American independent filmmaker Nathan Silver discusses his latest film, Thirst Street (2017), a lush melodrama that winks at the post-modern mode of European, erotic psychodramas as it explores its flight attendant protagonist’s obsession with a man she meets in Paris. We delve into the production of the film, the evolution of Nathan’s filmmaking style, the role of nostalgia in the film, how the film inadvertently lead to the reunion of a French music duo, and how French crew mistakenly believed the American was shooting a scene high on MDMA.
The Seventh Art: How did you come up with the idea with C. Mason Wells?
Nathan Silver: After I shot Actor Martinez (2016) – and Lindsay [Burdge] has a supporting role in that – I just fell in love with her acting abilities. I really wanted to make something where she was the lead, so I got back to New York and Chris and I had been working on scripts together. I said, “Look, I want to make something with Lindsay,” and he had actually written something for her a few years prior that takes place in Paris. Those two things, Lindsay and Paris, seemed like a perfect match. I never looked at his initial script, the draft that he had written. We started to think about all these foreigners that went to Paris in the ’70s and made crazed movies, like Borowczyk and Żuławski, and what that would mean for me – what I could do with it, take some things from those erotic thrillers from the ’70s and infuse the thing with my own neuroses.
What is the dynamic with Chris versus your other collaborations – directing with Mike Ott (Actor Martinez) or writing with Jack Dunphy (Stinking Heaven ).
We would sit down and talk through ideas and then Chris would be the one to actually do the typing. We are writing a new project now and working with Chris has helped bring me back to this place where I want everything to be scripted – I’m moving away from improvisation.
I think with Stinking Heaven, I took the improvisation approach to its natural end – at least for me. I just want to get back to more formalistic work – maybe that’s not the term. I basically want to go into something and be able to have elaborate camera movements, I want to play around with that again. I guess I’m tired of having reality dictate everything at this point, I want to dictate certain things and then obviously have reality come and mess me up, as it always does. I guess I was just getting bored with improvisation; I had made a lot of improvised movies.
This isn’t going to mark a change to the “well-made play” though.
[Laughs] I think basically that the idea now is that I want to make larger projects. Even Thirst Street was a twenty-five page treatment versus a two page outline for Actor Martinez and for Stinking Heaven it was twelve pages. It was certainly more written than those movies and Chris would send me dialogue that I would hand-off to the actors the day of, so it was much more scripted in that sense. For whatever reason, I feel my brain is going back to what I initially wanted to do in movies, which was make big, lush melodramas where there’s some tongue-in-cheek, but there’s this emotional thrust to them. I think the only way to do that is to have a script; I can’t do that with improvisation. Certainly some elements will still be improvised: I don’t shot-list, I go to the set and I see what the location dictates. It’s more about having a script so I can have a larger crew so that I can accomplish more lush environments – I want melodramas, I want bigger movies.
Has that impacted how you direct actors?
Yes, to a degree. The experience in France was great because there’s no bullshit with Lindsay, she’ll tell me if she doesn’t like the way something is being handled. I think working with her certainly made me a better director. Other people will talk behind your back and complain about your method to other crew members, but I feel like with her, she’s very open with how she feels all the time. So I can see my shortcomings and that was quite nice. In terms of directing actors, I just respond to everyone in terms of who they are and how I feel about them, so I guess it’s more of a personality thing than anything else. I don’t have a method for how to talk to an actor, it’s more about the person in front of me, you know?
Is there still an element of improvisation that goes on within this new, more formal framework?
Oh, absolutely. With Thirst Street there was a lot of improvisation in terms of the dialogue. The shots, I’m sure you can see, are more elaborate and set-up than in my previous movies. I love the ideas that come the day of, but I just need to do it within reason now. Certainly, the discussions that I had with Lindsay, Damien [Bonnard], Esther [Garrel] and Lola [Bessis] shifted the course of the movie. A lot of re-writing happened in the month of pre-production in Paris.
Did you have a look locked down before? I know you mentioned the Euro, erotic psychodramas, but they tend to vary in their look. What was the formal touchstone you had for this?
[Director of Photography] Sean [Price Williams] and I were talking and one key image was that crazy image from Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) where she’s sitting in bed and there are a million different colours on her. We talked about always looking for ways to heighten the lighting and we used anamorphic lenses in Paris and then when we were in the U.S. we just had a zoom. We knew that we wanted [the latter] to have a gauzy look, we wanted it to have a different look than the Paris section – just slightly. We watched [Skolimowski’s] Deep End (1970) one day [laughs], I don’t know if that influenced us in any way, but that’s one we watched beforehand. It’s odd, it all gets mashed up with the making of the movie. It was more about feeling out the location and coming up with a look for each location and what we were going to do with it – what would be on sticks, what was going to be hand-held. Sean and I were always on the same page, after a few days we could feel it out and we just knew what each scene necessitated. It was a true pleasure working with him because I’ve known him for years; I was a customer at Kim’s and he was the manager there, and I was an usher at Film Forum, so we would always cross paths. We nearly worked together on Stinking Heaven and then that didn’t end up working out, so it came full circle somehow.
There’s another crossover with Heaven Knows What (2014) with Paul Grimstad’s score.
He’s done the score for a bunch of my stuff: Stinking Heaven, the short film Riot (2015), Actor Martinez, as well. I love him, he’s a mad genius.
Going back to the gauzy, soft focus. It’s a hold-over from a period when something like a flashback needed to be visually distinct, which we now take for granted that audiences will know even if a film jumps around. It’s not even a reference to a specific film, but films in the past and how they delineate time.
The softness in the U.S. [portion]? It’s still a linear movie, there are no flashbacks, but in the sense that it goes back to an older part of her life, you could make a case for that. It’s odd, but I like the idea that Paris is a romantic place, but we didn’t use the softness there. It’s a bit harsher than the U.S. portion, but logically it should be the other way around [laughs].
What else went into the decision to go with a 2.35:1 [aspect ratio]?
It’s not even 2.35, it’s wider. We created our own aspect ratio [laughs]: the Thirst aspect. Basically we got a list of all the lenses that this rental house had and I sent it to Sean, and he always wanted to shoot on these Lomo anamorphic lenses. We talked about how they’re misused in music videos, how people overuse the flares and all that shit. We talked about how to make it feel like a movie; it’s a perverse fairy tale, and to really emphasize that fact, why not shoot on something that feels like a movie, feels cinematic. Essentially, as soon as you see it, you feel that there’s that element of a bigger-than-life story. Obviously it isn’t David Lean style, landscape stuff, it’s more about faces and small spaces, but we tried to at least exploit a bit of what anamorphic has to offer.
What is your attraction to the European films you’ve mentioned that take place in Paris? I know you’ve mentioned in the past that nostalgia is something that really gets you. Is there a component of that, that’s tied to Paris?
Yeah, I think there are multiple aspects here. [The character of] Gina is old-fashioned in her sensibilities, so as a character she has an old-fashioned way of going about life. She wants to have the life that maybe my mother would have wanted. She wants a home, she wants a family and the world is working against her; that’s not necessarily how modern life operates, that’s not the way people these days, younger people, I don’t think that’s their priority per se. I think it plays into that, who she is as a character, but it also plays into the fact that I was obsessed with France when I was twelve to fourteen and I lived there for a year when I was fifteen. I’ve just been a Francophile, so I guess there’s a nostalgic factor for me there. Also for emotion in movies, I feel like so many movies have been drained of emotion, flattened, and I like the idea that you have to almost hearken back to old cinema to bring out lush emotion.
Would you say that there’s a specific temporal reference point? The title card firmly roots you in the ’80s, but a lot of the films you’ve talked about would be older.
Yeah and those films from the ’80s are referencing Douglas Sirk and how colours are used in Douglas Sirk. In the cinéma du look films it’s almost cheapened – in a good way – in a straightforward way where you have extreme colours and you immediately know how to read them. Whereas, in Douglas Sirk I think there’s something stranger going on there, I don’t even know how he got away with what he got away with at the time. You look at some scenes and the colours that are in those scenes make no sense, it’s total expressionism. I guess what I love in those ’80s films is the dirtiness of the cities mixed with the gorgeous, strange lighting that was used. It’s a combination of the two. But of course I was born in 1983, so I have heavy associations from just growing up at that time, that’s when my eyes were forming, through seeing TV and movies from the ’80s. That’s the formation of my brain, my consciousness.
Do you feel satisfied with this recreation – not literally a recreation – but to achieve a look that’s in your brain?
Yeah, absolutely. When I watch this movie it brings me a lot of joy. Obviously there are a lot of upsetting elements to it, but I feel like watching it scratches this itch. I set Stinking Heaven in 1990, but I feel like maybe I want to go a bit further back in time – and I don’t know why. I’m about to turn 34 and you feel the process of aging hit you. Maybe that’s why I’m becoming nostalgic, I don’t know.
Even the fact that it takes place in Paris because it’s also creating a space. For me, the nostalgic pull includes the fact the spaces I’m nostalgic for don’t even exist, even if I go to a specific city.
That’s true, though Paris is a museum of a city and I feel like that really bothered me when I lived there for a spell when I was 25, because it didn’t feel vibrant. I wanted a place that was like New York and I don’t feel that way in New York anymore. I feel flattened here and depressed. Returning to Paris and shooting this film, I did find this pocket that almost felt like I was living in nostalgia – it was kind of grand. The way that the movie feels is how I felt being there. It had an electric resonance and it was lovely. It was a pocket of time that I look back on fondly. It was just a few months ago, I know, but it already feels like it was years ago. It was pre-Trump – a summer of joy.
Did you feel that way when you were editing? I know you usually find that experience difficult, especially looking at the footage in HD. Was this a more calm editing experience?
Yeah, we edited for around five weeks in Paris and then did two weeks in New York, so we had two different editors. I think I was much more depressed during the editing process because we shot in the summer, in August, and I edited in the fall and I was sick most of the time. Everyone around me had colds and it was dreary, but it was still grand in its own way, just a different sentiment. I feel like it was more joyful over the summer, where we’d have these barbecues in the backyard of our Assistant Director’s house, it was grand. Everyone would be drinking after we wrapped for the day, we would all meet at these bars. There’s this bar, Chez Jeannette, where all the actors go and you would run into people. It had a nice quality about it and now that I’m talking about it, I miss it greatly.
When you were locking down the music that was used, not the score but the soundtrack, like the Angel/Maimone tracks, what was the process for that? Were those decisions the music supervisors or did you have specific ideas?
So what happened was that I wanted to go into the edit with some temp music and Sean picked up the Angel/Maimone album when he was in Paris, he bought a bunch of vinyl. He played this for me and I was like, “This is fantastic! I’m going to use it as temp, diegetic music.” We got in touch with them through our music supervisors and they were so jazzed that we were using their music that – I think they had split apart for 25 years – they’re reuniting [laughs]. So we brought this band back together, which is kind of insane. They’re so excited to have their music in the movie. They’re not very well known now, so they asked how the hell we found out about them, but of course Sean just knows the most obscure objects out there, it’s crazy. He’s the one that turned me on to all the diegetic music. We had to replace a bunch of stuff, as it always goes, because you can’t get the rights to certain things, but our music supervisors really got the vibe of the movie, so they helped us immensely. The Angel/Maimone, the fact that they’re reuniting, I think that’s a beautiful thing. At least if this movie does nothing else, it gets back together this band that I think are pretty fantastic, you know?
How did your mom [who regularly appears in the films] enjoy this production experience? You’ve said before that she doesn’t like travelling.
She was pretty miserable during it. She was going through a rough period in her life. She’s moved to a town, which she is having a lot of trouble adjusting to; she’s in the country, she’s in upstate New York, and she’s used to being very close to cities. I brought her out at this time when she wasn’t in the best state of mind, but we did our best to make her comfortable. There’s not a lot of air-conditioning in Europe and she wasn’t happy about that, and the seltzer there is different – she’s not crazy about their version of sparkling water – and she likes ice in anything, and Europeans don’t like to put ice in everything. She wasn’t very happy, but that’s how it goes [laughs].
Speaking of narrators in your films, at what point did Anjelica Huston come into the production?
Basically what happened was that Katie Stern, one of the producers, we were talking about who would be a good fit for the narrator and Katie threw out Anjelica’s name. [Katie’s] at Washington Square Films and Josh Blum, the head of Washington Square Films, had just worked with Anjelica. We sent a DVD to her and she watched it over Christmas and she loved the movie. When I met with her to record her narration, she told me that she loved Lindsay’s performance. She said it’s not someone who’s crazy, it’s someone who’s damaged, and to carry that off takes a lot from an actor. She had a lot of praise for that, but she also said, which I thought was extremely intelligent, was that she heard the [temp] narration and she knew she could make the movie better with her voice. She only wants to work on projects where she feels she can improve them, because there’s no point in working on a project where she’s going to add nothing to the movie. Not in a way where it gets us press, she simply meant that she knew exactly what the narration required and she was capable of that. I thought that was extremely intelligent, what a way to look at work. I never thought about it in that simple way, but yes, of course, that makes complete sense.
It gives it a calming, but also fantastical element.
Absolutely, it creates a distance from the story. There’s a sarcasm, but sarcasm with a heart, like what the music is doing. It’s this idea of injecting it with elements where you know things can’t be taken seriously, but are deadly serious – that’s what we were after.
All of your films have an element of humour, but was this one where it was a new challenge to balance that?
Yeah, because the tone is shifting constantly in the movie – I’m sure you could see that in the first three minutes of it. The movie very much resembles the outline for the middle section to the end, but the beginning was always about finding a balance, we didn’t want to linger too long on the prologue. We went through multiple variations of it. I felt that, tonally, from ten minutes in to the ending, what it needed, but it was the opening that was always a question in my head for the edit. We eventually sorted it all out, as happens, but I feel like with every film I’ve done, it’s either the beginning or ending that’s the spot that I don’t know. That’s the big question mark, but this one we always knew the ending, it was just the beginning [laughs].
Was it Stinking Heaven where the part that was conceived as the ending became the beginning?
Exactly, yeah [laughs]. You never know how these things are going to go. It was more a question of how to get through the U.S. section in an efficient manner. Initially, we had written longer scenes and it was going to be fifteen minutes in the United States and that didn’t seem right. We then cut it down heavily, we knew we wanted it to feel like a montage.
The idea of home and themes of displacement recur in your films, but in this one it seems like it’s more in there in the way that [Gina] doesn’t seem to care about these things. It’s something she loses interest in.
Because her life completely evaporates. She’s a romantic like I am, she’s in love with this person and the person dies, so she has nothing in New York. I talked about this a lot with Chris and Lindsay, but these elements of a flight attendant are not unlike a filmmaker travelling all the time, being bounced from city to city, from festival to festival, and not enjoying the notion of travel all that much after a bit of time. I feel like her character at one point thought it was going to be exciting, travelling around the world, and having this wonderful life, then it ends up being the drudgery of serving people [laughs]. I’m extremely grateful for all the festivals hosting me and bringing me out, but after a while you get very sick of just being dropped in a city for a few days, then being pulled out of it, and having no sense of a home. That goes into her character, as well. Then she just decides on a home because of fate, I guess.
It’s even more self-referential [to filmmaking] because the apartment she chooses allows her to look, this scopophilia of watching her lover.
Yes, absolutely. I also associate it with her having this quixotic way about her, I love these Don Quixote characters and she’s just forcing, bending reality. She’s blind to all the rejection around her and I feel that’s the only way to continue making movies: you have to be blind to the rejection around you, which is constant and nagging at you. [Laughs] I feel she reflects more on the filmmaker that I am, it’s not my love life, it’s almost a representation of how I feel as a filmmaker.
It’s also interesting next to what you’ve said about being a filmmaker influencing social circles, because you work at it so often, and her social circle just becomes related to his friends or his workplace.
Absolutely, [laughs] and her life is also just flight attendants. It’s a good point. Whenever she’s at a party or talking to someone, all she has to talk about is work. I worry I come across like this to non-filmmakers. Maybe they just want me to shut up and talk about the weather [laughs].
It’s one of the great film party moments when that woman cuts her off to leave because Gina’s just talking about being a flight attendant in a very precise way.
The whole party was based on a party we went to in Paris and it feels exactly like it. That day, I shot manically and there was a misunderstanding with the French crew where they thought all the American [crew] had taken drugs that day and we hadn’t. They all treated us like we were crazy. We had a lot of extras and we had to get through the day rapidly, so I was shooting like a madman because I knew what I wanted to edit for that whole sequence. I just remember by the end of the day they were furious with me and I finally found out from my producer that they were convinced that we were all on molly. It was all because of this goddamn miscommunication because the apartment was so small and Sean and I didn’t want to take a shit in the bathroom; we didn’t want to stink up the back where all the actors were getting their hair and make-up done. So we went to a café and went to the bathroom there, then went to have lunch, and I think Sean told the set dresser that we had “done something very special in the bathroom,” and they understood that to mean that we had done drugs. This whole rumour spread around the French crew and they treated us like fucking baby lunatics and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was hyper because I just wanted to get through the day and I was having fun. I love shooting scenes like that. You just swing from one shot to another and just keep it moving. It was quite a day [laughs].
What’s the status with The Perverts? Are you still working on it?
Yeah, I’m going to edit it tonight with Jack [Dunphy]. It’s coming along, hopefully we’ll have picture lock in the next few months. It’s a documentary now. No longer a hybrid.
How do you feel about that?
It’s been a very strange process because it started off much more in the fiction realm and then it revealed itself to be a documentary during the edit, so it’s a funny process. It’s an insane movie and I’m very proud of it.