Nathan Silver is predominantly preoccupied with chaos. In the middle of shooting his third feature, Soft in the Head, he decided to steer the improvised film’s narrative arc in a new direction, retreating to the roof of the apartment building where he was shooting to scrawl out story beats on a napkin alongside his producer and Cody Stokes, his director of photography and frequent collaborator. The film, which opens this weekend at Cinema Village in New York, is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and features an eclectic cast of trained actors working alongside non-professionals.
To most, this grab-bag scenario would sound daunting, but Silver revels in it. He explains that the actors and non-actors push each other, as the non-actors have a self-consciously fastidious attention to detail, and the actors are all worried that they haven’t been given enough context (Silver doesn’t show them his story treatments) and don’t know where their characters are going. “They might completely disagree with [my method], which is funny,” he admits. Whatever his approach to handling the madness, it’s certainly successful. Our own Ela Bittencourt has praised this brashly funny entertainment for “Silver’s psychological depth, where realism nearly implodes the more immediate exigencies of plot.”
Among the newcomers in the cast is Sheila Etxeberría, who stars as Natalia, a reckless New Yorker and perennial outsider who’s continually banished from the lives of those close to her until she ends up in a makeshift homeless shelter run by a naïve, daffy, and confrontationally friendly man named Maury (Ed Kane), who shepherds his ungodly flock as if they were his children.
The premise of an ostracized woman finding refuge in an unlikely new family will sound familiar to anyone who saw Silver’s Exit Elena, about a live-in nurse whose charge is hospitalized, leaving her stranded and ineffectual in the home of a tumultuous suburban family. The setup also extends to his two upcoming films, the recently completed Uncertain Terms, about a home for pregnant teenagers, and Stinking Heaven, about a commune of recovering drug addicts in the early ’90s. The latter features more familiar names than Soft in the Head, including Somebody Up There Likes Me’s Keith Poulson and I Used to Be Darker’s Deragh Campbell and Hannah Gross, but promises the same amount of madcap anarchy as his previous work.
Was the freewheeling, spontaneous nature of your films something that was born out of rebellion from attending college for screenwriting, or was it always something you were interested in?
It’s something that I’ve been interested in. I went to NYU for theater, for avant-garde, experimental theater, before I got into writing. So I started writing all of this really bizarre shit that the teachers sort of beat out of me after a while because they wanted me to learn proper structure. And then I made the switch to screenwriting for my last year there and wrote a bunch of standard scripts. When I got out of school that’s when I started making movies, and they were heavily scripted and I wanted to be a “real director” and all that, which comes from that kind of mindset of what you think you need to be.
I ended up making all of my shorts that way, and my first feature that way, which was called The Blind. It was just kind of a miserable experience because we had this 40-person crew and it just was not anything that I wanted to be a part of, and if this was going to be my life it was not a life I wanted. So I went back to my ideas for experimental theater, and working through improvisation and working with people instead of holing up and writing—working on characters with the actors, and then allowing things to just unfold during the shoot. I mean, it can be as miserable as any film set is, but it’s that much more enjoyable. It’s like having a family meal extended over three weeks. There’s going to be a lot of fighting and crying and what have you, but also laughter and mania.
Does that way of shooting pose any challenges on the physical production of the film? Have there ever been any times when you’ve gotten on set and you have all of these kind of nebulous pieces in the air and they just weren’t coming together?
Oh, yeah, there’s always going to be those moments. A lot of the time you work through the scene and they just end up getting cut in the edit. When something’s not working on set, it’s like when something’s not working on page. You shoot it, but in the back of your head you know you’re probably not going to use it, and then you think of alternatives or whether it was ever necessary. People don’t want things to stagnate. If you allow improv, there will eventually be conflict if you let the cameras just run and run and run. Eventually some character will act out and that will spark something else, and then after a few takes you discover where the tensions are and you can then get coverage to make those tensions pop on screen.
You must have an insane amount of material when you go into the edit, and yet your movies are very short and move that much more quickly because of it.
I work with Cody Stokes, who was the editor and also cinematographer of Soft in the Head and also my last movie, Uncertain Terms, and I create the chaos and he basically reins it in. When you have something that’s not necessarily hinging on a plot you have to make it move fast in order to keep people with it. You move on, you don’t linger. Because then it would just get boring and I don’t think people would watch my movies if they were any longer.
Do you have a close creative collaboration with Cody, given that you’ve worked with him in a technical capacity on almost all of your work? Does your way of working allow for that sort of collaboration with your crew?
Oh, absolutely. I allow him to improvise right along with the actors. He’s just going for shots that feel right to him. I trust him completely: I have all of these ideas that he can then help translate through camera and editing. It’s 100% a creative collaboration.
And on Stinking Heaven you’re working with [cinematographer] Sean Price Williams, who’s kind of notorious for being a very vocal creative collaborator.
Absolutely. And that’s when he shines the most, is when you see the films where you just know he’s shooting the things that he wants to shoot. Those are his best movies, I believe.
I’m kind of curious as to your perspective as a visual filmmaker. Are there any visual elements that really interest you as a director, or does it shift from project to project? Because Exit Elena and Soft in the Head revolve around similar themes but are kind of polar opposites stylistically.
With Exit Elena, everyone seems to talk about how it’s handheld, but 90% of the movie is on sticks or a homemade dolly. Soft in the Head is all handheld, and Uncertain Terms is all handheld. It’s easier with improvisation when the DP can just sort of run around and grab whatever he needs to grab. On my next film we’re shooting Betacam because it looks like a documentary from the early ’90s. I just like being up close, in people’s faces, handheld and occasionally cutting to wider shots, but having those be a bit off-putting.