, and all-round handy man in an “off, off, off” Broadway Tin Pan Alley theater (this is as far as “Frank” got in his quest for a show biz career).
Because he is the night watchman and he has nowhere else to live, he sleeps at the theater and has a dream that he is a performer. Just as in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, the guy left alone starts playing around with some of the things in the sorcerer’s den, but in this case the night watchman starts playing around with some of the musical instruments some band left on the stage from a previous performance and fantasizes that he is a star (just like the apprentice fantasizes that he is a sorcerer). There was a lot more material that explained this and that tied the whole thing into “Franks Wild Years” but because of the budget cut we had to live without it. As a result we went in a more impressionist way and took the stance – “continuity is for sissies”.
Everyone knows that Tom and Kathleen are a dynamic duo of creativity. In your opinion, how crucial a role did she play in the production of “Big Time”? (Andrea Whelden, Portland, OR, USA)
Kathleen always plays an important role. She is basically the only person that Tom totally trusts. She is a great writer, she has a good handle on the big picture and she has a finely tuned shit detector. she sees through the eyes of a poet and has a way of eliminating the jive BS factor.
Was Tom the type of actor that required a lot of directing or the type you could turn loose and just trust the take to come? (Mike Durham, Metamora, IN, USA)
Tom is his own director, all I had to do was capture it.
Who came up with the ideas for the in-between song sketches? (Andrea Whelden, Portland, OR, USA)
Tom, Kathleen and myself came up with most of the material, Although I was the one who had the idea in my mind for the point of view (“Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and was responsible for turning the material into connective tissue to connect the various songs.
When the camera pulls back during “9th & Hennepin”, it looks like the umbrella is pretty well engulfed. Were there any special tricks employed to keep the umbrella from burning through and dropping molten bits on your star? Was there a stunt coordinator on set? (Bonnie Burch, Franklin, TN, USA)
It was one continuous take. there was asbestos lining inside the umbrella to protect Tom. No Stunt coordinator – dangerous & dumb – but fun.
“Big Time” is filled with incredible performances. One of the best is heard over the end credits, an amazing version of “Big Black Mariah”. Was that performance filmed, and if so, why didn’t it make it to the final cut? (Mikael Borg, Lund, Sweden)
That piece was recorded earlier and not part of what we filmed, but we thought it was appropriate so we used it.
IMDb lists two production companies: Island Visual Arts and Vivid Entertainment. Island Records was Tom Waits’ record company at the time, but Vivid Entertainment is a company occupied in pornographic films. What’s the story behind this? (Stefan Vandenberghe, Mechelen, Belgium)
Vivid Productions was a London based company and is no longer in business. The Vivid Porn Co. is a different entity.
Vivid Productions (London) was a combined effort of Chris Blackwell (who has endlessly deep “cred” in the the music world and, Luc Roeg who is the son of Nic Roeg – who has endlessly deep “cred” as an amazing film maker, and Jeremy Thomas who has endlessly deep “cred” as a world class executive producer (right before this project he had just won an Academy Award with Bertolucci for “The Last Emperor”). What a stellar Team! Complete creative freedom was promised and everyone involved kept to that promise. Tom and I had “final cut” and we were in total agreement so it worked out very well. The only problem was the budget cut which caused us to have to eliminate a lot of the narrative that was the connective tissue. But maybe the lack of any kind of normal continuity makes it even more “cult like” and adds to the mystique.
Have you ever considered getting together with Tom again to make another film? (Andrea Whelden, Portland, OR, USA)
We spent almost a year and a half (15 months) on this film and had a great time, every moment of it was enjoyable and to try to recreate that experience would probably be futile. Similar to having a great party with great people and then a year later inviting the same people to a similar party and expecting the same experience – “it’s not going to happen”.
Have you discussed the idea of a “Big Time” DVD release with Tom? If so, what is the biggest obstacle when it comes to getting the film released on DVD? Is there anything the fans can do to help? (Mike Durham, Metamora, IN, USA)
Yes, we have discussed it and would like to see it happen, although I was recently told that it is now available on Netflix Streaming which might make the DVD redundant. Fans could contact MGM.
I’ve read that you edited the film from more than 30 hours of footage. If a DVD was released, could some of that be included? (Marco van Bergen, Baarn, Netherlands)
We filmed two live concerts, the one in San Francisco had SIX cameras, every angle possible, plus extreme telephoto which captured body details like Tom’s hands. Tom has very unusual anatomy which I was interested in showing, you can really see it in the close-ups of his double jointed fingers when he is playing the piano. The six cameras is how we ended up with over 30 hours of accumulated film.
The folks at The Criterion Collection have said they would love to release “Big Time” to the collection. Have they ever reached out to you, or you them? If the release ever became a reality, what supplements would you like to see included with the DVD? Would you be up for doing a director’s commentary? (Chris Ambrosino New York, NY, USA)
We have not heard from Criterion. It is really a deal that has to be made between Criterion and MGM which legally owns the film by way of acquisition of Vivid Productions. Unfortunately Tom and I do not have control over what is done with the “rights” I would like to see a couple of songs we did not include and yes I would be happy to do a commentary.
Facebook page: Get Tom Waits’ Big Time to the Criterion Collection
Contact Criterion: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact MGM: email@example.com