Nine Questions for Rob Nilsson

Dennis Harvey October 5, 2007

Veteran Bay Area filmmaker Rob Nilsson was a staple in San Francisco’s collectivist, countercultural film scene of the 1970s, a leading figure in the American independent feature landscape of the 1980s, and then…. Well, those who saw his earlier work (“Northern Lights,” “Heat and Sunlight,” “Signal 7”) at arthouses and festivals might have thought he dropped off the map in the 1990s.

Unless they religiously attend the Mill Valley Film Festival, that is, where patrons have known that Nilsson has been extraordinarily prolific since abandoning celluloid for the lighter, cheaper, more flexible digital realm. He’s made several features (noted below) both here and abroad — from Kansas City to Jordan — most of which have had low-profile release to home formats.

But his epic project, now finally complete, is the “9 @ Night” series of nine interlocking full-length films made in collectivist style with the Tenderloin yProject. These semi-improvised movies, stylistically diverse and often striking, fit together as a vast tapestry of life in and around S.F. — largely down-and-out life, reflecting in many cases the real-life experience of Nilsson’s collaborators.

Rich, humane, unpredictable, the “9” movies have been premiering individually at Mill Valley since 2000 — and this year the last-finished segments “Used” and “Go Together” will take their bow. Nilsson promises the entire series, 12 years in the making, will play regular local theatrical dates soon. As if that’s not enough, he’s got an unrelated third [ital] feature, “Presque Isle,” also premiering at MVFF.

Somehow amidst all this he found a spare moment to check in with…

1. SF360: You’ve got to be the most-programmed filmmaker in the history of MVFF. Admittedly, you’ve had a lot of features to premiere — but why there in particular?

Rob Nilsson: I started with (Festival Director) Mark Fishkin and I intend to end with him. The North American premiere of (his 1978 first feature) ‘Northern Lights’ was at Mill Valley and I never looked back. They have supported me like no other American institution, and I support them like no other American filmmaker.

2, SF360: You went from being the classic U.S. indie filmmaker, who made a feature on film every few years, to this explosion of activity working with a collective on digital video. What’s most liberating about the new technology?

Nilsson: More intimacy. Less fooling around with needless technicalities. Great equipment which never fails. You look like an amateur so you can get people to relax. It’s closer to poetry.

3. SF360: How did you get started with the Tenderloin yGroup?

Nilsson: My brother was homeless. I drove through the Tenderloin everyday on the way to my editing room for ‘Heat and Sunlight’ (1987). I wondered, who were the brown baggers, the screamers, the shopping bag ladies, the prophets, the pimps, the prostitutes? I thought I might find my brother, but I found a 14 year artistic mission instead. And in the midst of it, my brother did appear.

4. SF360: How was the whole ’9 @ Night’ series developed, in terms of the characters, community and stories it would encompass? How heavily was improvisation involved?

Nilsson: The stories came as a result of meeting people on the streets and in the workshop, which was the first thing to get started. First it was the Tenderloin Action Group, and then the Tenderloin yGroup, a workshop for homeless, street people, inner city residents, professional actors and all comers. I met people through the workshop and its program. I saw how stories might be built around them.

Sometimes things came from their lives. Sometimes they collaborated on the stories. Sometimes things came from the slipstream. Sometimes I just saw things and ran with them. But the intent was to do things to activate the energies of people, to help them find emotion, intuition, honest response. I thought drama should start there. All the movies had a spine, a script scenario, a 10 to 15 page road map. All dialogue was improvised and shaped in editing.

5. SF360: Over what time period were the ’9 @ Night’ films developed, shot and edited? I’ve gotten the impression that in some cases a great deal of time passed between shooting and final edit. True?

Nilsson: It took us about 14 years to complete our entire plan. ‘Chalk’ (his 1996 drama about pool hall hustlers) was first, it was a stand-alone project, sort of a proof-of-concept film. Then it took about 12 years to finish the ’9 @ Night’ series. During that time I also made ‘Winter Oranges,’ (in Japan), ‘Samt’ (Jordan), ‘Security’ (Berkeley), ‘Opening’ (Kansas City), ‘Frank Dead Souls’ (South Africa), ‘A Town Has Turned to Dust (utah)’ — or did i do that before the workshop started? — and just last year ‘Presque Isle’ with the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking. I did that with students as apprentices in all positions, and in some cases as department heads.

6. SF360: Unless they’ve actually attended MVFF over the last several years, as far as I know people have had little to no opportunity to see the ’9 @ Night’ films. Now that the whole series is finished, are there plans for wider exposure?

Nilsson: Yes. Harvard is first. The Harvard Film Archive is going to show all nine features November 17-19. After that I’m going to organize a Bay Area opening, hopefully with an art theatre in each of the counties — a one-week orgy of 9 @ night. After that, we’ll take a breath and see what’s next.

7. SF360: Ideally, should the ’9 @ Night’ films be seen in sequence? At MVFF you’re now premiering the ‘2nd’ and ‘9th’ films — so if you intended a formal order, it clearly wasn’t going to be available to anyone until the very end of a long creative process.

Nilsson: Correct. But when films got finished they suggested other films. Some projected films got dropped and others took their place. But now we have nine which do go in a certain order, and Harvard is going to show them that way, three a night for three successive nights.

8. SF360: You seem constantly alert to new methods, new collaborators, new technologies. Do you ever look back on any of your earlier work and wonder where your head was at, professionally or emotionally?

Nilsson: In other words, what could I have been thinking? No. I’ve always been prolific. My poetry book has just come out. My book of film criticism will come out next year. My paintings will also be marketed more this coming year as I bring out the films. I’ve followed my skein because it was always there. The slipstream has offered me constant inspiration. That’s my path.

9. SF360: What were some major formative filmmaking influences on you? Where do you see inspirational hope among filmmakers now?

Nilsson: Cassavetes was my big inspiration, and I got to meet him and talk to him; almost made a film with him. Bergman was my other inspiration, but I never got to meet him. Tarkovsky. Satyajit Ray. More recently, Gaspar Noe, Tsai Ming Liang, Hou Hsiao Hsien.

American cinema has gone off track. Most of it was off track to begin with. I like Inniaritu, Cuaron, Del Toro. I liked Paul Haggis’ ‘Crash.’ Cassavetes and the verite artists pointed a way, a truly American way. I followed it. No one else did.

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