For those who have followed Nathan Silver’s relatively young yet prolific career, there’s some excitement in seeing that the distinctive Bureau Grotesque font that introduces his latest feature “The Great Pretender” is the same that adorned his last, “Thirst Street,” but he doesn’t want you to think that means you should know what to expect.
“Every film should feel somewhat different. I don’t want to bore myself or others,” Silver said recently, following the premiere of “The Great Pretender” at the Tribeca Film Fest. “I’ll never settle into a groove.”
In fact, while some of the themes in Silver’s work, particularly his interest in jealousy as a driving force for the decisions people make, are very much present in “The Great Pretender,” the idea behind it was intended to be a radical departure for the writer/director. Initially conceived as a episodic series with a segment devoted to each of the characters involved directly, or by association, to a stage production based on the personal life of a playwright named Mona (Maëlle Poesy-Guichard), “The Great Pretender” feels fresher because that initial instinct gives Silver license to shift perspective over the course of a feature as Therese (Esther Garrel), an actress starring in Nora’s play becomes infatuated with her co-star Chris (Keith Poulson), and subsequently his inspiration Mona’s ex Nick (Linas Phillips), while Nora finds herself attracted to Chris while still being repulsed by Nick.
As confusing as things get for the four as rehearsals for the play begin to have real-life implications and real-life scenes suddenly are inserted as rewrites in the play, Silver and co-writer Jack Dunphy bring a sharp eye to how their personal and professional lives intersect in pretzel-like ways with an appropriately salty sense of humor. Even setting aside Sean Price Williams’ opalescent cinematography that will often express the competing emotional impulses of any given character in his canny use of reflections, a versatile cast deftly handle the mercurial nature of their roles and as a director, Silver matches them beat for beat including mischievous touches full of great personality, putting in archival clips when characters believe their troubles to have the same gravity as great historical disasters and linguistic gymnastics that reveal as much about Therese, Mona, Chris and Nick when they can’t quite say what they mean as much as when they do.
Shortly after the debut of “The Great Pretender” in the city in which it was shot, Silver and Garrel spoke about reuniting after “Thirst Street” for this spry comedy and how an artistic endeavors, like romantic relationships, can exist far differently in the imagination than they do in reality for the various people involved in them, as well as how the two worked together to bring Therese to life and facilitating a cameo from Garrel’s mother, the great French filmmaker Brigitte Sy.
How did this come about?
Nathan Silver: When I was editing “Thirst Street” in Paris, I was wandering around and thinking about [what would happen if you were] falling in love with an actor who is playing your ex. I wrote to my friend Chris back home, [asking] “What do you think about this?” And he said, “It sounds like another micro-budget movie. You can make any more of those. You should make a series.” So I talked to Jack about this idea and Jack wrote the pilot — with the Mona character because I had been talking to Maëlle for a few years about playing a theater director. That’s what she does [in real life]. And then I thought about Therese’s character as someone who’s going to play her as her double. Slowly, the story came together and I remember this e-mail I sent to Jack that was like four pages long of all these ideas and somehow he made sense of them, seeing where they would all fit in.
We started to send it around, trying to get financing to make a series. Eventually, Bric came on board and one night, drunkenly, Jack and I were talking and it’s like, “It’d be better as a movie, yeah?” I woke up thinking, “No, it’s a terrible idea. We have to do this series because it’s written as a series, but by the time we were shooting, it became pretty clear it worked better as a movie and Jack’s intuition was right on.
Since you developed it as a series, did perhaps approaching it differently than you would a film end up opening some interesting creative opportunities? I liked the incorporation of the archival clips…
Nathan Silver: We allowed ourselves to be more playful. When Sean and I were talking about how to shoot it, we thought it was just going to be on a small screen, so we talked about it just really being a lot of closeups, just studying the characters’ faces and using expressionistic lighting that would pop on a small screen, so it certainly informed it. It also allowed for the structure, this kind of roundelay.
So Esther, Nathan didn’t scare you off after “Thirst Street”?
Esther Garrel: Of course I was scared. [laughs] No, no, we had a great experience on “Thirst Street” and of course it’s about the script and the actors, but it’s much more about the relationship with the director. Basically, it’s the same as when you meet someone and you think oh, this guy can be my friend, my lover or my brother, and in a way, you are chosen by a director and in return, you choose him and then when there is this statement [of mutual agreement], I think that everything is possible. If there’s trust back and forth, I’ve never had a bad surprise.
Nathan Silver: It’s a complete collaboration. Every actor that I work with, I want them to bring themselves — not necessarily their own experiences, but to bring their brains to the project. And that goes for everyone I work with. I’m always about complete collaboration. I’m not a dictator on set. I’m someone who encourages everyone to be involved as much as possible creatively.
There’s a great line in the film that you keep coming back to when Nick tells Mona her work is more confessional than honest, leading her to wonder what the difference is. Where did that come from for you?
Nathan Silver: That’s from Jack. It’s something that I think both he and I struggle with. [laughs] If you put yourself into a movie, is it honest or is it confessional? For him, he hopes that it’s honesty that is coming through his work and not just confession, like a teenager’s diary kind of thing.
Esther, was there something you could hang onto as Therese?
Esther Garrel: When I read the script, I have a first idea about the character, and then we start to read and talk about her and it’s half my own perception of the character and half the dialogue that I have [with the filmmaker]. Then if I have a lot of time, I can think before and if I have no time, which [was the case on — I had like five days when I arrived in New York before I started on Monday, so I remember I worked every day for six hours and I don’t only work on my character. I do [holistic] work about the script, working on each character, trying to know what my character thinks about each of them, so at the end of my work, I really know the script.
Of course, it’s like a new script because it’s mine. It’s not the script that we are going to do or the film we are going to see. I was saying at a Q & A that there’s three films that we do – there is the first one that Nathan did with the script and his co-writer, then there is the film we build with all of the crew on set, and then another one that the actors have no control over because it’s the editing and we’re not there. But more than that, there is the movie that each actor, each person on the set has in their head, so it’s a lot of movies. [laughs] At the end, you see just one, which is all of the movies together.
Nathan Silver: I love that.
Therese is calling her mom throughout, and Esther’s real-life mother Brigitte Sy is on the other end of the line. Was she part of the deal from the start?
Nathan Silver: Well, in my brain it was. And then I asked Esther about bringing your mother on. But it was during the shoot when I asked.
Esther Garrel: It was in the middle of the shoot! It was like, “We have no option!” [laughs] “Except your mother.”
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Nathan Silver: I’m sure I’ve blocked it from my memory. Shooting in the theater, that was pretty crazy.
Esther Garrel: It was crazy because we had so much to do.
Nathan Silver: The [dance yoga scene] was crazy because that was very fast. Because we were going to lose all of our actors. We literally shot that in 15 minutes and it was Sean racing around, just getting [shots].
Esther Garrel: Yeah, I was starting to rehearse and then I see Sean started at the same time that I was actually rehearsing.
Do you have a strong idea before getting to set what a scene is going to look like?
Nathan Silver: No, I have no idea. After a few days of shooting, you understand how basically the camera’s going to operate throughout the rest of the shoot and you have more of an idea of when you enter a space, generally where you’re going to put it. But it’s a matter of feeling out a space and just how the characters naturally fall. I don’t like to force blocking. I like to see [the actors] move around first and then Sean and I start to figure out what might work for the aesthetic or the set-up. I hate being intellectual about cinematography because I think it’s bullshit. That’s why I love working with someone like Sean, who’s always an emotional camera. He’s like another actor and he’s reacting to the other actors and it would be hard to shotlist that or storyboard that. That would bore me to tears.
What was the premiere like for you both?
Nathan Silver: It’s always terrifying. You would think it’d get easier. It’s my eighth feature, but it’s always hard to put this stuff into the world. I can’t figure out why exactly — I guess, it’s pretty evident why, but I can’t stop myself, the nerves.