Spencer Boldman and Emily Ratajkowski in "Cruise"

Interview: Robert D. Siegel on Giving Audiences a Ride to Remember with “Cruise”

“Not to sound too pretentious or film schoolly…” Robert D. Siegel starts saying, as if this could even be a possibility for the person responsible for such hardy slices of life as writing “The Wrestler” and directing “Big Fan” could be, when talking about his latest film “Cruise” about a pair of college-aged kids from opposite sides of the tracks, “But there are certainly things in this movie that are homages, like when after they’ve stolen a radio, they’re like holding hands running — that to me was very ‘Jules & Jim,’ lovers on the run, French New Wave. Sometimes it’s subconscious or accidental, but any filmmaker would be lying if they didn’t draw upon or outright copy stuff they’ve seen before, so I love doing that.”

The influences in “Cruise” are worth acknowledging because they speak to a sophistication that you wouldn’t expect to find in a film about greasers in 1987 Queens, a world that Siegel renders so vividly and authentically that the reminders of other movies simply become part of the fun. Settling in with Gio Fortunato (Spencer Boldman), a talented drag racer by night and lowly car shop employee by day, and his boys Anthony (Noah Robbins) and Chris (Lucas Salvagno), you’d only expect to see them in a movie theater with their arm wrapped around a girl, looking for a place to make out, and yet Gio has a story tailor-made for the big screen that begins when he turns the head of a young woman named Jessica (Emily Ratajkowski) in a white VW Cabriolet at a stoplight one night, leading her to pull over. She, claiming to be from Bay Ridge but actually from Long Island, isn’t exactly who she appears to be at first, but neither is Gio, who gradually begins to see his late nights at the diner and circuitous rides around town as going through the motions and while he earns a steady income, supplementing his day job with stolen car radios to sell to Video Vic, Gio sees his horizons expand as his new girl nudges him to take the train into the city and start listening to New Order.

Although Gio learns that his homegrown charm will only take him so far, the same can’t be said for “Cruise,” which has an infectious energy and wit that immediately wins you over. By now, that should be expected of Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of “The Onion”-turned-filmmaker, but while continuing on a path to tell the story of big dreamers whose pursuits may seem silly to most, he nonetheless surprises in meeting his characters, often societal outcasts, at their level and capturing the strength of their resolve, usually finding that their biggest obstacles are within themselves. When paired with a seductive, synth-heavy score from Jay Wadley and sweaty, slinky cinematography from Noah Greenberg (“Most Beautiful Island”), the film is about as impossible to resist as Gio and Jessica find each other and shortly before the film arrives in theaters and on VOD, Siegel spoke about recreating an entire culture on a limited budget, taking audiences to different worlds that exist inside our own and the unexpected issue of having too many cars on set.

How did this come about?

It’s a mix of my cinematic inspirations. My favorite movies are “Saturday Night Fever,” “American Graffiti,” “Diner,” and “Dazed and Confused,” and I’m not really a plot guy. I just like worlds, movies where you can drop in in the middle and just enjoy it. And this feels like one of those to me. The actual inspiration for it was my friend Gino [Cafarelli], who he plays the dad in [“Cruise”]. He also played Patton Oswalt’s asshole brother in “Big Fan,” so he’s an actor I’ve used and a friend of mine, so he always told me, [even] back when I was when I was shooting “Big Fan” that he lived that life in high school. He’s from Queens and he cruised what they call “Franny Lew,” Francis Lew Boulevard, picking up girls and getting into trouble. Nothing too serious, but I think he stole the occasional car radio. He used to tell me stories of this scene and that’s always what I respond to – I just love subcultures. I love little pockets, especially in New York City. There’s so many worlds within New York City, and “The Wrestler” is a corner of New York City and “Big Fan” is a corner of New York City and I’m a sucker for the outer boroughs. I’m sure L.A. has the same thing, but different [where] there’s a hundred L.A.s within L.A. and a lot of people don’t have access or you don’t see what’s going on in the other L.A.

That’s always been really fascinating and in the ‘80s, there was this racing/cruising scene going on in Queens when I was in high school over on the other side of the tracks in Long Island. And if you know New York geography at all, Queens is right over the border from Long Island, and in Queens, you had these kind of “Jersey Shore” guidos and guidettes, kind of Snooki types. But then you go a mile over across the border and suddenly, it’s like wealthy Jewish Long Island suburbs [where] I grew up, so it was a little scary and exotic what was going on on the Queens side. We didn’t know what was going on there, but occasionally there would be girls who liked to, as you see in the movie, dress up and “guidette” for the night and hang out with the bad boys and get in a little bit of trouble. I didn’t do that, but I definitely was familiar with this world and [that’s] the only thing I really know how to write. I never can understand how people are able to write stuff set on Mars or on spaceships. Maybe my abilities are just limited, but I don’t know how to write anything I haven’t actually lived or experienced, so for me, this was definitely a place I know and the cars and the music I have such a soft spot for.

Both the song choices and the score are so great – did you have strong ideas about the music from the start?

100 percent. I didn’t just want generic ‘80s music – “99 Luftballoons” and “Rock Me Amadeus” because these guys [in Queens] it was part of the ritual. They all ate the same thing, they treated girls the same way and they all listened to the same music, [which was] freestyle, which a lot of people don’t even know what it means when I say it, but that’s the name of that genre, like Latin dance music. I didn’t even know [at the time], but in my high school, that’s what all the guidos, anybody with a Camaro or a Z28, that was what was blasting out of it. It was like Exposé, Johnny O. and Stevie B. and Taylor Dayne, that syncopated electro stuff. It’s not a particularly respected genre of music, but that was what they were listening to, and it was very clear from the start that like in “American Graffiti,” [where] the rock ‘n’ roll and Wolfman Jack is part of the film and part of their world, the dance music was what they listened to, so it’d be integral.

This has a brilliant opening shot of the three best friends in the film yelling at each other down the street at each other from their respective driveways that not only establishes the world you’re stepping inside, but works well as a great visual gag as you pan from one guy to another, sets a tone for the camerawork and sells the period since you never feel like the present day is waiting just outside the frame. How did you figure it out?

I wanted to establish that it was a very small insular world that these guys live in. They all live on the same block and it was a world before cell phones where you just shouted down the street, so I wanted a shot that would establish the physical space, the time, and again, the ritual because so much of the movie is based on routine – these guys have a certain way of speaking and I think ritual is fascinating, sociologically speaking – and initially, it was even a longer shot. In the final movie, it’s a pan, but the full take started on the dad sitting at the top of the steps and then it pans down to Gio instead of starting on Gio, and then he goes down to Gio, across to the [other] guy and back, which is not easy to do on a low budget, even something as simple as a camera move like that. When you don’t have a lot of money, that’s for me as hard as for Christopher McQuarrie to do Tom Cruise jumping from building to building. It’s really difficult to pull off, but I love that shot too.

I stayed for the credits and noticed the contributors of the cars in the film seemed to be as colorful as any of the characters you might have on screen. Were you able to really collaborate with the community in Queens?

Are you talking about “Joey Balls”? Yeah, it’s very “Sopranos.” [laughs] We weren’t quite sure how we were going to pull this off because it’s a relatively low budget movie and of course, you’re talking about period and cars and those are two of the things that will jack up a budget faster than anything else. There’s a reason Michael Bay does the cars because he has $200 million budgets, and it’s sort of a stupid idea to make a movie with cars if you don’t have that, so of course I said, “Hey, let’s do it.”

It’s very expensive to rent cars and in an early production meeting, we broke down the script and we said, “We’re going to need a total of 300 cars because every background has to be dressed with cars and these are very specific cars.” So we didn’t really know how we were going to do it, but then Gino, who I told you is my inspiration for [the film], he’s like, “Don’t worry. I got you. I can get you some cars.” He’s one of these guys who can magically make stuff happen. Like “I know a guy. Don’t worry about it.” And he knows a lot of guys, so he calls me back the next day and says, “I’ve got you some cars.” And I tell you he had like 200, more cars than we knew what to do with. I thought we were going to be struggling to find enough cars to dress the set and instead we were [asking ourselves], “How am I going to fit this ’76 Malibu into the scene?”

Car people love their cars and they love to show them off, so the set almost became this car meet. Every night when we were shooting a scene where there were a lot of cars, they all came in droves. I swear, everybody that owned a vintage muscle car on Long Island – I didn’t realize how many muscle cars there are on Long Island in New York City because they’re all in garages, tucked away – but my God these cars kept coming and coming from every corner of the city and they didn’t go away. It turned into a hangout thing where they all just were on set. At five in the morning [one day of shooting], I’m like, “Guys, go home. Please, this is terrible.” And they’re like, “No, it’s cool. It’s cool.” They had such a great time and that became a part of the experience of shooting the movie was hanging with these guys.

It got to the point where we’d be shooting an indoor scene – because not every day was a car day – and it was like, “Okay, we’re shooting Gio and Jessica talking on the phone in their rooms,” so I would tell the car guys, “Okay, you have tomorrow off. Thank you so much.” And they’re like, “No, no, it’s okay. We’ve got you.” And I’m like “What do you mean you got me? I don’t need you tomorrow. It’s a telephone call scene.” And they’re like, “Yeah, you never know.” [laughs] So we’d be shooting these indoor scenes and there’d be all these cars en masse at the house and I was like, “Guys, you don’t need to be here. Please…” And they’re like, “No, we can hang around. Don’t worry about it.” Because they just love hanging out with each other and they wanted to help. Bless them. They made it possible.

“Cruise” opens on September 28th in limited release, including in Los Angeles at the Universal Citywalk AMC and in New York at the Kew Gardens Cinema. It will also be available on demand and on iTunes.

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