Vin Diesel kicked off his film career in the not-half-bad indy hit, Strays. This coming-of age-tale was written by Diesel and based on his own experiences in New York. It tells the tale of a young ’stray’, hustling and dealing drugs on the streets of New York, falling in love and trying to escape a world of violence. Here’s what he had to say about it.
Q: When did you realise that you wanted to become an actor?
Diesel: I started acting when I was seven years old. By the time I was seventeen I would say ‘If I’m not a star by the time I’m eighteen, I’ll get out of the business.’
I had the experience of seeing my father direct theatre. My father would take me to his theatre rehearsals and he would direct these actors. So I had an experience that I was able to utilise for this process that was talking and dealing with actors in a way that celebrated their talent and allowed them to be as natural as humanly possible.
Q: Did you find it hard getting started in the business?
Diesel: As a teenager I started bouncing in nightclubs. I told everyone in New York- I’m gonna go out there and become a huge actor. And then of course I get out here and I can’t get an agent. I would have been foolish to think that I was really gonna be able to make it as an actor that quickly.
I met some people who invited me to come and work in telemarketing and they were making $600 a week and all you had to do was call people and sell them tools. And it sounded like the easiest way to make a whole lot of money. So during that first year and a half when I was out here trying to get an agent, I was learning how to sell tools over the phone!
Q: How did Strays come about?
Diesel: There just wasn’t a role for me and I realised that the only possible way that I could realise my dream would be if I wrote a script, because no one was offering me a script. My whole film life started with me typing, you know creating the words. Strays is all about relationships and that was always the most interesting thing to me as a filmmaker, as a lover of film- it’s the relationships and the characters.
Q: What influences did you have when writing Strays
Diesel: At that time I would go and watch films like It Happened One Night, all these films had a great rapport between the male and female protagonists. I tried to incorporate some of that in Strays. It was a guy from a completely different world than the woman was coming from, so juxtaposing them creates this interesting relationship. I would study Scorsese films religiously and I wanted to get the Scorsese-like authenticity in this picture.
Q: How important was New York as a location to you
Diesel: I wanted to capture the New York that I knew. Both Multi Facial (Diesel’s first short film) and Strays came from this experience I had growing up in New York. And I wanted to comment on the time (1997). This was pre-September 11th. It had its own sexuality that time, especially the guys in this film, are so heterosexual- not that they were homophobic- that just didn’t matter. Guys were just so confident, we felt that nothing was wrong and the film is really a comment on that time in my life.
Q: Is there a message behind Strays?
Diesel: The epiphany is- all those years of conquests have a price and that is- when you find someone worth loving, they’re too pure to love you because you’ve spent your life engaged in this search for conquests, in a neverending hunting spirit and you wouldn’t be as whole as you would be if your soulmate showed up.
Q: How did you get Strays off the ground?
Diesel: It started with a support team of people like the producer John Salé who believe in you. Then you get actors coming to the table who believe in you. When people believe in you, you can do miraculous things.
Q: How did you find directing the actors?
Diesel: We would go and rehearse, for example, on the subway. We would do it in a way that anyone around us would think we were having a real conversation. It was so comfortable and second nature. I always want another actor to shine in my scene with them because it makes the film stronger. I would encourage people to scene steal, because filmmaking is a collaborative effort.
Q: Was it nerve-wracking directing your first feature film?
Diesel: First day of shooting I remember how nervous I felt going to the set of a film that I was supposed to be directing AND starring in. And I was just praying that everyone would have faith in me and buy into the fact that I was directing.
Q: What was your experience shooting the movie?
Diesel: We had to fire the DP after the first day! How could he use 16 mm film in a super 16 camera. Again, we had to improvise, everyone was learning as they were doing it. After the first week we couldn’t afford catering so I would make these big pots of pasta and bring them into work for everyone, along with as much French bread as I could steal!
We even stopped shooting at one point because we ran out of money. The second to last week before we wrapped the AD came up to me and said – ‘we’re completely out of money, we’re not going to be able to shoot next week. It’s impossible- you have one more day to shoot and then we have to shut down. ‘
The movie was supposed to have a different ending. The only way I could cut to the chase was if I went home and re-wrote the script and re-shaped the story a bit and that’s how the ending became- ‘if you can’t love your mother, how can you love a woman?’
Q: How did you feel when Strays was selected for Sundance?
Diesel: The validation was everything and it was something I was able to use to continue my journey.