"A maverick Bay Area filmmaker since his involvement in the Cine Manifest collective starting in the early ’70s, Rob Nilsson was a visible name in the larger Amerindie world during its formative years, with such titles as Northern Lights and Heat and Sunlight," writes Dennis Harvey.
"For the last 15 years or so, however, he’s devoted most of his time to one project, albeit a massive one: The ’9@Night’ series, a nine-feature cycle of loosely interwoven tales largely about life in San Francisco’s undersides, improvised and acted by a mix of professional actors and those trained via Nilsson’s Tenderloin workshop program. While individual Night films have premiered at film festivals (many at Mill Valley’s) over recent years, only now has this alternately raw and stylized, grandly ambitious series been available to view in its entirety." With ’9@Night’ ready to play in full at several venues Bay Area-wide (the Roxie and Smith Rafael will be showing all titles, while select screenings are coming to the Parkway and Cerrito), SF360.org asked this veteran indie auteur for his thoughts, which he gamely and intelligently offers here.
An interview with myself.
Me: Why would you do an interview with yourself?
Myself: I have a lot to say and I may be the only one who can understand myself.
I: That’s presuming a lot.
Myself: And of course, I work cheap.
Me: So, what have you been up to?
I: For 14 years I worked in the Tenderloin and South of Market with the Tenderloin yGroup. We ran free acting workshops down there and made ten feature films with members of the Tenderloin yGroup Players Ensemble. Along with Mickey Freeman and Chikara Motomura we also made Direct Action feature films in Japan, Jordan, South Africa, Kansas City, and Berkeley. Now I’m running player’s workshops in the East Bay organized by Michelle Anton Allen and Gabriela Maltz Larkin. We just did a feature with Stacy Keach, also featuring Liz Sklar, Michelle Anton Allen and Nancy Bower. Aaron Brown is our editor and all around problem solver. We call ourselves Citizen Cinema and our workshops result in the production of feature films.
Myself: Because there has to be a way to stay outside mainstream cinema.
Me: Because . . .
Myself: . . . because it breeds conformity and results in mediocre work. You have to build some kind of an alternative organization because cinema is a collaborative art. Impossible to do on your own. In the ’70s and ’80s I was a member Cine Manifest, a filmmaking collective. Then with John Stout and John Hanson, I started New Front Films based in Minneapolis. Then came the Tenderloin Action Group with Rand Crook and Ethan Sing in 1992 inspired by my brother who had been homeless and missing for the past ten years. So right after Heat and Sunlight won the Grand Prize at Sundance, I decided to go down there and live in a transient hotel. One of my motivations was to find Greg, and if I couldn’t do that, to understand who became homeless in America. Who were the brown baggers and the shopping bag ladies, the screamers and the silent sufferers?
As I began to meet people down there I wrote a screenplay called Hope for the Fourth Ace about a homeless Viet Nam vet and a lottery ticket. Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Sam Jackson, Armand Assante, and Peter Coyote wrote letters of commitment, but when the money wasn’t there, we decided to make films using our wits, collaborating with friends and fellow travelers. And the people we met on the streets, homeless, recovering addicts, actors, inner city residents, and all-comers became our players along with some adventuresome professionals.
The Tenderloin Action Group met weekly and worked on exercises designed to promote emotional expressivity, verbal facility, honesty, and powerful personal drama. Later I started the Tenderloin yGroup which met first at the Golden Gate Y and later the Faithful Fools Street Ministry building on Turk and Hyde. We continued to run our free weekly acting workshops South of Market and in the Tenderloin, and created ten feature films with workshop members in the leading roles.
Most of these films premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival and played in film festivals on all continents. The San Francisco International Film Festival did a program about them in 2006. Attitude premiered in New York City and the 9 @ Night Film Series premiered at the Harvard Film Archive in 2007, 9 films in three nights, 14 hours of film and 14 years of work.
I: You made a film called Chalk before that.
Me: Chalk was the first, produced with the Tenderloin Action Group by Rand and Ethan, and then the nine 9 @ Night Film Series, features produced by the Tenderloin yGroup which moved to the Golden Gate YMCA and later met at the Faithful Fools Street Ministry building at Hyde and Turk.
Myself: And you’re about to premiere your 9 @ Night Film Series in the Bay Area?
Myself: We open at the Roxie Film Center (Aug. 29- Sept. 4) and then at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (Sept. 5- Sept. 11) for another week. We also are showing Scheme C6 at the Cerrito Speakeasy on Sept. 4 and Stroke and Go Together on Sept. 7 at the Parkway Speakeasy the first week in September.
Me: What do you think about the current independent film scene?
I: The means are now available for everyone to have a crack at making films. And, if you look at outfits like YouTube, you might think everyone has. Film festivals have grown up like weeds and there are probably now more filmmakers than used car salesmen. So you can’t criticize the democratic impulse here. The problem is that we live in the world’s media capital with Hollywood and New York hosting a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to entertainment. As a business it exists to turn profits. As a media entity one of its mission is to convince people that films like the new Batman are cultural watersheds. That’s where unreality begins. I don’t mind it if companies want to waste money and time on urban cowboy epics such as Batman, the Dark Knight. I don’t have to go. But when people begin to talk about artistic expression in Gotham city, I know I’m being jobbed into accepting comic books as the work of real artists. And there are many people who welcome this jobbing. The pundits of Pop Culture have made it easy for people to live entire lives thinking they are art lovers even though they have never encountered, felt or studied a single piece of transcendent art. It’s like religion, where all that is asked of you is something called "faith." You don’t have to know anything. You don’t have to feel anything. You don’t have to study anything. You don’t have to evaluate talent, or face the void of your own inadequacy when all that is expected of you is to "profess" something. Or "confess" something. Pop is for popcorn: light, white, and in a bag. People say Pop Culture is valuable because it’s easy, accessible, and doesn’t take itself seriously. I guess ads on cereal boxes could make that claim as well. Pop Art. Pop religion. Pop violence. Meantime, you’re probably stocking up on the goods and services our mercantile culture must sell you in order to support our economy, so perhaps it’s just as well that you don’t do too much thinking.
Me: Yeah, but I asked you about independent film.
Myself: That’s what I’m answering about. Everyone today is an "independent." The Cinequest Fest in San Jose routinely brings up Hollywood conformists to receive recognition as "Mavericks." Everyone likes a Maverick, right? They’re doughty cow pokes, slouching through dust and disaster like Cool Hand Luke. I like the term Indiewood and wish I had invented it. Because that’s what I see out there: Hollywood careerists trying to weasel themselves out of complicity with tinsel town by calling themselves "Indie" and film school adepts trying to inveigle themselves into Hollywood and Vine by pretending to be artists. And all of them, and probably half the population of West L.A. are self-appointed. But even if anointed by the distribution channels all you have to do is look at the calendars of the local Art cinemas to see that so called Independent film is moribund. Look at some of the local theaters which show the ersatz Indies. They have a list of films as numerous as the commercials on the Versus channel. Many of these films were made for millions. But none of them can play more than a day or two.
Me: Why is that?
Myself: Nobody wants to watch them. To watch real cinema is difficult. You have to pay attention. You have to know something going in and you have to be able to think hard about it going out. But these are films which even total Philistines can’t bear to watch. Most are amateurish rip offs of TV sit-coms and Hollywood marginalia. Film school theses. 90 minutes of frat jokes or earnest navel gazing. A return to ’50s production values and mind sets. Film schools set this country back 50 years when they began to teach standard brand moviemaking back in the ’70s and ’80s. This is nuts. The basic techniques of filmmaking can be learned in an afternoon. Reading is what is needed. Watching films. And making them, again and again. Getting the mistakes over with. Finding a mentor who won’t lie to you. The real film student should start where cutting edge cinema leaves off. Cassavetes in this country, the Verite movement, the French New Wave, Brazilian Cinema Novo, Satyajit Ray in India, Oshima in Japan, and later, the New Taiwanese filmmakers, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang, some of the Chinese masters, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf in Iran. We’ve moved backwards in our cinema to promote identity politics and political correctness. Even the new documentary movement is mostly one dimension preaching to those who have everything figured out.
Me: Marginalia? That’s an impressive word.
Myself: Thank you. I had to read a lot of books to master it.
Me: Funny. But if Independent films are no good, why should anyone care about yours?
Myself: Because mine aren’t Independent Films. They’re Dependent. They’re dependent on an ensemble of cinema players, the Tenderloin yGroup, which worked together at the Pacific Rim Media warehouse, the Golden Gate Y, and the Faithful Fools Street Ministry building in the Tenderloin for almost 15 years. These are people who can play! Players such as Cory Duval, Gabriela Maltz Larkin, Edwin Johnson, David Fine, Kieron McCartney, Marion Christian, Marianne Heath, Brett McCabe, David Hess, Deniz Demirer, Teddy Weiler, Michael Disend, Irit Levi, et als are more fascinating to me than any mainstream line-up you can put together. Secondly these films are dependent on talented and dedicated Bay Area film artists and technicians such as Mickey Freeman, Steve Burns, Chikara Motomura, Al Nelson and the list goes on.
But finally they’re Dependent because the word Independent has been run into the ground with self- serving claims from Hollywood producers trying to bite the hand which feeds them.
Me: What hand is that?
Myself: The Studios’. Everyone loves to bash Hollywood, most avidly, those who rely on it most. I guess it makes them feel better. Everyone is an Independent these days. You look around you and find out that there are no conformists. No establishment. It’s all smoke and mirrors. It turns out there’s no one trading talent for rights to a Mercedes Benz. I wonder how all those mainstream films get made with everyone so all-fired Independent.
That’s why I’m a Dependent filmmaker with many good friends, collaborators, smart, talented and committed fellow travelers who I depend on a great deal. Al Nelson, for example, at the Noise Floor. The greatest film mixer and supporter of Dependent Films I know. Actress/Producer Michelle Anton Allen, Production Manager/ Editor, Aaron Brown. Webmaster and Designer, Joel Simone. Chikara Motomura. These are some people to watch. In my view (but who else’s view would it be?) what we do is the best cinema this country has to offer outside Iñárritu, del Toro and Cuarón, and they’re from Mexico! You won’t get hand fed watching our films and you’ll have to work, but we represent the future of cinema.
I: You seem pretty sure of yourself. Maybe a bit arrogant.
Myself: Who are you to say that to me?
I: I am . . . you.
Myself: Oh. Right. I forgot.
Me: Imagine this. A mountain climber, laden with gear. Pitons, crampons, the windproof, waterproof impermeable polyester tools of ignorance. Great jackets, bulging warm pantaloons, big hockey player mittens. Googly eyed goggles against the wind and the sun. Knapsacks with ropes, tents, digital orientation tools, maps, and mystic pouches filled with energy foods and tablets to replace missing ingredients. A high tech magnificent. An heroic figure ready to begin his ascent.
There’s only one thing amiss. This REI equipped Helot stands at a stop sign at an intersection in Midtown. He waits for a light at the corner of La Cienega and Sunset. There is no mountain. The mountain is far away in Nepal, or rising above Death Valley, or ranging far above Macchu Picchu. A climber nowhere near a mountain. This is my view of most Hollywood or Indiewood filmmakers.
Everything depends on where you start from. If you want to climb, you must go to the mountain. You can’t get there from here if you start in a place which won’t lead you there. To me, the place to start that day 15 years ago was the San Francisco Tenderloin. As I drove down Eddy watching the brown baggers, the screamers, the shopping bag ladies, the rogue elephants holding forth on street corners, the crack monsters, the cops and the prostitutes, (inelegant ballroom partners in the same fandango night after carbon copy night), I wondered about my brother. Where was he? What was the story of his decision to dislocate from what he knew and plunge into the "wandering anonymous" of missing sufferers, ecstatics, broken sages, addled drinkers, and stitched up contrarians?
I got a room in a transient hotel and began my search. Sixteen years later the following seems true. The 10 feature films I made with staunch friends and collaborators in the Tenderloin, in the night alleys of Chinatown, the homeless encampments on East Bay landfills and the squatter camps hard by Oakland railroad yards answer no questions. If you go to the Roxie Film Center from August 29-September 4 or the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, September 5- 11 or the Cerrito Speakeasy on September 4 or the Parkway Speakeasy on September 7 to see the 9 @ Night Film Series you won’t understand the life of the misfit, the renegade, the marginalized, the disenfranchised any better.
What you’ll see are mountain climbers with no oxygen tanks. Ridge runners without road maps dead reckoning from the unknown to nowhere. You’ll see people who missed the cut trying to catch on with a farm team in a town with no diamond. You’ll see people like you who allow themselves ten minutes of despair each day before they clamp on pitons and begin to climb. You’ll see the phrase "nothing left to lose" tattooed in worry lines and wine veins in aging skin across the faces of the extraordinarily ordinary who’ve been left at the midnight bus stop just 30 seconds late. Like us, they don’t understand why they’ve been cheated (or chosen), or if they’ve been forgotten. They don’t appear in statistics, nor are they pawns in a social problem invented by careerists. They climb. They’re right over there . . . at Hyde and Turk or on the Albany bulb. You’ve just walked past one with his hand out. They’re people . . . players, not stand ins, not stars, not charismatics, not egotists trying to elevate themselves, but citizen pilgrims, everyday livers trying to understand something. What is it? Life, love. Each other? And, so asking, they strive to get by, pregnant with means fair and foul in a world with no Batman to save them, no viable scenarios of salvation or redemption, no genre film endings with swelling strings and throbbing kettle drums.
And, anyway, no great film fits in a genre. Genre films are for tired technicians, retired mountain climbers, bored re-creationists. A great film stands on the ground in its naked feet. A brilliant film is as plain as a tarnished copper penny in the gutter. The best film ever made is a gangling visitor so plain as to be almost unnoticeable. He stands there in front of you so completely himself, so utterly plain, he is unlike anyone you have ever seen before. He forces you to look at him because he doesn’t move and you don’t understand him. He may even appear repugnant or pugnacious. You have to work to endure him. He divides you. One side admires his stolid refusal to please. Another side abhors his utter lack of polish.
I invite you to come and see the extraordinary players of the Tenderloin yGroup (1992- 2005) featured in these films made in the outback of polite society. They’re about people like my brother who may prevail but surely stumble, who seize the joys, shudder in the despairs, endure the rages and sometimes weep as they encounter the intimate fact of life in the teeth of the unknown and the certainty of death. I think they’re the greatest players you’re going to see. But you won’t know if you don’t go. I’d advise it. And don’t bring your climbing gear. You’re going up the sheer sides with nothing but the hands and feet that God gave you.
Myself: Thanks for your thoughts.
Me: I really enjoyed them.
I: Let’s do this again soon.
"You must fight sophistication."- John Cassavetes
"Your path is towards your fear."- Rob Nilsson
The 9 @ Night Film Series opens at the Roxie Film Center, San Francisco Aug. 29- Sept. 4 and at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, Sept. 5- 11 with selected screenings at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater, Sept. 4 and the Parkway Speakeasy Theater, Sept. 7. The films will play in their intended order. Each film can be seen and appreciated on its own and all 9 constitute a tapestry of character and event, a fictional portrait of 40- 50 characters living on the rough edges of America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Tenderloin yGroup met for several years at the home of the Faithful Fools Street Ministry, near Hyde and Turk. A Benefit will be held for these extraordinary street activists at the Delancey St. Foundation on Aug. 28, 6:30. Admission free. Supported or sponsored by the San Francisco Film Commission, Executive Director, Stefanie Coyote, the San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat and the California Film Institute Executive Director, Mark Fishkin the event will include remarks from these directors and appearances by actors Karen Black, Ron Perlman, and Stacy Keach. RSVP: robnilsson.com.
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