Three days into shooting his latest film “Soft in the Head,” Nathan Silver saw one of his actors doing something he liked, so much so that when the take ended, he threw out the outline he had for the rest of the shoot.
“The production designer, the [director of photography] and I went up to the roof and just rewrote the structure of the movie on a napkin,” says Silver. “That’s what we followed for the rest of the movie.”
How such a thin piece of parchment could contain such depth is something that only Silver and his collaborators know, yet this month audiences will have the chance to dive in as the filmmaker sees the release of “Soft in the Head” at New York’s Cinema Village this week and his previous film “Exit Elena” at the Anthology Film Archives next week while raising funds for his next “Stinking Heaven” on Kickstarter. (And this omits the fact that he’s finishing post-production on “Uncertain Terms,” a film about pregnant teens with “It Felt Like Love” star Gina Piersanti and “The Unspeakable Act”‘s Tallie Medel, which he made in the interim.)
It’s a lot to take in, but Silver wouldn’t have it any other way. So far given to stories about the push-pull relationships of people who make it their job to give help and those who are resistant to take it, he often thrusts his characters into situations that quickly spiral out of control and letting the chips fall where they may, digging out both the inherent dark humor and the clash of emotional and intellectual impulses within. “Soft in the Head” is a particularly intriguing example, tracking a 25-year-old vagabond named Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría), who has been forced to rely on the kindness of her best friend and her Orthodox Jewish parents and the head of a local halfway home after her live-in boyfriend breaks up with her in spectacular fashion, though it’s only a matter of time before she wears out her welcome with them as well.
However, as Silver watches characters pushed out of their comfort zone, he’s clearly finding his own as a filmmaker and in the midst of a busy spring, he took the time to talk about his approach that lets life unfold before his lens, giving his camera crew as much room to play as his actors and how he decided to become a filmmaker after starting out with the stage.
In “Soft in the Head,” Natalia alternates between two worlds – one of a Jewish household and another one of the halfway house where she takes up residence. Were these actually places you had familiarity with before shooting?
The halfway home came from the fact that Ed Ryan, the actor who plays Maury [who runs the place in the film], used to do a lot of charity work, so [after] working on the character of Maury with him, we decided that he would run this shelter. It was completely outside of anything that I know. I do live down the street from a shelter. The Jewish world came from the fact that the two people who play the parents are my parents’ oldest friends, and they were hippies once upon a time, and then they became extremely religious. I was always fascinated by their household and how it differed from mine. Visiting them was always an experience, and I wanted to bring that into the film somehow. They were willing to participate, so I leapt at it.
Based on what I’ve heard about your next two features, which involved different types of clinics, and the fact that like this film, your last “Exit Elena” was a story involving a caretaker. Is there a fascination with people who do that kind of work?
I’m fascinated by the need for family at any cost. In Exit Elena, Elena is homeless, and she is looking for a surrogate daughter, so they have this match, but it’s also artificial. It’s difficult to make it work, right? I don’t understand why people need to be together. They do, but that quote “Hell is other people” has always resonated deeply with me, and I feel like it is other people, and yet we need to live in Hell.
I’ve read that your process really relies on developing the characters with the people playing them. Has it evolved from film to film?
A lot of the times the actors are playing exaggerated versions of themselves or people that they’ve known. The more I work with them, the more I figure out how the characters are going to all come together. I start off with a basic premise so by the end it’s almost like it’s not recognizable in the movies that we finish with. It actually evolves throughout the whole process. During shooting, it’s almost like making a documentary with a picture of the world really. We shoot a lot of footage, and it’s not about shooting for a goal, per se. Every scene has a beginning, a middle and an end that I know I want to hit, but I’m not sure how the points are going to be hit. I leave that up the actors, because I’m more fascinated by how they’ll approach it.
If the results are unpredictable, does the film have a different meaning to you from when you first conceived it?
Absolutely, because I don’t think you can impose on a movie its theme or its meaning. You have some things that you’re after, and you don’t know why you’re after them. Everything is irrational. That’s why it’s funny – I went to school for writing, and it was always about coming up with what’s the theme of this? What does it boil down to? I love finding people to work with and then figuring out how these people are going to interact. I’m obviously obsessed with [certain] groups of people, but I don’t start with a theme per se.
Some of the things that will interest me at the time or what I’m going through in my day-to-day life [become] my obsessions. By the end, I always find that my favorite things are the ones where the most chaos is happening because I think those are the most interesting. Just show me what the movie can be, and even if we don’t end up using it in the final cut, at least it showed me where it can go, and we can start to carve it from there in the days following on set. The more chaos that comes about, the more you realize the parameters of the story.
You actually took playwriting courses in college, which is interesting because I think of the stage as being very controlled, though it’s obvious vital in a different way because it’s live. How did you gravitate towards film?
I worked for [avant garde playwright] Richard Foreman and every day I go to the rehearsals for his play, and he would talk about how “No one cares about theater anymore, we should make movies. Movies are the only thing that matter now.” This was back in 2003, so Kim’s Video [in New York] was around the corner. He started listing off a bunch of [film titles]. When I was in grad school, I wasn’t in love with movies. I’d seen a few that had really gotten me, like “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and Charlie Chaplin stuff. But he told me about [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder and I just started watching them obsessively.
I watched every Fassbinder I could get my hands on in a week or a week and a half and obviously, Fassbinder uses a lot of natural devices in his movie, so at first that’s what I wanted to do. There’s no Brechtian shit going on in my stuff now. [Foreman] also told me about [Pier Paolo] Pasolini and the opening of “Oedipus Rex” destroyed me for a good long time. After that, I didn’t want to do plays anymore. I wanted to make movies.” I gave up on playwriting my junior year at NYU.
I realized how small the audience was for most experimental theater, and back then, it seemed like there was more potential to get mainstream acceptance [with films]. I don’t even care about that now. That stuff doesn’t even enter my head. But at the time, [it seemed like] I’d be in this hermetically sealed world of people who care about this and that didn’t interest me. I wanted to make stuff that average people might see and that’s why I made the transition. Now, I don’t go to plays, and I don’t really care about theater much. It’s kind of funny.
From what I’ve read, “Soft in the Head” was shot on 16mm and your next film “Stinking Heaven” will be shot on Betamax. Has going from one format to another been part of the appeal?
Absolutely. We talked about it, and we didn’t actually end up shooting [“Soft in the Head”] on 16. We ended up doing on DSLRs because when we realized how much footage we were going to shoot, we didn’t have the budget for it, so we shot it, then we mucked up the image in post. I just hate the HD flatness, the sharpness. It drives me out of my mind. I want to destroy it. I had nothing to it. It has no weight. I like things with grain and texture.
With Exit Elena, I shot that on DVX, so it was mini-DV, and I loved shooting on all those tapes. That’s my go-to camera. With this next one, the reason we’re shooting on Betacam is because I really do want to emulate that look like early ‘90s documentary [when the film is set], and I also just love the ghosting effect and all of that stuff that I feel will enhance it and give it texture.
One of my favorite things in “Soft in the Head” is how you’ll often have character’s faces disappear into the shadows. Were those were happy accidents or did you actually frame those shots?
The [cinematographer] is Cody Stokes, who was a cameraman and cowriter and editor of that movie. We lit with all practical and I give the camera folks as much control as they can be active in. They’re improvising with the actors. As [Cody] would move around and figure out compositions that worked, he would try and keep the actors in those spaces. There’s a [remark] where a good actor directs him or herself, and I feel like every person on set, if they’re there and they’re vital, they should be directing themselves. You set up this world that allows for this contained chaos, and I think that that’s the most beautiful thing you can do as a director.
I’m not interested in being this dictatorial presence. I don’t storyboard. We have very vague shot lists, enough to get through the scenes and hit all the points that we need to in order to have a scene. I’m more interested in allowing other people to actually bring themselves to the movie and just be there as much as I am, or moreso even, because they’re onscreen. I’m an enabler, I guess.
You recently started a crowdfunding campaign for “Stinking Heaven” on Kickstarter, which you also did for “Soft in the Head,” but not the film you made after “Uncertain Terms.” Why did you feel like this was the right way to go with your next film?
We just wanted complete control over the cast that we’re going to make it with, and I know my movies are not going to be blockbusters. They’re probably not even going to break even. That doesn’t matter to us. We want to make movies that actually reflect the work that goes into them instead having hands force us in a certain direction. We’re not interested in production value. We’re interested in getting life on screen. In order to do that, you do all sorts of things that investors are not interested in. They want more structure. They like my movies. They like what I do, but they want production value added to them, and I don’t know what that means. Film is becoming like a patron of the arts situation, and Kickstarter allows for that, which is quite a grand thing. That’s why we’re going that route because we don’t want to think about if it’s going to make a buck. We just want to make life.
Is there something you’re particularly excited about going into that film?
I’m really excited not only about doing this ‘90s period piece, but the outline is really coming together —the actors involved, my cowriter Jack Dunphy, we’re getting at something and there’ll just be some explosive moments there. Oddly, it’s like a simple love story in the end, and I like that. “Exit Elena” was a familial love story between [family matriarch] Cindy and [her live-in aide] Elena and “Soft in the Head” is a love story between Maury and Natalia on a certain level. In this one, it’s more of a romantic love story buried underneath all this chaos and I’m very fascinated to just go at that full throttle.