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Bezerkely Indies: Alive and Expanding Worldwide
by Steven Middlestein
Indie director extraordinaire Rob Nilsson, now 71, keeps fit by biking, arguing with younger and often straighter filmmakers and managing an extremely productive indie studio in North Berkeley. photo: courtesy R. Nilsson
When it comes to indie film Bezerkeley-style, it really comes down to one man, albeit a generous one who relies on and fully credits his collaborators. Not only is he a one-man indie studio, having facilitated the production of over two dozens features since his first took the Camera D'Or at Cannes, he is a true beserker, in both the Viking (his heritage) and Bezerkeley sense. Indeed, he personifies the Berkeley spirit, having developed Direct Action cinema out of the improvisational techniques of John Cassavetes and the free thinking of the 60s.
Direct Action attempts nothing less than to liberate film from the writer-as-god/director-as-king paradigm and provide a platform for a collaborative and spontaneous art. Although he occasionally writes scripts and directs actors using traditional methods, his unique and preferred Direct Action paradigm makes every actor a director/writer and the so-called director more of a nurturing mother.
Rob Nilsson, of whom I speak, is currently in Moscow, invited by that city's international film festival to show a retrospective and to premiere one of his latest films. (Since he generally has three or four being workshopped, shot or edited at any given time, there are often two or three latest films.) Although he's been working on a film about Leon Trotsky, Moscow understandably choose "The Steppes" about an elderly Ukrainian woman stuck in a Tenderloin hotel which she ran with her husband until his murder.
"The Steppes" stars Irit Levi as the lead, along with David Hess and Marion Christian, all from the Tenderloin yGroup, Nilsson's workshop from that San Francisco neighborhood which is now in its twentieth year. "The Steppes" also features Nancy Bower, from the Berkeley Citizen Cinema workshop, and Derrick O’Connor of Royal Shakespeare Company, "Brazil" and Monty Python fame.
In addition to "The Steppes," the Nilsson Retrospective will include "Heat and Sunlight," (1984), "Need" (2005), and "Imbued" (2008) as well as his Cannes-winner, "Northern Lights" (1978), which is a very Russian film. With its long Tarkovsky-esque takes, "Northern Lights" follows a handful of North Dakota farmers through a hard winter and their attempts to organize, highlighting the politicos' legitimacy but also their foibles.
Nilsson has also been getting some recognition closer to home, at Film Acting Bay Area (FABA), a film acting and directing school that moved to Emeryville's Ex'pression College a year and a half ago.
Nilsson surveys a recent disovery, the actress Liz Sklar, on the set of 'Imbued,' starring Sklar and renown Hollywood actor Stacy Keach. photo: D. Blair
"We are extremely proud to have the top indie director of Berkeley," said FABA director Celik Kayalar, a director/writer as well as acting teacher who studied extensively in Hollywood. "Rob is unique in making films with that technique (Direct Action) and I am very proud he is finding a more formal forum teaching at our school. Many new directors and actors are coming out of that."
FABA's specialty is instructing actors who choose to face the lens instead of the theater boards and Nilsson's Direct Action compliments the more traditional methods taught by Kayalar and his associate Warren David Keith, an actor-director out of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Although FABA is separate from Ex'pression, the college is expanding its curriculum of sound, motion graphics, gaming and animation to include digital filmmaking with the first film students entering in this July.
The partnership with FABA will expand commensurately. "All these film students—I expect it to reach 50 to 100—will need the actors we are training," Kayalar continued. "Ex'pression College and FABA is emerging as an excellent place to learn film acting and directing."
When Nilsson gets back from the land of Eisenstein and Vertov, he and Kayalar will start yet another feature, this one borne from Nilsson's FABA workshops. "Lost Art" is about a painting lost in Europe during the war which turns up at a Bay Area museum. With five interlinked stories, it will be shot simultaneously on five separate sets. Also signed on for this project is Carl Lumbly, a well-known Berkeley theater actor, who has also done a lot of Hollywood television work, most recently "Naval CSI," "Black Panthers" and "Trauma." Although the beginning is scripted, the ending will be determined through improv, in accord with Nilsson's Direct Action.
Director/writer Celik Kayalar, whose first career was as Noble Prize-caliber scientist, shooting his taut murder mystery 'Moonlight Sonata' in 2009. photo: courtesy C. Kayalar
FABA is also producing other significant talent. The school's Associate Director Brian D.Scott just played the lead in the comedy "Nominated" and Lumbly had a supporting role. Scott won the best actor award at the oddly named Best Actor Film Festival, the first iteration of which was held on May 29 in San Francisco, while Lumbly took second prize. Kayalar, who came out with his first feature, "Moonlight Sonota," a moody murder mystery in 2009, is putting together his second feature "IT" about identical twins separated at birth.
FABA is also facilitating some pretty exceptional student shorts, like "Airplane," shot in April. About eight passengers flying from California to the Cannes Film Festival, it was shot at an airport in Vacaville, in a private jet, replete with two pilots provided by FABA directing student Alan Reitsch (who got them from his boss). Directed by Nilsson and his student-directors, the making of "Airplane" was itself filmed by Kayalar for use in an hour and half documentary on Nilsson and the Direct Action method. It is currently being edited by Arthur Wibert.
So, from Nilsson's studio in north Berkeley to Ex'pression College in the South—well, Emeryville technically—the area is emerging as fertile arena for cutting edge narrative film.
Posted on Jun 30, 2011 - 01:37 PM