In between sessions at the EIFF I had a chance to have a chat with Nathan Silver, the director of one of my favourite films in competition this year. We talked about Rohmer, kindness, his mother (also his actress) Henry James, Don Quixote and much more.
Author of the extraordinary Uncertain Terms, Nathan Silver is building up a solid and prolific oeuvre – with a film per year since 2012 – which can almost be seen as a study on how delusion operates in one’s life, boosting or suspending it. Now already finishing the shoot of his next feature – black comedy Stinking Heaven, catch some hints here – he was kind enough to engage in a pretty nice conversation with me some weeks ago. Catch this time-suspended fairy tale, no less humorous than melancholic, in a cinema room, if you can, and get to know a little bit more about this and Silver’s other films through the following words.
Pedro: So, I’d like to start with the narrative structure. Uncertain Terms has this kind of circular narrative, the kind of arch structure where everything must change, for a brief moment, so that everything can remain the same. Was it something that interested you already? Was the structure of the narrative a consequence of the story or did you previously have in mind this kind of structure?
Nathan: I feel a lot of my movies have a cyclical nature to them, the way the structures goes… Even if you’re not aware of the person’s situation at the beginning of the movie, as you become aware of where they’re coming from or where they came from, you realise they end in a similar place, just slightly altered by the people they come in contact with throughout the film. I think that it’s just the nature of how I think of people, I don’t think that they change drastically routines; there are just slight variations to a person and I like to watch those variations play out. Like in the two birthday scenes in the movie, I knew that I wanted to place those strategically in the movie… The first one would be a happy event and the second one would be this miserable crash back to reality. And I did a similar thing in Soft in the Head where there are two Shabbos meals, you know the Jewish rest in which every Friday night you have this meal to celebrate Shabbos when the sun goes down. So, I did a Shabbos meal in the beginning and a Shabbos meal towards the end. In Exit Elena there’s a birthday party scene, there are lots of meal scenes… These things always bookend my movies, I don’t know why. I guess there’s some sort of circle of nature to those things. I guess it’s just how I think of structure, just lots of events and people being forced to these uncomfortable situations together.
P: It’s also your way of organising…
N: Yeah, I think back the last few months and those are the situations that come to mind to me: meals, mostly, or parties because I always find them the most humiliating, the place where humiliation occurs, in front of people.
P: That circular structure in the narrative reminded me of Rohmer…
N: Oh really? That’s great! He is one of my favourite filmmakers. I was just trying to write an essay about his movie A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été), which I hadn’t seen for years but finally got a release in US, and I realised that it’s so breezy on a certain level but I think it’s like a vision of hell because underneath it all he’s just waiting. Basically the whole movie is just him waiting and the fact that he can’t make a decision. I think he paints this beautiful picture of hell. I couldn’t write the essay though. I realise that to actually capture Rohmer you have to just watch it. You can’t capture, you just watch it. Those are my favourite filmmakers, you describe them and it does them injustice.
P: Yeah, I really thought of Rohmer in terms of narrative, this kind of interlude in life, an interval of life. People live in a different way for a while and then they return to the same place.
N: That’s a wonderful way of putting it because every Rohmer movie is about someone in that situation. That’s absolutely right.
P: I felt it had a Rohmerian structure but the characters seemed to me very much American, in a sort of literary tradition of America. This naivety… What you call delusion you can also call extreme naivety.
N: Oh absolutely, yes…
N: Well, it comes from my mother. I feel we live the Jewish version of Henry James or Edith Wharton. Basically, my mother has the best of intentions but she’s always doomed in her intentions. Everything she does is going to be misinterpreted by the other person because no one can take kindness and it has warped her through the years. Once upon a time she was the most giving person – and she still is – but life has basically put her through the grinder. She just had enough of how people react to her acts of kindness. It’s a funny thing, having her at the centre of the movie dictates that fact, I guess. And she always says: “No good deed goes unpunished”.
P: And speaking of her character in the film, she’s always really benign. She keeps on being the caretaker even if some events are being disastrous around her. Is that because she is wise and knows how things will end so she’s just observing them or is it out of fear of losing Robbie? Because Robbie it’s a substitute for her son at that moment so… Is she more an observer to you or is she actively not doing anything to stop them?
N: I guess is that naivety that you were talking about, she doesn’t believe that that the things are doomed. Just like you were saying, she’s acting according to how she perceives the world and not how the world is. I’ve always been obsessed with Don Quixote because I think it’s the most beautiful book ever. It’s just a book of delusions and obviously when he comes down of delusions he dies. I always think of my mother that way. I think she’s like this quixotic character so I think everything I do has some element of that, even if not to the extreme of Don Quixote. Like in Soft in the Head: it’s this guy that runs a homeless shelter out of his apartment, it’s not going to end well. When you have a bunch of guys, that you don’t know, living with you it’s not going to end well. Or one of the main characters in Soft in the Head, he’s born into a religious Jewish family and he falls in love with this Goy, a non Jewish person, this woman that is a mess and there’s no way this can end well. He’s a complete naive, this is one of this quixotic journeys for him, I guess.
P: Is this idea of kindness something that was on your mind when you were making Uncertain Terms? As a subject, I mean.
N: Oh yeah, and actually all goes back to my mother. When I was growing up she used to be heavily involved with this group that was helping people from El Salvador, so she was always taking in people from El Salvador and feeding them. She’d babysit the kids when all the mothers would go to work. Or, for instance, my father had to drive one of the women to have an abortion… Just like all this crazy stuff. My mother was bringing these people into our home, clothing and feeding them. But then, over time, she loved these people but she got so offended by the fact that they just stopped returning her calls and after the kids got to be teenagers they stopped needing her you know, she loved taking care of them. It’s not that she was asking for any return, she didn’t want anything in return, she just wanted them to know that she loved them and to know they loved her back. She was looking for love… I don’t know.
P: It’s funny because it’s seems that in the movie she’s exactly in the same position. When you say that she’s waiting for them to return her call, it’s as if they have moved on to something else and she stayed, living the same thing over and over. In the film she is this person that will live, time after time, the same things. With different characters but the same things.
P: So she’s in this time suspended universe that is that forest and that house, I guess.
N: Yeah yeah, she’s almost like a fairy tale character.
P: And even in the way she’s depicted, I guess. Because, I was thinking when I first watched the film, even her clothes… they kind of clash with the surroundings.
N: Yeah, absolutely.
P: But the girl, Nina, she is the opposite. She blends in. It’s an amazing work of art direction, by the way.
N: Oh thank you.
P: It´s not just embellishing, it’s working actively with the other elements of the film. I also really liked the balance between the choral – the ensemble scenes – and the core scenes, the love relationship. How did you work that balance?
N: That was due to working with my co-writers Chloe (Domont) and Cody (Stokes). Also with Cody in the edit, we figured out that it was necessary for the relationship between Nina and Robbie to be the point of focus but also to have the girls surrounding. It’s a fine line. And we were very sensitive to that fact because we edited and we realised that we needed some more scenes between Robbie and Nina so we shot those.
P: So that balance was achieved mainly in the edit.
N: Yes, it had a lot to do with that. I mean, it was in the original outline but we then had to bring it out in the edit. Just because you have all those characters around all the time.
P: So you had more material of the group of girls than just them, the couple.
N: Yes, and a lot of it didn’t feel necessary. We’d just go through it and It felt like it was biding time or something, whereas we wanted to eventually start it off and you don’t know quite where the story is going to lead, who is the protagonist. You’re just getting all these details and then eventually the protagonist of sorts emerges.
P: it’s funny because she’s the first one to show up.
N: She is, but then she gets lost.
P: Yeah, exactly. And about her and Robbie, even if they are in the same wave of naivety or delusion, they are living very different periods in their lives…
P: Do you think they’re both equally unaware of what’s going on, of the doomness of their relationship or do they have different perspectives of it?
N: I think Robbie’s character, the way I see him, he believes completely in it in that moment. If he would have to take a step back he would crumble. And he does crumble. It’s just like a pin incident and the thing fucking blows up. But I think she is more aware of the fact that the whole thing is doomed than he is. I don’t know but when I rewatched it – I’ve watched it now 20 times because I had to do colour correction and sound mixing – I see, more and more, that she’s much more aware throughout than he is. He gets to this point of delusion, when he sits down besides her in the bed and he’s giving her the same old spiel. He’s not speaking the truth, he is completely speaking from a place of desperation and delusion and I like that, you can read it on him.
P: I was wondering about the house, the way it works as a character. Were the girls and the crew living there and rehearsing there, previously to the shooting, for a while?
N: No, we didn’t have any time to rehearse beforehand, we rehearsed the day of each scene. But we were living there. My parents moved into that house a month prior to the shoot and it just seemed like the ideal location for this story so we end up using it. It was nice because they had nothing on the walls so we could, art direct it anyway we wanted but… yes, I guess 90% of the people were living there.
P: And was there any time and space, during the shoot, for improvisation or developing the characters?
N: Oh yes, absolutely! Almost all the dialogue is improvised, based on lines. So, we started off with a 10 pages outline and then I would sit down each morning with Cody and Chloe, we would write lines that we thought might be good for the scene and we would feed them to the actors. They’d just riff on them and then we’d just continue shooting a lot of improvised dialogue. All my movies are partially improvised, if not fully.
P: What about the other girls? They have very different positions there… I remember this girl that doesn’t talk at all.
N: Yes, there is a girl that doesn’t talk at all or that talks very little. It was just her natural way. I cast her and that was her natural response.
P: Ah ok, that’s exactly what I was curious about. If they were scripted that way or if it came from the actresses’ personalities.
N: Yeah, I work a lot with the personality of the person, if they’re not a trained actor that’s usually what I do.
P: And India Menuez, did she have any previous experience in film?
N: Yes, she was in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air (Après Mai) and she’s been in some short films. She’s shooting another feature now and shot another feature right before ours, which is yet to be edited.
P: Is the character build out of her personality too?
N: No, not so much with her. We had crafted her character beforehand and then once we cast her she brought herself too, obviously, but we knew what we needed for that character. With the other girls in the house we talked a lot about who they were. With her too, quite a bit, but it was more like we knew what she needed to be in order for her to be Robbie’s love interest.
P: So many times, usually in the ensemble scenes, the camera is extremely close to the actors. What did you want to create with that, with putting the camera so close to the actors in those scenes? It’s something really striking.
N: I always do that for dinner table scenes. Almost in all dinner table scenes I like to shoot almost fully improvised and to do that we have the roaming camera and we shoot multiple cameras a lot of the time. So we have the roaming camera and then one camera on the person who we know we need certain lines from and then we switch it to another person who have certain lines while the other camera roams to capture all those details. I think a lot of that comes from watching Alan King movies and I like that sense of life…
P: Instead of a portrait…
N: Yeah, because I like to feel the anxiety of a meal and all the reactions. I think there are so many reaction shots during those meal scenes and they’re the ones that fascinate me. These people witnessing something that’s occurring at the table.
P: Also you can see the individual communication between certain characters.
N: Exactly. And that fascinates me a lot more than allowing people to sit back and collect what characters are doing. I like to shove that in the viewer’s face. I like the discomfort of watching people watch.
P: I felt the film works very much vertically instead of horizontally. In the house you can see that clearly, the action develops a lot between those 3 floors. And when they go further away from the house it’s usually to communicate, to get something from the exterior, the real world. Did you think about it?
N: That’s really interesting. No, I didn’t. Not at all. But I like that a lot
P: It feels that in this suspended time one moves vertically, they are building layers instead of progressing, moving forward.
N: That is much more eloquent than… I mean, that is a beautiful thing to say about it.
P: It was really cool to watch the scene in the car, the driving lesson, because somehow it really summarises that idea. It’s the scene where they are furthest away from the house and they try to move forward but they can’t because she’s always stepping the break so this scene feels like a really humorous way to represent that question. They don’t necessarily want or they’re incapable of moving forward.
N: That’s kind of great. I like that. You got somehow to the heart of the movie.
P: Thanks, I’m glad this makes sense to you. Getting back to what I mentioned as a European influence in the narrative outline, via Rohmer, and the American specificity in the characters: which do you feel are your influences now, from artists working nowadays?
N: The people that I like the most, I mean, the movies that I watch, I don’t know if they necessarily influence me. I love Miguel Gomes. I love this movie called See You Next Tuesday by this guy Drew Tobia, I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, I really admire Dan Sallitt who did some years ago The Unspeakable Act, he has a very Rohmeresque quality to his work, I like Josephine Dekker’s work, right now. I guess I don’t see that many new releases, I see some at festivals and from friends but you know… I’ve been watching so many things from the 80s and 90s in preparation for my next movie.
P: When are you starting to shoot?
N: In two weeks.
P: Oh, that’s great. Ok. This is it!
N: Thank you so much!
P: Thank you.