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Q&A with Filmmaker Nathan Silver

How to make movies without actors and other insights

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Nathan Silver (left) in "Exit Elena" (exitelena.com)

Nathan Silver thinks most of the movies we see are pretty awful. “People are making great stuff,” the screenwriter says, seeming optimistic for a moment. “It’s just a matter of how much patience we have to sit through the shit.” Luckily for us, Silver has offered to lead the way out.

Since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Silver has released three feature-length films, with his fourth set to premiere early next year. He was invited to the Artists Academy at the 51st New York Film Festival, received glowing reviews from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and has been called “one of the most interesting emerging directors in U.S. indie film.”

Silver is a self-professed “neurotic who loves chaos” and his films reflect that paradoxical personality. I spoke with Silver via Skype, while he was in Canada attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, in anticipation of the digital release of his second feature film, Exit Elena, the story of a live-in nurse who becomes very closely involved with the family she works for. We talked about his movies, his Judaism, and how they intertwine.

Both Exit Elena and Soft in the Head, your third feature film, deal with family relationships. In Exit Elena, Elena essentially joins the family of the elderly woman she cares for, and in Soft in the Head, Nathan’s life is ruled by his parents’ strict Orthodox values. How have you been influenced by your family?

I think a lot of the way I tell stories in my movies comes from the way my mother tells stories. She can’t stick to one story. She goes off on all these tangents and there’s no sense of a narrative, but you’re entranced the whole time. I love the way she tells stories.

I’m realizing more and more that I don’t like just straightforward narratives. I like to have a build there, but I just get bored at the movies so often that I don’t want to bore people any more than they already will be. There are plenty of movies out there that can bore them.

It often seems like there’s almost no plot to your movies, like you’re just following someone around. Why is that less boring?

It’s a good question, how is it less boring, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe I’m just bored making movies that have a more traditional narrative because they’re not fun to make. I like having chaos, I like the sense that I don’t know necessarily what each scene is about. I know where it begins and ends, but I don’t know how it’s going to feel and I don’t know necessarily plot-wise why something is necessary. It just feels like it should be there.

As a director, you use some pretty unusual techniques. While filming Soft in the Head, the actors only knew each other by their character’s names. In both Exit Elena, Soft in the Head, and your upcoming film, half of the cast was made up of non-actors. Why do that?    

After my first feature, which was a disaster, I went into a deep depression and asked myself why I was making movies at all, since this had been such a horrible experience. On that shoot it was all actors. I always wanted to try improvisation, so I started to put together this movie that was going to be improvised. It was a mix of non-actors and actors and on the first night of shooting it fell apart because I didn’t quite know how to work the improvisation. It just felt like pure chaos, sheer chaos, and it was a disaster.

So I put that film to rest and decided to make a movie with people who wouldn’t leave. It was my mother, myself, my best friend behind the camera, my girlfriend at the time, my elderly neighbor, all these people who basically wouldn’t leave the set and who would stick with me through the process of me trying to figure out how to work with improvisation. That’s why Exit Elena was made with mostly non-experienced actors.

How has Judaism influenced your films?

I never really went to temple, I was never bar mitzvahed, but both my parents are 100 percent Jewish. I would say that Jews are able to make light of misery and find humor in it—it just seems like that’s part of the culture and I think that’s something that certainly is in my movies. There’s a miserable aspect and hopefully the humor comes out too. Maybe it’s just cliché neurotic Jewish guy, but that’s part of my whole filmmaking too.

Also, I guess eating is important in Judaism and I always have table scenes.

Yeah, I noticed a lot of dining scenes in Exit Elena, and especially in Soft in the Head.

I think that it’s so interesting to sit at a table and just watch all the dynamics. In the movies you’re always focused on the people who are not talking or just listening or hearing all this noise around them. I like the discomfort of being stuck at a table. You can’t get up. You’re forced to sit through it and finish the meal. Also the fact that all these people are in different moods, and you can see all the power dynamics.

I just love dinner scenes. I also enjoy eating, but I don’t like sitting at a meal after I finish. I like to eat and get up—it gives me anxiety to sit there. I think the meals in my movies are kind of anxiety-inducing, or at least that’s what people tell me. I think I’d like people to understand that the way I view the world is as this source of constant anxiety.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Q&A with Filmmaker Nathan Silver

How to make movies without actors and other insights

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