By Mónica Delgado & José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Let’s get things straight: Nathan Silver makes cinema in a “family key”, literally. He acts with his parents, his friends become lead characters for his films and his ex-girlfriend isn’t afraid to be directed by him. Overall, he impregnates this familiar game of being and becoming with the humor and complicity of his films. Desistfilm talked with this exceptional New York filmmaker who promises to keep surprising us with an unexplored face of irony.
José Sarmiento Hinojosa: Let’s start from the end, the ending of “Soft in the Head”. Did you plan to have that ending? I’m saying this because there are some differences to the film regarding the book (Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot)
Nathan Silver: After three days of shooting, we threw the outline out, because of what the actors were doing. I know originally we had an ending with Sheila’s (Exteberria) character passing out in the same place. I mean, Maury (Ed Ryan) wasn’t even supposed to be in the scene. I think it was Nathan and Sheila, and Nathan had hit Sheila over the head in the original script (laughter). So it shifted completely, we moved away from that.
You know, The Idiot ends with prince Myshkin and Rogozhin keeping vigil over Nastassya’s body, and Prince Myshkin is comforting Rogozhin, and then the police break in and they find the three there and it’s written in this kind of… it feels like a painting when you read that book. So I know I’ve always wanted it to end in this kind of way, and then my collaborator, my DP and also cowriter, Cody, you know, helped come up with that ending, so we discussed that a bunch and figured out a way to bring it to this place where, after all this chaos, there was a stillness at the end, you know?
Mónica Delgado: There are a couple of topics in your cinema I’m interested in. The first one would be, of course, how the Jewish identity in a place like New York works, and the other is about your women, these lead characters place in this kind of crushing surroundings. How did you decide to center your films in feminine characters that resist hysteria and describe their being in a place like New York?
NS: Well, in Exit Elena that was the intention from the get-go, to put this character in the middle of this chaotic family. With Soft in the Head, it was Maury who was supposed to be the main character, but after we got through rehearsals we realized that Sheila’s character was the only way we could bring the Jewish world and the world of the homeless men together, she was basically the through line of the movie. So that wasn’t intentional from the get-go, like having her as the protagonist but that became evident after working with her and the other actors that she was the only way to make the story coherent, or as coherent as it is.
So, I don’t know what it is, why it happens to me, these female leads… with Exit Elena, I was dating the lead actress at the time, and I wanted to have her play against my mother, cause I knew I could get a really interesting dynamic out of that, like, their dynamics were really fascinating and I could work with that. With Soft in the Head I knew that Sheila’s character would be… I knew I could unleash her in certain situations and see what would occur, because I wasn’t even sure what would occur, like in the shabbos scene when they’re sitting down and she spits up, you know, things like that were fascinating to me so I guess I wanted to follow those throughout. But I don’t know why I choose female protagonists.
Soft in the Head (2013)
JS: Is Sheila a professional actress or…?
You know, I believe that this was her first time acting.
MD: You’ve filmed your girlfriend, your mother, father… One could say that you took advantage of this familiar relationship to get to develop these characters with a lot of humor and naturalness. ¿How do you organize yourself in this kind of creative process?
Well at first I guess it was a logistical thing, because when I was trying to figure out how to work with improvisation I knew that my family wouldn’t run away from me even if it was torture. I knew that they would stick it out with me if I was going through these kind of rough patches because in these kind of movies there’s so little money involved as you know, and no one was going to stick around because of money obviously. Beforehand, whenever I sat down to write I always wrote characters based around my mother but I never got to cast her in those roles, I just casted her in small parts in my short films, but then when I did cast her in Exit Elena I realized that she couldn’t work with a script, you just had to put her in a scenario and give her a beginning point and an end point and allow her to navigate through it on her own terms.
I love the way she tells stories; she’s very sharp. The things she said in the movie aren’t written, so I think that’s fascinating. That was very telling in Exit Elena, I realized that if you worked with certain people you had to give them a lot of dialogue, with other people you just have to give them a few actions and they were able to navigate their way through the scene, and my mother was able to do that very easily. She’s not easy to work with, she’s a pain in the ass (laughter) but you know, it’s not fun, she doesn’t like acting at all but she’s very good at it so… (laughter)
MD: I want to come back to what we’ve asked you about the Jewish identity, especially like in a city like New York. How do you approach this subject, because it’s something that many people have done before…?
JS: I can recall Woody Allen, though I don’t care much about him, most of the Jewish references I have from that city are from his films and probably from Phillip Roth books. He wrote quite a book called Portnoy’s Complaint which is really fun to read because of all the Jewish elements he mentions which are completely alien to me, being from South America and all.
MD: How do you deal with this subject, the Jewish identity, in your films?
NS: You know, I never went to temple when I was a kid, but I identify with this particular humor, of making light of tragedy, making all tragedy into comedy, this was something that was always happening in my family. Also the necessary chaos, making a big deal out of small things, I grew up with that, so that worked its way into my movies. In Soft in the Head you have that religious family, and the characters that played the parents, the mother and father in that family are my parents’ old friends, and I was fascinated by the fact that they were hippies once upon a time, then they became religious in their mid-twenties I guess.
I’ve been always fascinated by the rituals that surround religion, even if I couldn’t understand them, so I guess that the fact that they could welcome me into their home was kind of working like with another part of my family that deals a lot with religion, even if my own family had their own bizarre rituals, you know, the obsessive compulsive things. You always apply it however you want to, for example you know Maury, the character has strong Christian values, and Ed Ryan himself was on the road to become a priest.
There is something that fascinates me about religion although I do not understand it. One of my favorite filmmakers, Buñuel has tackled all those systems of belief, and rewatching The Exterminating Angel the other night, it is brilliant! I love that movie, and I love how he confronts that issue in that movie, the religion he was brought up with; and although I wasn’t brought up with any religion I was brought up with Jewish culture and I’ve been trying to understand that, to deal with the aftermath of having grown up with that.
MD: How’s the creative process behind the films? Because you can sense there’s a lot of improvisation, and I mean that in the best way possible. There is certain freedom that you achieve in your films that is hard to watch in other films of that kind. How do you construct the themes, the ideas, the dialogues, how much freedom do your actors have?
NS: I develop the characters with the actors during a long period of time, and then, as we get closer to the shoot I notice that there are characters that are missing in the picture that you need to make the story coherent, so then I cast these people and I have less time to work with them, but sometimes the results are great, like all the homeless men in the shelter. I cast four of them just two weeks prior to the shoot, and even if the rest of the actors had been working on it longer, the four newcomers did very well in this kind of trial by fire.
So, it is all improvisation, in the sense that all of the dialogue comes from the actors. Some things are fed to them but for the most part they’re coming up with whatever reactions are natural to their character. The actions are scripted; in Exit Elena for example everything was more mapped out than Soft in the Head, simply because in Soft in the Head we didn’t stick with the outline. The movie I’m currently post producing, we scripted that one a lot more because I had a lot less time with the actors before it, and it’s how things fell.
I like creating chaos, and I like witnessing chaos, but all my collaborators help keep this chaos in place and help me to realize that you have to start breaking a scene down, like a sketch of the scene, and maybe you’re not very sure who to focus on, and as you do more and more takes you start to realize what the points of interest are and you go in for coverage, you go in for the details in order to make the scene work in the end. And the fact that I shot this last film (Uncertain Terms) and Soft in the Head with the editor as the DP was extremely helpful.
Exit Elena (2012)
JS: With fearing of repeating the same thing again, I have this strong sense of freedom in what you do, I think that’s one of the main virtues of your filmmaking in contrast to other films that try to do the same but feel very constrained. There’s a lot going on in your films but it’s all behind this warm atmosphere of freedom, which I think it’s kind of what a lot of independent films try to achieve, getting themselves lost in the process, but you’ve nailed it perfectly. I’m guessing this is not easy to achieve if you think about the conditions of independent filmmaking in a city like New York. How is your experience with this?
NS: There’s no money to be made from these movies. From my perspective, I think the whole industry is a joke. The problem with filmmaking is that it started as an industry; the history of film is basically the history of an industry. What it needs now is patrons, it doesn’t need the whole thing of people making money back, this is bullshit to me. People are lucky if they break even so it’s extremely difficult, I find all the politicking behind filmmaking really upsetting, and to be honest, devastating. You can go back and watch interviews with Cassavetes and it’s as though he’s talking about today, you know?
JS: Yes, I was going to talk you about that. It’s funny that you mention Cassavetes because he said this famous phrase once: “You make films to lose your money. That is the purpose of making a movie to put your life into something not to get something out of it”. I think that’s something that’s hasn’t changed in the last thirty years or more, at least in the independent scene. If you think about it, there’s this irony of the difficulty of getting money in the great capital of the world, where all the major financial transactions are made…
NS: Yeah, I think it’s extremely difficult to find money where there are no strings attached, even for smaller projects. I mean for the most part there’s an agenda there, either getting exposure because the film is going to be in festival or making money. I don’t know, it’s just difficult to get the proper financing to make larger movies, so you end up making smaller movies and you hope that the people involved in them find the fact of being in them rewarding enough and are not looking for a greater… for something to come out of it in the end…you hope that the movie is the answer to the question, you know.
Right now I’m working as a kind of graphic designer in order to make money, and that seems great to me, because I don’t see much of a future in the industry… You know, I find it extremely frustrating… I’m trying with all my might to simply make more movies. As soon as I finish one movie I start the next one. If you’re just sitting around, it can be completely disheartening…all the rejections that pile up and whatnot. It’s all just background noise for me, I work with all this background noise. I don’t know, it’s just really frustrating, and the most frustrating thing about it is that it’s not going to get better, and you have to accept that, but there’s something beyond the industry that allows you and me to be talking film right now, and you have to allow things like the fact that we’re talking on Skype to be in the foreground and the other junk like crummy companies and investors to be in the background. It’s always going to be an ugly background, you know?
I can’t say that Modern American independent cinema made me excited about movies, it didn’t, it was the exact opposite, it kept from movies. To be perfectly blunt, until I was able to discover Fassbinder and Cassavetes, I didn’t really care about movies. I can now watch American independent movies and I’m fine, but it’s not like it draws me to filmmaking in any way.