When Nathan Silver was working on one of his first shorts “With or Without Reason,” he decided to cast his mother Cindy in a small role. After all, she had filled a number of other roles on the set, opening up her house for filming and becoming a de facto craft services for the cast and crew. Since then, Cindy has appeared in virtually all of Silver’s films — “She actually got cut out of ‘Actor Martinez,’ which she was very upset about,” the writer/director confides — in parts large and small, her presence being as meaningful now to audiences as it is to Silver.
“I don’t get to see my family all that often because I’m busy and so it allows me to see them, even though she and I have a very funny relationship,” Silver says a bit wistfully about his ulterior motive for continuing to cast Cindy. “We love each other very much, but all we do is argue. So it allows us to argue and to catch up. My shoots are an excuse to be around the people I like.”
With seven features in the past eight years, it’s understandable why Silver rarely sees home. Even amongst the most ambitious auteurs of his generation, he’s been unusually prolific, operating with a sense of frenzy that has often infected his films — often bold, frenetic portraits of outcasts at a time of personal reckoning, usually deciding whether to stay true to who they’ve been or accede to certain norms of mainstream society. But in a strange twist, Silver found himself at a similar crossroads as an artist, making the most of low-budget grit as a reflection of his down-and-out characters yet yearning to give his emotional whirligigs over to the same cinematic grandeur as heroes like Douglas Sirk, requiring a change in tactics.
It’s a pleasure to report that in making the transition to a larger scale with “Thirst Street,” Silver has not had to compromise in the least, creating with co-writer C. Mason Wells a sweaty, transfixing character study of a comely young flight attendant named Gina (Lindsay Burdge) whose pit stop in Paris leads to an obsession with a local club owner (Damien Bonnard) far less interested in an ongoing relationship than she is. Slowly submerging the audience into Gina’s increasingly warped consciousness, the film features storybook narration from no less than Anjelica Huston, a delightful fish-out-of-water appearance from Cindy Silver (as Gina’s co-worker Lorraine), crooked end credits and some of “Queen of Earth” and “Good Time” cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ most wildly florid lensing to create a truly phantasmagoric experience with a wickedly self-aware sense of humor about itself. Now rolling into theaters after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, the filmmaker spoke about the desire to change things up and the challenges of filming in France as an American production, as well as what Anjelica Huston brought to the film.
Given the French locale when all your previous films had been set in America, was this a concerted effort to make a clean break from what you’d been doing before?
It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and my first cinematic loves were these filmmakers who flirted with melodrama or did melodrama outright. I was in love with Fassbinder when I was younger and still am, and with Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray and [Vincente] Minnelli, so I always wanted to go in that direction and really just start working with lush atmospheres and crazy colors again. I put it off for a bit of time because my first feature, [which] I had a proper budget for, didn’t work out that well, so I then started making these improvised movies, but now I am excited to return to what got me into film [in the first place]. There was a larger budget on this one and the treatment was much longer than the previous outlines I had written, so it was more structured in that sense, and the next batch of movies that I’m going to make are certainly going to be scripted. It was exhausting to make all of these movies and after a while, you realize how tired you are. So if I’m going to be exhausted, I want there to be more delirium and more chaos on a larger scale and not so much me dealing with every little aspect [of the production] like worrying about catering. I just want to be dealing with the actors and the camera and be able to focus on that and to do so, I need a bit more money. I realize that now and I’m willing to do that. I love these lush environments and I want to have more tools, so I have a little more patience now, I guess.
Did you have Lindsay in mind from the start as your lead?
The whole movie came about because of Lindsay. During “Actor Martinez,” I just fell in love with her as a performer and [when] I got back from Denver, I met up with my friend Chris [Wells] who I was working with on a bunch of script ideas. I told him I wanted to write something for Lindsay with her as the lead and he told me that he had actually started writing a script for her, but never finished it. It was to be a thriller set in Paris. When I heard that, I was like we’ve got to do that because I have all these French connections — I lived [there] when I was 15 and again when I was 25. So this seemed like the ideal thing to do. Without looking at Chris’ unfinished script, we sat down and wrote “Thirst Street.”
Did you know what you were getting into by attempting a shoot in France as an American? Generally France supports their own artists with financing, so it must been particularly difficult as an outsider to set something up independently.
With all these films, when I get the idea to make something, I just push ahead and force it through whatever system I’m working with. When I look back, I feel like I must’ve been insane to do this— to go over to France with only half the budget in place. I don’t know how it all happened or came about, but it did. Claire [Charles-Gervais] and Ruben [Amar], the French producers who dealt with all the bureaucratic stuff, did a marvelous job. They had both worked in America before, so they were aware of how American indies operate. They were able to help me translate that to the rest of the crew and to make it understood what I was after. These kinds of movies aren’t made over there because of the government standards — they have much longer shoots, much shorter shooting days and they get paid a lot more, so [the producers] maneuvered it brilliantly.
How much of the film did you actually want to be scripted versus improvised?
You know what’s odd? We didn’t know exactly what the beginning would be – in my movies so far, it feels like it’s the beginning or the end that changes drastically in the edit. Or sometime both, like in “Stinking Heaven.” But except for the beginning, the structure is really the same as the treatment. The beginning we knew we wanted to be more montage-y and we wanted it to move fast, but we didn’t know exactly what that would look like, so I remember us tinkering with it quite a bit [in the edit] and the narration was planned for, but we didn’t want to write it until after we had a rough cut. So once we put that in and figured out how to have that operate in the beginning of the movie, it all clicked into place. The beginning was a prologue of sorts. [But overall] the structure was mapped out heavily, but the dialogue was improvised. There were still constraints — the actors knew where they had to go with the scenes. It wasn’t like “Stinking Heaven” or “Soft in the Head,” [where] there was much more of a sense of chaos and I would let what the actors would do in scenes lead me to rewrite the rest of the outline.
In those films that you just mentioned, the sense of frenzy was imparted in the camera movement, but here, you express it with the bold colors and wide framing. What was it like to use a different kind of visual language?
The scenes worked themselves out after we did a few takes and it’s almost like we were working from a script by the time we did the third take, because basic dialogue was decided on. It surprised me how fast we could move through the scenes. We managed to shoot this in a very short period of time and nearly everything we shot is in the movie. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise, so it’s a very strange thing where [I realized] while editing it that we stuck to the text to a degree, so I’m like, “I guess I can work with scripted material and it’s time to return to that,” and it’ll allow me to do much more elaborate shots. That interests me. I guess maybe you just want to entertain yourself and you get bored of working a certain way. And I’m bored of working with improvisation and I’m ready to switch things up. Maybe in a few years, I’ll want to go back to improvised stuff. Who knows, y’know?
The end credits are particularly great as they go in a number of different directions, not unlike the fractured psyche of your lead. How did those come about?
Both our DP [Sean Price Williams] and Chris Wells went to see a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse on a Weird Wednesday, and they said the only good thing about the movie was the end credits. They would sometimes slant. Chris was like, “We’ve got to do that for the movie.” I thought that was great, so we talked to Teddy Blanks, who’s a fantastic designer and we just told him the basic idea and he did his own thing with it. Then Paul wanted to write a song for Lindsay to sing, so it made perfect sense for that to go over the end credits.
What was recording the narration with Anjelica Huston like?
It was insane. She watched [the film] over a holiday weekend and her manager got back to our producers at Washington Square Films and said that Anjelica loved the movie. So I went out to L.A. to record [the narration] with her and I think she did it in under a half-hour. It was so wonderful because Lindsay was doing ADR and as she was leaving, Anjelica walked in and praised Lindsay’s performance. She said the most beautiful thing, [which is that] what she loved most about the movie was that Lindsay doesn’t play it as an insane person, but as someone who’s damaged and that that is an extremely difficult thing to pull off. That meant a lot to me to hear from Anjelica Huston, and then the other thing she said was that she wanted to do this project because she could improve the movie, not because of her status, but she could add something to it with her voice and that she only takes roles where she knows that will be the case. I thought that’s such a simple and wonderful way of looking at acting work. I’ve never heard an actor say that before and I absolutely cannot imagine the movie without her now. It’s funny because I remember getting the message from Washington Square Films saying that she agreed to do it, and I was just sitting there crying. It was one of those few moments in the past year I’ve felt a sense of hope.
“Thirst Street” opens on September 20th at the Quad Cinema in New York, with appearances by Silver and Lindsay Burdge after the 6:55 pm show on the 20th, 21st and 22nd. It opens on September 29th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7.