[Editor’s note: Fandor premieres A Bridge to a Border simultaneous with its debut at Mill Valley Film Festival this week.]
A soul brother of John Cassavetes and a much-honored pioneer of the once-subversive American independent film movement, Rob Nilsson continues to hew intimate, unflinching portraits of everyday people struggling to rise above. His new feature, A Bridge to a Border, spends a high-stakes night in the company of a fractious band of Bay Area activists and outlaws counting down the mostly tense, sometimes empty hours to a high-profile terrorist action. Idealistic and flawed, committed yet ineffectual, solitary but craving deep human connection, the characters are natural additions to the extended family of vise-squeezed protagonists in Nilsson’s remarkable body of work. On the occasion of Friday’s world premiere of A Bridge to a Border at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we engaged in a lengthy conversation with the East Bay filmmaker. This is Part One.
Michael Fox: Your most recent films feel more optimistic to me. Is that a goal? Do you feel that something has shifted in how you approach the work?
Rob Nilsson: No. I don’t look at it optimistic or pessimistic or anything like that. In fact, if anything I’m more struck with the contradictions and paradoxes of our lives, our politics, our culture. I think I have a darker view, but so what? This is the world we live in. Far be it for me to say it’s all good or all bad; it’s filled with dark and light. And all interesting art has to have the dark and the light in some way that probes and grabs at you, is viscerally both assaultive and maybe comforting in a way. Art should be about how you really feel, and about the way things seem to be. I use that phrase because I’m not able to use the word ‘truth’ or ‘the way things are.’ I don’t know that. It’s far too vast. That’s Tolstoy’s point about history, right? History and points of view are so varied.
Fox: Well, I remember the characters in earlier films such as Chalk as doomed, with limited options. In your newer films, although the characters still have a dark night of the soul—all the characters in your films face a dark night of the soul—they are resilient. They aren’t destroyed at the end. Perhaps choosing to honor persistence doesn’t strike you as optimistic, but it’s certainly not buying into nihilism.
Nilsson: I can see what you mean when I think about the end of A Bridge to a Border. I guess what I was trying to [evoke] was the still point in the turning world where people sleep an innocent sleep, for all their nuttiness and all their craziness. Maybe that is a little more palliative than some other films [of mine]. I don’t know. I saw Stroke [2000, part of the 9 @ Night series] yesterday, and at the end the [main characters] fall into the water and the owner of the dock walks out smoking a cigarette and throws it down in the [same] place, having no idea. That’s a pretty dark ending. But of course these things come in relation to where you are at the moment.
Fox: So many of your films take place at night. Isn’t it harder to light and shoot at night?
Nilsson: Nights are easier. (Laughs.)
Nilsson: Because night is all of a piece. You don’t have shadows and light places, but you have these beautiful lights that are there. And they’re going to stay there—they’re streetlights. The night has a uniformity. But it’s also mysterious. It’s much harder to shoot during the day because the light’s always changing.
Fox: Ah, and harder to match shots in the editing room.
Nilsson: God, it’s murder. I can still remember a shot in The Steppes (2011) where we created a kind of SRO hotel down in the Tenderloin and a character opens a door. We’re looking from the inside out, and [cinematographer] Mickey Freeman says, ‘We’ve got to put a flag up there,’ and I say, ‘No.’ He was right, and I tried everything I could do to match it to the rest of [the scene] but there it is, proof that it’s so tough to open a door during the day. (Laughs.)
Fox: So you shoot at night primarily for pragmatic rather than thematic reasons?
Nilsson: No, it’s essentially thematic. With 9 @ Night, after a while we got tired of shooting at night all the time so some of that is during the day. But we integrated it pretty well. I think the secrets of humanity are somehow more vulnerable at night. When I was a night cabdriver in Boston, or even in Mill Valley [north of San Francisco], people opened up their souls to me, like a bartender at closing time. Why would that be? The night is that time for secret admissions and moments of truth you might never speak again. I can think of so many moments like that in the cab.
Fox: For your characters, I feel that admission to themselves is as important as admissions to another person.
Nilsson: That’s what I meant. During the day you’re busy, you’re doing work, you’re trying to cover up, you’re trying to be political, all these things we do to try to get by. Then at night you have a drink, you let go. The notion of having a beer after 6 o’clock in the evening—that’s my thing, never drink before 6, have a good IPA right at 6:01—that will ease you into another relationship to the world. The Mayans used psychedelics in their ceremonies. It’s the same thing only this is a secular way of sinking into that other part, that nether part, of the self.
Fox: The small still voice.
Nilsson: Yeah, that’s nice. What is the small still voice?
Fox: Usually at night, when you’re alone, and don’t have the television on, the small still voice is available. The mask drops. In your films, the voice isn’t necessarily ‘still’ because your characters verbally grapple with whatever is between them and being vulnerable. It’s a matter of confronting what they’d rather not look at.
Nilsson: That’s sounds right. That sounds like something I would like to do and probably do again and again [in my films]. It’s a personal slipstream. As you know, I was a poet and I’m still a poet. I just finished two long poems about death. They just come out of the slipstream. That’s what I plan to do and have done as much as I could with cinema. That’s why I never wanted to go down south [to Hollywood], never wanted to do other people’s films. I’ve done it a couple of times; it’s not my particular path. It was voices or whatever they are—they’re not voices but enveloping states of being that surround you and provide you with a movie, or a poem or a painting.
Fox: One thing that distinguishes your films is how close the camera gets to the characters’ faces. Your films are not about plot.
Nilsson: No. They’re not.
Fox: You’re not a storyteller.
Nilsson: That’s correct.
Fox: The essence of the film lives on the characters’ faces.
Nilsson: And the circumstances that they’re in and the locations in which they’re in. Tsai-Ming-liang talked about the building blocks of cinema rather than the peaks and valleys of three-act screenplays. You put a block, and you put a block, you put a block, you put a block. You don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re not telling a story. You are making character and circumstance evolve into some kind of a form that may not have any particular shape but it’s there for the experience of it. That’s the only reason to go [see the movie]. I don’t care about the rest of it.
Fox: How about faces?
Nilsson: Bergman says that the human face is the most powerful thing to shoot. He also says that actors only can do one thing at a time, but a great actor continues to cycle so that always there’s a surprise. There’s always a surprise because the emotional timbre changes the way that the mind caresses the senses. That produces things we don’t think about, but they profoundly affect us. When we look at Max von Sydow, for example, in some of those early films or the great women that Bergman had, always in their faces they’re these tiny changes. I don’t know if he ever told them that. I don’t suppose as a director you want them to be thinking technically like that.
I think that the eyes are the windows of the soul and all of that, so that’s where you have to go to try to get as close or as deep down or as in far as you want to go. Although sometimes when that’s not the point, when people are just shooting close-ups for the hell of it or maybe because they didn’t have any art direction (laughs), that’s very annoying to me.
Fox: You alluded a moment ago to the essential importance of locations in your work.
Nilsson: In my films you will see that they open out, and that you’ll feel a location. I’ve driven the city so many hundreds of times, it seems, particularly at night, seeking that one streetlight. Finding that one alley. When I drove through the city today, I said, ‘Oh good, I don’t have to do that one again. I got that one. Wait, there’s a new one. Do I have a new film? What can I do with this one?’ My films open out and the milieu is important, but it’s the milieu that I can feel [with my senses]. Since my films are often about people in stress and duress, those places are probably not going to be inside the Safeway. Or outside the Safeway, either. It’s probably going to be somewhere that looks more challenging.
Fox: A Bridge to a Border has numerous industrial locations, but it also features a lot of two-shots, often in a vehicle. That fits because, to me, it’s a film about communal responsibility.
Nilsson: No, no, it’s about people under the gun of decisions that have been made for them and ones they made themselves, and how they deal with them. It’s about a much-maligned guy who may or may not have shot someone. We don’t know. There are some things we can know, I guess, but not that. It’s about a woman who remembers a bridge story from her past—a tragic death of a loved one—and it’s about a guy who was in prison and got sick of the douchebag Marxists and somehow is cracked. He enjoys cruelty. He’s not political so much but he has a loyalty. And he feels once [his co-conspirator] is kicked out of the truck and he’s going it alone, that’s as far as he’s going to go. You hear him saying, ‘When you start acting crazy, is it still the same mission?’ There’s a moment where he realizes, ‘I’ve lost the whole thing. I’ve left everybody behind and I ran out of gas. It’s not the same mission.’ (Laughs.) There’s a kind of macabre humor there that I enjoy.
Fox: Perhaps I should have said ‘individual responsibility.’
Nilsson: In those cabs we’re almost always —not always but almost always—on a close-up on one or the other [character]. A little person—[cameraman] Gustavo Ochoa is not a great big person—sat on the lap of the [passenger] kind of up against the windshield, holding focus with his DSLR camera as the truck goes [bouncing down the road]. It’s a remarkable ability to hold on.
Fox: It sounds a little tight.
Nilsson: We had three people in the front seat, one of whom was shooting, and then he had to turn around to [shoot] the other person. A big person couldn’t have done it, and a big camera could never have done it. Meanwhile, there’s three people in the back seat—me and the sound and somebody else. The whole thing, if you saw it, it was just jammed. When we’re going across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, there were five or six people in the back of the truck and three or four in the front. This is truly a mad, Three Stooges kind of collaboration. (Laughs.)
Fox: I don’t imagine you bothered to request a permit to stop on the bridge for the climactic scene.
Nilsson: Well, we didn’t stop on the bridge. Nobody ever stepped on the bridge. That’s all green screen.
Fox. Wow. You surprise me.
Nilsson: I surprise most people. The guy who did it was the DP, Chris Damm. They’re not going to let me stop [on the bridge], even if I had ten grand.
Fox: The sound design helps sell the effect, especially the horn of a big rig as it passes the stopped truck.
Nilsson: I knew I had to do that. In the end, A Bridge to a Border has four posts: Vaclav’s monologue, Pakal’s monologue, Graver and Liz’s scene lying on the floor in the room and Africa’s monologue about the bridge. Those, to me, are the key points to the film because they are personal and they are contradictory. The whole point of the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight group is they’re all disputatious that way. Sometimes they are able to overcome it. The Black Panthers were notoriously quarrelsome, and certainly the Weather Underground was.
Fox: Not to mention Congress. Or, for that matter, almost any other entity or organization.
Nilsson: (Laughs.) Exactly. We are such a contentious race. I don’t know how you and I can actually have a chance to sit here, talk and try to be as reasonable as we can be. That’s a great gift. It’s a bubble that we live in, and that we’ve gained at great cost, great personal cost to others, and which we hopefully will try to maintain.