Nathan Silver Talks About His Latest Film ‘Soft in the Head’

Ed Ryan as Maury Kane and Sheila Etxeberria as Natalia Béthencourt in "Soft in the Head"

“There is no fiction or non-fiction really when you’re making a movie.”

Nathan Silver’s Exit, Elena premiered at Edinburgh last year and confirmed the New York-born director as one of the most promising talents to emerge on the American indie film scene. Ottilie Wilford caught up with Silver while he was in Berlin, to discuss his latest film Soft in the Head, which screened at the American Independent Film Festival Unknown Pleasures at the Babylon Kino, Mitte. Loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Soft in the Head follows the self-destructive twentysomething Natalia who is picked up by the benevolent Maury when he finds her on the streets after a row with her boyfriend. She flits between the gaggle of misfits Maury has kindly taken in and her best friend’s orthodox Jewish family, whose socially inept son she decides to seduce. Tragedy ensues.

In an interview you’ve said “No matter how much I nudge, push, and shove these characters I’m just their documentarian. It’s a documentary of imagined life”. Films that challenge the boundary between documentary and fiction film seem to have become an increasing trend in recent years (I’m not There, The Act of Killing, for example). Could you tell me a little bit about this idea with regards to your films?

Some of the characters are based on the actors who portray them. I steal from life I guess, characters are based on people I know. When I’m shooting it’s not scripted, the action is scripted but the dialogue is all improvised. So I guess even if the actors are playing characters who are completely different to who they are, I guess they are being themselves because they are in this documentary setting where they can do whatever they want, basically, within certain parameters. Just like how in a documentary you have parameters. You understand that you can’t just run off down the street because the camera can’t catch up with you. You understand that you’re being filmed, it has a documentary set up in that way. I want to capture the chaos, that’s why I incorporate all these documentary elements and fictionalize them through putting these real people into these fake situations and mixing everything up and then in the edit everything shifts completely and adds another layer of fiction to it. When I watch documentaries now that are labeled fiction it’s bullshit right? We all know there is no fiction or non-fiction really when you’re making a movie. And also what a camera is doing is capturing life like in the Lumière brothers’ film you see a train coming- that’s a documentary right? Or the famous one of a husband, wife and child eating at the table -that’s documenting life. So fiction and non-fiction have always been very fluid, the boundaries are like the Berlin Wall, which was just knocked down. The more movies that are made, the more we understand that and the less we understand in what we’re seeing what is true and  what isn’t.

Films that try to be emphatically realistic like Blue is the Warmest Colour(2013) I often find aren’t that real, I felt you realism was more organic and the more affecting for it…

I feel in that film the director probably had a very heavy hand in a lot of it and that’s problematic if you’re trying to make something feel naturalistic. If you have a heavy hand it’s harder , something feels off about it, it feels manipulative in the worst possible way and I don’t mean simply because of the controversy around that movie. When they kissed the first time and the sun is at the perfect place, right behind them. Stuff like that just doesn’t quite register as naturalism, why would he choose that bench at the time of day when the sun was right there? It becomes a very cinematic moment for someone who wants to show two people falling in love in a plain way. I don’t mind cinematic moments in movies at all but he wants the best of both worlds.

Could you tell me more about how you cast your actors?

A lot of them are people I knew. One of the leads in Soft in the head was my roommate’s sister. I’d meet people at parties and cast them, I would put postings up on Craigslist, I’d cast family members, people I’m seeing at the time, I cast myself in some of the movies. I just look around and try and put together a menagerie of people who I feel like together something will occur, something will happen.

You focus on strong female leads, could you tell me where this attitude comes from?

 It was very simple with Exit, Elena because I wanted to make a movie with my mother in it and I wanted to make a movie with my girlfriend at the time and put them up against each other. It came from that. Soft in the Head started off as Maury’s story, it really happened during the shooting that it made sense for Natalia to be at the centre, for her to bounce between these two worlds like a ball of fire, burning them both up. I just find female characters far more interesting, I always prefer movies with female leads. I don’t consciously set out to make a movie about a female character. In my latest movie it’s a male lead, but he allows us to enter into this world of pregnant teenagers-he’s our entry point to a female world. It’s a good question, maybe one I should talk to a shrink about…

Is that your new film Gun under my Pillow?

No that fell a part. This one is called Uncertain Terms. It’s basically about this guy who takes refuge at his aunt’s house who runs a makeshift home for teenagers and he falls for one of them. My mother had my brother when she was sixteem and she  herself went to a home of a friend of my mother’s in Staten island. I’ve always wanted to make a movie about that aspect of her life, and still want to make a period piece but I thought it would be interesting to have her take in  these pregnant teenagers and she uses her own story in the movie, she talks about how she was a pregnant teenager and she went to this home but she had a horrible experience but she wants to talk about how she wants to provide a nice experience for these girls.

 Soft in the Head is based on The Idiot by Dostoyevsky and you’ve broken the film up into chapters, is this something to do with the fact that it’s based on this Russian novel?

I love the title of the book. I must have been eighteen or so when I read it and I loved it. I wanted to do a regular screenplay adaptation of it and I tried to do that as my thesis at school. I wrote a bunch of draughts and they were all failures. Then I met Ed Ryan, a real-life equivalent of Prince Myshkin in the book and so I thought to myself, ‘what if I just found real-life equivalents for all the characters in the book and threw out the book and tried to look for how these characters interact and make a story out of that?’

The chapter breaks- because we more or less shot off of a napkin outline- literally just dashes of scenes that were on a napkin, the structure of the movie was created in the edit, and in order to then allow these scenes to then move from one scene it was good to add a little break. It wasn’t intentional, but it reminds me how in Dostoyevsky’s books the way it moves from chapter to chapter can be very strange and off-putting, it’ll be following certain characters and we don’t necessarily know who will be in the next chapter. We just have to break it up a bit in the edit to make it flow.

In this film the main protagonist, Natalia, seems to be an amalgam of Dostoyevsky’s female characters. She is a tragic femme-fatale and a fair maiden at the same time. How do you see her?

I worked a lot with the actress Sheila Exteberría, we drew on her own experiences. I never really thought about how people would see her, how she would read on film, I just knew she could pull off this self-destructive character. We just thought about how we could make that happen, that dictated how she would react in each scene. Now, I have no idea, it’s hard to comment on because I have no idea what the movie actually is. I feel like I lived through the whole thing.

Ed Ryan on the poster for Nathan Silver's latest film 'Soft in the Head'
Ed Ryan on the poster for Nathan Silver’s latest film ‘Soft in the Head’

I read somewhere that you are influenced by Breughel. Like his paintings your films unsettle the viewer, could you tell me a bit more about what drives you to provoke this kind of response?

Well I love how the paintings capture the chaos of life. In one corner someone’s laughing, in one corner someone’s miserable, all in one canvas. It’s just like life, how comedy and tragedy are always occurring at the same time and you can’t stop it and you have to deal with it. It’s how you experience life, it’s uncomfortable and it’s hilarious and it’s how I’d like my movies to be, simply because that’s how I experience life and I guess that’s an egotistical thing but all art is about using what you know.

The production of Soft in the Head included a Kickstarter campaign. Many have said that the significance of crowdsourcing lies mostly in generating publicity, rather than being a viable source for financing. What is your take on it?

Right now it seems inundated. It was difficult to raise the money and we didn’t raise all that much, a relatively small amount for a movie. It was however mostly friends and family of the cast and crew who helped, five or six people donated. I don’t know if it’s a viable way to raise money unless you have a name attached to the project or you are a name. It takes years out of your life to make something where you can’t even pay the cast and crew. I’m at a place where it’s very hard to find investors who are willing to invest and not want complete control and the only place to get complete control is through crowdfunding. So I don’t see a solution right now. Crowdfunding’s fine, I’m probably going to do it again. It just takes so much effort and you harass people and are asking everyone around you to harass their friends. Now it just gets lost because so many people are doing these campaigns, every day another friend is doing a Kickstarter campaign so I guess you can donate ten bucks here and there. I mean, if more people gave ten bucks here and there and actually did that on a larger scale then yeah, that would be great, crowdfunding would work, but that’s not how it works- you have some people  give a dollar and then some people out of the blue will give seven hundred dollars and you can never know what the hell is going to happen. I don’t know, it’s a weird. The central problem is that I’m a hyperactive filmmaker, I want to make two movies a year; How the hell do I finance those movies?

How would you assess the current state of American independent film?

I surround myself with hyperactive filmmakers or neurotics, people who can’t help themselves, they have to make movies and that’s healthy because the other side of it is people who are trying to make a buck off movies and I’ve tried hanging around people like that and I don’t like them. You try and hang around your comrades so that you can stay sane. It is useless to feel that you’re an important artist these days if you get money or if you make a movie because you’re not, there are so many people out there doing this it’s like picking up a pencil, they always say paint is cheap and now movies are the same. Some people rise and some people sink to the abyss and that’s fine. There are a lot of stinkers out there, a lot of people who are in it for the wrong reasons but you try and stick around the people who are in it for the right reasons, whatever those may be to you. I think the whole nineties’ era of filmmaking when you could go up to Hollywood and make bigger pictures, it’s slowly dying and everyone knows that and I don’t think it quite matters. I think there’ll just be more niche marketing and all that junk, it’ll just be like smaller indie bands and bigger ones that break through but that’s going to be the exception and not anywhere close to the rule anymore. And it’s just the same in the music industry, my brother runs a record label and has been in the music industry for the last twenty odd years. I mean he’s seen the whole collapse and it’s exactly what’s happening in the film industry and that’s fine, I think it’s better this way, It’s nice to see things shift.

What directors or films do you find yourself going back to?

One of my favourite movies is We won’t grow old together (1972). I love Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times (1936) is one of my favourite movies. I love Streetwise(1984), a documentary about streetkids in Seattle.  I love The Apartment (1960) by Billy Wilder. When I feel most depressed about filmmaking I watch interviews with Maruice Pialat and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There’s this human quality with them that I can’t get over.  These two are extremely bitter people who want to hate humanity but somehow their love of humanity always come through, everyone always called Fassbinder bitter but I see hope in his movies. There is something in humans that can shift, that can change, it seems there’s always possibility, there’s a will to change. He shows horrible situations that people can get themselves into; downward spirals, but it never feels bleak, they’re sad of course, there’s always something a bit off, people stare too long. He uses these alienation techniques but they never quite alienate you which I find interesting as well. His sense of mis-en-scene and composition is insane, unparalleled. I looked up to that at first but I’ve realized now I’m not capable of that but what I am capable of doing is taking something from the way he translates his disgust of life into this joy of life. Breughel does the same thing, it’s something between disgust and joy or disgust and the celebration of being human. I go through periods of more movie watching, at the moment I’m watching a lot. I tend to watch more after I’ve made something, for whatever reason. There’s a great desire afterwards to replenish something that was lost during the act of making the movie.

When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

 I started off as a poet when I was twelve, then went into playwriting when I was 16. I did an internship in college with an experimental playwright/director that I admired and he said that theatre was dead and no one was coming to see his plays anymore. He recommended that I watch some movies by Fassbinder and Pasolini  and so I went round the corner to this place in New York called Kim’s video store and would rent all these movies and as soon as  I got out of school I started to make short films. It gave me a sense of a social life.  Poetry and playwriting are so isolating and also screenwriting’s isolating. Writing is a devastatingly isolating act and I can’t stand it. It’s what I thought I wanted to be from the time I was twelve, a writer of some sort but realized at twenty-two that I did not want to be locked up in my apartment, I wanted to be out with people, it gave me a sense of being a part of the world.

Find out more about the next screening of ‘Soft in The Head’ here.

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