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Men I Trust: An Interview with Nathan Vass

Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

My name is Nathan Vass and I’m an author, filmmaker and bus driver living in Seattle. My first exposure to film was my parents showing me 8mm prints of Charlie Chaplin. Unlike most people I started with classic films and gradually began watching newer ones, rather than beginning with new films and working my way back; perhaps because of this, I’ve tended to approach film as art more than as entertainment. Life and people are entertaining enough all by themselves– when watching a film I instead want to be moved, to learn something about human nature and how other people see or experience living.

My parents are both painters and my training is in film photography, so I entered cinema from the visual side, excited by the dynamism of camera movement and editing. I’d experienced painting, photography, literature, music and theatre all before discovering films; to find a medium that combined all of those into one art form was heady and overwhelming. I’m most inspired by directors who actively use the language of the camera, the cut, and sound to convey meaning. Cinema’s ability to reach us on the sub-lingual level of music and dance, except with the use of images, makes it for me the most potent art form.

Although film is a good medium for storytelling, I believe it has applications beyond that; cinema, especially Pure Cinema, can communicate with incredible power the sensation of another person’s experience. Because of this film is the great empathy-building machine. It offers us a window into the lives of others, and into the perceptions of others. For all these reasons I love watching films.

I endeavor to make films similar in approach to the films I love– character-based more than plot-based, assumptive of the viewer’s intelligence, concerned with real-life questions, and enthusiastically involved in conveying meaning aesthetically, where form isn’t superlative to content but the essential means by which that content’s meaning is relayed to the viewer.

Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?

Short films usually involve a small number of characters, few scenes, and tend to follow a single-act structure wherein a reversal at the film’s end causes the viewer to reconsider the narrative’s previous events. I wanted to circumvent these expectations and challenge myself by making a short film with crowd scenes, multiple languages, time periods, styles of cutting, lighting, and a structure closer to that of the third act of a feature.

These however were not the explicit impetus to make the film, but rather a natural aftereffect of writing this particular script. MIT is my ninth short, and I wanted to push further in a few different directions compared to what I’d attempted on earlier films. One carryover from previous work is this script’s dropping the viewer en medias res, and trusting that they’ll make sense of things as they go along. The aforementioned new logistical challenges made pre-pro and production more daunting than they would otherwise be, but worth it.

I was unprepared for the challenge of casting multiple actors to play the same role at different ages, and was thankful for Seattle’s large pool of trained theatre actors. We looked at about 100 people for the three characters/six parts. We were fortunate to be able to use natural light for the second half of the film, despite some difficulties with weather. Assembling the number of extras needed also presented a challenge, but these and other hardships were overcome with an excellent team of enthusiastic, experienced, helpful and professional crew. I was grateful to have cast and crew who were well above the skill level of many short films, and yet willing to work with me!

One challenge in the pre-vis stage was to ensure that this film, despite being dialogue-heavy and somber in topic, was a rich, vibrant experience filled with color, movement, music and light. I was intrigued by the paradox of life’s intense beauty and vitality in contrast to its ephemerality, pervasive amount of loss, and rejection of conclusive analysis. It felt appropriate to situate these tough dialogue scenes in natural spaces drenched with beauty, a reminder that though humans are preoccupied with endings, nature is always beginning.

What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?

Men I Trust is about facing the unsolvable questions we encounter when we experience loss. As Milan Kundera wrote: “Only the most naïve of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers.” How does one explore on film the central challenge of human existence, the fact that life appears to have meaning sometimes but not at other times? All religions and philosophies are attempts to find solutions for this problem, but art has the luxury of not needing to provide answers. It can simply explore.

MIT does not have a villain, a resolution, nor much of a plot; just characters, who ultimately come to conclusions closer to acceptance than understanding. I find myself making films about things at the upper limit of my comprehension; I must be trying to learn something about the subjects in making the films, but any delineation of these matters into words would be suppositions made after the fact. It’s been argued that directors merely make variations of the same film over and over again all their lives. If this is true, the film I find myself repeatedly making is that of a character breaking free from a pattern of thought, and finding release in some sort of new, expanded awareness.

Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?

I wait until I have something to say, and some understanding of how to express it. The storyteller Paul Currington encourages telling stories “from your scars, not your wounds;” some time has to pass before you can comprehend an experience you’ve lived with clarity, and the time will only improve your ability to translate it into a worthwhile story. I find my best ideas happen without my searching for them, without my forcing them into existence; one flows along with life and all its details, and suddenly, the idea is there. Consuming art and literature helps with this.

Also, I cannot dedicate myself to the years necessary to make a film if isn’t my own, and if I don’t have anything meaningful to explore. Once I have a theme or concept in mind, I ingest a lot of art related to the topic, in the form of other films but also painting and literature, seeing how other art forms explore the same ideas, and seeing if I can incorporate something in what for me is a cinematically fresh way. If a script and concept for execution can be completed, then begins the process of attracting talent and funding. I continue to look at other films, especially during editing, for further ideas.

Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?

Terrence Malick, for his thoughtful embrace of existence with wonder; his willingness to deviate from storytelling norms, especially in terms of film grammar; his trust in the viewer to develop their own conclusions, which often evolve or change from viewing to viewing; his use of natural light and wide-angle lenses; the purity of his sincerity, sensitivity, and lack of irony; the degree to which his work is free from the careerist/materialist credo of most contemporary Western thought; his lack of judgment over his characters; and his tendency to photograph light as a presence.

Also Martin Scorsese, similarly for his trust in the viewer to make up their own mind about characters’ decisions; his advocacy and knowledge of classic film; his prodigious editorial talent and degree of intention behind moving the camera; Michael Mann, for his compositional sense and intense respect of the viewer’s intelligence; Andrea Arnold, for her depiction of undersung lives with sympathy, remarkable use of color and dazzling technical prowess, specifically her deployment of narrow lenses and revitalizing of the 1.33 ratio as a portrait frame; and Antonioni and Fellini, for each exploring similar themes in completely different, but equally compelling, ways in the early 1960s.

How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?

The industry has always involved people who are not filmmakers financing films, and this means filmmakers have always had to justify creative decisions from a financial perspective. This limits the medium. If you have an opportunity to make a film without creative oversight, even if the financial constraints are severe, this is a gift. Take it. The industry favors low-risk, high-return projects, which means films taking creative risks are less likely to gain exposure. This throttles, specifically, the speed of cinema’s development; in a conservative environment change necessarily happens more slowly. Although more voices can make films now, and excellent films continue to be made, they are less likely than ever to find an audience. COVID complicates things by requiring added logistics, insurance, personnel, and equipment, and represents a new roadblock for filmmakers. It encourages smaller-scale production. I could not make MIT’s crowd scenes now with the ease I was able to pre-pandemic.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?

Do not make films for the sake of getting attention or pleasing others. The work is so demanding and long in duration, and requiring of so many varied skills, that it’s only worth undertaking if you’re making the art for yourself, and if you enjoy every step of the process. Anything else will result in disappointment. Make a film because you have something to say, and because film is the ideal medium for expressing it.

More films are made per year than ever before, by an enormous margin, and although it is easier than ever to make films, it is harder than ever to get your film seen. There are just so many films: even a Cannes selection can be forgotten in a few years. The statistical reality of this is that your film, even if it’s excellent, is likely to be seen by only a small number of people. That is okay. If your art resonates strongly with even just one viewer, it’s a success. There will always be other films that are more extreme, more expensive, and louder than yours. Instead of competing for visibility in those areas, I advocate simply for making something meaningful, that conveys your truth of experience authentically. No one can compete with that.

Also, I strongly encourage aspiring filmmakers to watch a lot of classic and international films. Making films without knowing what’s come before risks amateurish results that are beneath your potential. Watching the Sight & Sound 250 is a great place to start. Learn the canon so you can build on it, deviate from it, break its rules, and improve it. Knowing the amazing innovations of things like Soviet montage, the city-symphony films, or the vast pool of ideas from the underappreciated filmmakers highlighted in Mark Cousins’ 15-hour Women Make Film open your eyes to what is possible in cinema. All previous films are a conversation about what cinema can be. Take part in that conversation! One cannot meaningfully contribute to the canon without first knowing it. Add to it, while discovering an incredible, mostly glorious, sometimes terrible, and altogether fascinating legacy of art!

Also, I feel that the artist cannot create meaningful art unless she is also living life. Films that, in their substance, derive too obviously from other films, rather than life, are limited in value. For this reason the work from filmmakers with backgrounds besides filmmaking (Nolan, Kubrick, McQueen, Varda, Welles) can resonate, and this is cause for suggesting that a degree in something besides filmmaking is desirable.

Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?

The best examples of film causing social change all predate social media, smartphone culture, and the focus on comic-book adaptations. JFK caused such a public furor that it resulted in new US legislation; A Short Film About Killing had such impact with Polish viewers that it resulted in the overturning of that country’s death penalty; Amadeus was so popular it resulted in Mozart topping popular music charts; Depression-era American criminals modeled their speech patterns after the immensely popular Ben Hecht screenplays; Bergman’s smash-hit Scenes From a Marriage led to an increase in divorces in Sweden.

These moments stem from a time when films were significant cultural artifacts. Due to the American studio system today primarily targeting only one demographic (superhero fans aged 18-34), films no longer have the wide reach they once did as cultural talking points; films today, whether art or commercial, are aimed at too small of a portion of the population for widespread impact. Put simply, too few people now are watching any single film. This situates film in the niche art categories of formerly populist mediums like opera and dance.

Nevertheless, it is important to recall that change starts with the individual, and that is where films continue to have enormous impact. Stories come from our wishes and fears, and they create a link between our ancestors, ourselves, and our futures. They tell us about ourselves and add to life a modicum of comprehensibility. They make it bearable. They remind us of the beauty of joy and the value of suffering. Film will continue to resonate on these levels, and as artists we must continue offering new interpretations of existence, new reminders of goodness, hope, wonder, and vitality– for ourselves and others.

What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?

The pandemic has invited viewers to further consider cinema as a solitary medium. I have mixed feelings about this, as I believe films are best viewed theatrically, ideally with a group of silent but active viewers. I shoot and cut my films for theatrical. The principal benefit of theatrical viewing, aside from the obvious and wonderful advantages of size, accurate color, and surround sound, is that the viewer commits to 1) seeing the full work, and 2) seeing the work with no distractions. In this the medium of film is more aligned with dance, opera and theatre than it is with literature, radio or television. These two commitments are essential expectations on the part of the filmmaker, and in home streaming they are not always honored by the viewer. Although theatrical viewing can have its own problems (namely, unruly audience members!), it surpasses even the most extravagant home theatre setup in terms of immersiveness, and offers the possibility of shared group experience of art.

The pandemic has allowed for a wider sociocultural dialogue on loneliness being a central quality of human existence. Robert Kolker has suggested that all great films are in fact about loneliness, but as far as a shift in cinematic subject matter resulting from the pandemic, we won’t see that for years if at all, in part because it takes years to make a film, and because so many films are made from so many contrasting sources that themes across all or even most of them are impossible.

The only meaningful shift in cinema’s content in the last decade has been an increased profile for pictures featuring women or people of color in significant capacities, and a decline in mid-budget features for adults. I’m more curious about the future of streaming, which is starting to reveal itself as a tenuous and uneconomic model for making and especially preserving films.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

I recently finished shooting a feature film in a style inspired by my time working as an assistant editor on Terrence Malick’s new film. Like his work it was shot with natural light and without a script, and seeks to incorporate intuitive decision-making in both shooting and editing; however, the subject matter and themes are different, and I’m equally inspired by a number of other influences, namely Eisenstein’s theory of Early Sound Counterpoint, Miguel Gomes, and other filmmakers exploring the degrees of contrast and correlation possible in the relationship between image and sound.


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