“One constant is certainly a need for chaos,” wrote Nathan Silver, when I interviewed him about his two newest films. “I love to have things shift and get rerouted as we go; if this doesn’t occur, I get bored. Basically, if I’m not stifling laughter behind the monitor, something’s off.” In Uncertain Terms, now playing at Cinema Village and streaming at Fandor.com, a handyman whose marriage is in crisis decamps to a secluded home for pregnant teenagers, overseen by his aunt (played by Silver’s formidably frank mother Cindy). Set in 1990 and shot on vintage video cameras, Stinking Heaven, which plays at BAMcinemaFest later this month, follows group singalongs and psychosexual power dynamics at a house in Passaic where several lost souls “live together and choose to be sober” (and brew a fermented tea drink in the tub of their shared bathroom). These are the fourth and fifth features directed by the 32-year-old Silver, who lives in Crown Heights; his untitled sixth is in preproduction and he hopes to shoot his seventh, The Perverts, this winter.
You originally went to NYU to study experimental theater, and both Uncertain Terms and Stinking Heaven can be thought of as single-set ensemble pieces, with the action contained more or less to a single house, aside from the occasional grocery run. Both also track the disintegrating group dynamics in these uncomfortably close-quartered living situations, as an outsider arrives, and the house’s nominal “director” (played by your mother in Terms, and Keith Poulson in Heaven) tries to keep things together. I know you frequently write scenes on the fly, encourage actors to improvise, and often keep cast and crew together while on location—though tempting, it’s probably inaccurate to imagine you cultivating an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty that mirrors what we see on screen, but I am curious to hear about the ways you assert yourself on set, or don’t. How clear is the movie in your head when you’re shooting? How often do you have to reorient your actors in a different direction, and how do you do it? How do you fix a scene that isn’t working?
I’m currently in the early stages of developing a movie about an experimental theater troupe, so I must still have a fascination with theater… even if I haven’t been to a play in maybe a decade. I never go about setting up a tension-filled environment, but when you have little in the way of budget and many people stuffed into small spaces during the height of summer, tensions naturally arise. I’m not sure that these tensions help or hurt what we see on-screen, but everything around the shoot obviously affects the eventual movie.
I have no crystallized movie in my head to begin with. I used to think I was capable of dreaming something up and translating it into a film, but after multiple failures, I realized that I needed to completely rethink my process, and that’s when I gave up on the notion of having a fully fleshed-out script and started working off outlines. I’m in no way a dictatorial presence. I’m all for complete collaboration on every level. I work out the characters with the actors and the co-writers, and even though we have an outline—something like a map to follow—we rework it throughout the shoot. As far as directing the actors goes, if it’s something small that needs fixing, I’ll let the actor know, but if the scene as a whole is falling flat, I go out and consult with the co-writer (or co-writers, depending on the shoot), because usually it’s not an issue with the performances but with the direction the story’s taking.
Uncertain Terms watches what happens when a single strapping man enters a hermetic, hormonal all-female hothouse atmosphere. But unlike Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled, Uncertain Terms isn’t exploring female desire and male confusion via full-on laugh-out-loud Freudian symbolism. Presumably all your films have been “hard to write” in various ways; what was hard about this one, and what helped you to develop it to a point that felt authentic?
I haven’t seen The Beguiled. The press at Deauville accused us of ripping it off, though. I guess the French are very protective of anything associated with Clint Eastwood. In any case, my mother had my brother when she was sixteen and was sent to a home for unwed mothers, and she’s very open about the whole thing, so the actresses felt comfortable asking her questions about her experiences. Chloe, Cody, and I wrote the initial outline in a fury, because we had an extremely limited amount of time to get the production together. We shot lots of footage. As much as we could, we would have Chloe direct second unit to get shots of the girls talking about themselves and idling around the house. We then went back for three days of pickups after finishing the rough cut… so it was “hard to write” in that we had lots to work through in the edit, but I think that’s always the case, especially on movies that are not fully scripted.
I’m curious about the music in the film. With the diegetic songs you’re using, from “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” to various indie-rock songs and instrumentals playing in cars and at parties, what are the calculations you’re making about naturalism, creating a specific dramatic tone you want, money, and so on?
When Cody started pulling selects for the first birthday party scene, he and I looked at each other, and we both had the same thought—that the scene needed a hypersexual song, and we both happened to be thinking of “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).” Total synchronicity… that’s what happens when you sit in a dark room together for hours on end, I guess. Then our producer Josh Mandel worked magic with the label and was able to get it for us at a rate that worked for our budget. We wanted that song and the other dance tunes to feel like they reflected the teenage world the girls were now shunned from; and the rest of the music to belong to Robbie’s world, something reminiscent of what he might’ve listened to as a teenager. In the edit, everything is calculated, and everything certainly shifts the dramatic tone, but it all starts with taking the characters into account.
It’s interesting looking at these two films back to back, because, despite their recognizable consistency, they look very different. Beyond the different cameras used, Uncertain Terms maintains many set-ups that feel quite classical and storyboarded, while Stinking Heaven sticks closer to faces, seems to follow the action more. Can you talk about your collaboration with Cody Stokes, the DP (and co-writer along with producer Chloe Domont) on Uncertain Terms, versus with DP Adam Ginsberg and the team on Stinking Heaven?
Uncertain Terms is a much more classical story than Stinking Heaven. It has all the elements of a melodrama. We upended the melodrama by presenting the more sensational aspects from an observational point of view and muting them as much as possible. Some people see the film as a low-key story, but if you think about the fact that it’s a house full of pregnant teenagers and a handyman, it’s pure camp… but it doesn’t feel like camp because of the shooting style. Cody and I didn’t storyboard. We would convene each morning and make a shot list, which we would then loosely follow—Cody is an insanely intuitive shooter so I put my full faith in him to capture what he found necessary as things unfolded. As far as Stinking Heaven goes, Adam and I didn’t shot list it. Just as I put my full trust in Cody, I put the same trust in Adam. Stinking Heaven is far less scripted than Uncertain Terms, and we would let the scenes play out long and crazy, and Adam would follow the action and we would repeat the scenes numerous times. Our most basic decision for each setup was whether it’d be handheld or on sticks and then we would discuss who to focus on… but this would shift as the scenes took shape. As I mentioned already, on both films I would constantly discuss story and character elements with the co-writers (Chloe and Cody on Uncertain Terms and Jack Dunphy on Stinking Heaven).
Stinking Heaven’s a very reflexive film: there are scenes in which the characters re-enact their most dramatic and abject moments for their video cameras, and so remind us that they’re really actors acting out additional dramatic and abject moments for your video cameras. It made me think about catharsis—the purging of fear and trauma through a dramatic climax—which is a term that was first used to describe what happens to an audience watching a play, and has since been adapted as a goal of therapy (though some studies suggest that the long-term benefits of catharsis-focused therapy are minimal). I had the theory, watching the movie, that the recovering addicts at the Passaic house are mistaking the dramatic high and structural satisfaction of catharsis for a personal breakthrough. What was your original thinking in having the characters act out these heightened tense, vulnerable scenes with each other, rather than (or in addition to) having that material get into the movie in a different way?
The whole idea for “reenactment therapy” came from a talk with Keith Poulson, who plays Jim, the house leader. Very early on in our discussions, we went through all the different forms of rehab and therapies used to get people off drugs and alcohol. It soon became evident that many of the therapies involve confessions of past wrong-doings and lowest points, so we started thinking about what kind of spin Jim would put on all this—as the house was to be an alternative to the more conventional forms of rehab. Once we decided that the members would re-enact their lowest points, we thought it was key that these episodes were taped so that the person could watch him or herself afterwards and feel further humiliation. I think it’s absolutely true that the reenactments give a false sense of catharsis, as is evidenced by the way things play out in the movie. I have to say I associate heavily with this false sense of catharsis; I certainly experience this every time I make a movie, but it dissipates soon after the movie hits the world. I guess catharsis is a dangerous idea… or it’s something short-lived and not mind-altering like Artaud thought. Reality shows are all about fake catharsis… and on a certain level much of my working method resembles these shows, and I don’t mind that one bit.
Like another recent indie film, L for Leisure, Stinking Heaven is a work by a director in his early 30s reckoning with the idea that the early 1990s is by now a historical moment distinct from our own. And like Computer Chess, it’s a period film that, though it evokes its era through production design, does so most notably by being shot on period-appropriate video equipment, as though the most distinctive aspect of that era is how documents of it look different to us than documents of today. (Not a criticism, I think it says something really interesting about how we conceptualize the past as different from the present.) Yet at the same time, the focus on the house as a cleanse—Kombucha and catharsis—feels very contemporary, and I’m curious: why did you feel this story had to take place in 1990? Why is it important that we watch this story from a conspicuous distance?
When I started working on the movie, I had this sense of doom that reminded me of something I remember feeling for an extended period when I was seven or eight (so around 1990/91). Back then, I think it had to do with all the news coverage of AIDS and the Persian Gulf War, as well as the fact that I was just an extremely anxious kid. I’m not sure what brought it on last year; I guess that’s why they call it free-floating anxiety. In any case, I got obsessed with re-watching all these docs and TV shows from the 80s and early 90s, and I just connected with the feel and how doomed everything seemed—every texture seemed to indicate that the world was on its last legs. I very quickly realized that we had to place the movie in that period, and in order to achieve that sickly feel, we needed to work with period-appropriate technology. I didn’t start off knowing it was going to be a period piece—it was some scratch I needed to itch, and once we placed it in the 90s, the story started to coalesce. Come to think of it, making Stinking Heaven actually helped relieve that sense of doom, so I take back my words, maybe the catharsis these movies bring about isn’t necessarily short-lived…