The director discusses Uncertain Terms, which is both the title of his newest film and an apt description of his filmmaking style.
In the past five years Nathan Silver has made four feature films, The Blind, Exit Elena, Soft In The Head and premiering at the LA Film Festival next month, Uncertain Terms. Aesthetically, each of these films is its own animal and that is how Nathan prefers it. He is a process-oriented director, preferring to orchestrate anarchic improvisations in lieu of formal scripts. But in talking with him it is clear that the strategies and techniques he has experimented with have yet to settle into a strict set of rules. Instead Nathan speaks of each new project as a reaction against the previous. Uncertain Terms may be his most accessible film to date, with its broad plot and troupe of up-and-coming actresses. However, he seems to be preparing to turn the tables with his next project Stinking Heaven, a film about drug addicts that will be shot on grainy Beta Cam this summer. While most directors expend energy piloting their productions toward calmer waters, Nathan seems most in his element when surrounded by chaos. We recorded the following conversation in sound designer Gene Park’s mixing studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where Nathan was finalizing the sound and score for Uncertain Terms.
David Zuckerman To date you’ve made four features and a number of shorts. Did you start making shorts while you were studying at NYU?
Nathan Silver No, the shorts came directly after. When I was at NYU I thought I wanted to be a playwright and then my last year there I started doing screenwriting but it was only because of an internship I had with the experimental theater director Richard Foreman, who runs the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. He was a hero of mine in high-school and then when I went to work for him in college all he would do is complain about how he had no audience and how I should make movies, not theater. He recommended all of these filmmakers I should watch. I was living around the corner from Kim’s Video at the time, so I went there and found whatever videos he would recommend.
DZ What would Richard Foreman recommend?
NS Pasolini, Manuel de Oliviera, Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman. I started watching all of these movies. I loved Pasolini and Fassbinder the most at that time. I liked films to a certain degree when I was younger but I wasn’t in love; I didn’t think I wanted to be a filmmaker, but after watching Fassbinder and Pasolini I thought ‘this is the only thing I want to do’ and so I gave up on experimental theater and started thinking about making movies. Because I was in a theater program it was a matter of switching majors. I went from studying playwriting to screenwriting and in order to do that, because I only had two semesters left, I had to write three feature length scripts in one semester.
DZ That was how you inaugurated the pace you have been working at since?
NS Absolutely. It’s also ironic that I no longer work with scripts and yet that is what I spent my time in school studying, how to write plays and screenplays.
DZ Did you ever stage any experimental theater while you were interning for Richard Foreman?
NS I wrote some experimental plays and there was one I wanted to do my last year of high school, but it fell apart. I wanted to do a version of Jean Genet’s The Maids. I wanted to take lines from the play and place them on pieces of paper at random, like in fortune cookies, and then hand them to the actors. Genet wanted it to be played by two men but I had a guy and girl, two teenagers, and I wanted to see what would happen to the play if I just handed them lines at random, like one at a time. I wanted to see how we could re-arrange it. That was my first attempt at doing experimental theater. The first Richard Foreman play I saw was Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty and it used the props in such a weird way. The first thing I thought of after seeing that play was having some image of cracking a fortune cookie or a mannequin open and having the text pour out.
DZ The image of a mannequin, or fortune cookie, or piñata that gets smashed open and spills out a text seems to be a good image of how you make your films; an explosion of chaos that leads to form.
NS That’s a great way of thinking about it. I like that as a physical metaphor.
DZ Having seen an advanced copy of your most recent film Uncertain Terms with all of these ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) notes flashing on and off the screen, it seemed as though those notes were more than just solutions to technical problems with the audio or dialogue and actually a form of writing in post-production. Also, the way you use these L-cuts, where a line or a piece of dialogue from a new scene comes in well ahead of the present image; you seem to have made a little signature out of that technique and used it as threading.
NS My collaborator Cody Stokes edited and shot both Soft In The Head and Uncertain Terms and he is a co-writer on them. When we make sense of this pile of footage, because that’s what it is at first, those techniques just help to give a sense of rhythm and flow to the film when we're sitting there and editing it. I think it started with Exit Elena, where you have the voices from each subsequent scene enter underneath the chapter title cards. In the two recent films there are not as many breaks like that, so you need to find a way to connect all of the scenes, which you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise with all of the improvisation. With Soft In The Head, three days into shooting we threw the outline out the window.
DZ Do you do re-shoots?
NS Yes. For Exit Elena we did one and a half days of re-shoots. For Soft In the Head we did one day and for Uncertain Terms we did three days of re-shoots.
DZ Do you edit while you are shooting as well?
NS No, but I’m going to do that for the next film.
DZ I would think that with your process of improvisation and spontaneous writing that you would edit simultaneously.
NS My motto thus far has been, “Work with what you have (after the shoot).” But I’m moving in a direction where I can modify things more along the way rather than only after the fact.
DZ How do your outlines come about?
NS I find a few people that I want to be in the movie, for whatever reason. I have ideas for their character and I sit down for months and talk things through and eventually I get to the point where I have the characters but I don’t really have the story yet. I’m banging my head against the wall and then I bring my collaborators in and we start writing the outline together.
DZ How did that transpire with Soft In The Head, specifically in relation to the homeless characters and the halfway house?
NS The halfway house came about towards the end. I started with Maury, played by Ed Ryan. I had cast him in another movie that fell apart the first day of shooting. He was playing a totally different character. I had him playing a pedophile and I thought he was fantastic. Then I got to know him as a person and realized that he is just a saint.
DZ He was your Prince Myshkin?
NS Exactly. I wanted to do an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but I couldn’t get it on the page so I thought if I just found all these real life equivalents of the characters and then stuck them together and threw the plot out the window I could get at something. When I met Sheila Etxeberria (who plays Natalia), she reminded me of Anastassya Filippovna and then I developed a character with her based on that and her reading of the book.
DZ This observation may be more a critique of cinema in general than Soft in the Head in particular, but I felt that the film wanted to be completely about the character of Maury but that you kept the camera on the attractive Natalia out of some sense of pressure to have an element of visual pleasure in the frame, no offense to Ed Ryan.
NS At the time that wasn’t as much an issue as figuring out how to connect the world of the homeless shelter to the world of Orthodox Judaism. I wanted a connection between the two worlds and Sheila’s character became the point of entry. The people who play the orthodox parents are my parents' oldest friends. They were hippies once upon a time and now they are religious. I always wanted to make a movie with them and this seemed like the right opportunity. I didn’t know why but I just knew that if I put Sheila’s character into that situation there would immediately be conflict, and I knew if I put Sheila’s character with Maury there would also be conflict with the other men. But whereas the Jewish family refuses to accept Sheila and spits her back out, Maury takes her in and I found that juxtaposition interesting.
DZ It seems like a theme running through all three films is that of compassion or care giving, which produces unforeseen repercussions and consequences.
NS “No good deed goes unpunished” is my mother’s favorite saying. You can do all the good you want, that can be your intention, but it doesn’t mean that it will be the effect or outcome on the world. That’s the problem with having good intentions. My mother always talks about that and I think in the last few years it has worn her down because she wants to do good, she wants to be this very caring person, but she finds it difficult as she grows older to have the same emotional attachment that she once had. When I was a kid she was taking in people from El Salvador, the way that Maury takes in these men. A lot of it comes from that personal history.
DZ In both Soft In the Head and Uncertain Terms there is a clear climax in a somewhat classical way; a tipping point of the drama around minute sixty. However, you rarely waste much time with dénouements or scenes of reconciliation. The films just sort of end.
NS There is a hint of the future in all the films. With all of the endings you get a hint of the characters getting what they want but somehow the future is still bleak. The character is getting what he wants but only to a certain degree. I have no sense of what my movies are. I try and make sense of them through interviews and through writing about them but I don’t actually know how they read; if they seem pessimistic, if they actually seem like dark comedies. I don’t know what the hell they are! A journalist friend of mine said about Exit Elena that he read all the reviews and it seemed like every review was talking about a different movie. Some people called it heartwarming and light, other people called it anxiety provoking and they couldn’t get through the goddamn thing. It’s a weird split. You get all of these different reactions. The narrative is there enough that you think you have a grasp of the story but the emotions are on the perimeter. You have a sense of the logistics, where things are going, but you don’t have a grasp of where people are (psychologically) in the movies and I think that is why all of these critics can say different things. I find that fascinating because if you watch these movies it’s not like I’m giving you fully developed characters, I’m just giving you hints of what I want to show you. But actually it’s not even what I want to show you, that’s not how the movies are made; it’s more about what comes out of the event of collecting the footage and using it in a way that makes sense and ads up to something. It’s not I’m showing you this! It’s much more of a documentarian just collecting and then trying to make sense of what has been collected.
DZ That’s what people respond to though. There are a lot of filmmakers that try to make their films feel real and authentic and natural and for whatever reason it doesn’t work or it feels like a contrived authenticity, but your films stand out as getting dangerously close to the reality of the situation you’ve imposed. Soft In The Head is undeniably alive and self-contained in that sense. Having done this a few times now, what is your feeling moving forward with your next project in regards to being or not being a sculptor of footage? Do you want to impose more or less?
NS I want to impose less. With Stinking Heaven I really want it to be about getting this group of people together. I have an outline, but I want to do it like we did it with Soft In the Head, where we throw that outline away during the shoot if need be. With Uncertain Terms things were preconceived more and I’m reacting to that. I want to work again in a way that is like pandemonium. I don’t know if there is a trajectory, but I think from movie to movie I know that I react against the way I worked last. I know that we had much more of a sense of a crew with Uncertain Terms than we had with any of the other films. That is not a bad thing, but with the next one I want it to be more of a document of people behaving. I don’t want to have to think about what is right for the story. That’s what I’m interested in right now; that’s what drives me crazy. Even though the story elements are always necessary—like in Exit Elena when the grandmother falls down, or the arrival of my character, those are inevitably elements of a story—when we were shooting I never wanted it to seem like the actors were telling the story. I just wanted them to live and for us to document them living. The actors know their characters, but they have no sense of what happens to those characters, because they have no context.
DZ Do scenes get conceived of before or after arriving at a location?
DZ So you haven’t settled into a methodology then?
NS No, because whatever way you work, you want to react against the way you worked last. I get bored working in a certain way. I’m reactionary. I want to go against the way I worked last. Along the way you figure out some things that you know you like, but ultimately the film consumes your life and you’re spending all of your time doing it. All of your friends are a part of the film—maybe they are in the film or they are part of the crew—so it just becomes your life. So you say, How can I do this differently? Because the point is that you’re living, while making the films.
DZ Not unlike Fassbinder and his troupe, or other directors who worked repeatedly with the same cast and crew and were always in the middle of one production or another.
NS Except now that there is less money for these kinds of movies, filmmakers have a harder time finding the amount of money they need in order to pay everyone involved and support them while they are together working.
DZ Do you pay your cast?
DZ Not even the lead actors?
NS Not in the last few films—
Gene Park —Well, there’s a new paradigm with digital technology in which filmmakers can work more without scripts and actors end up having a larger creative role than just showing up and learning lines. There are more actors sharing writing credits and producing credits now.
NS Yes, the actors are helping to write the movie.
DZ Which is at times the criticism that gets leveled at improvisatory directors. It has been said about Mike Leigh that the actors write the script.
NS From what I understand, Mike Leigh bases the characters on people they’ve known in the past, which is a great way of working. Even if you’re not a heroin addict, let’s say, you most likely know someone who was and that becomes your entry point for the character of a heroin addict.
DZ That’s an actor’s director: understanding the language and techniques that the actor is employing and incorporating those very methods into the structuring of the story itself.
NS Yes, and beyond that what I like the most about making a film is the sense of collective insanity that goes on. I enjoy a sense of chaos and there are all sorts of little artificial structures that are needed to make that chaos happen. The filmmaker is always butting up against them and the money people are always asking, “How will you control this chaos?” Ultimately I want to have the feeling of not knowing, of saying: “Who the fuck knows what we will end up with?” That to me is grand. That’s what is exciting and why I am making these movies in the first place.
For more on Nathan Silver's work, visit the website of Konec Films.
David Louis Zuckerman is a film and theater artist based in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.