Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Scorcese, and pretty much anyone who’s anyone in Hollywood loves Radioman, the formerly homeless, bike-riding, ghetto blaster-wearing character who frequents movie sets, gets hired for bit parts, and, as the actors proclaim, keeps it real. This is a portrait of his existence, equal parts fun inspiration and serious introspection.
Director Mary Kerr and producer Paul Fischer recently explained how they found this delightful but sometimes depressing character.
How did you learn about Radioman?
Paul Fischer: I worked on a film set in Connecticut when I just started out after film school, and Radio came up from New York on the extras’ bus. Everyone seemed to know him, and he treated the set like he was the producer or something — eating whatever he wanted off the catering table, throwing his arm around Robert DeNiro, giving his opinion on takes. He just seemed fascinating. He also seemed to know everything about everything filming in the city.
I’m a big Indiana Jones fan and was desperate at the time to work on the fourth movie, so I asked him if he knew anything about it and he reeled off a date, location, contact number, and, following his advice, I pretty much got a job on it. And by the time I made it there for my first day’s work, there was Radio, in costume, eating out of the rubbish bin, talking to Steven Spielberg. Someone had to make a movie about him.
Has no one done a documentary about him before?
PF: There had been one sort of documentary about him, made by a Teamster, but it wasn’t really a documentary — it was more a long home video made for other Teamsters and crew members, with all of them talking over it, no editing or narrative to speak of, no interviews. It had one screening in New York, again for Radio’s friends and other crew members, and that was it.
It was really surprising that Radio’s clearly as compelling as he is, and that he’s surrounded by film people every day, but that no one had grabbed this tiger by the tail and just made a movie about him. We did meet a lot of people who told us that they’d thought about it or had wanted to do it, though.
Was he excited to take part, or did it take some time to get him to open up?
Mary Kerr: A bit of both. He was very excited to take part, as obviously he has an ego and loves the idea of being the center of attention and having his story told. But at the same time it did take him a while to open up about the things he’s less comfortable talking about. He was very happy being photographed with celebrities, or talking about what films he was in or the famous names he knows, but it took him longer to trust us in talking about more private things like his family or his childhood.
He’d also never really seen a documentary before, so he didn’t know right away what to expect or what purpose certain things served. He figured it would be a long video scrapbook of him and famous people, as that’s what he’d gotten used to accepting was the attraction of his life to other people.
Do the stars generally enjoy his company, or just tolerate him? It seemed like there was a mix of genuine friendship and then some, like James Gandolfini, who just wanted him out of his room.
MK: They do really enjoy his company. Some of them just about tolerate him, and a very small number don’t like him; but funnily it’s not the people you expect. Gandolfini for instance really, really loves him, and in that clip he actually even cracks a joke about Radio being his girlfriend.
But at the same time there is that element in the film that Radio is obsessive, he is dogged, and even if you love him there are times where he just simply does not go away.
Was it hard to get the stars to talk about him? You have a who’s-who of cinema.
MK: No, it wasn’t, again because they genuinely love him. Eva Mendes for instance told us she hoped the film would be a celebration of this man and that she felt she had to be a part of that.
We did take all of the burden of inconvenience on ourselves as well, which helped: We told everyone we’d come wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and would keep them 30 minutes tops and not a minute more, and I think that helped. It means we had to fly cross-country sometimes for a day to get someone for 30 minutes, but that certainly helped as it meant it cost them literally nothing other than that 30 minutes, and they are all pretty busy people who would find it hard to squeeze things in otherwise, even if willing.
Does he make enough money to survive from his bit parts in films, or is he on some social service program?
PF: He makes enough from the films and bits and pieces. He lives cheaply: His rent is rent-controlled, he eats on film sets, he doesn’t do much other than go to sets and watch movies at home. He has a simple life.
Is it just about one man’s amazing life, or is there a bigger message to take away?
MK: There is no message we’re trying to sneak in, but hopefully people do take something bigger out of it than that — about staying true to yourself, about individuality, about perceptions and prejudice and judging books by their covers, even about the power of movies and of being part of a community. Hopefully there’s enough there for people to discuss or take something else away beyond what’s on the surface. We certainly tried to make a film that was about all those things.
Does he have any copycats? Do you think copying him would even be possible in today’s security-tightened world?
MK: It’s hard to tell. He obviously thinks everyone with a boombox, or everyone trying to crash a film set, is a copycat of him — he even sometimes thinks that any random homeless person near a film set is trying to steal his gig. But you can’t copy something that individual, even if you tried.
How’s he doing today?
MK: He’s great! Exactly the same and enjoying meeting new people and going new places thanks to the movie, which has been really lovely.
Radioman screens on Sat., Jan. 26, 7 p.m., and Mon., Jan. 28, 4:20 p.m., both times at the Metro 4. See radiomanthemovie.com.