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Nilsson on Burning Man and Four or Five New Films
by Doniphan Blair
Nilsson, at his home/studio in N. Berkeley, expanding on art, life, and his four or five new films. photo CineSource
My recommendation for old age? Run like hell," says Rob Nilsson. Hence, the filmmaker plans to "ride his age," i.e. bike 70 miles, on his birthday, October 29th, along the American River, from Sacramento to Folsom Lake. "As long as I don't weaken," he adds, grinning, since he needs to save some energy for his other marathon: filmmaking.
The lanky, white-haired Nilsson is a veritable one-man studio, starting with "Imbued," staring Stacy Keach, which premiered to much acclaim at last month's Mill Valley Film Festival. Then there's "Woman I," about the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, long of interest to Nilsson, who also paints, and "Maelstrom," a Citizen Cinema project now in postproduction. Citizen Cinema or Direct Action are Nilsson's names for workshop and improv- generated pieces.
Another Citizen Cinema film is "Collapse," from a Berkeley workshop featuring dancers from the San Francisco Ballet. Then there are the projects in fundraising/pre-production, like the Leon Trotsky feature, which Nilsson was just in Russia researching, or "Zyzzx Road," set at the Burning Man art-life festival, from which he had just returned.
"How was it?" I asked, when we met at his North Berkeley studio, complete with editing suite, small theater and painting studio.
"I found the people very grounded, nice folks," Nilsson said. "All that energy. Committed artists who are making all this happen and for no profit - just for the joy of it!" But how does he do it, the grueling Nevada desert, the constant travel and deadlines, at his age?
"I don't have a magic thing," Nilsson noted, grinning again, "I was a runner 'til my knees gave up, now I'm a biker. I started yoga again because I think flexibility and circulation are big." Aside from the physical, how does he satisfy the organizational and inspirational demands?
Nilsson is not a one-man studio, it turns out. In fact, he goes to great lengths to give props, even thanking this author in the "Imbued" credits, for reasons now obscure. He depends on and honors a coterie of dedicated associates like producer/actress Michelle Anton Allen, cinematographer Mickey Freeman, editor/Internet wiz Joel Simone, and producer Marshall Spight who, along with partners Adam Wilt and Tim Blackmore, recently joined forces with Nilsson. Their Meets the Eye production company is growing in San Carlos, where they're about to open a green screen stage.
Basically, Nilsson developed and mastered the art of workshops, where he encourages the group to develop cohesion and themes and then improvise off them. He's also good at connecting with other artists, from Brian Eno to John Cassavetes, and now Stacey Keach, who also wrote some music for "Imbued."
Despite his improv instincts, Nilsson is an excellent writer, as indicated by "Imbued," which he wrote with Denny Dey of Kansas City. The intention was to get it to a name actor who would improvise on it, like a jazz tune. A classical combo of Nilsson themes, it follows an older bookie and a beautiful young call girl, the talented newcomer Liz Sklar. Despite a limited budget, cast and set (one room, virtually), and the absence of expected sex, "Imbued" holds your interest as it drills down through feelings to realization - even revelation.
When he finally found a way to get the script to Keach, he both loved it and suddenly had a free week to shoot it.
"Stacey did lines but also improvised scenes," Nilsson said. "He's one of America's great actors, he could make the phone book dramatic."
This is Nilsson's second film in a row to use written dialogue (after "Presque Isle"), but he's not neglecting his improv work. "Sand," with William Martin and Irit Levi, and edited by Drow Millar, was recently sent to Sundance.
"I don't think everything has to be improvised. I see 'direct action' as that which seizes the moment, but doesn't impose a system," he explained. "This is nothing new. John Hanson and I made 'Northern Lights,' both scripted and improvised [it won Cannes' Camera D'Or, 1979]. 'On the Edge, with Bruce Dern was also from a script. I am sticking with what I do. I never want to give up having an alternative to Hollywoood-style filmmaking. I am not going to spend all the time it takes to make any kind of film, without then making it, even if it has to be low-budget."
Conversely, "I wouldn't want to spend five million on an 'A' film unless I had two or three known names - gives you better odds on your bet. For the DeKooning project, I need actors like Stacy Keach and Ron Perlman, who have committed to the project. We also have Maria Grazia Cucinotta [of "Il Postino," whom Nilsson met at the Venice Film Festival this year] as DeKooning's love interest. She's still gorgeous, and talented and wants to be in the movie. I would love to have Vigo Mortensen play de Kooning, although with his busy schedule, I may have to settle for a talented newcomer."
"Marshall [Spight, the producer,] and I are betting a little higher on this one because of the constellation of talent we've arranged. It doesn't matter to me if it costs two cents or two million if it's an itch I want to scratch. I'm extremely lucky to have people like Marshall, Mickey and Michelle. Without them there'd be no bet at all."
"We have a two-track system: the workshop films and the bigger budget films - bigger but not better, just a different kind of animal."
"Collapse," Nilsson's third current feature emerged in collaboration with dancers from the San Francisco Ballet. Two are retired: Russell Murphy, who was in Nilsson's Sundance winner 20 years ago, "Heat and Sunlight," and his wife Anita Paciotti, the SF Ballet's former prima ballerina. And two current: principal dancers Damian Smith and the lovely Lorena Feijoo from Cuba.
"People need something new," Nilsson notes, "With new energy and meaning. Instead of dragging out Swan Lake - address the problem of the economy, hence the name." "Collapse" also cleaves close to classical Nilsson, with an ex-dancer (Russell) battling his ex-lover (Paciotta), now the dance company director. She feels the secret to survival is fiscal conservatism - the eternal struggle between business and art.
"I am pretty excited about this one," Nilsson says. "The premise arose from the workshop. You have Russell and Paciotta with their unique histories, so you build your story around them." For the "Collapse" trailer see:
Burning Movies Laurent Le Gal (left) helps Rob Nilsson (2nd from right) and cameraman Mickey Freeman (center) acclimate to one of Burning Man's notorious dust storms. photo Laurent Le Gal
And then there's the Trotsky film - one of the more meaningful of his career. Nilsson sees Trotsky as a missing cultural link.
"When I went to Russia, after perestroika, there was little trace of Trotsky, not even photos. Stalin's attempt to erase him from history was that successful. To this day, they call him a reactionary. What attracted me first was his writings, the feelings he had for the peasants. As a boy, if his father, a middle class farmer, would rebuke them unfairly, he would cry. As a Jew, he also knew pogroms, which sharpened his interest in justice. I first got interested in him when I was in Cine Manifest [a cinema collective in the 1970s]. Most of that stuff was pretty dry, but Trotsky was interesting, an intellectual throwing his lot down with the workers."
"Trotsky could have been another Gogol or Pushkin. He was a great writer and a lover of high art. In exile in Spain, he spent his time in the Prado - not your average Bolshevik! I have nothing against them - but they became doctrinaire, and turned into people whom, in their hearts, they would not have approved of."
"Trotsky retained his idealism. but he was a tragic Macbeth, with blood on his hands. As a member of the Politboro, he was known as an implacable disciplinarian. But, in the end, Lenin saw him as the only hope to curtail Stalin's abuses. That's why Stalin kept coming after him. I want to make a hybrid film that starts in Trotsky's home town, an agricultural paradise, with a small boy, to address the difference between realism and idealism."
Speaking of which, Nilsson just got back from Burning Man, where he was both enjoying himself and researching what will be its first official feature. He camped with Laurent Le Gall another new collaborator and co-producer who is a seven year Burn veteran and director of an excellent Burn doc, "Journey To Utopia."
"Sure, there's an enormous amount of exhibition and narcissism," Nilsson said, warming to some Burning Man sociology. "I don't have a problem with that. That's carnival: let go, be all the things you can't be at home. It's a great thing to be liberated like that for a while."
"Laurent wanted us to experience it first hand and put our equipment out there, hoping the dust didn't get inside. So far so good. Shooting in that dust is dramatic. It is a magnificent setting for a film, with dynamic foregrounds and backgrounds, people constantly moving, each on an unknown mission - a metaphor for humanity." The plan is: raise the money and shoot at next year's Burn.
The story is about a man and his son. "He's lost everything," Nilsson explains, "His job, his wife and now he wants to take his son camping but they get stuck in the desert - they don't know about Burning Man. All of sudden a parachutist dressed like Louis the XIV is landing next to them and a San Francisco Victorian on wheels comes across the desert. Burning Man from the perspective of a working class guy who has no expectations. That way you can look at it with new eyes."
"We met with [BM founder] Larry Harvey. This is the first dramatic feature they have given permission to shoot during Burning Man. We also have a well-known French American actor on board, Jean Marc Barr. He's very good, worked with Lars Van Trier."
That about sums up Nilsson, the filmmaker, but how about Nilsson, the film philosopher? "How can we improve our cinema scene in the future?" I asked.
"What forms a French New Wave, Brazilian Cinema Novo, or the Dogma people? That would be a great to have happen here. I don't know how to do it," said Nilsson, not recognizing he's essentially a one-man movement himself.
Actually, this subject arose at an August gathering of local indie lumineries. Sponsored by Celik Kayalar, who just finished his first flick, "Moonlight Sonata," it was attended by Graham Leggat, of the San Francisco Film Festival, actor Peter Coyote and his wife Stefanie, of the San Francisco Film Commission, and Marianne Heath, an actress whom Nilsson knows from his breakthrough Tenderloin YGroup, now at big new ImageMovers Digital in Novato.
"Everyone had their say about how to make and distribute films which make a difference," Nilsson recalled. "I made the argument that we need to be more argumentative, to discover who we are with radical truth telling."
"We didn't decide anything and who knows what that will lead to. Film movements evolve out of the need to discover something we won't know about until we invent it. The only thing I know for sure is that it is badly needed."
Posted on Nov 03, 2009 - 05:35 PM