[Editor’s note: This interview has been amended since its original publication.]
A fiercely independent director of more than two-dozen films, Rob Nilsson is in the midst of a revival of his landmark debut feature, Northern Lights (which opened at the Film Forum in New York in September and has continued along thereafter on a national tour). The following interview (first published in 2005 on GreenCine) finds Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow (who later appeared, albeit briefly, in the final film of Nilsson’s “9 @ Night” series, Go Together) discussing the varied career of the iconoclastic filmmaker. Since this interview first appeared, Nilsson has completed another twelve films.
Jonathan Marlow: The beginning of your career as a director is usually defined within loose parameters. I want to go back even further. I want to talk a bit about how you came to direct Northern Lights, the three years it took to make it, and of course your experience at Cannes.
Rob Nilsson: Northern Lights was really a kind of natural experience for [co-writer/co-director] John Hanson and myself in that we both had roots in North Dakota. His grandfather was a grain farmer who’d lost various farms due to unfavorable conditions. If it’s impossible now economically for the small farmer, it was really tough back then to beat the grain prices and fight the elements to come up with a crop that you could sell. He was an early member of an organization called the Nonpartisan League, which sprung up in the North Dakota prairies around 1915 or so. It came out of the Socialist Party, but red-baiting was so extreme that it was impossible to elect anybody or get anyone in power using the word socialism let alone communism. A lot of their programs were socialistic in nature. When they came to power they had state-owned banks and state-owned grain elevators and all kinds of cooperative ventures that were of use to the small farmer struggling to make a quarter section mean something as far as survival of his family went. My grandfather was a state photographer at the time and the first filmmaker in North Dakota. This was prior to the formation of the league and he was making movies about the localities in North Dakota back as far as 1907. By the time I came along, the family had moved on to Northern Wisconsin after a number of stops, including one stop where my grandfather was a set photographer for United Artists ([the studio founded by] Pickford/Fairbanks/Chaplin [and Griffith]), so he had a little touch with the film industry. It was also a link in terms of where we had come from. Norwegian and Swedish stock. My grandfather and my mother’s side of the family were from Norway and my father’s side were Swedish blacksmiths and farmers. All of that made it a kind of investigation into things that we knew, that got into the pores. That’s how it got started. John was the prime mover in terms of organizing the financing [for Northern Lights] through the North Dakota Committee for Humanities and Public Issues, a state-based branch of the NEH which, at that time, was doing a lot of films about America’s radical past, including films about the anarchists, Communist Party, socialists in this case. They put up the money for probably the only fiction feature film that was made about the radicalism or the populism of that time. I was interested in the human dimension. I was interested in people, not ideology, and I was interested in how one decides to go out and organize to try to change the nature of your economic life.
Marlow: The creation of the film begins in its own way as part of a ‘collective’ with Cine Manifest.
Nilsson: We had been part of the creation of a labor union out here called the Film Worker’s Union. A union that had set itself up to further employment for women and third world people, etc. We had kind of a socialist/populist bent. Some people were doctrinaire Marxists and others were, like myself, much less so. I considered myself, especially at that time, kind of an anarchist. I believe in the human exchange and human cooperation but I don’t believe in most governmental forms that I’ve seen. We had different views and we were a collective. This was the second feature film that we made with that collective. The idea was to add political dimension to feature films that could be seen in theaters. Increasingly, that paradigm has changed. I think now the place to show things like this is probably what you’re doing on the Internet and cyber-related places where access, I think, is freer, more democratic and hopefully less tied to fad and profit and the needs of an industry to expand and prosper.
Marlow: Naturally, I’m biased. I believe that you’re absolutely correct.
Nilsson: I hope we’re all correct. I hope that this will continue. I just read in [the long defunct] RES Magazine that in Dubai these kids are taking their cars and driving up near the corporate headquarters of U.S. corporations and parking nearby to use their web access. They inadvertently beam out access to the free Internet. The Internet, I guess, within Dubai is censored. So I thought, what an amazing paradigm that you can drive up to this monolith pulsating out these impulses and in some way use it to put forth your own messages. Our impulse there [in North Dakota] was to work with real people. My idea has always been that I’d much rather cast real people who have a lively sense of themselves and have the capacity to relax and to conquer fear in the moment than to hire actors to pretend or to assimilate and to become those people. I always feel that those real people will give a different sense of life as it’s lived. We didn’t go to the community theater people who were, ‘We’re actors and we want to be in your film.’ Actually, one or two people like that were quite good, so we cast them in roles that were appropriate for them, but mostly we used the unknown, rugged, beautiful, sensitive characters from the plains. They were the ones that we loved and the ones that we cast in Northern Lights. To this day they continue to thrill me with what they’re able to do, simply by someone having a little faith in them. They have the capacity to relax into a fiction that emanates right from the soles of their boots. They came from there and they know the realities there and they’re best able to feel them and manifest them as long as there’s a sincere connection between the people that are gathering the images and those who are providing them. We had a great collaborative experience up there with the farmers, mostly from Crosby in the northwest corner of the state. I think they trusted us. Two years ago we went back for the twenty-fifth reunion of the World Premier of Northern Lights which was in the little ‘Last Picture Show’ on the main street of Crosby. We arrived at the theater in the same way we did then, in a little Model T. The same Model T we used in the movie was still there, so we pulled up in front of the theater and with all the survivors, many of our people, most of our lead actors were already gone, but we had a wonderful evening with those who remained and showed the film as we had twenty-five years before.
Marlow: You were rewarded with this unique style of filmmaking at Cannes with the Camera d’Or which, since its founding, is an infrequent award to get for an American filmmaker to receive, although an American [Miranda July] shared the prize this year.
Nilsson: We were the second ones to win that prize [the Camera d’Or]. The prize had been established the year before when Robert Young won it for Alambrista! That was a nice thing to happen. We didn’t expect anything like that but were pleased to get it. I think the advantage of it is that, for awhile, it opens some doors and opens access to the means to make more films, which is really the point. It is a moment where art intersects with life and both are affected in some internal way. There is just the pure fun that the collaborative kind of filmmaking is for most people in it. There’s a lot of freedom allowed and a lot of input which most standard productions don’t have. I’m not saying I don’t have final cuts, I do and I think there is a place for the conductor in front of the orchestra. You may have read my jazz notion of structure and leadership, about sharing the solo so to speak and allowing the brilliance of people to emerge in a circumstance that isn’t totally predetermined.
Marlow: In a lot of instances, the soloist is only as good as the band backing them up.
Nilsson: Yet, also, if you don’t get your solo perhaps you’re not quite as interested.
Marlow: You noted that awards can open a few doors but it took a few years before you were able to get your next film together. How did your experience as a cab driver in Boston assist the filming of Signal 7?
Nilsson: A lot of things happened when I drove a cab. I learned a lot about people, violence, love. I met my wife in the cab and, as a result, the dearest person on Earth, my daughter, Robindira, was directly connected to my cab driving experiences in Boston. When you’re in a cab you’re in a little traveling confessional booth. You’re facing forward and they’re facing forward so it’s as if it were a confessional booth, except you’re one behind the other rather than right next to each other. I’m not a Catholic so I’ve never been there, but you get your finger on the pulse of something. You know what it’s like to be driven into an alley and beaten up and have money taken and you say, ‘Hey, let me have this bag because my drawings are in it,’ which infuriates them even further. You know, the unreasonable-ness and the sadness of human terror is also part of it. So having lived it, I wanted to make a movie about it.
Marlow: The performances you draw from Bill Ackridge and Dan Leegant owe something, in part, to the style of filmmaking that John Cassavetes is known for. Not coincidentally, this film was dedicated to him.
Nilsson: Both Dan and Bill lived a life among people. I think Danny had been a cab driver, maybe Bill as well. They spent a lot of time in bars where people congregate, not to exhibit their wisdom and elevation from the normal run of life but to be part of everyday people. So I think they were ideal because they were from the streets and they kicked around the world and knew something first hand about human joys and sorrows and things like that. The reason I did Signal 7 was I had been fundraising for On the Edge for approximately three years. I just said, ‘This is ridiculous. I am not a fundraiser.’ I’m not a capitalist here but we made the commitment to make this film. I thought, every used car salesman has some kind of a camera that we could get. Film operates like life does. You walk down a stairway and out into the lawn and water the plants. All I’m saying is that cinema is everywhere and the tool we have is similar to a pencil that a poet would use in a coffee shop and all of the protocol that usually surrounds filmmaking strangles it. I would say ninety percent to ninety-five percent of cinema is strangled. It’s still boring. Before, there was probably no choice because of the bulkiness of the equipment and its connection with an industry that expected a certain kind of thing to be done. People, out of their fear, put together standards and forms of cinema that to me are coming from the wrong impulse. True cinema is far more intuitive and arrives in your consciousness more like poetry. It should be raw and require that you do your own investigations and internal searches. It’s crazy that in Hollywood a film explains itself to you, is explained to you and explained to you again and laid out to you again. Pretty soon, you know what it’s about, but you’re gone. Maybe you needed the rest. You took a snooze and suddenly there’s a Hollywood film. But the world you hoped to experience is nowhere to be seen. I believed that we could, with the right spirit, just jump in and make a movie, and prove to the world that a movie could be made in a more spontaneous way. My original idea for Signal 7 was that it would be done in a day. At that time, that was a more revolutionary idea than it is now. A lot of people are doing that now, a real-time feature or whatever, because they can. I thought we could do it then, but nobody wanted to go along with it. They were willing to give me three or four days because they thought it would promote a better product—but I thought I was a cinema poet not a fundraiser and I had to get off the fundraising hook. We were traveling all over the country trying to fund On the Edge, a running movie with Bruce Dern, talking to runners and running clubs and people with discretionary income and I was tired of it. So I decided to use my street experience and we all pulled together and made Signal 7.
Marlow: It’s a two camera shoot, somewhat unusual for the time. The result is the first small format feature shot-on-video, transferred-to-film and distributed theatrically. Why was the DVD release transferred from the film print rather than going back to the original video source?
Nilsson: The original video source may be anywhere from here to the outer reaches of Nepal. Nobody knows where it is. I suppose this is what happens with most independent filmmakers. I don’t have a big warehouse where I can keep every element , but I keep the video masters and stuff that comes from the telecine. [For the DVD], that’s what we had. We shot 3/4-inch video and we edited 3/4-inch on the machines of that era. We had it blown up at Image Transform which I guess is now called 4MC [Four Media Company].
Marlow: As a result of this ‘jazz-style onslaught into cinematic reality,’ were you able to then finish off the financing for On the Edge?
Nilsson: Yes, we did. As a matter of fact, the money for On the Edge was raised by John Stout, a friend and attorney, and myself. At the end we found the money to finish both films. They were linked together and then they were released fairly close to each other too, as I recall.
Marlow: Was Bruce Dern attached from the beginning as runner Wes Holman?
Nilsson: Not from the very beginning but he was certainly in many ways the logical choice being that he was a lifelong runner and pioneering ultra-marathoner. For that matter, somebody told me three or four months ago that they saw him running by the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles. He’s still after it. It makes me very envious because my knees have gone south on me, but he’s still out there.
Marlow: It was an inspired choice to cast Bill Bailey as the father. It’s kind of a form of typecasting in the classic sense for him to appear in that role.
Nilsson: I think Bill is the star of that film. I love Bill because, throughout the thing, he said, ‘I’m sorry I’m embarrassing you. You know I can’t do this.’ He was such a humble person for someone who had faced so much and done so many amazing things in his life. He was a great teacher in that regard. In my weak moments, when I can reach good sense, I often think of him and I think of Henry Martinson, who was the old timer in Northern Lights, as kind of guiding beacons of people who are truly alive and full of passion, compassion, empathy and have the guts to face up against the establishment. When I wonder what to do and need guidance, I think of these guys and I think of what they would have done and what they would have approved.
Marlow: There is a wonderful moment of exposition early in the film where you explain more about Dern’s character in a few minutes that most American filmmakers do in ninety. In many ways, On the Edge is your most conventional film, but it’s as if you’re resisting the conventions of that style of filmmaking as well.
Nilsson: Originally, it wasn’t conventional. The original script and what I had originally intended to do with it was, I would say, cutting edge. I turned away from it when I ceased to believe in my choices for the relationship between Pam Grier and Bruce. It’s one of those things where you realize if you can’t believe in it, who else is going to believe in it? So I changed directions and made it a simpler film. As a simple film, I think that it is conventional and, you know, there it is. That’s what it is. That’s what we ended up with. My bow to the cinema Gods and move on.
Marlow: Characteristically, you went in a completely different direction with your next film. Again, using real life experience as a foundation, with Heat and Sunlight you’re taking a very personal experience and reworking it in a way that is very raw, particularly since you star in the film. In a sense, this choice opened up a whole other occasional career. You’ve appeared in roughly a dozen films by other directors since this time. When did you first decide that you were going to have to play the lead?
Nilsson: That film was a big collaboration between myself and Steve and Hildy Burns and also, at the time, Don [Bajema] but more Steve and Hildy, who were the producers and did the photography in the film. We cast around for who should play the lead and thought about it and we had different options and different ways of using the actors. Steve and Hildy were the ones that finally encouraged me to do it. I don’t know that I would have taken it on without their faith that I could do it. When you’re not working from a script, and you’re both the lead actor and the director you can be distracted from the directorial overview. The actors have to feel that you’re there, watching, encouraging, evaluating. If you’re acting, you can’t do that. It’s a sticky problem, but they persuaded me that they could help me do it.
Marlow: You aren’t the only director-cum-actor in Heat and Sunlight. How did Ernie Fosselius get involved?
Nilsson: I met Ernie when my offices were over at Fantasy. We read a lot of local comedians for that role. Ernie just had a natural vulnerability. You didn’t feel that his comedy was divorced from him. Most comedians, to me, can be very funny, but not personal. I never felt that with him. I felt that he had an inner passageway into something that was so interpersonal and intimate and so, even though because we knew each other through Fantasy, it wasn’t nepotism at all. I just thought, ‘Wow, this guy can really do stuff that feels alive, now, in the moment.’
Marlow: You used the exceptional Brian Eno/David Byrne record ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ for the soundtrack. Did you have it in mind while you were shooting the film?
Nilsson: I can’t tell you when I heard it. It was probably during the editing. As soon as I did, I saw the way in which they were using multiple cultures, blending the music and the languages and the activities into one. This is what Mel was self-destructively doing with his camera.
Marlow: With the structure of the film, you’re dealing very early on with the issues of Biafra, which (sadly) most people in this country have forgotten, and then you make it personal by setting the action on Mel’s birthday and the conflict with his relationship with Carmen. It’s as if the photographs, being reproduced in black-and-white on video, create an added alienating effect. It’s particularly key when you’re putting the photographs up and assembling them.
Nilsson: Yes. That was his problem. Maybe my problem. His problem was that there was very little separation in his work and how he looked at his life. The obsessive quality that he had with both tended to have the opposite effect than the one he intended, which is to say that it estranged him both from Biafra and the woman that he was in love with. He was too wrapped up in himself to sustain any kind of real relationship. I was trying to show that, as Mitch told him, he couldn’t edit himself. Life just came over him like a tsunami. He was swamped by his feelings and probably sabotaged by how close the art feelings and the life feelings and the sex feelings were to each other.
Marlow: The only cinematic connection I would make to this scene of Mel’s emotional collapse is the moment in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane when Charles Foster Kane destroys the room.
Nilsson: That’s an amazing scene. To me, that scene rescues that movie.
Marlow: It’s one of the rare moments of humanity in the whole film. You received the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Heat and Sunlight and that makes you, whether arbitrary or not, the first American director to have won that award and the Camera d’Or. How do these awards help and how do they harm? Do the awards occasionally act as an albatross around the neck of a filmmaker?
Nilsson: It’s very peculiar. I have no idea what is true and what isn’t. You realize that the people who decide at any given time what these awards are going to be are different every year. They would probably make a different choice on a different day. It’s completely arbitrary. It’s the luck of the draw. You luck-out a couple of times; you win something. You have to be careful not to take it too seriously. A lot of people get isolated in their awards because, ‘I’ve won the award, I’m entitled to more awards. I’ve been raised above the unwashed,’ and all that. Some people feel that way. Also, you can get a false perspective as to what it’s going to do for you out in the world. I really don’t have anything wise to say about it. I would just say it’s nice to have a day where you get up on the stage and somebody says, ‘You’re the one,’ and you say, ‘That’s great.’ Then you realize it has nothing to do with anything. If you’re going to be an artist, any kind of an artist, what is driving and motivating and inspiring you, who you are collaborating with and how you keep going without this money or that piece of equipment, that’s what it’s about. It’s about getting up in the morning.
Marlow: It’s nice to be acknowledged but you can’t take any great importance from it.
Nilsson: You can’t really take anything out of it. To speak for myself, you realize that there is something nice about the recognition of the world, that probably everybody’d like it to happen. But why? What’s the point? What good does it do you? It’s like a weakness.
Marlow: Something of an anomaly in your filmography and maybe, with this project, you’ve sinned in some way for some folks, was the made-for-television A Town Has Turned to Dust. By saying you’ve sinned, you’ve made what is potentially a science fiction narrative except that there’s actual acting happening in the film. That’s very rare for the genre. In fact, there’s some really remarkable acting happening in the film. How did Town even come about?
Nilsson: The circumstances were that Nelle Nugent had seen Chalk and was touched by it and believed in the filmmaking. So she approached me and, you know, Rod Serling was a kind of an industry guy, but as those people go he was a hat ahead. I like Requiem for a Heavyweight. That’s really good work, and you can certainly see the talent. She took me under her wing and pretty soon we had the possibility of working with some actors that interested me….
Marlow: Such as Ron Perlman…
Nilsson: I liked his work in Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, and things like that. Stephen Lang, his work I knew less well, but I liked Stephen immediately. It seemed like I could make some money to live, do it with quality people and with a story that you and I know came originally from the story of Emmett Till.
Marlow: I noticed that you dedicated the film to Emmett in the closing credits.
Nilsson: I adapted it to the future though I couldn’t take any screen credit for it. That was the requirement, though I don’t remember why. Rights issues. So it was an adventure. My old cinematographer comrade Mickey Freeman, and the guy who was our colorist, were out in a still-functioning steel mill….
Marlow: This was in Utah….
Nilsson: Yes…painting the skies in real time. The colorist would be under a blanket in a pickup truck twirling the dials. We could look at a monitor and see the skies suddenly take on this acidic, post-apocalyptic look. Usually this stuff is done in post but we did it in real time right out there finding thrilling grassroots ways, to invent a new world. The art directors we found out there, and the incredible stuff they did were way beyond the call of duty. I was so impressed with them. I think back and I say, ‘God, how did we inspire that?’ They created a whole town for the film’s indigenous people up on a slag heap but as time went on and our production time became tighter, less and less of it got on film. It just broke my heart to see how much never reached the screen, even though perhaps we were able to evoke some of it. The type of thing that Serling was writing inspired our acting style. I did all sorts of preparatory improvs out in the deserts, creating situations where somebody would be out there in character and a motorcycle would arrive out of nowhere. This would lead to the first meeting of characters who would then have the history of that first meeting as part of their back story. It was nice to have enough budget to try things like that. Of course, I’d routinely do it in the Tenderloin with no money. We ran our workshops therefor fifteen years so it was easier to do but when you have actors coming in for a short stint and busy careers they don’t usually get a chance to work like that. It was thrilling.
Marlow: You mention at the beginning how this fell right after Chalk, which marks a kind of a turning point in your work since it represents a real evolution in Direct Action cinema. I look at it as an effort to eliminate premeditated moments from filmmaking or, as its described on your site, a method of creating drama from character and circumstances seeking emotional depth and street level authenticity. In this same manner, Winter Oranges also suggests an ongoing relationship that you have with Mark Fishkin and the Mill Valley Film Festival where, for many years, your films have premiered. Winter Oranges, shot off the coast of Japan near Hiroshima, feels much looser than any kind of improvised story line. How did you end up in Japan to create this particular film?
Nilsson: Heat and Sunlight played at a film festival in Tokyo. Prior to that, a young Japanese journalist had come to America to try to find me because he had seen some other film of mine. As a result, I began to meet some arts administrators, artists, festival people and journalists and finally some folks from a Hiroshima group, Studio Malaparte came to the Tenderloin to participate in our workshop. Afterwards, they invited me to come to Japan. They didn’t want me to talk about Direct Action. They wanted me to do it. As far as art goes, there’s way too much talk and not enough of the real stuff. So this was the beginning of what I later called Direct Action World Cinema. In Japan it happened this way. I got on a plane and later on a ferry boat and the film converged on me. From the airport on, things started to happen which made me see what the path might be. There was no way that I could go to Japan and make a film from a deep experience of Japanese culture. No matter how much I might have read, I had to rely on the environment and on the people themselves to show me what to do. I took a ferry boat to Sagi Island where I met some people including Nobuhiro Suwa, one of Japan’s more interesting directors. He had come down to help with the workshop and became co-director of the film. So I arrived and met strangers. Things happened. I experienced and initiated action. Stories, characters began to emerge, suddenly or gradually, a structure appeared. Circumstances and characters evolved. People had come from all parts of Japan to this little agricultural island to participate in the workshop. So, people arrive and people are already there. That became the central focus of the film. Looking at the workshop participants I could immediately see who would play those who had just come and who would play the ones who were already there. I looked in their faces. ‘Oh you’re a townie and you’re a visitor.’ I could see that right away. In most films when actors are cast you’re locked into a kind of closed universe. But from these faces I could see that what I didn’t yet know was going to be the stuff of both character and story. I wanted the pulsations of uncertainty and contradiction that attend on all life, not a script organized just to center in on a few set piece characteristics. I want the potential of the full mystery of a person or I’m not interested. Kieślowski, Tarkovsky or Mike Leigh work that way. When I see them I feel life bubbling up, crackling, moving in unpredictable ways, a life filled with both purpose and with the random detritus which surrounds us. I lik