Rob Nilsson: "Put yourself out there and trust reality"

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By Jonathan Marlow

"Our impulse was to work with real people."

Rob Nilsson, the fiercely independent director of more than a dozen films, is primarily known for a series of breakthroughs. He is, for example, the first American director to win both the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. His Signal 7 (1983) is one of the first films shot on video and then transferred to 35mm film. Then there is his concept of a Direct Action Cinema, which he describes at his site as "a practice created to allow actors and technicians high freedom and deep responsibility to create memorable cinema. It is a dynamic jazz ensemble of actors, camera, sound, directors, and editors that creates and interprets together, seeking the unexpected, the extraordinary, the miracles only a well-prepared combo can play."

In 1991, Nilsson founded the Tenderloin yGroup, a drama workshop for the homeless residents of the (in)famous district right in the heart of San Francisco, where he's developed methods of working with actors to co-create stories that ring far more truthfully than any assembled by followers of Hollywood's screenwriting gurus. This conversation, presumably the first of two, concentrates largely on his work currently available on DVD but, for Jonathan Marlow, it seemed necessary to start at the beginning...

Of the titles that Koch released, all are from essentially the beginning of your career as a director. I want to go back even further. I want to talk a bit about how you came to direct Northern Lights, the three years it took to make it, and of course your experience at Cannes.

Northern Lights was really a return to roots for [co-writer/co-director] John Hanson and myself, in that we both had family ties in North Dakota. His grandfather was a grain farmer who'd lost various farms due to unfavorable conditions. If it's impossible now economically for the small farmer, it was really tough back then to beat the grain prices and fight the elements to come up with a crop that you can sell. He was an early member of an organization called the Nonpartisan League which sprung up in the North Dakota prairies around 1915 or so. It came out of the Socialist Party, but red-baiting was so extreme that it was impossible to elect anybody or get anyone in power using the word "socialism," let alone "communism." A lot of the programs were socialistic in nature. When the League came to power, they had state-owned banks and state-owned grain elevators and all kinds of cooperative ventures that were of use to the small farmer struggling to make a quarter section mean something as far as survival of his family went.

My grandfather was the state photographer at the time and the first filmmaker in North Dakota. Prior to the formation of the League, he was making movies about the localities in North Dakota back as far as 1907. By the time I came along, the family had moved on to northern Wisconsin after a number of stops, including one where my grandfather was a set photographer for United Artists [the studio founded by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith], so he had some touch with the actual film industry.

Northern Lights was also a story about where we had come from. Norwegian and Swedish stock. My grandfather and my mother's side of the family were from Norway and my father's side were Swedish blacksmiths and farmers. This made the film a kind of investigation into things that we knew, that got into the pores. That's how it got started. John was the prime mover in terms of organizing the financing [for Northern Lights] through the North Dakota Committee for Humanities and Public Issues, a state-based branch of the NEH which, at that time, was doing a lot of films about America's radical past, including films about the Anarchists, the Communist and Socialist Parties. Most of these films were documentaries, but the NEH put up the money for probably the only fiction feature film that was made about the radicalism or the populism of that time. I was interested in the human dimension. I was interested in people, not ideology, and I was interested in how one decides to go out and organize to try to change the nature of your economic life.

The creation of the film begins in its own way as part of a "collective" with Cine Manifest.

We had been part of the creation of a labor union out here called the Film Workers Union. A union that had set itself up to further employment for women and third world people. We had kind of a quasi-socialist direction. Some people were kind of doctrinaire and others were much less so. I considered myself, especially at that time, kind of an anarchist. I believe in the human exchange and human cooperation but not in most governmental forms that I've seen. We had different views but we were a collective. Northern Lights was the second feature film made with Cine Manifest. Our idea was to add a political dimension to feature films that could be seen in theaters. Increasingly, that paradigm has changed. I think now what you're doing on the Internet is freer, more democratic and hopefully less tied to fad and profit and the needs of an industry to expand and prosper.

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