In the weeks since I started writing this column I've often thought
about what the 'beat' in Indie Beat
means. Though I clearly stated in
the inaugural post
that I wouldn't regularly cover box office and
straight-up news within the indie world I wonder if the title is something of a misnomer. And if I'm being honest that kind of objective analysis is not what I'm really interested
in as a writer. I want to dig a little deeper.
I'm looking at the word 'beat' and thinking the beat of a
heart and who is behind that; who is behind the creativity of these
films? So Indie Beat
is about the people and the conversations on the world of independent filmmaking -- okay. Today's piece is then
something of a homecoming, and equally a coming out, as it is the first
edition of the column where I had the opportunity to sit down and talk
with two filmmakers who live and play and work in this realm. These are filmmakers I greatly admire for their measured,
thoughtful films, and if anything I just wanted to know a little bit more about what made them tick.
Silver has just wrapped his fourth feature entitled Simian
. His second
feature Exit Elena
, about a live-in nursing aide, is coming off a strong
year on the festival circuit with a one week run at reRun in Brooklyn
from July 12th-18th
. It also plays Lincoln Center's Indie Night July
. His third feature Soft In The Head
, about a wayward woman who is
taken in at a makeshift men's shelter just played at Brooklyn Film
Festival where its lead Sheila Etxeberría won
for best actress. It will continue on the festival circuit into the fall, so be on the lookout.
Bell, once a writer for Indiewire's The Playlist, is in post production
for his first feature entitled The Winds That Scatter
. You can watch his lovely
meditative short film Bridges right here
In sitting down for a
Skype call with Silver and Bell (I'm in LA and they're in New York), I
was aiming to create less a straight-forward interview environment and
more a space where we could cultivate an open and honest conversation
about the day-to-process of being a filmmaker, which is, as it is with
anything, a myriad of emotions and practices, highs and lows.
Transparency and a sense of trust from all sides was essential in
creating an authentic space where something about art and artists could
really be shared. I hope what follows gives you a sense of that -- read on!
-----ScreenAnarchy: As children, how did you perceive film and did you have any notion of what a filmmaker did?
Nathan Silver: I never really wanted to make movies as a child. I remember seeing a few when I was like nine or ten. I saw Annie Hall
and I found it extremely depressing. I saw a Bunuel movie when I was very young too. I think it was The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
where there's a scene in a prison. But I don't know if that's a memory I
planted in my mind or not. The idea of having to sit through a movie was
not necessarily a pleasant one for me as a child. All the things that
cater to children have the same formula. You know that there are these
certain tragedies and certain conflicts that are going on. So I never
wanted to make movies based off that.
Then when I was at NYU for
playwriting I interned for Richard Foreman and he was very bitter and
talked about how theater was bullshit and how movies were the future. He
would bring up all these movies from the 50s, 60s 70s, and then I'd go
and watch those. Kim's Video was just around the corner so I'd pick up
Pasolini and Fassbinder and all these filmmakers whom I had neglected to
watch when I was younger. I immediately quit that internship and I went
from playwriting to screenwritng as my major. I never thought I'd want
to be a director. I never thought anything like that. When I was
younger I thought a director was a dictator. As I direct more movies
that notion does not ring true for me. When I was making short films I
tried to be a dictator on set and I hated the results. I'm all for the
death of the author and for complete collaboration. With my last movie
it was really just a meeting of the producer, the DP and me -- we
co-wrote the script. We worked on that story together. It was a unit,
you know. There's a community you're ultimately building there.
NS: Yeah, exactly. I mean I'm a terrible leader. I bring chaos, so I need other people around me to help bring order to it all. You're then all swimming in that pool of chaos together.
Yeah, we're making something out of it and that makes sense to me.
That's great. Having everyone just bring coherence to the thing is great
and that brings me joy. Much more joy than... look, I have crummy
ideas. I don't have good ideas, so I need others around me...
[Bell and I both smile at this. Bell shakes his head]
Bell: I think filmmaking is chaotic. While it can be this way on every
level of budget, it is especially on our level where we are working
really cheaply. So you gotta figure out a way to harness that rather
than water it down.Do you think that working within a chaotic
space like that, a really immediate space, takes a lot of the
abstractions and notions, things that we tend to hypothesize about
filmmaking when we're sitting around just chatting...
NS: That sense of control...That
sense of control and that sense that you can lose that control any
minute, but you're also in a position to get it back too...
The problem solving is probably one of the more fun things about
filmmaking. When you have a plan... and I always subscribe to have a
plan... but when it doesn't work out, you try right then and there
something better. Not just something that works, but better. And when
you do there's that great feeling that you can't replicate. I don't know
if I even answered the question... was there even a question? It's a conversation. My sense of it is you have to embrace that chaos because it's a part of where the joy lies, right?
Yeah, and I also think it's kinda insane. I mean I think we're both
insane doing what we do. It's just so stressful, but you know it's kinda
fun. I think that keeps a lot of people away. They have this notion
that they have to do it a certain way. I think that's all bullshit.
Nathan just shot on the C300 and I was shooting on the T2i for both my
feature coming up and my short. These aren't expensive cameras and you
talk to some people who've been to film school or they have these
scripts they want to do and it's like "just get a little money and go
shoot something." It doesn't have to be in an apartment or anything.
Embrace the free wheeling nature of something. Have a plan, do
collaborations -- filmmaking is all collaboration. Do that and try and
improve yourself. Nathan makes a movie every year. I'm going to try and
make a movie every year. I can't retain information so I have to keep
repeating. I see a lot of people, I hear about a lot of people being
held back because they think that a film has to be this way...
I want young filmmakers, film students, to watch something like Exit
. I want them to know what you can do with a little bit of money. That wasn't even shot on DSLR.
NS: It was DVX, it was miniDV.And
that can sometimes be detrimental to how people perceive it, like it
can't get a VOD release because it looks too micro-budget.
NS: People have told me they were going to turn it
off within the first five minutes, but that there was something else
there, which I love to hear. So when we talk
about quality we gotta get away from merely the notion that it looks
good technically. It might not look great, but beyond that there's
something about it that's working.
NS: There's something else happening, under the surface or over the surface.
It's like what are we looking at? "Oh, does the movie have shallow depth
of field?" Fuck that. First of all, that is overused, and second of
all, audiences really don't care whether it's found footage or that's
just the camera you're using. Use it as a tool to tell your story. Nathan and I
were at a festival together and the audience loved Exit Elena
didn't once mention the camera. I think I mentioned the camera. Audiences don't care.
all three of us have been to festivals and seen indie movie. To be
honest, sometimes really rough, really shitty movies get played, get
sold, get critical acclaim, get fans... whatever.More often
than not those can just feel mediocre to me, because they're playing it
so, so safe. And I don't want to merely criticize in that narrow way,
but that is a frustration I encounter a lot. In thinking about what I am
going to put into the column every two weeks I always bump up against
that, because that's always a part of the conversation I have. It's:
"What's authentic out there?" Not necessarily pushing boundaries to the
extreme, but what's just being authentic to the group's process, to the
storyteller's process vs what's just kind of operating under the same,
old, tired and worn trope. I'm constantly bumping up against those
films, those kinds of stories in looking at materials and angles for
NS: I am so, so bored by so many fucking movies
I see. I mean they just bore the pants off me. I'm not just talking
about recent movies, I just mean movies in general. Now that's not to
say my movies are all that interesting, but I think there's always that
frustration with movies. You're like "why are these things made?"
There's so much time and so much money going into these movies and it's
CB: That's why I said we're probably insane for
doing what we do. At least... Well I don't want to toot our own horns a
lot, or at all, but yeah, I look at super slick movies and go: "why do
you guys do that?" I mean it takes so long... There's so much
that goes into it. I mean you guys know first hand the reality of
how much hard work goes into it these things, and at the end of the day I
think it comes down to taste too, but my concern right now is did we
plateau in terms of quality and what people expect, and is there then a
generation that just shoots Youtube videos because of it, or continues
to shoot "Little Miss Sunshine" after "Little Miss Sunshine"...
NS: In terms of Youtube there's really some fantastic stuff on Youtube. I mean you find the most bizarre things.It
can be very bizarre. And that's what kind of lovely and great about it,
thankfully. It seems like though that there is, for lack of a better
term, the junk culture which has proliferated, which I think "Spring
Breakers" pointed at, though didn't necessarily criticize. It's not a
judgmental film for sure. But it pointed at what we're kind of now in...
what do we move into, if we're already in this emptiness, this
excessive emptiness -- What's after that? And thankfully that's not the
whole picture. On an existential level, on a metaphysical level, you two
as storytellers bump up against that... your characters come to these
places where they're facing voids, facing nothing in someway.
Particularly with "Soft In The Head". It kind of felt like a
NS: It is based on one [Laughs] That's great. I'm really happy to hear that you picked up on that.Was it "The Idiot"?
NS: It was The Idiot
. Now, there are a few movies I've seen in the last year that I've just adored. Leviathan
really knocked my socks off. And so I look to those movies as some sort
of hope for breaking things down a bit more, and realizing what you can
do with a bunch of cameras, or what you can do with... I mean the way
sound was handled in the second half of Tabu
was really something.You
have "Tabu", "Leviathan", "Holy Motors", "Post Tenebras Lux"...
they're all playing in very far flung fields of filmmaking. They're
creating or shaping these really exciting dialects in the cinematic
language. Those are also big films in some sense. There's am impressive
scope to them. For you guys, you can't go right out the door and just do
that, and maybe that's not what you would want to do personally.
NS: You mean because it's hard to get funding. Because they already have track records, like you have a Harvard professor.Yeah,
the "Leviathan" folks. Now what's the day to day for you two? What's
happening when you're not on set, making a movie as it were. When you're
sitting in your respected places of business or your home or wherever,
what does that creative process look like then?
thinking about ideas day to day. I'm always thinking about the idea of
making movies and making my own and trying to unpack ideas that aren't
substantial. I try to watch a lot of movies too, but I also try to not
think about movies as well, not to actively do it. A big reason why I
quit writing about film was because it took so much out of me, and I
don't really think I'm that great of a writer. But I like to do other
things that have nothing to do with movies, that can influence me either
way. It's nice just to ride your bike or play video games or something
else so you're not so consumed with movies. The best part about Post Tenbebras Lux
or the way that it could be described, is that there is so much life in
it. And you don't get that if you're 100% thinking about movies and
putting yourself in a box. You gotta go outside the box. Have a
combination of both. And then there's being miserable when somebody
doesn't like your film... that's a part of the day-to-day.
NS: Being miserable in general.
And then there's real life too, which can sometimes suck. That's again
why I said we're insane for doing this because real life...debt...
love... that's part of the day-to-day.
NS: Well the reason you make movies is to forget that. You're essentially getting the toxins out of your system.
NS: Exactly! When you're not making a movie how are you living?
How are you putting a roof over your head and food on the table?
I'm still trying to figure it out. For me it's either freelance work or
begging and borrowing. When you're in production it's obviously very
difficult to be able to throw yourself into a full-time job, unless
you've already established yourself at that place of work for a number
of years and then have some flexibility or freedoms to go off and make a
movie. I've never had that. I've had a lot freelance work that's come
about through my father who produces corporate events. I've been able to
work for these two wonderful women, Paola Freccero and Liz Ogilvie,
they had a company called CrowdStarter. I helped them with outreach,
which was to basically help filmmakers self-distribute their movies. I
was advising on this and then also doing coverage for scripts, 'cause
that's what I went to school for. The first feature I made I got paid to
make. I never want to get paid to make another movie. I just know what
comes with being paid and I don't want to be a part of that. Any of the
money I made on the first film just went right back into that film
anyway.And it always does, unless, of course someone says
something really unexpected and kind of absurd like "Nathan Silver...
'Exit Elena', 'Soft In The Head'... let's hire him for the next 'Saw'
NS: That'd be fucking stupid! And even if they did I
would do a terrible job as I can only work in a certain realm. As soon
as you understand what you can do and your capabilities, you understand
where you're going to be a failure and where you're going to succeed. If
you keep pushing yourself towards failure then you're going to be a
failure for the rest of your life and I don't want to do that. I see a
lot of filmmakers who want to make bigger things and that's fine, maybe
that's great because that's part of their personality, but I want to
make movies the way I see fit. I don't care about making my paycheck
from my movies. It's not that way. I need to find another way to go
about things, whatever that may be.
CB: Would you direct television?
NS: I think television for other countries, in other languages, would be fun.
CB: So you wouldn't be a director-for-hire?
Well, that's a great gig, I mean to be paid for that. Now to expect
that you're going to make your movies and get paid for them, that to me
seems a ridiculous dream. I know that is not possible. To expect to make
a living off of these kinds of small movies feels kind of absurd.
And that's a good attitude to have. If you're going to keep at it, you
know you're not going to make money. You'll probably lose money. And
know that's just how it is.
NS: The best case scenario is that
you don't involve your family and friends in the financing of your movie
and that it still gets made. So Nathan, you just finished shooting "Simian", and Chris, you're at some stage of post on your first feature.
CB: And I'm doing another feature in August. So
there are those times when you're in between projects. In that time is
there ever the sense that you could almost just shut this off and walk
away from it all?
NS: Every morning of my life I think about this. As I go through my day other problems arise.
CB: What else would we do?The fact that the question is always there is maybe your answer.
CB: Maybe if we were to run out of ideas or stop meeting interesting people.And to do that you'd have to go and live in a cave and even that would be interesting.
Now, I wanted to talk about the care-taker elements in "Bridges" and "Exit
Elena", and to some extent, "Soft In The Head" with the older gentlemen who
is taking everyone in. You have the nanny in "Bridges" and the
live-in nursing aide in "Exit Elena. I've spent a lot of
time around nursing aides and elder care workers in nursing homes with
relatives. And then on the other hand, because of my own background
in education and
childcare, not to mention my sister's, father's and mother's respected
roles in these fields, as well as my father's time managing the Rhode
Island food bank and DC's largest soup kitchen, I am extremely
fascinated by these elements in the films and wanted to know how
these things came into play as they feel very authentic to me.
NS: For me, my father's mother
came from New York to Boston when I was around
fifteen. She had aides around her constantly and I got to know them. I found
that fascinating because it was a really weird lifestyle, because they'd
given up their lives for my grandmother, and they had families too, they
And all of a sudden they're a part of this other family.
Yeah, and so I found that really strange. My mother has always taken in
people and I think that fascinated me. When I was a little kid she took
in these Salvadoran folks because she wanted to help them out. She's
always wanted to be this caretaker, and now she expects things in return.
Over time she's wanted people to show her that they appreciate her
kindness, whereas in the past she didn't necessarily need that
affirmation. So that plays directly into Exit Elena
CB: I'm just gonna put this out there... I was
raised by my grandparents. Now my mom visited, and she still does and I
love her, but she just wasn't able to be in the position of being a parent. I
also lived with my aunt who is about fifteen years older than me. So
growing up she had kids when I was about ten or eleven, and I had to deal
So these were all factors related to Bridges
. The idea that I
like is having an outsider make decisions for someone else's blood and
kin. The outsider perspective is great, but it is also limited. You
can't get a good picture of somebody entirely. That's what most interested me for Bridges
. Then there's
something like child protective services where you send a case worker to
someone's house and the rules are "if the child's not safe take it, and
if you don't know: take it." I was really struck by that mentality. To
ruin somebody's life like that... what is the outside perspective?
Anybody can lose their cool, and I thought about what if someone had
lost their cool amidst my family situation... I could have been taken
So we were talking briefly about movies that don't
take chances or are inauthentic and when we see it it's just like "oh!
ugh, that's terrible!" and one thing I've been thinking about recently
is what if you were to do that. What if you are so blinded, or just have
so many things to cover, that there is maybe this one thing, or a few
things in this movie you're making that are in there that don't work.
I've had drafts of scripts where the character does something that he
just wouldn't do, and I go "That's awful! Why would I write that?" And
so I often wonder is this gonna happen one day where it's done and it's
out there and people are seeing it and I'll never see it until it's too
late. That's what I'm really scared about. Perhaps having
that experience where you look at that as a failure that stops you from
making another movie, that is probably the sharpest sword to impale
yourself on. When you're
making a movie, or after, what do you guys expect, if anything, in terms
of distribution. Do you ever hope that there's a life of some kind for
the film after fests... obviously there's some movement there on your
end Nathan. How important is that conversation for you guys to have with
CB: We want people to see our work. Sure we make different movies and know that our audience isn't going to be as big as Man Of Steel
. So we want people to see our movies, sure. Peter Strickland, who made Berberian Sound Studio
did this amazing movie called Katalin Varga
. It played some film
festivals and didn't get any distribution and it's wonderful. And he's
from the UK and went to Hungary to do it, he was working in a language that
wasn't familiar to him. I was talking to him and he was like "Oh know I
didn't get very much out of it, except I did get my next movie out of
it." Berberian Sound Studio
is way bigger and got distribution. So
that's what I care about. I want people to see my movie, but I also want
to make the next one, and I hope the next one is going to be better.
Maybe I'll get... I don't want to say I'll get more money... I'll get
money. Or maybe there are actors that I want to work with that I can't
right now and then I can do that.
I'd like to follow the lead of Rick
Alverson, who I've known for a long time. He did The Builder
, which was
great, and so he did that to New Jerusalem
. He got Will Oldham and a
little bit more money for it. He used that to do The Comedy
and got Tim
Heidecker. Those movies were really
cheap, and I don't know how much money they made, but that just feels
like a really smart career move. The Builder
didn't get much play, but
he managed to build off of each project and make each one bigger in
different ways. We want people to see our movies, but for certain people
to see our movies means we have to show up first and know what we're
doing.In that way, festivals still feel like an integral part of the puzzle.
Well festivals and film critics, anything that allows the movie to
arrive to the surface of the internet, so that people are aware that it
exists. Otherwise there is no existence for the movie. It's made and
then where is it?Are there any alternative ways of seeing a film that you guys are getting excited about now?
NS: There may be some kind of publicity stunt, but it's always about some kind of internet presence.
The internet is everything to me. Now it's different for Nathan because
he has his features and I only have shorts. I was getting rejected from
festivals, trying to get word of mouth built on that, and then getting
really down. I then got into a few fests that I loved, but apart of me
was like "I'm getting rejected, maybe if I can get the word out and put
it online, way more people would be able to see it than at a festival
screening." It's different for features, but the online presence is
really good. Having something available so someone can see it at the
right time helps. There were movies that were doing something at a
festival years ago but for whatever reason they lost that momentum and
just aren't around.
NS: And you have to have momentum.At
the same time I tend to wonder how much the audience really cares how
old a movie is, if it's sat on the shelf for two years. It'll still be
something new to them. Something fresh.
CB: You're right about,
but I think critics care. If they work for a living they want new
content. There are a lot of weird elements that need to come together.It is like alchemy. It is a real task that can appear like a trick.
And being online is super important. You have the discussion going,
even if you're generating it yourself. I mean I'm not good and I don't
condone too much self-promotion, but you kind of have to start
something. And help your friends. I'm always talking about Nathan's
movies because I love them, and I'm sharing your work, Ben. It's about
building a community by keeping the conversation going.