Eleven Questions With Lisa
I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Domenico Salvaggio, screenwriter of the film DIE. After reading the novel that inspired the story and then watching the movie, I simply had to know more about how this film came to be. I have chosen not to edit Mr. Salvaggio’s responses because I really enjoyed reading every word. His generous nature and natural ability to tell a story really comes through and I think it’s lovely. A word of caution: there are some tiny spoilers in this interview. DIE is currently available on Netflix (hint hint). Enjoy.
1.Were you already familiar with the novel, The Dice Man, by Luke Rhineheart when the story idea for the ﬁlm was brought to you?
I was familiar with THE DICE MAN novel but only on a superficial level in that a college professor had once mentioned it to me. I was told it was an anti-psychology book (it surely is) and as I was studying psychology at the time I didn’t bother to read it (chalk it up to too much homework).
How the project DIE came to me: There was an original script written by Nick Mead titled DICE. Dominic James, the director was hired in 2008 but wanted some work done on the screenplay. Dominic James and I have been collaborating on projects since 2004. He suggested me to the producers Andre Rouleau and Andrea Marotti. What was a rewrite turned into a re-conceptualization and we were shooting almost exactly a year later in Montreal (which is my hometown). Which is the fastest a project ever came together in my professional life.
Of course, before coming on board the project I read the book and I really wanted to hew closely to it but the producers wanted something closer to a horror film in the vein of SAW. What ended up being DIE was a compromise. I think there are some great ideas, notions in the film but it only scratched the surface of what I wanted to do.
2.It feels nearly impossible to talk about The Dice Man without bringing up A Clockwork Orange. Do you feel this is a fair comparison or do you ﬁnd that it takes away from the originality of The Dice Man?
It’s funny you would bring up CLOCKWORK ORANGE because it’s one of the films that influenced me the most in wanting to be a filmmaker. I actually wrote a paper in college for a literature class that explained how Classical Conditioning was used in Clockwork Orange and how Alex Delarge was essentially a Pavlovian dog in human clothing. Themes of choice and chance are present in a lot of my work. It’s something I love exploring and will continue to explore in some capacity. Kubrick made a masterwork that looks like it was shot yesterday and is still relevant to this day.
Incidentally, I had the pleasure of meeting Malcolm Mcdowell at the premiere of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN reboot. I told Mr. Mcdowell that he was one of the main reasons I went into the film business. He looked at me and said: “Did you make the right decision?” We both laughed. He was very gracious. A class act all the way. I actually would’ve loved to have him play Jacob’s dad in the film but alas that was not to be. The role went to the great Stephen McHattie.
As for comparing CLOCKWORK with DICE MAN both are different beasts that share the same DNA. But Dice Man probably wouldn’t exist without the brilliance of Anthony Burgess’ seminal novel. That was my favorite book in high school. I was the crazy kid who actually wrote a sequel to CO called CLOCKWORK ORANGE 2 or CO2. In which, Alex, now an older man and reformed, is a high school teacher. A punk rock badass student re-awakens his killer instinct and together they bring about a new generation of chaos and destruction that brings London to its knees. It was like Stephen King’s APT PUPIL but set in the future and with nadsat-speak. Only a kid would be crazy enough to sequelize a classic novel by Burgess and a classic film by Kubrick.
3.Did you set out to be a screenwriter or is it something that found you?
I was always a born storyteller. From when I was 7 year old kid, I would often draw in comic book form sequels to films I loved right after seeing them. I made a Raiders of The lost ark sequel minutes after seeing the movie with my dad. I remember drawing on thick legal notebooks in comic book form. I would also team-up Sean Connery and Roger Moore as master and apprentice in new James Bond adventures. While kids were mashing up their action figures in the backyard, I was creating film mashups on paper. I’m sure my parents have that stuff buried deep in a closet in Montreal.
Screenwriting and Hollywood were never EVER part of the plan. I come from a very conservative Sicilian family. My dad worked at the same factory for 40 years. Being a screenwriter was akin to being an astronaut. I may as well have told my parents that I was blasting of to Mars. They wanted me to become an accountant. I did one semester in accounting and I thought I was going to die. I was in class and I literally saw my soul leaving my body. I was watching myself from a distance, life seeping out of my eyes. I got up, left the class and enrolled in the softest of sciences, Psychology. Got my degree. Was accepted to Graduate program, interned for a year with conduct disorder children. Basically, 11 to 15 year old Alex Delarge’s. I liked psychology. It has informed all my screenwriting work. But I LOVED the movies. Dreamt about it constantly.
I wrote two short films and managed to convince people to fund them and make them. One of them (Lotto 666) got the attention of David Fincher and it got into a few festivals. Lotto 666 along with my sample writing for another project got me an agent in Canada, who is still my main agent. This gave me courage. So in 2006 I decided to give it a shot. I came to Los Angeles for two weeks of meetings with producers and never went back. I got married to a California girl, had a kid and worked on a lot of really cool projects. I was helped a lot by people who were virtually strangers. The one person who helped me the most was a fellow Montreal named George Zakk. He was at the time Vin Diesel’s producing partner. He let me stay at his Beverly Hills home, he guided me, introduced me to great people and showed me that the impossible was possible. I met my wife because of him. He is without a doubt one of the most influential people in my life and I’m forever indebted to him.
I always say I fluked my way into this profession but I was telling stories early on. It’s part of my DNA. It warms my heart that my 4 year old girl does exactly the same thing now. In fact we were at a friends house last night and my girl shut the lights grabbed a flashlight and began telling a scary bedtime story that she was making up all by herself. I was never prouder and unlike my parents who would discourage such flights of fancy, we cheered her on. I was so proud.
4.As a screenwriter, do you ﬁnd it easier to sell a pre existing piece of intellectual property over an original idea?
There is nothing harder in the current climate than selling an original piece of work. It’s murder. Just to give you an idea, I am currently developing a TV series based on a graphic novel. Another TV series based on a classic book we all read in high school and a feature film and tv series based on the classic RPG game MUTANT CHRONICLES.
Mutant Chronicles is being produced by legendary producer Ed Pressman and I’m having a great time working on it.
I mean I get it. Hollywood is hedging its bets. It makes sense to build from an established fanbase. Don’t get me wrong I would kill to make a BATMAN film or bring WONDER WOMAN to the big screen. But we do need new ideas to replenish the source. After all what are we going to remake in 20 years if we don’t come up with anything new?
But it’s my firm belief that a good story/idea/concept will find its way. The Director of DIE (Dominic James) and I are very close to getting an original thriller off the ground. Something we’ve been working on even before DIE. We are very excited and hope to announce it soon.
5.You have worked with the director, Dominic James before. How did the two of you meet? Is it easier or more difﬁcult to work with someone whom you consider a friend?
Dominic James and I met through a mutual friend when I was doing extra work on a tv movie in Montreal. We went to lunch and basically became fast friends. I wrote the short Lotto 666 and he quickly put it together. Until this day, that’s the only project I ever worked on that was completely my vision. Not a comma was changed on that script and DJ (that’s what I call him) absolutely nailed it. It’s such a well-directed little film. He made it way better than I ever imagined. We do argue but it’s always constructive.
I consider him a friend. My piece of advice in this business: Only work with people you would invite to your house on Sunday for BBQ. You need to create a small team that has your back at all times because everyone else is always trying to stab you or take you down. Good friends don’t let that happen. I trust DJ implicitly. He’s got talent to burn and we will see great things from him in the near future.
6.Did the two of you have an overall, positive experience bringing this story to life?
Any film that gets made is a miracle. Writing the film was challenging. There were a lot of differing opinions on what the film should be. I worked closely with DJ (the director) as I always do. Ultimately we came to a compromise with everyone. Is it the film I wanted it to be? I don’t think any film ever is the exact film you want it to be. Unless you are the one paying for it, writing it, directing it and producing it you will never get the film that you saw in your head. As for the actual filming, it was exhilarating. I LOVE being on a movie set. It’s when I’m happiest. Seeing it come to life. Being able to have lunch with the ever gracious Elias Koteas. It was a great experience. I was there everyday with my then fiance by my side. The producers, and crew were first rate. I’m very grateful to producer Andre Rouleau who treated my Wife and I like royalty during the shoot.
7.I enjoyed the lack of gratuitous gore in the ﬁlm. Was there ever any pressure put upon you to make the death scenes more gruesome?
I’m glad you enjoyed that aspect of the film. By the time we got to principal photography the decision not to include gore was already made. We were not sinking into a gore-fest. The initial script we got was extremely gory. I’m talking CANNIBAL FEROX gore. The first thing DJ and I did was take it down and focus more on the psychological tension we could ring out of this locked room mystery. I feel the film benefits from the lack of gore. Everyone who likes the film always tell us that the lack of gore is one of the main aspects they enjoy the most. It was a conscious decision by us not to go full throttle gore and it was a decision spearheaded by DJ. It was without a doubt the right decision for DIE.
8.The novel focuses primarily on the founder of The Dice Life and how it affects his life,
whereas, DIE deals with the how the founder would gain more disciples. Where did this idea come from?
I alluded earlier that my instinct when I was approached to write the script was to follow the book closely. I wanted to present a Man who was a psychotherapist, he had everything, nice house, nice kids, good career. But he was stagnating. His choices in life led him to a stalemate. He needed to be re-invigorated. Hence the “dicing.” The fun would be to see his life collapse all around him the deeper he got into the “dice life.” There would be murder, mayhem and slowly we would see him become a cult leader with an enormous following. It was like the origin story of a supervillain. The analogy I used was we would see how a normal, upstanding citizen became someone like the JOKER.
Ultimately, we ended up with Jacob Odd already existing and already having his followers. He got a brief but interesting opening sequence with his father who basically set him on the path to destruction or as Jacob sees it, awakening.
The disciples was something DJ and I came up with. We wanted Jacob to be the ultimate cult leader. He was David Koresh mixed with Jim Jones. A charismatic leader who’s convinced he’s a hero setting people on the right path. Jacob is the type of character who fascinates me and I wish we had more time to explore him in the film.
9.Is there a speciﬁc reason that Tchaikovsky music was playing in the casino bar?
As a writer I have absolutely no say in the musical choices. So I reached out to the director Dominic James and he said he chose this particular piece of music—
“Because it has a hypnotic beauty to it which contrasts the darkness of the emotions experienced by the characters and enhances the pattern they are locked into. I felt it had an operatic feel to it. I was probably influenced by Kubrick who tends to use such contrast. I wanted to showcase the Beauty in darkness.”
I agree. It was a great choice and my favorite scene in the film.
10.Why did you decide to make a casino the location that Jacob chooses?
This is something I stumbled upon while writing. I knew Jacob Odd came from money. That was established early on. He inherited his father’s fortune. So while writing the underground glass dungeons scenes I began to wonder where would Jacob keep his pupils/victims and it dawned on me… where is the only place where blind chance can destroy a life on a daily basis? A casino became the most obvious choice. Jacob was a casino owner. It was such a perfect location for this character to basically continue what’s happening in the upper floors and bring it to the underground lair but with life and death consequences.
I love casinos but ironically I’m not a gambler. I love observing casino behavior. Watching people roll in with hope and exuberance and then a few hours later those same people are devastated. All because they made the choice to let chance determine their fate. It’s a glorious setting for a bad guy’s secret lair.
11.What was your main takeaway from the screenwriting experience on this movie?
Every time I write something new I learn something about myself and the craft of screenwriting. On DIE I learned the art of compromise. We worked on a tight schedule, with a tight budget, so the script had to be adjusted to meet those expectations. It was a challenging but ultimately satisfying experience.
I was also quite sick at the time while I was writing DIE. I was back in Montreal and there were a few moments when I didn’t feel I could go on. But Dominic James showed up at my place in Montreal and pushed me to the finish line. My mom would cook a feast for us while we were upstairs bouncing ideas off each other. My biggest take-way: No film is made alone. Dominic James was instrumental in the conceptualization of DIE… and the best idea ALWAYS wins.