When to Edit Your Series into a Feature: Nathan Silver on 'The Great Pretender'
New York's own Nathan Silver's latest feature had a rather winding road to the big screen.
Romance, like so much of everything in New York, is hard to come by, especially if you're still grieving over a breakup with an ex-lover who used to call you his gorilla.
So it goes in Nathan Silver's acerbic comedy, The Great Pretender, a film that tells the story of a French playwright, Mona (Maëlle Poesy-Guichard), who is in rehearsal for a play she's directing about her recent breakup with Nick (Linas Phillips). Love reaches further through the air: the two thespians on stage playing the mourning lovers, Chris (Keith Poulson) and Thérèse (Esther Garrel), are also romantically interested in one another. Well, Thérèse is interested in Chris, while Chris is interested in Mona, and Mona may still possess a feeling or two about Nick. Oh, and Chris now has gonorrhea that he may have received from Mona.
If this sounds like a romantic quadrangle meant to emotionally tear you apart, Silver and his writing partner Jack Dunphy are less interested in the purgatory dwellings of a bad breakup than they are with the grief that finds its way into these characters' lives. Elderly, sickly parents pass away, stumbling drunk dads get their children removed from their lives, and the fear of never finding someone (or only finding someone once) looms large.
If the film feels episodic in nature, there's a specific (although not singular) reason for that: New York-based filmmaker Silver and Dunphy originally shot The Great Pretender as a web series to be told in five parts. That it ultimately became a feature is just one of the many things Silver spoke with No Film School about on the eve of The Great Pretender's currently ongoing theatrical run at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.
No Film School: How did this project come about as being ideal for your latest feature? Had you been looking to tell a story from multiple perspectives?
Nathan Silver: Basically, when I was editing Thirst Street [in France], I came up with the idea of bringing these actors to New York to shoot something, because I wanted to continue to work with some of the people I'd gotten to know there, including Esther Garrel. I'd met Maëlle Poesy-Guichard, who plays Mona, a few years prior, and we talked about collaborating for a bit of time, and then I was like, "Oh, maybe I could do something where she plays [a playwright]," because she is a well-known playwright and director in France, and so "maybe I could do something where she is a French director who comes to New York to stage a play." That was the impetus for the project.
I started sending notes to my screenwriter Jack Dunphy, and at the time, it was going to be a web series. We had written the pilot for it and started showing it around, and then BRIC decided to produce it and we wrote the rest of the episodes. It was initially supposed to be a five-part web series. And then as we got closer to production, Jack and I realized that it would be better as a feature, and so we decided that it was going to be feature before we started shooting. We could feel it was going to turn into that. There was always a thread of the project to be a web series because that was what it was supposed to be, but then BRIC allowed us to turn it into a feature. They're also producing The Show About The Show and a few other series. They have to be shot in Brooklyn, basically, and Matt Grady, the producer on this, had already worked with them a few times prior, and so he pitched the project to them, and they really dug it. They were behind it and they financed it. Basically, it's a BRIC production.
"I had started off as a playwright and wanted to do experimental theater when I was at New York University. That's what my major was."
NFS: By telling the story from these different characters, the film develops a flow that comes as much from the narrative as it does from the edit. Could you speak about how the editing of the picture helped structure this story?
Silver: Well, I think it was always structured in this fashion, to be broken up into five parts. When we knew we were turning the project into a feature, we didn't want to miss that quality or that aspect of it. We always knew that we wanted to break it up into these five sections, that the first section would be first-person narration in French, the second section would be first-person narration in English, the third would be a phone conversation between Thérèse and her mother, the fourth was supposed to be Thérèse talking to Nick, but that didn't quite work in the edit, so we had to rewrite it and use just a third-person, old man narrator (and that fit into place), and we knew that the fifth section would always be without any sort of narration, because it would be the play itself, you know? It would be a combination of it all. And still, each person has their own delusions, and we wanted to show how they think of themselves and how they are in other people's eyes, and that structure allowed for us to really tackle that.
NFS: You've made a movie, in part, about the intimacy (and immediacy) of theater. What made you choose this art as opposed to saying making the character of Mona a filmmaker, for example?
Silver: I had started off as a playwright and wanted to do experimental theater when I was at New York University. That's what my major was. I thought that that's where I would end up, and then I mentored under Richard Foreman, and he said that theater was a dying art form and that I should get into film and he turned me onto filmmakers. Of course, he was being hyperbolic about that "jump", but it stuck in my brain because I was 19, you know? I would go around the corner to Kim's Video and see anything that I could that he recommended, like [the films of] Manuel de Oliviera, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and all this stuff, and I became obsessed. I ended up quitting that internship and switched over to becoming a screenwriting major.
I knew that I wanted to make something about the theater because I used to go to two or three plays a week when I first got to New York, and obviously it's something that I don't really think about anymore, or engage with, but it feels like it helped form me as a filmmaker. That's the thing that led me to filmmaking, so I wanted to revisit it. The play that Mona puts on is not at all the kinds of plays that I would want to put on, or that Maëlle puts on. It's based on this thing that I remember seeing in college that was just pretty awful. It had a mattress on stage and that was it, and so I always thought it would be fun to poke fun at that kind of amateurish production.
"Since we couldn't afford a matte box and we couldn't afford filters for the lens, Sean was like, 'We'll just go to Chinatown. We'll get some plastic cut,' and it was just cheap plastic for the lens."
NFS: What kind of conversations did you have with cinematographer Sean Price Williams about the look of the film? The film often appears shot in a soft focus that presents the story as a hazy series of memories...
Silver: Well, when we were bankrupt, we had talked about all these Polish filmmakers who had gone to Paris to shoot films, like foreigners who went to Paris to shoot movies. We also talked about French filmmakers who came to New York to shoot, and Sean had showed me a film called New York After Midnight. They were kind of softcore, gay porn films, and so we took some of the colors from the stuff he had shown me, and for the whole look of the film, we had talked about melodramas and soap operas, this nostalgic quality.
Since we couldn't afford a matte box and we couldn't afford filters for the lens, Sean was like, "We'll just go to Chinatown. We'll get some plastic cut," and it was just cheap plastic for the lens. That's what gives the film that weird look. And regarding the colors, well, you grow up with this romanticized version of a city. It's almost like Mona grew up with a New York of the imagination, and then she comes to visit it, and the interactions that happen are pretty ugly, but it still had this haze of joy of being a foreigner in a city that she grew up wanting to belong to.
NFS: The film also has a strong reliance on primary colors that stand out like a chromatic dream, if you will. They feel intentionally exaggerated. Was that an intentional directorial choice?
Silver: Sean and I always talked about the lighting being emotionally motivated. We didn't question it. We just started to light. We don't have to be motivated by anything practical in the room, and so we just took it one setup at a time and then it all seemed to pull together in the edit. When you have a very small budget, you don't have much money to put into putting productions on, and so you want to paint with whatever lights you have. That's what we did.
NFS: The film often features characters speaking in voiceover. When this occurs, you occasionally cut to an aside presented in a boxed aspect ratio that's quirky and humorous in nature. Was this done as a way to further break up the visual style of the film?
Silver: Yeah, and we decided to be playful with it. We were talking about the TV films that Mike Leigh and Fassbinder had made, and you got to fuck around [back then], and it's not like this deadly serious thing where your career lives or dies on this film, and all this money has been shoved into it. It feels smaller, and so there's more room to play, you know?
NFS: You've shot several films in New York City. What has been the biggest issues and annoyances you've encountered along the way when it comes to securing exterior locations?
Silver: Well, we didn't get permits for this one. We would just steal shots. We got kicked out of a few parks, but after shooting a few things here, you know how to navigate the city. It's a pretty easy city to shoot in. People don't really seem to care all that much. We knew that in certain parts of the city, we couldn't put a tripod down and stuff like that, but for the most part, we had a very tight schedule. It was 13 days, 11 full days and two skeleton days, and so it was like rush, rush, rush. We just knew that we had to pack it all in. I think it's my 8th movie. I'm just used to that rhythm, and shooting in New York City is, I find, a lot easier than other places I've been. Like, when we shot in Paris, we had to get permits for everything. It was very much by the book.
NFS: You mentioned working on the film with Jack Dunphy. Do you have any tips or takeaways for collaborating with another writer and finding the story between you both?
Silver: It's our third collaboration, and on this one, he wrote the script. I didn't have [much to do with that]. I would give notes on it, but I would send him a few pages of ideas for the characters and the structure, and then he went with that and would deliver each section to me. We would revise each section before we moved onto the next one. He sent me the Mona section, for example, and he would work on that until it was in good shape, and then the Chris section, and so on, and so forth. Working with him, we have a shorthand now because we know each other so well. Jack knows what I'm after, I know what he's after, and we know how things are going to fall.
It's weird. I've collaborated on all of the scripts, all of the outlines, for my movies with other writers, and in each working situation, it varies. It differs. It's the other person. It's how you find a message that works for the two of you or the three of you, you know?
"It's hard to get people out to see movies anymore. I don't know what the fuck the deal is."
NFS: The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. Did you have a particular festival strategy in place?
Silver: Well, BRIC told us basically that if it didn't get into Sundance, SXSW, or Tribeca, it would have to be a web series.
NFS: Oh, really? Wow.
Silver: So we were relying on it [getting into one of those]. Basically, the fact that it played Tribeca allowed us to keep it a film, and we were very grateful for that. The film festival has been extremely supportive, including Frédéric Boyer and Cara Cusumano, and it's really nice to get to show it to all of the people who made it, as they're already based here in New York.
NFS: So would you have had to recut the project if it hadn't been accepted to one of those three festivals?
NFS: We're talking as your film is screening for a week-long run at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. Is theatrical exhibition still a goal for you as a filmmaker and, if so, has finding it proved more challenging as your career has continued?
Silver: Theatrical distribution is absolutely still a goal. I mean, I feel like this movie, in particular, does really well with an audience. It's a comedy, and I feel like being in a room with other people and being able to laugh with others [is beneficial to the film]. It also has a really bizarre look, and I feel like when you see it on a big screen, it feels somewhat awkward, because it was shot for a small screen. When we were shooting it, Sean thought that it was just going to be seen on computer screens, so it's kind of funny, as that's what everything was framed for. When you show it on a big screen, it plays against what it was initially intended for.
It's hard to get people out to see movies anymore. I don't know what the fuck the deal is. I don't know why people don't get their asses in the seats. It makes no sense to me. I think it's such a pleasure to watch films with other people, and I don't get it. I mean, I feel like people talk about or debate all this stuff to death in the film industry, but it feels like it's on its way out, right? Or it feels like it's a museum almost. It feels like it's a longer....I don't know. I have nothing to really add to the conversation regarding national distribution unfortunately because my whole focus is just on making these movies, and then however they get out to the world, that's how they get out into the world. I hope that people will be able to see them later on in some form, and hopefully in theaters. It's always a pleasure, and I feel lucky that all my movies have opened in New York.