Nicholas Elliott by David Louis Zuckerman

Austerity, allegory, and the interpretability of film.

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


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Still from Icarus, 2015. Directed by Nicholas Elliott. Image courtesy of the artist.

I count Nicholas Elliott as a friend and a colleague, but sometimes his insight and incisiveness frightens me. He’s a fierce Apollonian and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in an unfocused state, or without control of his faculties. Working simultaneously as a critic, translator, and writer/director, he represents a sui generis breed of film aesthete. Icarus, which is premiering at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival on March 22, stars Jim Fletcher, Rosie Goldensohn, Alex Delinois, and Greg Zuccolo. It’s a rare gem of a film, which I had the pleasure to help edit. I was excited to sit down with Nicholas in an isolated corner of Avery Fisher Hall and record this conversation.

David Zuckerman Because I worked with you on this film, both on set and in post-production, I know this was a deeply personal project originating from a place of real truth and meaning for you. You made it easy to believe in the work, and it was a very special and enjoyable ensemble to be a part of. Do you feel you managed to express what you set out to express with Icarus?

Nicholas Elliott In terms of that verb—to express—I’m not sure I did, only because I’m not entirely sure the film is comprehensible on the level I initially thought it should be, based on the story I wrote. While I’m not sure people walk away with that, the real core impetus and objective for the film was to make it with these performers who I cared about. I wanted to film them and have a record of them at this point in their lives. I’d like to think the film does achieve that.

I’m of the school that sees film as a record—and that doesn’t mean film can’t be fictional, fantastical, or supernatural, that it can’t be all sorts of things that aren’t locked down in mundane reality. But I still see it as anchored in reality, which is why I’m not interested in animation for instance. So the desire here was to film certain faces and people, starting with Rosie. The location was important to me, and I feel like we did a good job with that. And I say “we” because obviously the director of photography, Sean Williams, is a very good observer of people and places, and of course the performers yielded themselves to the camera in a way that allowed that to happen. And I’ll add that when I saw the rushes of this film, I saw people in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and that was an incredible bonus.

DZ I remember thinking, when you were first getting the film together, that you had a very painterly, poetic, abstract image as the nucleus. Maybe it was Jim coming out of the river or maybe it was “naked figures” coming out of the river, or Rosie working at the tapestry. You seemed to make a point of saying you weren’t sure what it was all signifying yet. So how did Icarus start? Did it really begin so abstractly?

NE I knew we were going to be talking so I’ve been trying to think about the very first thing that got me interested in making a film again. I can’t really recall, but I do remember a group of impulses. There was this image of Jim coming out of the river, Rosie’s face, and the idea of filming up at Rosie’s family’s cabin by the Hudson. Those were the three things.

DZ Considering you began with these impulses, how would you then want to articulate the relationship between realism and abstraction in the film? Do you see it as a surrealist short, for example?

NE No, I don’t have a strong relationship to surrealist cinema. And I would never say it’s dreamlike or anything like that. That’s all fine, but it’s not how I would approach something. It seems like a cop-out. As far as this idea of film being recording, I don’t have an impulse to go out and film people sitting at the kitchen table, you know, mimicking reality. In this case, with this one film, I had a strong image and desire to isolate elements of reality, because what we did was take people out of the city and put them in kind of an extreme environment. We shot in a cabin that has no electricity, located a couple of miles from the closest habitation, four hours out of the city, surrounded by deep snow.

DZ I was extremely neurotic about going. I thought I would freeze.

NE I was putting people in an environment I really care about, and that happens to have no cell-phone reception and no Internet. That’s not a coincidence. I liked the isolation. I think you create good things out of limitations and enforced confinement. So by nature, it was going to be a heightened reality, or another reality. Once you have a guy coming out of the river in the middle of the winter, you’re not dealing with everyday reality. That was intentional. I wanted to mark that. The men who come out of the river all carry these bags called Wickelfisch, which is what people in Basel, and in Switzerland in general, used when they swim in the Rhine. They put their personal belongings in these very colorful waterproof bags that float along with them. The summer before I made this movie I was in Basel with Richard Maxwell and New York City Players, and I was very moved by the experience of swimming in the river in the middle of the city and seeing dozens of people in the water, passing under the bridges with these red and orange bags bobbing behind them. That’s a banal Swiss reality, but once you displace it, and put it way up north in New York state in the winter, it’s a marker that you’re outside any familiar zone. It also creates a link between the three men. And maybe that kind of choice leads to something like a fable.

DZ You definitely end up with a film that could be described as fablelike or allegorical. How much do you want the viewer to be able to make an interpretation, I mean, even corresponding to the title, Icarus? How clear of an allegory do you want it to be, or how clear of an allegory was it for you to begin with?

NE Not very clear. (laughter) There were two directions for the allegory. One is moving toward me and my life; it’s incredibly clear to me that everything in the film is very closely linked to my life—again, like these bags I’m talking about, and the idea, obviously, of having Jim come out of the river comes from me swimming in the river in Basel with Jim. But those things are meaningless to anyone except me. Then there’s the allegory going toward the spectator and his or her experience and imagination, and I have no idea what that might be. I don’t have an under-layer of meaning to the film. But, from what I gather—and I think people are right—it is kind of unclear narratively, which makes even the most basic narrative kind of allegorical. When watching this film, you’re watching a series of scenes, many of which might be interpreted as tableaus, and you have to interpret them in order to understand a story.

The story is clear to me, or it was … but once you, Alex Camilleri, and I found the film in the edit, it became another story, and I don’t know what that story is because I haven’t watched the finished film that many times. As far as this question of leaving it open to the audience, I mean, having a background as a film enthusiast, film critic, and film idealist, I, of course, subscribe to this idea that you should respect the audience, leave room for the audience, leave things open to interpretation, all that stuff. And I still hold by all that, though it wasn’t a very strong part of my thinking in making the film. I guess I just wanted to make sure some emotion came across; maybe that’s what it’s really all about. Forget allegory; forget narrative. Does emotion come across? For me, that connects back to the original impulse, which was to film the faces of people who move me and see whether I could share that with an audience. The allegorical element, or the story, or any construct, is the structure in which you place these faces. I’m not going to make an Andy Warhol film, and I’m not going to make a ’70s Philippe Garrel film and just film people’s faces. I don’t know why I’m not going to make that, but I’m not going to. I need a structure.

DZ Well, I try and interpret the film and always end up going in a couple of different directions. I’m never able to come up with a clear interpretation. One would be that it’s an allegory about the thawing out of a kind of cryogenically frozen sexuality!

NE (laughter)

DZ Which I consider to be a worthwhile theme for a film. But then you have Jim’s first words—he approaches Rosie in all his naked glory and says …

NE “I am the late blooming son of an elderly father. Will you be a mother to me?”

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Still from Icarus, 2015. Directed by Nicholas Elliott. Image courtesy of the artist.

DZ Jim Fletcher is usually described as a prototypical masculine type, in his image and physicality, and if you think, well, a mother shelters, protects, cares for, provides warmth, and a son who is overly infatuated with the mother is typically described as effeminate. Jim is, of course, hardly effeminate, and his asking for a mother in that first scene creates a curious image.

NE Well, it’s no secret that it’s interesting to go against type. There’s a solidity and heft to Jim that doesn’t incline you to think the guy needs protection. So it’s more interesting to see vulnerability in someone strong, or vice versa. But I didn’t think the casting out the way you might if you were working with a casting director—it was just that I wanted Jim. I didn’t say I wanted a masculine character, or a feminine character, or an emotive person, I just wanted Jim. And to be clear, I wanted Rosie, I wanted Jim, I wanted Alex, and I wanted Greg. And anyhow, there is no one else I know of who would be excited about crawling out of the half-frozen Hudson River in February, naked, in front of a camera.

As far as that first scene, I’m embarrassed to say this, or I feel uncomfortable to admit it, but I am the late-blooming son of an elderly father. My father is ninety-one years old, I’m forty, and I’m making my third short film after a ten-year hiatus. Other people my age are on feature number six. Granted, I don’t even know if I’ll make another film. I’m in a different paradigm in that I don’t consider myself a filmmaker, but I still feel like I’m playing catch-up. And though I don’t think Jim is a doppelgänger for me in the film at all, I thought it was important that, when he starts to speak, he speaks from my place. He doesn’t remain who I am, necessarily, but I just felt like I should start by saying where I’m coming from, kind of like clearing the deck after a long hiatus. With hindsight, I think that’s what it is.

As for him asking for a mother, one of the things I wanted to do, though I don’t think I was very successful with this, was to make sure the woman that Rosie played escaped the stereotypes. I didn’t want her to be an object of desire in that obligatory movie way (which is different from her being beautiful). I didn’t want her to be an earth mother, and I didn’t want there to be a sense of threat because she’s alone in this cabin and three men show up. I didn’t want people to think, “Oh, this is going to turn into Straw Dogs.” I succeeded in that. I don’t think people watch this movie and think she’s going to get raped. As far as the object of desire and mother-thing, I wasn’t enlightened enough to find a female character who was free of these archetypes. But I wanted him to ask that question so she could say no.

What was very special about making this film was that it was an incredibly rare event in my life in that it was something I decided to do, felt I must do, and did do. I’ve had a pretty interesting life, I’ve been lucky, but most of the things that have come my way, came my way. My life has been structured based on saying yes or no. In this case, my volition was much more important than yes or no. There was nothing, and I decided there should be something, and I did it, and it was a really good feeling. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for questions. It’s just that it doesn’t happen to me very often.

DZ Do you feel, now that Icarus is showing at ND/NF, some pressure to find a new project?

NE (laughter) Well, pressure is kind of a strong word. Let’s look at in a positive light. Obviously, to get this positive reinforcement, makes me … let’s just say my antennas are out, and it makes me want to find something more than before. It took two and a half days to shoot the film, but those two and a half days were unquestionably among the happiest of my life. I know a lot of people don’t enjoy the actual act of making movies, even though making movies is essential to them. It so happens that we set up the circumstances to make a movie—granted it was brief—in an enjoyable, calm fashion. There weren’t a lot of energy-draining questions. I mean, there was a lot of questioning, but the right questions: Where do you put the camera? How do I get this performance to work? What can I do about this terrible line I wrote for Alex to say? But it made me really happy and it gave me purpose across the board, and it allowed me to be with people who I really care for, so why wouldn’t I want to do that again? I wouldn’t want to do it for something that wasn’t important … because it is hard, and it is expensive.

DZ When I think of your aesthetic tastes, I think of an aesthetic bordering on the austere—that pure Tarkovsky-esque territory. Yet two of my favorite images in the film are Greg’s dance set to LLILW GRAY’s music, and Jim and Greg wrestling in the snow. Both of those images could be described as crossing over into some kind of queer aesthetic. A lot discourse around queer cinema, or queer aesthetics, strays into a discussion of camp. Icarus seems a curious case in that regard. You’re not someone I think of as being drawn to really campy things, but I wonder if the film has a kind of dialectical relationship between this very pure austere cinema and a queer cinema, and if that term even matters to you?

NE The question of queer cinema is not one that is particularly important to me, certainly not in making this film. What is important is desire. I think that whether you’re making a film or whether your watching a film, desire is huge. It’s really too bad that over the course of film history homosexual desire hasn’t been transparently represented more often. Endless books and video essays have been made about how it’s been subterraneously represented, but it’s really only been the last ten or twenty years that we have gay role models to look at. I think that’s too bad for everybody; it’s especially too bad for young people who are kind of finding their view of the world to come in film.

I think it’s important in film to be honest about desire and show the various flows of desire. One of the best film titles of all time is John Cassavetes’s Love Streams, and I think that’s very indicative of what I would want to achieve in the film: “love streams,” currents of desire. And yes of course, when those guys wrestle down the hill, you could say that’s a substitute for a sex scene I had no intention of filming. Now as far as you using three loaded terms, austerity, purity, and queer cinema …

DZ I’m sorry.

NE No, you shouldn’t apologize. I totally cop to austerity, but I think austerity is not at all a negative term. Maybe it’s just too loaded now, especially with what it means in economic terms in Europe. But let’s just say it’s simplicity, which returns to the basic thing of the film, which is faces, another John Cassavetes title.

There are a few things I really like in Icarus. One in particular is the scene when Alex arrives and just touches Rosie’s face. It is a shot of her face with Alex’s finger moving over it with cuts back to Alex. We cut the dialogue out because the dialogue I gave them was bad, and when we cut out the dialogue, we got what I wanted, which is just their faces. The way they both look is so beautiful. The way Rosie reacts to Alex’s finger moving on her face, I couldn’t possibly have told her to do the things that she does, and I don’t think that anyone could say what it is she’s doing on a deep level. But that’s what you want in film, and it’s so little.

The number one inspiration for this film, as you know, is the French director Philippe Garrel and especially his film J’entends plus la guitare. I think about that film all the time. There are such rich shots of people in it. For example, when the character played by Benoît Régent is sitting across from his best friend and he realizes that his friend isn’t listening to him. The look that crosses his face, a look of disappointment, recognition of aging and growing apart, makes me think you can take all your special effects, your revolving sets and Wes Anderson costumes and shove them up your ass. I just need this face. It’s the same thing with Johanna ter Steege in that film. Just faces, it’s enough. So if that’s austerity, then, yes!

“Purity” is the other extreme because people say “purity” as if it’s this holy grail. I don’t know what purity is. But maybe it can bring us to the discussion of camp because camp is impure. My film does have a little bit of that. The Wickelfisch bags, which are kind of ridiculous: these guys have these huge big colorful bags hanging off their naked bodies, which kind of look like ballooning scrotums to me. I did want to have just a thread of lightness in there, and that’s what the bags do. There’s also the campfire discussion, which I’d like to think has a profundity to it, but which could also be seen as very silly. I’ll be very happy if people laugh when they see it.

DZ You also write about film. Do you feel like at this point, with all of the films that you see, that you have established some specific criteria? Are you looking for something now when you go to a screening?

NE It would be doubly problematic if I were looking for something. It would be problematic for me as a critic because I would be restricting the possibilities of what could receive praise and be deemed worthy, and it would be problematic for me as a viewer because I would find pleasure very rarely. Now, aside from that, of course if I really buckled down I could tell you what my ideals are for a film.

DZ Would it be too tricky if I asked, “What are those ideals?”

NE That would only be fair, because I did the exact same thing just yesterday to a director that I was interviewing! I just want to be surprised. I don’t want to know where I’m going. Which is problematic because I like classic Hollywood movies, and you generally know where you’re going there. Ultimately, and it’s such a broad thing to say, but I think the biggest thrill is to be surprised. I don’t mean a zombie jumping out and terrifying you. I mean just really not knowing where you’re going and ideally combining that with an aesthetic pleasure. The aesthetic pleasure is related to desire, so if I can like the image and, on top of that, the people in it … I also love it when I can tell that the filmmaker lives in the world I live in and that he shows me a way of thinking about it that I haven’t considered. And then, if he or she can also offer something formally that is surprising—but of course that doesn’t happen very often, because it’s really hard to do.


Icarus premieres March 22, 2015 as part of the New Directors/New Films Festival hosted by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB.

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