Necessary Chaos: Director Nathan Silver Talks ‘Stinking Heaven’

Rerun for Stinking Heaven’s theatrical release, beginning at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow.

“I’ve always dreamed of making movies that are not movies, but rather, moving pieces of madness: fitful and raggedly energetic,” said director Nathan Silver when we caught up in Brooklyn last week. As one of the most fascinating independent filmmakers working today, the prolific and maniacally passionate Silver has made five features (The Blind, Soft in the Head, Exit Elena, Uncertain Terms) in five years and shows no signs of slowing down. But it’s that fiendish desire to create and explore that pours over into Silver’s films, making them feel both inspiring and painfully pleasurable to watch. And with his latest film, Stinking Heaven,  Silver once again revisits his affinity for stories that explore the claustrophobic and emotionally fraught experience of familial structures and shared living. Whereas Uncertain Terms took place in a secluded home for pregnant teenagers, here Silver gives us a raw portrait of a suburban safe house for recovering addicts. Set in New Jersey in the 1990s, and featuring an ensemble cast that mixes indie film staples with incredible unknowns, Stinking Heaven intimately explores the daily life and rituals of the house, from group therapy and reenactments to the strained relationships and dynamics that make up their insular world. Shot on lo-fi cameras from the decade, the film plays out as a raw depiction of the tempestuous atmosphere that overcomes the house when a new member begins to disrupt their daily order. Shot through Silver’s neurotic and chaotic lens, we’re given a unique and visceral film that’s as intelligently crafted as it is playful and risk-taking—a refreshing and exciting new work from a director who gets better with each new world he chooses to inhabit.

Last week, I sat down with Silver to chat more about the unbearable joy of cinema, his particular filmmaking process, and directing his mother on screen.

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A little while back you and I were talking about how exciting it is when watching a film feels like an experience and gives you a physical reaction. So I’m curious what films initially gave you that kind of visceral stimulation and had a lasting effect.

When I was a kid I didn’t love movies because as soon as I started to realize what the story was about I got bored. I was very antsy, but I remember loving Batman with Jack Nicholson. Then my parents showed me Un Chien Andalou when I was very young because I was obsessed with Dali’s paintings. The visceral thing didn’t really happen in a movie theater until college, though, because I was more into poetry and literature as a teenager and I thought movies were an inferior art form—I was a really pretentious teenager, obviously.

One of the first major experiences for me was seeing Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex. I watched that because Richard Foreman, who I working for at the time, recommended it. The first ten minutes of it shook me up and I just loved it. I can’t get over the lyricism of it and how crushing it is. I don’t know exactly what’s so crushing about it, but it just gets me. Then there was a Kira Muratova movie I saw just before graduating college, Getting to Know the Big Wide World. I just sat in my seat at Lincoln Center for 20 minutes afterwards; I couldn’t shake that one. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul had a similar effect. That had to do with timing too, because I saw it after a bad breakup in college. I’d gone back to my parents house for a weekend and I rented that from their local video store, and on the side of the VHS was a picture of Fassbinder. I thought he was just going to be one of the actors in it and I thought he was going to kill Ali. I kept waiting for that, but then it ends up being this melodrama love story, and I just fell apart watching it. So these are not necessarily sensory movies; they’re not crushing in the same way that something like Leviathan or Tabu is. I love Tabu because of the way it manipulates sound, and it just crushes you with nostalgia in a way that just gets me so badly. Yesterday we were trying to cut the trailer for Stinking Heaven and the editor and I were having a lot of trouble with it, so we watched the trailer for Frownland. That has such a mania to it, and just that sense of desperation and anxiety—it’s a joy to watch but it’s unbearable. It’s an unbearable joy, and I love that. 

Is that feeling of unbearable joy and energy something you inherently bring to your movies?

There’s a certain neurotic quality I share with the kind of filmmaker who would make a film like that. That kind of energy is also the energy of the music that I’ve loved since I’ve been conscious, like The Fall—that weird, jagged, strangeness. There’s that saying: it’s not music, it’s The Fall. I’ve always dreamed of making movies that are not movies but rather, moving pieces of madness: fitful and raggedly energetic.

Hannah Gross in Stinking Heaven

You begin your films with an outline and the rest is mostly improvised, which almost feels like a reaction to the fact that you studied playwriting and screenwriting. Do you find that because you were forced to do so much writing in a condensed period of time, it’s now freeing to make films in this way? Is it easier for you to do so because that sense of narrative structure and storytelling is engrained in you?

I think so. I’m grateful that I studied all the Aristotelian bullshit. I transferred from the General Studies program to Tisch in my second year, so I was writing very experimental plays. They said, “We’re not going to be able to teach you anything because the only thing you can be taught is structure.” So I gave in and learned all about the “well-made play.” At the time, it was like doing a crossword puzzle or something, trying to fit all the pieces together. But you’ll find them in any good story – they come through unconsciously – it’s just how we tell stories. But I think it’s good to have it hammered into you, spit it out, and reject it – instead of just rejecting it completely outright. It’s good to have some sense of forward motion in movie and the “well-made play” kind of structure enforces it.

Do your ideas come first from characters and people in your world or from dramatic situations you want to explore?

It used to be about situations – I wanted to get in the same subject matter that all these novelists and poets from nineteenth century France were into. I wanted to know that kind of debaucherous lifestyle from nineteenth century France, but it wasn’t what I was living. I started thinking about my own life and what was surrounding me. I started to draw on my mother and other people around me.

Did you draw from the people around you for Stinking Heaven?

It began with Keith Poulson and Deragh Campbell and just figuring out their characters with them. I knew I wanted them to run some sort of cult or commune, but I didn’t know just what kind at the outset. Then after many discussions with them, it became clear that it was going to be a sober-living house. We started doing research on different types of rehabilitation therapy, psychotherapy, and reenactment therapy.

Henry Douvry and Eleonore Hendricks in Stinking Heaven

Those reenactment scenes were fascinating to watch. The first time we see them played out, it feels completely jarring and exciting—but it’s also a risky thing to do. 

It’s a character acting. At first it can come across as bas acting. When someone sees the person going through all this emotional catharsis, many people go, “What the fuck?” I think it’s fascinating, that he distancing effect. Not only is it an uncomfortable situation the character is reenacting, but it’s also uncomfortable for some audience members because they think that potentially the actor is just flailing about – and I love that. I take a lot of joy in that sense of confusion.

Did you have a personal connection to this story?

Part of my family was involved with various communes, so I suppose that’s where the personal connection lies: this idea of people living on top of each other, living toward some end-goal or ideal.

That seems to be something you are working through in all your movies.

Absolutely. With this one it reached its logical conclusion, as there is no protagonist. You’re like passing a baton or something from one character to another. You think Hannah is going to be the protagonist but then she’s not. She just kind of enters the house and is absorbed into it. She wrecks this havoc, but it’s not her story. You’re watching all these characters fall at the wayside and you’re trying to figure out who to stick with, but in the end it’s about the house.

There’s always something going on behind all of these characters’ eyes, which is the mark of good acting but also your work with them to create their character. Do you build that together and work out a backstory even if we never hear about it on screen?

I meet with all of them individually and have them come up with their own back stories and then we discuss and refine and revise as we go. At first, I don’t know what was going to happen story-wise. Once the characters are set, I sit down with a writer and figure out how to structure the story. Of course once the actors begin to actually interact with each other, we must further revise and refine their behaviors. 

Do you like placing that responsibility on the actor?

 Yes, absolutely. I’m so limited in what I can imagine. If you’re going to be working with others, I feel they should be bringing their full minds to the table. It’s not just bringing their bodies.

So is the experience of being there and watching the situations you’ve created unfold what attracts you to filmmaking?

Absolutely. I’m stifling laughing behind the monitor. It’s just so fun. Even if it’s miserable situations, watching people in groups trying to deal with each other, it’s the comedy of life. If you can’t laugh at it, you’re just going to be miserable.

Deragh Campbell in Stinking Heaven

What camera was this shot on?

It’s a Ikegami HL 79E. I can send you the specs. It’s basically a broadcast camera. It was used mostly in the mid-80’s.

How did this camera lend itself to this particular story? What was it about Stinking Heaven on the page that begged for this aesthetic?

During the development phase, I had this sense of doom in my personal life that reminded me of something I remember feeling as a kid in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I was also loading up on all these documentaries from that period, and suddenly I just knew that the movie had to take place back then. I wanted it to have the haze and grime of those documentaries, so we looked into the cameras that folks like Jon Alpert used. As soon as we stumbled onto this particular model through a YouTube clip, I knew we needed to get our hands on it. 

I read that you said each of your movies is a reaction to the last one you’ve made. How was Stinking Heaven a reaction to Uncertain Terms and where does this leave you now for your next movie?

Uncertain Terms was more about telling a classical story, and it was much more scripted. With this one, no dialogue was written and it was way more along the lines of Soft in the Head. So after having something that was more scripted, going back to something that was complete chaos was necessary. Something’s shifted in me, where  I’m developing multiple projects at once, and I no longer have that violent need to react to my last movie.

Is it because you feel like you’ve achieved something specific with Stinking Heaven that you didn’t with your past films?

I can’t say why. I feel somehow all my frustrations with Stinking Heaven are just molecules in the air, so I’m not even aware where they are and I wouldn’t know what to react against. I would certainly shoot on an analog camera again, I would certainly shoot improvised and completely chaotic movie again, it hasn’t shifted that. I want to shoot things that can go a bit further out there with what the story is telling using narration, utilizing surreal elements, and getting out of this linear documentary-style slice-of-life movies. So maybe that’s my reaction to Stinking Heaven

Bringing in more structure would allow for a new kind of absurdity.

There’s has to be some structure to allow the absurdity to shine. You need some string to hang the lights off of. 

Keith Poulson in Stinking Heaven

Do you enjoy acting in your movies?

Yea, I love acting. It’s fun. I hate memorizing lines though. I just get off on reacting to other people, and that’s what acting is—acting is reacting. 

How did you begin casting your mother [Cindy Silver] and what was the experience of working with her like?

In my short films, I would always cast this other woman Carla for the role of the mother, then I realized, Why wouldn’t I just try acting using my mother, because I want the things she says to come out of her mouth. It had nothing to do with Carla’s acting, I liked the way Carla acted in the movie, but my mother is a one of a kind storyteller. I was always fascinated with how many tangents she would go on and how she could talk about five different things at once. She’d be talking to you about about how her friend is in despair and about to commit suicide then turn to another person and say, “The cat’s about to get out!” ask another person if he wanted a glass of seltzer. Her mind’s just bouncing all over the place. Working with her is not necessarily fun, we fight a lot and it’s essentially a traumatic experience for us both during the shoot, but afterwards, we’re completely fine with each other. She’s going to be in The Perverts, and she’s going to be in the Denver movie that I’m shooting in July. It’s like you can’t escape your family and I can’t escape her and she’ll be in my movies no matter how much we fight.

And now she’s won awards for her acting. 

Yea. It’s really funny because she doesn’t want to travel to act. She’ll only travel for me, she says.

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