'Love Your Subject": Director Nickolas Rossi on His Film About the Life & Music of Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith is one of the most prolific and authentic figures in the contemporary singer/songwriter era and is synonymous with intimate, honest folk music. His songs are cinematic in the sense that they are character studies, "little pictures made of words" that capture a certain person, time or place. Many documentaries have tried to have been made over the years, but Nickolas Rossi has succeeded in making the first feature-length Elliott documentary with permission to use his music. Read on for our interview with the director Nickolas Rossi on constructing a portrait of Elliott's life and work.
First, check out the Heaven Adores You trailer:
"It felt like that conversation was the 'Elliott Smith' conversation, if you were gonna talk about him you were gonna talk about his death, and it completely missed the entire point of what he was doing for 15 years."
NFS: What's your background and how you got involved in this documentary?
Nickolas Rossi: For the past 10 years I've worked as a cinematographer, I started my career in Los Angeles being a camera assistant. I did a lot of different projects in the past decade, and having the responsibility of telling stories visually is something I'm very comfortable with. And I'm a music person, too -- I get inspired by listening to music and looking out the window of a car or a train. So approaching this project, initially it was gonna be: Elliott's music and cinematography. I'd never directed a film before, but I've worked with a lot of really talented directors, and I thought that I would know how to ask the right questions and provide the visuals to support that.
I produced a very low-budget little standard def video back in 2003 of the Elliott Smith memorial wall as a way of saying, "I honor Elliott, I honor his music, I'm really sad that he's gone. Here's a little YouTube video." And that video kinda blew up a little bit, and I started realizing that he really touched a lot of people across the globe, not just in the US. He's been gone for 7 or 8 years but people are still discovering his music.
NFS: When did you know this was the right project for you to direct?
Nickolas: I enjoy shooting other people's movies, I enjoy being a cinematographer, but this project just seemed to fit with my background. I lived in Portland in the 90's, I went through the whole post-punk Portland thing. I was 20 years old when I first moved there. It seemed like this was the film that I would be really comfortable trying my hand at being a director.
Director Nickolas Rossi
NFS: Did you ever meet Elliott back in those days or have any interactions with him?
Nickolas: I met him once in a really crowded street in London as a fluke. I just happened to be in London in 1998, he was on the XO tour, I read in the paper that he was playing a club in London and I thought, "Hey, that's that guy from Portland." So, I went down and waited outside the club and said, "Hey I'm from Portland too!"
When he lived in Portland he wasn't a celebrity. He was just another guy in a band, but we would see Elliott play to these small rooms and he became this person that you just wanted to go and see, because he had these songs that would literally quiet the room. It was strange for a guy to be able to sit down and quiet a room just with his lyrics and his guitar.
And 16 years ago if you said, "You're gonna meet Elliott Smith on the street in London, and then 16 years later you're gonna make a film about him," I wouldn't have believed it.
"It became apparently that if we just have Elliott narrative his own story and have his friends there to support his journey then we make something that was honorable to him. "
NFS: As someone who thought I'd heard and seen everything ever created by Elliott, you managed to find some hidden gems for this documentary. Was was the process of uncovering that material?
Nickolas: I brought on amazing producers who were instrumental in getting this done. We had a producer named Kevin Moyer in Portland who had an extensive network with a lot of the people we spoke to. I worked with a producer who is a friend of mine from Los Angeles, Jeremiah Gurzi, who was amazing and supportive to get what seemed like an impossible project off the ground. We just started shooting footage, and talking to people, and interviewing people on camera.
By the time we sat down with Larry Crane, the archivist for all of Elliott's music, he started playing us all this amazing stuff from high school from his bands before "Heatmiser". I didn't realize he had been making all this music since he was 12 or 13 years old.
NFS: Elliott's music is probably the most important artistic discovery of my life. The film made me weep just looking at some of those images in context. I'm always worried when people talk about him that they won't get it right, but this was clearly made by someone who cares a lot.
Nickolas Rossi: Yeah that was the whole idea, just trying to do something for Elliott since he did all this amazing stuff for us. He gave us all this amazing music and it was a nice gesture to give back, and give something to the fans. And to just say thank you to Elliott Smith. And hopefully there will be a whole new crop of fans out there when the film is more widely released and that people will continue to discover his music and be influenced by, and be touched by it and be able to share it with their friends.
It's a good thing I didn't try to make this movie 10 years ago when I was a different person. Age and experience helps with that. When Elliott died it was this big "Oh my god!" moment, but now people have done what they can to heal from that, but it seemed like his friends were in a better place, and were able to really clearly look back at that time and think about their friend.
"You really have to really love the subject of your documentary, you have to just throw yourself and your entire life into this other person's story."
NFS: What were some of the difficulties making a film about such a prolific and beloved figure? What was your main intention in finding the right tone to approach Elliott's life?
Nickolas Rossi: It was hard trying to sit down with people who had lost somebody very dear, and we had to make sure our intention for making the film was about the music. Because I think at the end of Elliott's life there was a lot of conversation about the last hour of his life. And it felt like that conversation was the "Elliott Smith" conversation, if you were gonna talk about him you were gonna talk about his death, and it completely missed the entire point of what he was doing for 15 years. That struggle became just sitting them down with people and making sure they knew we wanted to honor him and create a beautiful tribute. We didn't want to build it into any sensationalist journalist drama that surrounded the last part of his life.
At the same, time it wasn't as challenging as I thought, because everybody seemed to have really beautiful things to say about their friend. It became apparently that if we just have Elliott narrative his own story and have his friends there to support his journey then we make something that was honorable to him. It was a wonderful and creative process to have Elliott tell his story and use his music to narrative his journey.
NFS: Though you didn't have the official endorsement from his family, you did have permission to use his music. How did that come about?
Nickolas Rossi: His family in no way endorsed the project, but that's sort of their general stance on anything Elliott related. We reached out to them very early in the process and we needed their permission to start the conversation with the label. So we said, "Is it okay if we contacted Universal and Kill Rock Stars and start talking to them about licensing the music?" And we got the okay on that, but other than that there was no involvement of the family, except with Elliott's sister Ashley, talking to her and getting her contributions to the project. The benefit shows she put on and being able to shoot those and the outpouring of support.
NFS: Just seeing some images of him and using shots of Portland and New York and LA, and just giving the audience some breathing room and letting the audience listen to the music. You got that sentiment right.
Nickolas Rossi: It was important to help re-direct the mythology about Elliott Smith the sadsack guy, the guy who made sad music, the guy who's always depressed. There's all this great music, why would you wanna categorize someone's career by what was going on with them personally. His music will live forever. This project was: let's have a conversation about the poet, the writer, the musician.
"The technical parts of making of documentary are never glamorous."
NFS: What parts of Elliott's story did you end up leaving out?
Nickolas Rossi: Some of the things we left out were things that were really super-fan specific. Larry was gonna lead us through different evolutions of the songs. There was a lot of amazing stuff about the music evolving, different versions of songs. It was the stuff that was very specific minutia about how he recorded a song. It's all stuff that one day would be cool as a DVD extra for a super-fan, but for a 90 - 100 minute movie we just wanted to just put down the essential story that we needed to tell.
NFS: You can hear that in the film even if it's not explicitly talked about.
Nickolas Rossi: If you know Elliott Smith, then you know when Murder of Crows is playing "Three" -- that's the beginning of what would become "King's Crossing" years later. There's a lot of untitled songs with no lyrics in the film, recordings from the 90's, and if you're familiar with his catalogue you'll start to hear the beginnings of songs that we now know.
NFS: No mention of King's Crossing in the film?
Nickolas Rossi: For me there was an ode to King's Crossing in the film, there's one shot when Joanna is talking about her relationship with Elliott. There's a shot there of a sign-post of Northeast Freemont & 16th street, and that to me is my little conscious way of letting myself remember that is the corner that Elliott lived on, which was 6 blocks away from where I lived on Martin Luther King & Freemont, which is what Elliott refers to as King's Crossing. So by putting these little images in there, if you're really looking to understand Elliott you might catch that.
NFS: Advice to other documentary filmmakers who might be working on their first film as a director?
Nickolas Rossi: Love the subject that you're doing. It's a whole other thing to work on a narrative: you have a script, you have the beginning and the end. On a documentary you never realize how long it's going to take. This film took five or six years. You really have to really love the subject of your documentary; you have to just throw yourself and your entire life into this other person's story. It was weird making a film about a guy I only met once that isn't around anymore. All we had to work from was the past. Trying to put a story together like that is challenging, but it becomes a much more enjoyable process, and at the end you're really glad you spent the time making this love letter to this person.
NFS: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.
Nickolas Rossi: I love No Film School, it's awesome. In some ways I was like, "No Film School, so are we gonna talk about technical stuff? Lenses and cameras?" The technical parts of making of documentary are never glamorous. The most glamorous part of making this film is we got to go on a helicopter. It wasn't like we were on set and could light everything. We were just walking around with a camera and shooting stuff, listening to Elliott Smith, and revisiting parts of my past and places Elliott used to go.
Heaven Adores You will have its East Coast Premiere at the upcoming AFI Docs on June 20th & 21st, so check it out if you're in town.
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