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Unclogging the Bottleneck: Writer-Director Tricia Brock on ‘Killer Diller’

Tricia Brock gets to take a rare break.
by Dan Lybarger

For the last 13 years, writer-director Tricia Brock has been haunted by a couple of phrases she encountered in a book review of a Clyde Edgerton novel.

“I read a review in The New York Times,” she recalls in a roundtable interview. “I think it was released in paperback. It was one of those little paragraph reviews. And there were two phrases I remember—it’s been quite some time—that popped out: One was ‘quirky characters,’ and I went right for that, of course. And the other one was ‘blues guitar.’ It was those two things that made me want to read the book. And then when I read the book, I said, ‘This would be a fabulous film. This would be the kind of film that I would want to see.’”

The story that she read about is finally coming to theaters this weekend. Killer Diller is opening simultaneously in Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Brock’s own hometown of Columbia, Mo.

It stars William Lee Scott (The Butterfly Effect) as Wesley, a young criminal who is sentenced to a halfway house on a Baptist college. His punishment is to play guitar on tepid hymns with fellow parolees instead of the blues he’s really rather be performing.

When he convinces the home’s proprietor Ned (Fred Willard, A Mighty Wind) to let a shy savant pianist named Vernon (Lucas Black, Sling Blade) join the group, their music improves exponentially. But Vernon’s unpredictable behavior could send all of his fellow musicians back to the slammer.

Before Brock made the feature, she filmed a portion of Killer Diller under the title The Car Kid (Vernon drives a make believe car). The short, which Brock directed after she graduated a three-week course at the American Film Institute, starred James Franco as Wesley, Brad Renfro as Vernon and Meat Loaf as Vernon’s father. You can view the film here.

“That film did it. People saw what I can do. And the music in it was amazing. People started to get it. And so then I had something other than a script,” says Brock.

Brock recalled that getting her cast together was a challenge because Willard and Black, her first choices for their roles, were initially reluctant. Willard’s wife helped persuade her husband, and Brock had to reach Black through a different technique.

She recalls, "I had to fly down to Alabama and had to drive down a long country road down to Lucas’ house and have dinner with him.

"And he didn’t really want to do the movie and didn’t want to talk to me, really. He just wanted to be home because it was hunting season.

"I could tell that sitting there at the dinner table with this family and trying to pitch my movie was going to get us nowhere. And so I just talked to them about whatever and ended up eating. I had like two helpings of pot roast or whatever. I was so nervous.

"So I started talking to him about deer hunting. Well, that boy went and got out his scrapbook. I looked at every bloody carcass of every deer that kid had shot his entire life. Then he went and got his bow because he’s a bow hunter, and I’m standing in his kitchen, and he’s showing me how to hold the bow. And he was all of the sudden animated, and that’s how we found our way to each other or I found my way to him."

Brock also had the task of making non musicians like Black pass for the genuine article. Lawrence Lowe, who played Lonnie Ledford, is a drummer and Niki Crawford was cast in part for her singing ability. While Scott could play drums, Brock needed him to pass for a guitarist.

Brock explains, “You cannot cheat on drums. Every time you look, when he hits, he hits. You cannot cheat that.

“But if this band does not work as a band, I don’t have a movie. I don’t care how good the actors are. This movie was not going to work, so I had to have two things work hand in glove.”

Fortunately, Black proved to be such a gifted mimic that he could imitate the real pianist accurately simply by watching a few moves. “And Lucas just stood there and watched him, I had everybody standing by, and then I called action. Lucas sat down, and we went. And he was able, because there’s times when I panned down to his hands and back to his face. They don’t even do that in Shine.”

Brock ended up shooting the film at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., near Columbia. “My mother said to me, ‘I’ll tell you right now. You should shoot this movie in Fayette.’ Luckily, we were on the phone so she couldn’t see my eyes rolling.”

The director had to halve her budget shortly before shooting and had to deal with others who thought the novel’s title should have been changed to Bottleneck, which had a bluesier feel.

“The working title during the production was Bottleneck because we’re an independent film. Tom Cruise is not in my movie. Paramount is not distributing it, and we are not on 35,000 screens.
Everybody said, ‘You’re out of your mind to have an independent film with a title like Killer Diller and it’s not a horror film.’” She adds, “After the film was shot, it just felt more true. It’s Killer Diller. It’s not a traffic jam.”

Brock has a long and formidable résumé. After she graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia with a journalism degree, she started out as what she calls a ‘slave girl’ in advertising. Gradually, she got the courage to try writing her own scripts, most notably two for David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. While she’s proud to be part of the legendary series, she says she’s happier pursuing her own projects.

“With something like Twin Peaks, you are serving a project that exists. Obviously, there’s a collaboration, and I thought it was brilliant. You’re there to serve that vision. When you’re working on your own thing, it’s much closer to your heart, certainly, and you have more responsibility. So that’s a little scarier and ultimately more satisfying because it’s yours.”

Even though it is only now playing in theaters, Killer Diller has already done wonders for Brock’s directing career. Since finishing the movie two years ago, she’s helmed episodes of Huff, The L Word and Grey’s Anatomy. She’s also preparing an episode for Deadwood, where she will be the first female director. “Somebody said to me an appalling statistic. What’s the biggest boys’ club in America, the United States Senate? There are more women in the Senate than there are working (as directors) in Hollywood, proportionately. So that’s a little frightening,” she laments.

In addition to what she’s accomplished, Brock still has long term goals. Despite all of her Hollywood work, Brock still comes back home to Missouri regularly and even pronounces her home state, “Missour-ah.” Despite the 13 years, Killer Diller has taken, she’s ready for more. “I want to be the Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) of Missouri.”

Additional Links:
Click here to read fellow HBS monkey Scott Weinberg’s interview with Tricia Brock.

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originally posted: 04/28/06 10:02:01
last updated: 07/08/06 23:32:13
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