In Conversation With: Nathan Silver

Nathan Silver at the premiere of Actor Martinez in 2016. Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

Nathan Silver is the award-winning independent filmmaker of Thirst Street (2017), Soft in the Head (2013), and Stinking Heaven (2015), among others. His latest picture as a director and co-writer (with Jack Dunphy), The Great Pretender, was selected as a World Premiere of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. A neon-lit relationship drama staged in the world of alternative New York theatre, the Factory 25 production stars Maëlle Poésy, Keith Poulson, Esther Garrel and Linas Phillips and is available to watch on Amazon Prime.

At Tribeca last year, Silver spoke with Sean L. Malin about the film’s production, the myth of dictatorial directors, and the next two projects in his ever-bustling schedule. This conversation has been compressed and edited for clarity.

Sean Malin: I realize that we have a lot of friends in common. Factory 25, which is releasing your film, released my friend Todd Rohal’s film Uncle Kent 2 some years ago. And Frank V. Ross and I did a two-and-a-half hour interview in Chicago, but I guess the film that you guys were editing together had its name changed from The Pervert?

Nathan Silver: Yes, it’s going to be called Watch Me Drown, though that is also a working title. It’s changed immensely – it is going to be a whole new movie. We had all this documentary footage and this animation, and we realized that the fiction elements that we had shot just didn’t quite gel with [them]. The documentary and animation elements were so strong that we wanted to do them justice.

SM: Did you commission someone to do the animation for it?

NS: No, no, my co-director Jack is an animator, so he’s doing it.

SM: I’m interested in how you connected with Jack Dunphy, who co-wrote Great Pretender. He’s something of an unknown commodity, unlike yourself.

NS: I met Jack when he was at The New School because I was presenting my film Soft in the Head there. He has this class where he shows current independent American cinema, and he’s shown almost all my movies. So he came up to me after the screening and said, “I really like your work.” We ended up meeting for coffee. At that time, I was developing Stinking Heaven, and I couldn’t quite nail the treatment.

But Jack sent me his short film, Serenity, and I could see…there was just something about the tone that I just knew. And also the subject matter: there’s a heroin addict in Serenity. It just so happened that we had thematic cross-over. So he ended up becoming a co-writer and a co-producer on Stinking Heaven. After that, we started developing The Pervert, which we’ve been working on for three years now. And now he’s the writer of The Great Pretender.

SM: Yes, and he appears in it in two roles. I love little treats like that where someone pops up as a voice, so that if you know about the person who’s in there, you know it is the filmmakers having their own little joke. I actually wrote in my notes: “This is Jack Dunphy’s adaptation.”.

NS: *Laughs* He would love that. He’s a Charlie Kaufman guy.

SM: Your films are often talked about as if they’re breaking the mold in some way; that’s kind of the language that’s used when people describe your work when they exhibit you.

NS: Yeah.

SM: You are kind of this commodity now – like you, yourself, are an art piece.

NS: Oh, yeah. It’s really funny. I was at a party with the head of Tribeca, and he said, “Nathan” – he’s French – he said, “Nathan, you are generous and cruel. And that smile of yours – it’s all behind there, but that’s what makes you a human and what’s in all your movies.” I thought about that. You have to be generous to your characters but you have to realize that you have to put them through hell.

SM: Well, you also seem to put yourself through hell. You’re constantly talking about how film is for psychopaths and crazy people.

NS: It really is, though! When I was in high school, I had no desire to make movies. They had no appeal to me whatsoever. I was around all these geeks who were trying to get into NYU for filmmaking, and I was like, “Why? It seems so lame.” But then when I started making films after school – I went to school for playwriting – I realized that what I like about it is the element of production itself.

SM: Meaning producing a physical, manifested —

NS: No, just actually being on set with all the crew and cast. I work with people that I genuinely like. Obviously everyone is frustrating to a degree because we’re all humans and we all rub up against each other, but you find the people that rub up against you in the right way and frustrate you in the right way. Actually, my closest relationships are with the people I work with.

SM: You’ve actually begun keeping some of those people in a stable. You’ve begun the corralling process with Keith Poulson or Esther Garrel. The phrase “muse” is overused, but I always like to hear about people getting used over and over in certain films, like John Ratzenberger.

NS: Both Keith and Esther, I adore. And Hannah Gross I worked with a bunch in the past and I want to work with her again, of course. And Tallie Medel and some other folks, too.

But the fact that I was making movies at such a fast pace – people’s schedules couldn’t…I would have to find new people to work with. New DPs. Because no one could just set aside their lives for my productions alone. But I’m trying to slow things down after we finish Watch Me Drown. I have a cop thriller that’s fully scripted and I’m going to try and get a larger budget for because I am exhausted.

Keith Poulson, left, and Esther Garrel in The Great Pretender. Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

SM: Yes, I would imagine so if I was in your position. I think a lot of people are impressed with the speed you go at – I certainly find it overwhelmingly impressive. But you are the only filmmaker that ever talks about the toll it takes on your body. I mean, do you actually like making cinema? Or is it a compulsion?

NS: It is, it’s an absolute compulsion.

SM: It seems painful for you.

NS: It certainly is. But the joy I get from being on set with the people – that’s gratifying, and that’s what I grab onto. And I’ve already committed myself to it. I can’t turn back. I don’t know what my life would be. I mean, I’m broke. I’m broke as fuck. I don’t know what to do. I take whatever teaching gigs I can, whatever guest lectures I can find, anything to make a buck. But you don’t make any money off these movies. That’s why I’m trying to move on to larger stuff because I need to make a living of some sort, at least to be able to pay my rent with these films.

SM: I watched The Great Pretender last night, and thought, “What a strange movie.” But what a beautiful movie it is, too. I think it might be your most lovely movie visually.

NS: Oh, thank you.

SM: It is just gorgeous. Who did your colorization?

NS: Nice Dissolve, but [The Great Pretender cinematographer] Sean [Price Williams] does it in such a way that it is all in camera already. It was only a day and a half of color correction. That’s the blessing of working with him. When we make decisions, it’s not about what is practically motivated; it is emotionally-motivated lighting. What feels right feels right. It is basically working alongside the story. He didn’t read the script. It was just a feeling, but we knew that it would cross over and kind of merge, like a new object in the end.

SM: Did it slow you down to work with such extreme neon lighting and that series of colors? Whenever [the characters] are in the theatre, there four different colors always at play in every shot.

NS: Basically, Sean and Hunter Zimny, who is this guy that should be on all sets – he was the AC, but also gets all the stuff – would come up with some lighting ideas, and then we would talk and go from there. That’s what worked.

SM: You’re in this position where Sean Price Williams has real authority on his sets and is such a definitive voice on what he wants. Will you guys study together for practice?

NS: You know, Sean and I have this weird relationship because we’ve known each other for so long. Our first time working together was Thirst Street, but I’ve known him for years. I was a Kim’s [Video] customer when he was the manager there, and I was also at Film Forum when he would come and see movies.

Whenever I’m at his apartment, we just have movies on in the background, and we talk about shots. He watches so many movies. He watches everything. We were watching some Kenneth Anger during [The Great Pretender] for reference. Then he’ll throw on an old Polish movie with crazy camera movements.

We started working together at the right time, which was after I’d already made a number of movies. I feel like I would have been intimidated by him in the past, but now it’s actually very easy when we’re working together. We have this understanding. He’s very open to ideas as a DP, and he’s not precious at all.

But if something’s not clicking, we both immediately get frustrated and know that we need to blow the thing up and reset the lights. He knows what I want, but he’s happy to experiment. I have this irrational thing where I get really excited and laugh when things just start working in unexpected ways. And he loves making me laugh. It is kind of a beautiful relationship.

Factory 25

SM: This film has such a unique structure that I wrote in my notes, “The Great Pretender is Nathan Silver’s Dunkirk.” You’ve got such a crazy narrative the way that it’s edited; it goes in 50 different directions, and we don’t even know if it’s really existing or if it’s taking place inside of a dream, or maybe the play. It’s very sophisticated.

NS: That’s all Jack’s writing.

SM: Did you find this film in the edit? You don’t seem like a person that that happens to. You seem to me like a person who has a constructed idea.

NS: You always find the film in the edit – there’s no way around that, no matter how scripted it is. The editor is another writer in all these movies. And in this particular case, it was the writer – the writer was the editor. It was Jack who edited the movie.

SM: Have you heard this quote about Robert Bresson, that he would talk about his actors like they were tools or vehicles?

NS: Yeah!

SM: There is something that you do with your actors that is like the opposite of that. It’s like, “I’m going to give my actors almost too much space.” [Your actors] have so much breathing room that it could implode your movie if the actors weren’t good.

NS: There’s something about this idea of a director – and I’ve talked about this for a long time with friends and whenever anyone interviews me – as almost like this dictator, this old-fashioned concept of “the director.” I find that that is bullshit. You’re just talking to people and interacting with them. That is how you run a set. I like to have complete and utter collaboration. I pick the people because I like their brains. THAT is why I pick the people I work with: because if you’re not utilizing their abilities, then what are you doing? You’re wasting their time trying to impose your vision. Your vision will come through, but there’s almost this nervousness – this control-freak nature – where you’re scared that somehow it won’t reflect you.

SM: It’s preciousness.

NS: But control comes from actually choosing the people. That’s what film is unless you’re just going out and shooting, like, Stan Brakhage.

SM: As you have increased your budgets a little bit and begun taking on name actors – and I’m not just talking about Anjelica Huston, by the way: Linas Phillips counts as someone who has made a name for himself, or Lindsay Burdge – even if your budgets haven’t increased the way that you want them to, does it threaten your ego into blowing up in a dictatorial way?

NS: There are certain fights, yeah, but they’re not about…

SM: Your ego?

NS: I mean, I hope not. I don’t have this grand, sweeping vision where everything has to be perfect. It’s a different kind of set, I suppose. There are small tweaks but not a lot has to be said. It comes down to how you set up the set and the schedule. It’s about crafting the production itself and believing that that will get you what you need…I’ve been obsessed with Fassbinder for a long time, and he treated his actors like hell in a lot of ways. It’s interesting to read about. To hear how he ran sets – it wasn’t like a dictator. He just kind of said one word.

SM: Fassbinder is a really good model and I’m glad you brought him up –

NS: Sean said, “If you don’t appreciate Fassbinder’s work, then you shouldn’t be making movies.” I like that statement because he covered everything. Fassbinder’s one of those filmmakers who really took a magnifying glass to the hideous side of human nature – the hideous, and the lovely. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of the most tender movies I can think of.

Linas Phillips, left, and Maëlle Poésy. Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul. Courtesy

SM: As a critic, I read so much about people like you who are described as this kind of golden boy of cinema. I’m sure you’ve read some of these pieces, too, where you’re the great young hope of independent cinema. Everybody likes that narrative. It would be so easy for you to really lose yourself in that identity if you wanted to.

NS: It is odd because my living situation is so pathetic and my bank account is proof. I’m only getting an agent now after 10 years. I’m very excited to actually find someone who gets my references and wants to help me make larger things.

SM: Before that, in the years before you got your agent, have you invested any time in rewriting other people’s scripts, doing polishes quietly, or producing work that is not your own?

NS: Producing, yeah, helping other filmmakers.

SM: Do you mentor?

NS: Um, it’s not really a form of mentorship. The whole festival game is basically rigged. When I went to Edinburgh with my first film – or what I consider my first film – Exit Elena, I submitted it blindly through Withoutabox. When I arrived there, the programmers said, “How’d we find your film, by the way?” and I was like, “Withoutabox.” They said, “Oh, we didn’t know that worked.” Then I realized how it was: it’s who you know, the old fucking saying.

SM: It’s so true, though.

NS: It’s really true. So I realized that I can help people whose work I liked and try to help get it out into the world. It doesn’t always work, but if you at least get it to the people who are making those decisions, it helps.

SM: Give me an example of someone whose work would truly be absent from the lexicon if you hadn’t given it that final push, where you’ve seen success that pleases you.

NS: There’s a movie by Britni West called Tired Moonlight that I helped get into the program at Slamdance and then at Rotterdam. It’s so beautiful. It had a really nice trajectory, and I was really pleased that I was able to help with that. Chris [Mason] Wells and I just produced a movie, Two Plains & a Fancy, by Lev [Kalman] and Whitney [Horn], who did L for Leisure. That’s been getting a really good reaction. It has been nice to try and help because they deserve a higher profile. I think they’re extraordinarily talented. So there’s joy in that.

SM: Okay, last question: do you know how Aaron Katz is?

NS: Yes, of course.

SM: Aaron and I did an interview last year, and I asked him a question that I’ve since asked every filmmaker I’ve spoken to. It was years and years between Aaron’s films because it’s just so hard to find funding, no matter how acclaimed you are. He did Land Ho! with Martha Stephens, which premieres at Sundance, Best of Next!, gets distribution from IFC, and then he’s still fucking struggling to make his next film.

Likewise, you make all these movies, you get more and more access to fundraising, you have people who will work with you at all levels. I mean, you have Anjelica Huston narrating Thirst Street for you. And now you have an agent. So my question is, and it’s a metaphor: when will you direct Jurassic World 3?

NS: The next step for me is to make something where I have a union crew and a few million dollars, and to start building. I don’t know if I would ever be making “Hollywood” Hollywood stuff, but larger independent films for sure. It would be nice to try and fill those films with…I’m not going to lose my personality. I can’t help but be myself, fortunately or unfortunately. Whatever I do, I will fight whatever larger system I’m working in to get something that has elements of how fucked-up life is in.

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