Rob Nilsson

A Rob Nilsson filmography is at the end of this interview. More information on Rob Nilsson and the 9@Night series can be found here.

Rob Nilsson has been variously described as a lone wolf, a guerrilla filmmaker, and the most fiercely independent of American film directors outside of the Hollywood mainstream (his first words to me as I approached him about doing this interview were, “Hollywood and I don’t get along”). He is the proponent of “Direct Action Cinema”, a self-described method of “creating drama from character and circumstance seeking emotional depth and street level authenticity,” in rejection of “film as a short story, promoted by Hollywood and the film schools” (1). One sign of this method is the way in which he allows his movies to be wholly improvised by his actors in order to build a cinema “not of auteurs but of interpreters”. The method of letting the cast improvise a whole film was the extraordinary achievement of Heat and Sunlight (1988), one of his earlier and best-known films. Though Nilsson may profess not to be an auteur, he is nevertheless the distinctive leader of Direct Action Cinema, whose qualities may be encapsulated by the title Heat and Sunlight. The qualities of passion (heat) and awareness (sunlight) are what Nilsson seeks to achieve and convey through his filmmaking. In that film, Nilsson himself plays the role of the protagonist Mel Hurley, a photographer driven to the edge by a dancer who wants to end their relationship. Caught in a state of mental anguish, Mel grapples with the idea of personal commitment and his lack of it. In his younger days, Mel had gone to Biafra to cover the conflict and the famine there. Biafra serves as a reference for the lost idealism which he seeks to regain. Coincidentally, it is also a reference to Nilsson’s own youthful commitment as a Peace Corps teacher in Nigeria during the Vietnam War days (joining the Peace Corps was a way in which he could avoid going to fight in Vietnam).

Heat and Sunlight has the kind of naturalistic acting and dramatic punch seen in Cassavetes – hardly surprising as Nilsson regards Cassavetes as one of his mentors. Like Cassavetes, most of Nilsson’s films are male-centred or show a propensity for masculine angst. In many ways, Nilsson’s resolute independence and passionate streak is a symptom of such masculinity. However, Nilsson also has a social face and the sort of liberal conscience that has now fallen out of fashion and which give the lie to his macho tendencies. His first feature Northern Lights (1979) is a film done in the best tradition of Steinbeck and Ivens, re-enacting the circumstances of the foundation of the left-wing Non-Partisan League in the mid-1910s among the Norwegian-Swedish farmers of North Dakota. Nilsson is primarily concerned with showing the faces of human vulnerability. Northern Lights presents an aspect of Nilsson’s own ethnic background (his father was Swedish and his mother Norwegian) and his relationship with his father. Most of his movies deal with failure and show an affinity with society’s losers and down-and-outers.

For the past several years, Nilsson has based himself in San Francisco keeping his distance from Hollywood and devoting his time to running the Tenderloin Group, an acting workshop based in the YMCA of San Francisco’s notorious inner-city Tenderloin district. The workshop gives opportunities for its homeless residents to show their mettle in the art of acting and drama. To expand the group and give it purpose, Nilsson began in 2000 a series of loosely inter-related films “of circumstance and setting” linking the disparate lives of Tenderloin residents – known as the 9@Night Project, so named because each episode supposedly takes place at nine p.m. every night. The project, all shot on video and transferred to film (a technique that Nilsson pioneered in the ’80s with Signal 7 [1985]) has so far yielded six works out of a projected nine. The latest work in the series, Attitude (2002), was given its world premiere at the 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival in April (it receives its New York premiere on May 14). Attitude is a character-revelation piece focused on Spoddy (a mighty performance by Michael Disend), a motor mechanic and dealer in stolen cars who learns that he is HIV-positive and becomes a runaway. Hunted by his ex-partners in crime, he flees to a landfill jutting out into San Francisco Bay, populated by a group of diseased squatters who are about to be evicted. In a totally improvised 12-minute speech, Spoddy castigates the squatters for their “wrong attitude”. “Your disease has a disease,” he exclaims, and reaffirms his own attitude as one of being “all-powerful and alone”, stealing and “tearing skins out”. Spoddy can be seen as the transmutation, in the post-AIDS age, of the photographer Mel Hurley in Heat and Sunlight, still touched by a need for character transcendence but remaining defiant at the thought of social injustice and the lack of personal commitment, which somehow reflects Nilsson’s own attitude as the most independent of American filmmakers.


Perhaps in keeping with his reputation as a fierce independent, Nilsson was one of the few directors who flew to Hong Kong to participate in the 27th HKIFF despite fears of the spread of SARS. The festival presented six of Nilsson’s films: the three films from the 9@Night series Stroke (2000), Scheme C6 (2001) and Attitude; as well as Northern Lights, Nilsson’s first feature (co-directed by John Hanson) which won the Camera d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival; Heat and Sunlight, which won the Grand Prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival; Chalk (1996), featuring a cast from his Tenderloin action group giving terrific performances as Nilsson set about creating what Scorsese failed to do, which was to make the best pool hall movie since The Hustler. All these films show, and argue for, the importance and persistence of human values and feelings even as the characters are seemingly embedded in degrading circumstances. They also contain a strong visionary, near religious element that attests to Nilsson’s crucial role as the final arbiter of his films. Nilsson is individualistic without being narcissistic, and while it’s fair to say that he makes films like a Viking marauder, he also strikes one as a genuinely sensitive American soul-artist working in the best maverick tradition. He deserves far wider recognition than he is presently getting.

The following interview was taped in Hong Kong on 14 April 2003.
– ST

Stephen Teo: What strikes me about your films is the way that you allow your actors to improvise. As the end title in Heat and Sunlight proclaims, the movie was improvised by the cast. I’ve only seen all six films in the retrospective, which is only a fraction of your output, I guess.

Rob Nilsson: Well, a big enough fraction. I hope to get more productive as I get older.

ST: Of those films that I’ve seen, that’s been your method of working.

RN: Improvise, yah…I’ve chucked out screenplays, but much of what we use is a combination of screenplay and improvisation. We have more of a screenplay with Northern Lights but much of it is improvised, and the further I go the more I want to avoid writing. I’m looking for the language of human character and circumstance to tell the entire story. And if that’s the case, since we can’t do anything but be a character, even if it’s a fake character, even if it’s a dishonest character, we’re still doomed in some way to be something in any given time. And we’re always in a circumstance. And it strikes me that this is what’s fascinating. I like the idea that left to our own devices, out in the wild of the world, we’ll be all different kinds of things all the time; that emotions, and feelings and thoughts would sweep over our faces that’s what I’m encouraging through my workshop.

ST: Another thing that strikes me about your films – that despite the fact that they are improvised, the level of construction is actually quite evident. And what is more, it is coherent. It comes across as a very coherent structure, and a very coherent narrative at that.

RN: That’s good. I’m glad you said that. I do think that it’s like Yeats said, “Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstitching has been naught” – the idea that it should be very simple; however, why do you have these bodies floating in the air all of a sudden? What do they mean? – at the end of Heat and Sunlight, where he rolls up the picture – his friend has said that he should roll the picture up and get rid of it. It’s too much of Biafra, and it’s still in his mind. He rolls it up; it’s a white wall, and you think, “Oh, I see, he’s got rid of the past.” No. Now images still come, the images of his current photography, and the way that human life is tormented, and struggling – those images of bodies connecting and at the same time pushing away. Don’t think anything is by accident. Nothing is by accident, even though it’s improvised. That’s not accident, is it? It’s a human being expressing himself, coming out from all the impulses. This is not by accident, this is by process.

ST: You must put a lot of faith not only in your audience but also in your actors.

RN: I have tremendous faith. I feel that on any street corner, at any given market, whether it’s the Tenderloin or markets that I’ve been brought to over here [Hong Kong], we have these magnificent people. The instruments they’ve learned how to play are themselves. They work in a jazz way. People are already talented at being themselves. They’re talented liars, they’re talented truth tellers, they’re talented people with heart, with deep feeling. They are capable of all forms of emotional interchange. Why? Because we do it everyday. Why do I want then to go and get Harvey Keitel, or all these guys whom I’ve seen a million times, whom I certainly admire in many ways? Why not go into the market of any place in the world and find these beautiful souls who love to play. That’s what we do in the Tenderloin and I think everywhere they exist. And this is the untold truth of cinema. This is where cinema is going. It’s already gone there in my work and in the work of others. I got the idea as far back as Abram Room, who was making films right after the Russian Revolution, a film called Bed and Sofa (1927), which has such an open feel of actual human behaviour. Why do we have to have faith like this? So that we can sit and watch people. This is our fascination – at least it’s mine, I think many artists have no more joy than that…to luxuriate in the multiplicity of impressions the world gives us.

ST: There is another thing that strikes me, which is – to use the word faith again – your faith in narrative, in the story, in telling the story, which perhaps sets you apart from other independent filmmakers who maybe take a more anti-narrative approach. Would you say that?

RN: Well, I would think I’m more anti-narrative than they are, in the sense that it’s not narrative that I am interested in. It’s circumstance and character that interest me. It seems to me that everyone else is trying to impose a story idea on reality. Of course, I do that too, I don’t mean to say that I don’t. But more and more I try not to. More and more I try to step back when I realise I have got myself painted into a story. Whereas what I wanted to do was to show how somebody felt. And be present while they dealt with a particular series of circumstances that I have helped create for them.


ST: Maybe we can focus on a specific example. One of your films that I really like is Chalk (1996). I think it’s one of the best pool hall movies ever made. But as you yourself said, there was actually a screenplay for Chalk. Now how do you then allow your actors to move around that scripted entity?

RN: Right. Well, I think that was probably much more conventional than some of the other films. Because I think a lot of people who write scripts, like Cassavetes, they’re really providing a road map. It’s a road map but you want to take a little detour over here or the road is blocked here, or that’s where you really go off. That’s what the plot is. It’s moving away from the expected result, the grid result, the rationalised result in allowing them to get to the same place but with their own language, in their own beats. To me, the narrative is what they do rather than the narrative being what I’m told that they must do. Now I know there is a story in Chalk, there is a pool hall, there are these characters there, but more than that is the little expressions on Watson (Edwin Johnson)’s face, when he says to TC (Kelvin Han Yee), “In life you either learn or you forget and you ain’t learnin’ shit taking money off of kids…and you’re not going to learn anything until you go to a place where you’ve never been.” Just the way he says that, it’s so delightful to me. The old beard knowing so much more but knowing that he can never explain it to a young passionate man who is in some ways not in possession of his own best self, he is not centred, he’s opportunistic, he hasn’t been able to settle into his highest nature. So he’s filled with fear, so he robs some kids, and he’s afraid to play Dorian (Don Bajema). To me those little inter-actions, that’s what the film is. But I know that I need to go more that way, I think, to make people realise that I’m not trying to tell stories in a traditional narrative way. I’m trying to do much more what Cassavetes did or what for example Gaspar Noé did in the film Irreversible.

ST: One of the unexpected things about Chalk was the way you kind of threw the narrative… I mean as it began we were thinking that it was going to develop into a classic sort of confrontation between hustlers: the guy Dorian versus Jones. But then you actually threw the narrative to TC, played by Kelvin Han Yee [Note: an Asian-American actor who resembles a slimmer and younger Sammo Hung]. You really developed his character that was anguished and haunted by the thought of playing Dorian – and that was really great. At the end, the asshole wins. Could you explain a bit about how you look at things like winning and losing. How do you view failure?

RN: Well, I think most of life is a failure. I think most of the time we don’t succeed, quite. We get the Academy Award, we get millions of dollars, we live in a big house, we have the pinnacle of success, and in your heart you feel you’re a failure because what you had in mind was something that touched your soul more everyday, that you would be a poet sitting by a stream and writing haiku or something. Or there was this particular role you’ve always wanted to play but nobody wants to fund it, and here you are, everybody thinks you’re a successful person. But I think that the fact that we yearn, the fact that we desire to seek in life makes everything in a certain sense all mixed up together in success and failure. To me, the success of TC had already been established. He realises that he’s afraid of the match but he had to do it for the sake of his father. I think he was already a success that he stood up against Dorian and all of the ways that Dorian was trying to shark him… to break his concentration. He stood up and he won the match but not quite (laughs). He scratched, so he lost. At the end of the match, we’re going to shrivel up and become dust. Is that a failure, is that a defeat? I’m not sure, maybe it is.

ST: There’s also a theme in Chalk, which is that of a father-son relationship. That seems to be recurrent in some of the films.

RN: That’s a good observation. I’m not even aware of it but other people point it out. They say: you’ve this thing about fathers. Why is that? It’s like a longing for a father. And I’ve thought about it and I think there is something about that. In my own family, the person who was more active and got to determine where things were going was my mother. Also I was the only son, so she confided in me; and we had a relationship. She was very warm towards me maybe ‘cos I was the first born and everything, I really felt very close to her in many ways. Although we’re not a close family, we don’t touch or embrace: it’s a little bit Scandinavian. So that when I think about my dad – he was a very good man; he was always there for you; I never saw him do anything mean; I never saw a side of him that wasn’t decent, kind, yet at the same time we never had a separate relationship. He wouldn’t take me off to go fishing with him…I can think of the times when I would have loved to go to a football game with him but it almost never happened because my mother wouldn’t let it happen. I think maybe that has something to do with it. I really wanted more from my father: more probably from a strong male, more teaching, and more acknowledgment.

ST: Was some of that described in Northern Lights?

Northern Lights

RN: Well…when you think about it, John Hanson (co-director of Northern Lights) and I were from a similar background and we collaborated on this together. When you said that, I thought about Ray (Robert Behling) coming down at night with the lantern with his father sitting all by himself, where he talks about how he had the same dream about the bird trying to get in and they sit there and they’re unable to talk. You could see that Ray in a way would like to comfort his father but his father doesn’t know how to be comforted. There’s a kind of a block and he says “I’ll leave the lamp,” and the father says, “No”, in a stoic way, “take it with you”. So maybe there’s some of that in it, I don’t know. The missing father, father then freezes to death…all of this. The images come, the stories come, the opportunities come and you consult the muse. The muse provides, now we’re talking about it. It’s the nature of the muse, I guess.

ST: I’d like to explore some of the themes or motifs that reappear in your films or perhaps the interconnections between your films particularly in the series 9@Night. I’ve not seen the other films in that series. I’ve only seen the ones here. And there you can already see the interconnecting characters, like for example, Phil, the old poet and his companion in Stroke reappear in Scheme C6. I think they expire in the end.

RN: They do

ST: They were thrown into the ocean. And then Spoddy (Michael Disend) appears in Scheme C6 but then he becomes the centre of focus in Attitude. Could you talk a bit more about that series? What exactly is your perception of that series?

RN: Well, it’s a portrait of a period and some people that live there at a given time in history. That’s part of it. It’s also an unravelling of ideas that come out of the fact that I work with these people every week. They come, and usually the stories and thoughts come out of stuff that they do. I don’t know how that happens. It’s like the muse speaking to you. If Teddy (Weiler, who plays Phil, the protagonist in Stroke who comes down with a speech impairment after suffering a stroke) now would not talk, then I can see using him in a movie. What kind of a thought is that? But when you realise there was a time when he couldn’t talk – that’s when he got the stroke. So these things just associate themselves together. Now he will appear again, Teddy. He is dead but he appears on the streets of the Tenderloin in Need, and he explains to the sex workers in the Tenderloin…he explains that he has died, that he fell off a pier, and they say, oh yeah, they just think he’s a garrulous old fool in the street but as far as I’m concerned, in a sort of magical realism kind of thought, let the audience make what they will of it. I’ve never seen that happen. I’ve never seen a ghost. I don’t know that they exist in any kind of empirical sense. But anyway, there he is. And, so the thing grows. Sometimes people ask me, how do you make your movies, how do you finance it. I’ve no idea how I finance them. Money comes in from a grant, money comes in from an angel, I write a script for somebody, I get money. I just throw it all in. It’s all connected. If I’ve enough money to open a film in New York, then I will. If I don’t have enough money, maybe we shoot this. It’s the same way with the evolution of the 9@Night.

ST: Why the title 9@Night?

RN: Well, that’s a good question.

ST: And it’s actually spelt with a 9 and that…

RN: …little computer sign. I was with David Richards, who is one of our executive producers and he said, you know the stuff you say and the stuff that you write about the work, sounds a little academic to me. I don’t know what I had, what I was calling the series. And we started to talk about it, and together we came up with this idea that they all began at nine o’clock, but then to call it something more…like a little phrase, a little everyday phrase… What time is it? Nine at night. It’s nine at night sports fans. Did you notice that there was a different way to introduce the time in everyone of the films?

ST: Not quite.

Scheme C6

RN: You haven’t noticed it yet. Now I have given you a clue. Every one of them towards the beginning will tell you that it’s 9 pm but in a totally different way. Anyway, so he said the time of day is kind of quotidian, and less intellectual, I guess. So he said, why don’t you do that and I said, “Great, it’s a great idea”. I have to give him credit for the thinking that led me to that. Why the 9? Well, I was very taken by Kieslowski in Red, White, Blue and The Decalogue. What brilliant filmmaking! In my own way, I thought I would like to pursue the synchronicity of events. So two guys that nobody cares about get dumped into the Bay by accident. Totally complete act of God. Well, how did that happen? And so the story in Scheme C6 brings us to that same point. At the same time, these guys were wandering around homeless, Bid (Cory Duval) was struggling with his father and with his need to be independent and to show the world that he can live in an alley and he didn’t need dad, he didn’t need his father, he didn’t need anybody, and he’s about to be shot. So shortly after these guys fall into the water and drowned, he gets shot and neither one of them knows anything about the other. It’s a complete accident.

ST: Yet, they’re all interconnected.

RN: Yet, they’re all interconnected. That’s it. I thought the most brilliant example of it other than Kieslowski in Red, White, and Blue was Time Code. I thought Mike Figgis showed that so magnificently – the idea that he had. It’s a film that has four separate boxes telling four different stories, four different people. And it’s all real time, there’s no editing. He started each of these people, each of these crews and their actors at exactly let’s say nine o’clock at night in different parts of Los Angeles. Now, the whole thing is time driven, there’s no editing. They gradually start to come together towards this one building. But during the time that they’re coming there’re two earthquakes, so everybody has to start shaking at exactly the same second. Because it’ll all show up on the screen since there’s no editing…you can’t adjust. And so as they come closer you start to understand how they’re interconnecting.

This type of cinema tends to come from Europe, or Asia. Americans are simple-minded, I can’t believe it. Partially it’s because the great talents that we’ve had have been brought into the system. Like Gus Van Sant, or Aronofsky. They’re there to make Batman or some other kind of Hollywood travesty, and they are promised – and sometimes the promises are in fact kept – that if they’ll do these mainstream films they would still be able to do a film like Gerry, for example, that Gus Van Sant just did. And so sometimes, they do return to the real sources of their inspiration. Our talent is quickly siphoned away and what we’re left with is these organizations that come out of film schools with B style, kind of like kiddie cinema, it’s training wheel cinema. These also-ran people that want to get recognised as Hollywood filmmakers. They have nothing to say, they’re not inspired poets of their race, they’re just practitioners. Nobody reads in America. We don’t have a tradition among filmmakers of reading anymore. Actually the old Hollywood directors were far more educated even though I didn’t like their films either because they were films that were constantly being diminished by the compromises of the star system, by the economics of it. Some people are very nostalgic about the old Hollywood. To me, there are maybe about ten or 12 films and the rest of it doesn’t mean anything to me because it doesn’t speak to me. It doesn’t say anything that I recognise as being interesting or provocative about the life we live. It just seems to be rehashed theatre, bad theatre.

ST: Just on this score, talking about old Hollywood. Would you accept it if I were to tell you that just watching a film like Northern Lights, or even something like Heat and Sunlight, they kind of indicate to me a sort of tradition anyhow. A very honoured and vaunted tradition that you’re trying to evoke. So for example in Northern Lights, it reminds me a bit of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven…

RN: Days of Heaven…we were editing at the same time in the same building.

ST: Or even going as far back as maybe John Ford in The Grapes of Wrath.

RN: Or Capra maybe.

ST: Or Capra or maybe even George Stevens. I don’t know how you feel about these names but what do you think of that? And obviously Heat and Sunlight reminds me a lot of John Cassavetes.

RN: Oh yeah. For me, my sources, my mentors are Bergman and Cassavetes…those are the two. Cassavetes because he was Greek and Mediterranean, more voluble, excitable, fascinating kind of characters; and Bergman because he came along at the time when existentialism, or how do we live in a world without God, how do we become secular and still full of life? All these questions he was asking. But also people had held things inside…much more hidden (the Swedish and Norwegians are like that). Somehow I have a feel for both and I love both. I learn stuff about myself – both what I can and can’t do – from those two. My other pantheon would be Satyajit Ray, it would be maybe some of the Cinema Novo guys, it would be early Truffaut, Makavejev maybe, the early Tony Richardson: the Woodfall Cinema, the kitchen sink cinema. So I don’t see, other than Cassavetes, how Hollywood could have influenced me. See, at the time that I was starting to make movies, or just before, you had BBS, you had Easy Rider, you had Bob Rafelson: Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens…you had Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show… Everybody there was fighting the Hollywood kind of standard but really what was happening was that Hollywood was in trouble and they were filtering money back down to the kids to see if they can bail us out. That’s the story of Five Easy Pieces or Easy Rider. That money came to Bert Schneider’s father, who was the head of Columbia. So there was an opening for those artists – early Scorsese, early Coppola – to get some dough to make good movies, which they did for a while. Coppola’s best film was The Conversation, Scorsese’s best film was Mean Streets. GoodFellas was a return to form, but most of what he does is to me really disconnected. I don’t see why he would be doing that because he seems to have no aptitude for it. He could still make good films but there’s no heart there, there’s no life connection. At that time, if you read Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that talks about how that cinema came up and how it died, as soon as everybody got the money, they started putting it up their noses and they got big limousines and they threw it away. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have. I mean I might have been as corrupt as they are when you’re offered all the things of this earth. You have to have quite a character to resist.

ST: Have you received offers?

RN: Not of that sort. I was not beckoned in that way. Fact of the matter is, I’ve been lucky enough to be by and large free from those temptations. I am certainly a person who could be tempted but I’ve been lucky, perhaps because …well, who knows why.

ST: Coming back to the 9@Night series, we were talking about interconnections and the rationale or conception of the series. One common feature about that series is the fact that you’re shooting not in film but in digital video.

RN: I haven’t worked in film for quite a well. I don’t see any reason to work with film anymore. The thing is that when you find out what your work is, then you perform it, that’s all there is…there’s nothing else. You are what you do. Now you can stay with what you feel and explore the things that are fascinating to you, not always the ones you choose but the ones that faith brings along, or you can enter into a procedure and a set of contacts with people. I had a chance to make a film in Japan and I went and did it. So what’s the difference? Now I don’t know anything about Japan, not really, except that I have some faith in the compatibility and similarity of people everywhere. So what I have to do is stand back and make myself just the occasion for the work that they’ll do. In some ways, I’m impinging on the process but somebody has to be the form giver and somebody else has to be the content giver…I’m the form giver and not the content giver here. And I can only hope by judging from the signals that I get about emotion and intuition and stuff, that something honest is happening here.

Digital is completely flexible, it’s a non-intrusive kind of medium. I now make my films in the middle of San Francisco, Market Street. At midnight, we go to a Chinatown alley. Recently, we went into a Chinatown alley at two in the morning. We went in there…there were probably about seven or eight of us including the actor. We took the garbage cans out, put them in the middle of the street…this was a scene where a woman walking through the alleys is distraught about a relationship which was breaking up – just like Spoddy in Attitude, and like Spoddy who’s involved with birds, she likes fish and she feels she can speak to fish. And she’s wandering and we took all these garbage cans off and we had our own fish, put it down, and she comes in and she sees a dead fish lying there. She sees the eyes staring out as if they’re blaming her. And she just loses it…runs to the end of the alley, sobs uncontrollably. Okay, we were there for an hour; we put everything back: all the garbage cans and everything. We cleaned everything up and we leave. Nobody knew we were there. How can we do this? Because we have this little camera. If we had a big camera, the problem would be to have more people to help carry it… the camera assistant, the rack focus; maybe we would need a bit of light here, pretty soon you’re not going to get away with that. You have to have a permit, the cops would have to come and close traffic…pretty soon you’ve got an artificial world built. But we just came in like a guerrilla group, and also we shot as much as we wanted because it’s cheap, and the light was there and these are very light sensitive cameras; the cameras don’t intimidate actors; they’re hand-held; they’re moving as we’re moving. I’ve got my monitor glasses on; so I’m seeing everything that the camera sees; I’m moving with the camera, the actors are moving in front of the camera; everybody’s doing a kind of dance; a jazz dance… in no man’s land. That’s all possible because of digital.

ST: And you’re happy with the definition of the image that the digital camera provides?


RN: I’ve seen all that. I don’t need to make Hallmark cards. To me it’s much nicer when it’s rougher. You know like Tina Turner says – what’s that line in her song? “People like it nice and sweet, I like it nice and rough.” That’s how I feel. When I go to a ruin, like in Yucatán, I go to see the Mayan ruins, I don’t want it all cleaned up. Let’s put the thing back together…no! The beauty of it is the time has gone. I like that to go on top of my images. So I don’t want them to be nice and bright. If I want that, I’ll do that, and I did do it in On the Edge, in 35mm. What is this need for definition? What was impressionism about? Wasn’t impressionism a fight against that very tendency: classical, renaissance pictorial values? Yeah it was. Now we need to go back because maybe that modernist reaction against classical forms has become self-indulgent. Maybe now we need to seek a totally different medium, another classical era. Maybe we are doing it right now in architecture.

ST: You were talking a little while ago about form giving, you as a form giver and somebody else as a content giver. So you obviously have a kind of a division between form and content. What is your role really as a form giver?

RN: First of all, I think I’m a lightning rod. I hope to call down the power. Secondly, I think I’m the occasion, that is to say if somebody didn’t do it, there wouldn’t be a film. Like when I was working with Brian Eno and John Cale. Brian Eno said John Cale has the capacity for wacky musical ideas, and I have the quality of concentration to give that some shape, basically to produce it. I’m the occasion, I am the producer and I say here is my new film, we’ll do this, anybody who wants to come they come. They don’t want to come, they don’t come. Then thirdly, I’m the final arbiter. You might say I’m the organiser of images but you might also say I am an alchemist seeking to gather things together in some ultimate form …it’s their concept, my form, so that it will have a shape that pleases. It will be the footprint of what we do. It will be the souvenir, if you will.

ST: You do experiment with form. For example, in Scheme C6 and in some of your others films, you split up the screen, and then you have a shrinking screen, and then suddenly sometimes you have subtitles pop up. What’s the reason behind that?

RN: Well, nothing’s pure of course. When I say that it’s form and content, it’s just one way of organising one argument. Mike Nichols said you have like three months of agony, and then finally you go into a dark room, you’re all by yourself. What joy! Sure, once you’re in the dark room with Chikara Motomura, my editor and producer, we have the fun of being able to add and subtract all kinds of things, taken from the capacities that we had invented from digital media. We can now do what took thousands and thousands of dollars to do in the old film era, like with special effects. We can now do it routinely in half an hour. We have an effect that you might say the images aren’t pure. It doesn’t have as much resolution, that’s true. But if that’s a limitation, then raise the 50 million dollars that you need and do it on film. I’d rather just do it without any interference without having to ruin my investors or anybody. Why? Because I feel like it. What would it be like if you started a film in black and white and imperceptively, introduce colour in equal increments right to the end of the movie. I started to experiment with that in Scheme C6, suddenly the colours kind of reaching out and in a way you don’t even notice it. Some people think that they’ve noticed a cut between black and white and colour, but they didn’t notice it that the colour was slowly leaving…slowly…slowly, and then all of a sudden you’re in a black and white world. I wanted to find out what that was like.

ST: Perhaps there might be a tendency to look at this kind of experimentation as something that is intrinsic to your style of filmmaking, which is the independent cinema. You can’t do that of course in the mainstream cinema.

RN: Not as much, no, but yeah, right, because the other thing that I was interested in, though a large part in a very peripheral way, was the New York Filmmakers Cinémathèque-Canyon Cinema type of filmmaking – filmmakers like Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson, the Kuchar Brothers – all those guys who were making these abstract films that were called “expanded cinema” by Gene Youngblood. I was interested and I saw a lot of that when I was the assistant manager of a cinema. They had a Friday night programme of that stuff and I got to see it all. And I was influenced by them. It was something Cassavetes would never have done. Cassavetes, when he sees some of these things…he would have said, “That’s silly! Why is every cut a moving frame? They do it on MTV, why are you doing it? Doesn’t it cheapen your vision?” And I think, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to do it to me. I’m fascinated by it because I have an instinct and the instinct still works when I see it, that this would be nice to do. Why do I care where it comes from, but of course everything comes from somewhere. Most filmmakers did influence me, and I did make some early short films of that sort.

ST: Have there been negative criticism of your films?

RN: Oh sure.

ST: Like for example, have people told you that your films are too masculine?

RN: Yes, I have heard that. I’m totally in favour of all people speaking out for their own freedom as long as they leave me to my freedom. And I don’t like political correctness. I respect every effort to know who you are and speak truly about your capacity and have the opportunity. The level playing field, absolutely. So if people say my films are too masculine, that’s their opinion. Fine but sometimes I find films today that are very feminine but no talent. My next film is going to be all women. I’m sure I’m going to be told that I don’t understand anything about women or I should have stayed with men. I think Cassavetes felt that way and that’s probably one of the reasons he made Woman under the Influence. Probably felt, well, I can work with women and this kind of crazy impulsive cinema. I can do that and he did. That to me is maybe his greatest film.

ST: Did you know Cassavetes very well?

RN: I knew him well enough to spend time with him.

ST: Did he see any of your films?

Signal 7

RN: Yah, he saw Signal 7, which was dedicated to him. He called me up and said, “I saw your film. Gena saw it with me, and we both loved it; and Gena and I, we don’t agree on anything.” And he did, he loved that film. To me that was like, my life could stop there because the whole spirit of it was evolving a method based on what I had perceived that he was doing. Then we spent time driving in the valley. At the end of his life, he looked like he was going to give birth to twins because he had this enormous belly. So he’d be driving his Lincoln and could barely get in, and I’d be sitting, and he’d be driving. He liked to drive through the valley and he’d tell me stories about all the stuff he had done. There were several events of these sort but I couldn’t call him a close friend because his close friends were those who knew him forever and were in the trenches with him, making movies. But he and I talked on the phone all the time, and we were going to make a movie together at the end of his life. But that movie was later made by his son, I guess, which was called She’s So Lovely.

ST: You were going to direct?

RN: We were going to do it together. He was fascinated with an actor from Signal 7, Johnny Tidwell, a black guy who’s sort of like a people’s Mr. T… big, burly, deep basso profundo guy. He said, “I got to work with this guy”.

ST: Finally, if I could sum it all up, and I don’t know whether you would accept this, I think your greatest contribution as a director is your work with actors.

RN: If somebody were to say that, I would be delighted. Because that is what’s it all about. It’s all about people. The least important for me is what’s normally considered the narrative, the three-act speed play. The story is such an imposition. Everything has a beginning, middle and end. We just don’t know where it is and we don’t know which order to put it in. Where does our conversation end? We may correspond for years, who knows? Or that this is the beginning or the end of our relationship? Why should it be anything different with our art? Our art should suggest this continuum of activity and character seeking to know who they are, seeking the things that they long for, experiencing the pain and shame of not being able to achieve their dreams, experiencing the ecstasy of their small or even the large victories that they have. Who’s to say what’s the end and what’s the beginning? It’s just that if you can get into that meditative, sensual, and emotional-intuitive arena where truths are bandied about, where everybody is truly alive, there’s nothing like it. Every performer knows this. Since I feel that cinema is much more related to poetry, dance and music than it is to literature and narrative, we all know what that is and we want to live inside of it.

Rob Nilsson: Filmography

1979 Northern Lights (co-directed with John Hanson)
1985 Signal 7 (shot on video and transferred to 16mm)
1986 On the Edge
1988 Heat and Sunlight
1989 The Street (TV series)
1990 Words for the Dying (documentary shot in the ex-Soviet Union)
1994 Choosing Success (interactive CD-ROM)
1996 Chalk
1998 A Town Has Turned to Dust (TVM)
2000 Winter Oranges (feature shot in Japan)
Singing (9@Night feature)
Stroke (9@Night feature)
2001 Scheme C6 (9@Night feature)
Samt (feature shot in Jordan)
2002 Noise (9@Night feature)
Attitude (9@Night feature)
Need (9@Night feature)


  1. Words quoted from Manifesto: Direct Action Cinema, part of the press kit provided by Nilsson.

About The Author

Stephen Teo's latest book Wong Kar-wai is published by the British Film Institute. He is the author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997) and is currently writing Johnnie Gets His Gun: The Action Films of Johnnie To, for the Hong Kong University Press.

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