SolPix Interviews
   An Interview with Rob Nilsson
   by Don Thompson

Rob Nilsson is an internationally-acclaimed director working in the industry for over 20 years. He is the first American director to have won both the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the Grand Prize at Sundance (HEAT AND SUNLIGHT, NORTHERN LIGHTS). His film CHALK was the 2nd film to be streamed in its entirety over the Internet and was released theatrically in 2000. His most recent film ATTITUDE opened in New York City in 2003. Rob continues to be one of the most influential voices in digital cinema, and is considered a pioneer in the field who has consistently demonstrated innovation and integrity. You can learn more about Rob at his website

Thompson: How did you first get involved with filmmaking?

Nilsson: I got an idea that wasn't a poem, a painting or a song. I had avoided filmmaking because my grandfather did it. But I got hooked. It was in Nigeria. I made a film with some friends called The Lesson. It was an adventure, a lark. It was also about neo-colonialist stereotypes. Tarzan, Kurtz, and Dr. Schmutzer were all there. Luckily for film history the only copy was stolen.

Thompson: I know Cassavetes was a big influence on you. Did you ever meet him? Any interesting stories about Cassavetes?

Nilsson: I knew John for several years. I met him at the Chicago Film Festival the year Northern Lights played there. When I made Signal 7 and dedicated it to him, he called me up. "Rob, I loved your film -- I loved it and Gena (Gena Rowlands, his wife) loved it too and we never agree about anything." That was the best compliment I ever got. When I sent him Heat and Sunlight, he called again. "Rob, Rob, I saw your film and... and... I can't talk right now." This didn't sound promising. Then the phone rang again. It was Gena in a very calm, firm voice. "Rob, this is Gena. John saw your film and he liked it very much."

Toward the end of John's life, when he was very sick, we'd get in his old Lincoln and drive through the Valley. He told me all of the war stories about making the movies which had given me my original inspiration to be a filmmaker. He used to tell me I should never have dedicated a film to him. "Rob, it makes it difficult for me to praise you. Everybody thinks it's just self interest."

Thompson: You won the Camera D'Or at Cannes for Northern Lights. How did that project evolve? What was it like at Cannes during those days?

Nilsson: Northern Lights started out as a 30 minute documentary financed by the North Dakota Committee for the Humanities and Public Issues. But John Hanson and I started shooting dramatic scenes. We presented a sprawling mix of the two. The Humanities Committee was either completely impressed or totally confused. At any rate they could see we were on to something. "Now about that 30 minute documentary..." they said. "Let's finish that and then we'll talk about a dramatic feature." John Hanson was a master diplomat and that's how Prairie Fire was born and how Northern Lights got its start. I believe if we had gone to them originally proposing a dramatic feature film, Northern Lights never would have happened. We won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for Northern Lights in 1979, the same year Apocalypse Now and The Tin Drum tied for the Palm d'Or. I thought it was a good start.

Now Cannes is certainly a place on the make. In the long run, however, it's misleading. You have to follow your instincts no matter what the world says. If they close the door on you, you must work in your own idiom. Likewise if you are the world's darling. Everything changes, including your work. But the work has to change out of a determination to explore your personal unknown. Cannes chose Northern Lights to praise that year. But they were just some people sitting in a room. Who were they? And Northern Lights is not my favorite film. I'm more interested in what I'm doing now, or will be doing tomorrow.

Thompson: Heat and Sunlight won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance early on in the festival's history. What was that experience like and how has Sundance changed?

Nilsson: It's nice to win awards. But the work is the real thing. We danced around when we won. We thought we deserved it. But tomorrow the fascination begins again. You scratch your itches. You want to see how the thing will look. So you make it. As for Sundance, it has become a sort of Wal Mart or Home Depot for low/middle brow taste. The good? Sometimes films like Irreversible play there. The bad? The rest of the film school training wheel cinema they play there. How could it be different? There is almost no independent American Cinema worth watching today, and Sundance exists to present it.

Thompson: You sometimes work with a script, sometimes not. What's the difference in how you approach a scripted and/or non-scripted film. Do you feel either method is inherently better than another?

Nilsson: A scripted piece is filled with obligations... and goals. You try to service your expectations. This is a dangerous path requiring special skills, including the skill of forgetting. In other words, you rehearse and think out what you're going to do in advance. And then you must proceed as if you don't know what you're doing in order to keep the characters honest and fresh. That's a tough balancing act. When you don't have a script, but have spent weeks on back story improv, where characters get used to being in their fictional skins, you bet that you will find unplanned miracles from relaxed, concentrated performers mining the moment. And often times you fail. But film is not a real time medium. Failure can be turned to success in the editing room -- which is really where a film is made anyway. In the Circus: Oh. Oh. the character fell off the tightrope. End of show. But in the cinema you cut to the audience. And when you cut back, the acrobat does a double flip and lands on his feet. Personally I prefer a sense of complete truth to the moment, and a more general truth about what feels real, plausible, rooted, inevitable. If that's not there... I couldn't care less.

Most scripted stuff creates a proscenium reality. In other words, let's block off the streets, put up the yellow tape and keep the riff raff out. I want the riff raff in. I want all the human messiness to be there... or I want to feel it could be there, that it's included in the filmmaker's mind. That the bottom line of being alive is never neglected.

Thompson: How do you keep actors emotionally honest?

Nilsson: Hopefully they already are honest. Hopefully they haven't been destroyed by the degraded work the film business gives them to do. Hopefully honesty is what they want, because if they don't, they wouldn't want to work with me. That's what I'm trying to be, to do, to promote honesty... maybe the only thing. Luckily I have a workshop I go to every Wednesday night in The Tenderloin (San Francisco). There we test each other. Work shop members attempt to mine honest inspiration and I try to recognize it, encourage it, find ways to engender it. We need to practice this relationship because it's hard to get it right. How could that be? Is truth that rare a commodity? Well, when you add up fear, ambition, self interest, and the competing claims of children, lovers, parents, families, fellow artists and business connections, your sense of reality can be stretched rather thin. But if there's one place where the only thing valued is total human presence in the here and now and a completely honest and open soul to explore it, maybe you have a better chance of finding it.

Thompson: How did you begin to work with the homeless in San Francisco? How has that experience shaped your life artistically and personally?

Nilsson: My brother had been missing for many years and I got interested in the brown baggers, the shopping cart ladies, the screamers, the shell shocked, the rogue elephants with their monickers and fellowship of the damned. And who were the people who wanted to be alone for their own reasons? I found no answers to those questions. I found individuals with very interesting lives, thoughts, hopes. I found pain and suffering, delusion and inspiration alike. I found people with talent but little opportunity. So I created the Tenderloin Action Group, now the Tenderloin YGroup, and 13 years later I'm still interested. Of course, by now, the group has taken on its own identity and now fewer people come directly from the streets. It's an all comers workshop about human expressivity. We have professional actors, people from all walks of life hopefully more healthy, saner, and more motivated for their work in our circle. But we're in the Tenderloin, meeting at the Faithful Fools Ministry, open to anyone interested in our searches.

Thompson: You call your technique "direct action." What do you mean by that?

Nilsson: Direct Cinema is a term coined, I believe, by the Maysles Brothers for a kind of documentary where life is allowed to happen in front of Cameras, and a shape and meaning discovered in editing. I turned that insight toward fictional drama and added the word "action." Direct Action has a political meaning. It emphasizes doing rather than talking. "Action" is also the director's traditional starting gun. It's more complicated than that so interested people should go up on my website,, to read the Direct Action manifesto.

Thompson: Your recent film CHALK has won wide acclaim. Was CHALK a significant turning point for you in terms of how you made films?

Nilsson: CHALK was the first film I made with the Tenderloin Group but I had been working with the techniques and ideas for Direct Action since Northern Lights. Perhaps the first real Direct Action film was Signal 7, which we shot in 1983. But CHALK was unique in that it was the first film made with my on-going street ensemble, the Tenderloin YGroup. Don Bajema and I did write a script for CHALK, but I both used it and put it aside from scene to scene. Since that time I have not written traditional scripts for the personal films I've made.

Thompson: Your recent NINE@NIGHT films have gotten a lot of attention, with the latest in the series, ATTITUDE, opening recently in New York. What are your goals with NINE@NIGHT?

Nilsson: I'm really waiting for the day when we can show all 9 films back to back and se what the experience will be like. All the films interact in non-programmatic ways. Serendipity, 6 degrees of separation, and sheer coincidence are factors in the way characters encounter each other. But I'm also interested in how things go on at the same time and we don't see the connections. That's what Time Code was about. What connections seem pivotal and which incidental? What will we know about people seen from different perspectives and viewpoints through the prism of 9 films? I'm eager to find out.

Thompson: What about technology? What impact does it have, for good or for ill, on filmmaking?

Nilsson: Without video technology I wouldn't have been able to make the films I've made. I would have been forced to take a more traditional approach to the dramatic feature. The technology would have been too expensive to work with an ensemble of unknown actors on projects which come from personal curiosity. I've also found that digital technology is perfect for the collaboration of circumstantial acting and the editing room. Easy control of the Magicianship of editing makes all the difference.

Thompson: Since SolPix is often visited by writers interested in film -- who are some of your favorite writers? Do you have any favorite translations from literature/plays to film?

Nilsson: I believe that the richest language of film is more akin to poetry than theatre. I also believe that most people are unaware of what ties images together and creates potential for meaning, suggestion, surmise. They simply aren't educated to know what they're watching. Pictures as metaphors, symbols and meaning devices are what interest me (and the shallow posing of Matrix Reloaded is the farthest from what I mean). The simple linear screenplay with its predictable rationality is over for me. The cinema has a long way to go but not in its present form. MTV showed people capable of making profound connections between varieties of images and linking them to human thought and feeling. Filmmakers such as Chris Cunningham, Gaspar Noe, and Mike Figgis attempt to carry those connections into the longer narrative form. This is where the epic poetry of cinema will synthesize with the insights of science and the longings of lyric expression.

Oh, you said writers? For language read Walt Whitman, Emerson's On Self Reliance, Melville, Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers. These are great American poets which show how to live deeply, seeking the boundaries of the human imagination in our native idiom.

Discuss this article on the nextPix FORUM by going to its discussion thread: [click here]

Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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