In a lighthearted (and knowingly lightheaded) exchange typical of David Fenster’s new feature “Pincus,” the title character played by David Nordstrom asks of the yoga instructor he’s taken an interest in, “Is there a guy in India who can really levitate? How does that work?” She smiles at the question before politely brushing it away, but the proof that such a thing was possible was evident in how an audience experiences the film. A comedy that gets to have it both ways as a hysterically funny character study and an ethereal rumination on mortality, responsibility and finding one’s place in the world, “Pincus” is transcendent in nearly every way.
This includes the fact that as an artistically daring film, it’s entirely accessible, a particularly rare feat for something so personal to Fenster, who has unearthed the light side in his real-life return to Florida to help take care of his father Paul, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Paul plays himself in “Pincus,” an extension of audio and video recordings Fenster would make of conversations that he didn’t necessarily intend to become a film.
However, as close as this brings one into Fenster’s life, complete with the daily drudgery of watching a loved one’s health deteriorate, “Pincus” is equally about its title character wanting to distance himself from the growing weight of having to inherit his father’s contracting business and dealing with late night requests over the baby monitor he uses to track his dad, all of which he cures himself of with constant trips to his weed dealer and into the tropical landscape behind his backyard.
For Fenster, it’s fertile territory to explore the otherworldly role reversal that takes place between father and son with all its inherent and amusing oddities and for his lead Nordstrom, the actor/director who I’ve never seen look the same between his turns in his own accomplished “Sawdust City” and the more recent “Leave Me Like You Found Me,” it offers another opportunity to disappear into another enigma, projecting a charismatic confidence while hiding the reality that he’s adrift. A day after the film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival (though it shows again this evening), I spoke to them both about how they see their latest as an investigation, Fenster’s editing process and what they felt they took away from the film.
How did you guys start collaborating together?
David Fenster: We went to graduate school at CalArts together and we bonded over a mutual fear of flying. We worked on the first film I directed called “Trona” together and then we worked on several short projects since then.
Was it easy then to bring David Nordstrom into your family to make this film?
DF: A lot of people think we look alike and I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so I knew people would believe he was my father’s son. He’s [also] great at working with people who don’t have experience acting because we tried some of that in the first film and I think refined the process a lot, so for me, it was the obvious person to work with on this because everyone in my family already knew him. I knew they’d be comfortable with him doing the very intimate things that he would have to do. Did you have reservations? I can’t remember.
David Nordstrom: No. I’m all for it. I was excited he was making a narrative film again because…well, there was more of a job for me, but between “Trona” and this film, he made a number of really great documentary shorts, one of which won an award at LAFF here a few years back that Phil Lord also produced. A lot of them… they’re on Vimeo, right?
DF: I’d really like to show them [together theatrically]. They were all intended to go together originally and they never did. I showed them once in the last year, like nine of those back to back, and it was like oh wow, this is what I meant to do.
DN: I think it’s just going to be part of your process where you’re going to have a number of documentary projects. You have several really good films that are like hard to [present through conventional means]…they’re very personal films. Talk about filmmaking, like “Road Trip USA,” you can’t really program that at a film festival, but it’s still a really good movie.
DF: The jury’s out. It’s kind of…
DN: No, I think it’s great, but it’s like a journal. You spend a lot of time, more time than a lot of people would refining little films that are more of an ideabook to draw from. This film [“Pincus”] started the same way because you were filming your father in the house and various conversations you were having with him, not knowing exactly what was going to happen with it. Then [“Pincus”] grew out of it.
DF: I like that kind of stuff. I love something like George Kuchar’s “The Weather Diaries,” and unless you’re around certain film festivals or at certain universities that happen to have one or two episodes or whatever you would call work like that, they’re really hard to see. I wish there were more of a forum for it.
Touching on that in a tangential way, what was surprising the other night was when you said in the editing room, you could put the scenes in any order and it wasn’t making any difference. That was particularly interesting since I couldn’t think of a more brilliant way to fade to black at the end. Was this film constructed in pieces?
DF: In a way, because we had all the documentary pieces before we started the sort of fiction photography section, so in a way, it was this weird piecemeal thing. That’s how I write is just fragments of ideas or images that just slowly congeal.
Since both of you come from an editing background, does that play into the actual way you make the film before getting to that stage in postproduction?
DN: I have my pet theories about Dave’s psychology. I’ve been studying him for some time. [laughs] There’s this weird reluctance to bear down on a throughline for you. [eyeing Fenster] You seem to rebel against it. It happened occasionally in a scene. I’m approaching, saying “what’s this scene about” in so many words, like what’s my action? Where do we need to get to? You’re always shying away from it, but the truth is it’s always there.
This ending was always preordained to be the ending. Right when you get down to it, we made this short film that also involved a portal and the film more or less came out of this portal and it made sense to me that it has to end there. It’s the heart of the movie. I think it was always waiting there to be the ending, but I almost feel like if you knew that going into it, you wouldn’t be able to do all your role-gathering and your investigations and your observation. It kind of would interfere in a way because it would feel too scheduled or determined.
DF: Yeah, you could see the same ending on different movies. A lot of my endings are really cliché, kind of horrible, open-ended endings and I feel like I have the right to use them, so I try different things out. [looking at Nordstrom] You’re right, maybe I do stick with things that are initially there, even though I drift away from them and try a million different iterations of something.
DN: I probably didn’t tell you as bluntly as I can now that I’ve seen it work out in the end, but the way [the film] was put to me, it’s not what I felt we were doing. Then you went off and did several cuts I didn’t see and I actually saw it at the premiere and I was like, that’s it. Of course. He always does it in the end.
DF: Because I can feel when it’s not working. I don’t know what that means – if it’s just intuition or other people’s reactions, but I can feel when it’s not working. Then it’s like alright, well, what can I do about this? You can only mess with it so much.
It’s fascinating to watch one of your shorts, “Fly Amanita,” after seeing “Pincus” because I thought a theme you return to is finding your place in the world, both figuratively and quite literally as it relates to nature. Is that something you’re interested in?
DF: Very. Nature is something I can always count on to help me make some sense of my place here. I love hiking and kayaking and seeing a bird I’ve never seen for the first time. That’s something in South Florida that’s one of my favorite things is just to go explore in the mangroves or in the everglades and snorkeling or just experiencing nature. It always feels really good and it’s central to what I’m interested in now. But I like thinking about nature in terms of how our species think about nature and how we filter the idea of nature and sort of stand outside of it. In this film, it’s a kitchen sink of possible belief systems or higher powers and nature always seems like it fits in there somewhere. I’m not sure exactly how.
So if you see your films as an investigation, what did you actually learn from this one?
DF: I’ll probably know in a couple years. I’ll look back and see that it maybe altered my own trajectory in a certain way. I think I was too anxious. I’m always trying to let myself enjoy the process more and enjoy what’s going on. I think I need to learn how to have a little more faith in myself and in the direction of things because there were just so many times when this felt like a ship lost at sea with just no direction. Not that I wasn’t working hard to try to make things have some structure, but I felt like it was getting away from me. Dave, you’re always good at believing that the thing has some direction and it’s cool to have people like that around, to trust that you’ll make something of the mess that you’ve created. So I don’t know what I’ve learned yet. It’s too early.
To play a character with the last name “Finster,” there’s not much ambiguity for Mr. Nordstrom. What direction did you receive and how did it feel to play this guy you know?
DN: One main conversation between actor and director here was about how unlikable Pincus would be because taking this person in a crisis at home, we didn’t want to have any sort of stink of him being this saintly son and put upon and just looking for love. We always wanted to give him this edge, like what I think people are more like in crises. Not to be cynical, but people can become assholes, selfish, narcissistic and not attentive to the people around them. So we were always trying to push that. What we were trying to establish as how much Pincus could act out and be just kind of a salty character while still keeping the sympathy of the audience and also a truth to the subject matter. He wasn’t just a total dissolute.
DF: That going back and forth was definitely what my mom and I experienced helping take care of my dad. You get really frustrated sometimes and you act like a jerk…
DN: And then you get guilty.You’re just constantly going through all these changes. That’s what we were always trying to find in the character and how he’s relating to people.
It’s clear you’re not exploiting your father, but given the condition he was in during film, was it a concern?
DF: I think I would’ve worried about that a lot if it wasn’t my father. We know each other really well and I know what would make him uncomfortable. Our lives are so intertwined and he said yes, he wanted to be part of the project. I think he enjoyed very much being a part of the project, so I wasn’t worried about exploiting him. That’s the ethics about filmmaking. There’s no objective right or wrong to what you’re doing. You just have to do what feels right.
DN: What I find is generally, knowing when people talk about exploitation in movies in general, but especially documentary is that it seems to take away any sort of agency from the subject. So here the subject is Paul, he’s just like a poor guy with Parkinson’s who doesn’t know what’s going on and the truth is he was very much a collaborator. He did have agency and A, it’s his dad, he wanted to help his son, and B, all of a sudden, he had this reason to get up in the morning.
[looking at Fenster] You had to push him out of his comfort zone sometimes, but you would do that whether he had Parkinson’s or not, whether he was a trained actor or not. Directors are always pushing actors, pushing everyone out of their comfort zone — that’s what they’re doing – the audience, the financiers — so there’s always that issue. I understand where it comes from. Some people become total sociopaths with it, but you can’t get rid of it. You can’t make a movie that doesn’t involve everyone just getting involved.
DF: We were getting along better during the filming than we normally would. I was more patient with him, he was more patient with me.
DN: But I definitely got to watch Dave get impatient with him. There was that time where Dave was following him…because Paul would just get up and start walking [around] the house at like one mile per hour and won’t tell you where he’s going, so [Dave] was either watching or following along, taking little half-steps behind him as he was going through all the cabinets. [Paul] didn’t know what he was getting. He turned out to be getting a Cuisinart at like two in the morning. [looking at Fenster] You were like…you were so exasperated and it was really harsh to watch this and it was heavy, but I couldn’t help laughing. And hopefully that kind of stuff comes into the film because that stuff…it’s totally sad, but it’s undeniably funny at times.
DF: That’ll happen sometimes. I’ll just be so mad at him. Then he’ll start laughing because it’s so absurd. But making the movie helps me have a sense of humor about the situation because a lot of times when you’re in it and there’s no film being made, it’s easy to just sink into [the idea] this sucks so bad. There’s nothing positive in any part of this. Maybe that’s something I learned from [the film] is like it gave me another perspective to kind of see a little more levity in the situation, that it’s not all gloom and doom.