THE AV INTERVIEW: Director Nathan Williams (If There’s A Hell Below)

Jim Laczkowski:

I really dug the film quite a bit, Nathan.  It was minimal and tension-inducing.

Nathan Williams:

Oh thank you!

Jim:

You presented very rich character types who weren’t necessarily forthcoming with information but it’s not necessarily a struggle to comprehend what they’re experiencing in the moment. But it reminds me of the feeling I would get when I was watching LOST and having anticipation about what’s coming next or why certain things are said.

Nathan:

Ah, cool.

Yeah

Jim:

I really liked the experience of being on the journey with these two people. You took the Edward Snowden story and mixed it with a little bit of Hitchcock.

Nathan:

Nice, I’ll take that sure.

Jim:

Yeah what drew you to tell this particular story, it’s kind of like part chase picture and part intellectual character study.

Nathan:

Yeah, a lot of it is intuitive, it’s a combination of things I just like, you know I like films that are straight forward and fun and then I like films that you know you want to dig into it and the characters don’t tell you everything about themselves and you are, you know you feel rewarded kind of, doing, I don’t want to call it work but engaging with it and exploring. I like to say that I make detective films where the audience is the detective, you know?

You know there is clues and there is hopefully something engaging and rewarding to start with as you don’t want to frustrate people and give them a stone wall of information, but you know help people explore information and ideas and to help tell a story that there is enough there to hang your hat on but also freedom to come up with your own ideas and interpretations and you know to think, you know some of my favourite films I like better the day after than I did the day I watched it because it had time to settle in my brain and go over a few things.  In terms of the specific story, you know when we wrote it, this story was prominent; we didn’t get a direct response to that as much as we were interested in.

In like you say kind of a modern day Hitchcock and you know with Hitchcock it was very often about the cold war, about um you know, and today you know who can you trust, seemed to be you know the rich um areas to explore today and you know we took you know the elements from Snowden and all the other contemporary figures, but we were trying to sell something that was hopefully more universal and doesn’t feel just about that moment in time.

Jim:

Yeah, it’s taking those theme and ideas and sort of combining them with a little bit of genre execution.

Nathan:

Yeah, exactly.

Jim:

To some degree, because I also think a movie like Hell or High Water came out a lot of acclaim sort of has that as well.  Barren landscapes and wide open vastness at times, you know I can’t help but always ask about influences because I’m always excited and curious to know how art inspires other art despite knowing that allot of these stories are either come from something they had read or personal experience or something they completely come up with out of thin air but were there any films that sort of informed choices you made while, like you envisioned while writing this script then going into production.  Was there a certain feel or look from one of your favorite films that you wanted to capture?

Nathan:

Yeah in terms of the writing we didn’t think that you know, I wrote the film with my brother, we didn’t talk too much about specific films, I mean obviously there’s things that influence you whether you want them to or not but once we had the story and kind of knew the point of the film. Along with my cinematographer Christophe, we did you know talk a lot about specific films that captured you know stylistic aspects or a feel or a rhythm or you know one of my favorite era’s you know very practical opinion, one of my favorite era’s of American film was the 1970’s.  And not just looking at 1970’s films like you knows, like The Conversation, I don’t know if you have seen.

Jim:

Oh yeah, that one of my favorites!  I can see the inspiration.

Nathan:

It’s a big touchstone, that a character who tells you almost nothing about himself.  That defines him that he doesn’t so practically he’s the big influence on our main character. But what was exciting about that era in American film was that it was a younger generation of American filmmakers who would just absorb what was going on in Europe and Asia in terms of you know the explosion of art films in the 1950’s and 60’s.

They took some of those stylistic innovations and they brought them to you know, more structured American storytelling and genre and the fusion of the two, you know is exciting and it creates something that can work as an art film. But also works if The Conversation is just as much an arts film as it is a thriller. Coppola was at his peak but that’s what we are going for.  So in addition to looking at those films, you are looking very much at contemporary foreign cinema like Michael Haneke and Claire Denis. Some of these people that are making more art films than mine is but to see what they are doing that’s exciting and new and fusing as to, to this, to this subverted thriller structure.

Jim:

Yeah, I mean the thing that I also point out with 1970’s cinema too, is not only that they were influenced by this whole sort of new wave of European cinema, but also responding to what was going on in the world politically.

Nathan:

Yeah, absolutely, I mean there was a conscious generation of film makers overtly conscious than the previous generation that have to be, everything had to be coded, you know.

Jim:

An era of ambiguity was embraced too, and even though there was a lot of political subtext to what are these films trying to capture and certainly some people have sighted this idea of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre even being an allegory for Vietnam.

Nathan:

I think that is very valid. You have that entire generation with even George Lucas talking about Star Wars as an allegory and obviously he took it to a top level where it’s not overly political.  I think that generation was you know defined by their experience of the 60’s and the 70’s and I’m not aiming for any specific thing necessarily. I want it to stand on its own but like obviously the times you live in affect you as an artist and if you are not at least using it somehow, then you are directly responding or just operating in that context I think you are not really you know fully you know engage in your responsibilities as an artist.

Jim:

That’s a good transition to another one of my favorite filmmakers working today is Kelly Reichardt, who films these expensive environments that I brought up earlier, over there in the Northwest so beautifully like Oregon and most recently Montana and I was going to ask about the locales. The settings you chose being Eastern Washington I believe where there are miles and miles of nothingness. How did you arrive at the locations that you chose?

Nathan:

I should say Kelly is a big influence and I think the most recent we had seen before we started we shot this was Meek’s Cutoff, but we did not shoot at Meeks exact same area but she was in Eastern Oregon, we were in Eastern Washington, she shot whole frame so we did not like you know, ripe off direct composition from her but she is a big influence and one that I really admire.  So that part of the state, I live out here in the Pacific West and so much of you know, Pacific north West cinema is the west of the mountains, the kind of lush rain forestry you know Seattle twilight, Snow Falling On Cedars and those sort of things, this dry rolling treeless landscape that had similarities with the southwest and similarities with California but I think looks like not quite like anything else and I just have been in love with it a long time and kind of looking for the right project to shoot out there.  I did a couple shorts in that area but once we had this story and so much of it was about you know seeing long distances and being in scenes from all angles, that you know if this film was set in a forest you know, you wouldn’t be able to see that car coming 3 miles down the road.

Jim:

Right.

Nathan:

But if the landscape was completely flat you know, like parts of the midwest were there is nothing on the horizon but you can’t quite see definition on the landscape, like in North By Northwest, the airplane crop-dusting scene. It just felt right for the kind of story we are trying to tell that we are combing this um claustrophobia with agoraphobia, we are either crammed in the car or the wide open spaces that you, anyone can be watching that kind of thing.  But it seemed right, but at the end of the day, it seemed like the right choice and exciting to film in, in that anywhere you point the camera, it looked good, we didn’t have to dress the set so to speak. We had to be conscious of what direction the sun was in any point of the time but you know the nature did a lot of work for us in terms of production, you know there was some challenges, it’s three and a half hours away from any major city and getting gear out there and it was very hot, we just fixed on a very small production you know, making sure people had food and water and could go to the bathroom and all that stuff and it was the kind of film I like to do, I like to be out on location, I like you know, I like to be on a sound stage.

Jim:

I’m sure you get this question often, simply because the two actors aren’t household names but the two main actors here that played here in the film, how did they get casted and why did you feel that they were the best choices to play these characters?   I do think they are great so I’m curious and want to learn about them.

Nathan:

So they at the time were both actors working out of Seattle and Conner who plays Abe, has been in number of my short films and he’s a tremendous actor and he’s also just someone I like to work with, part of making a film at this budget level is finding the best people but it’s also finding people that give you, that can work in a margin fare situation that you know, on a take Conner for example but I would rather have gaffer who’s 90% as good but is really reliable and we have issues because of indie filmmaking and someone who is a genius and is difficult, you know and luckily my cast I think is very talented and easy to work with but so having that similarity helped us because we shot very very fast and he was a natural choice. Carol was someone he recommended and it’s a difficult role you know?  We don’t give the audience easy sympathy for her, like “I have got my daughter back at home” or a subplot or a flashback.

That’s a tall order and Carol is you know, she works mostly in theatre and that’s I like theatre actors in that they always know their character, they always have their lines, they come with a lot of built-in structure and she had a very intelligent take on this character and did her research and when she is risking a lot. She had gone and talked to people in the military and talked to business people and you know I love working with actors like that who really own a character and want to bring more to the table than you as a writer or as I as a writer, you know I am not a novelist, I can’t envision every little tiny detail about someone if they are a really committed actor.  So we auditioned a few people but it became pretty evident quickly that they were the right pairing. They are tremendous, so the whole cast was really easy to work with.

Jim:

Yeah, they were very natural and I think of plays where a couple of characters are interacting and sparring off.  Like the work of David Mamet with Oleanna with just like 2 people sparring off in the same room and having contrasting personalities more or less, I think that’s a really strong way to hook people in.  Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned that when he was making Hard Eight that out of the Sundance lab his first thought was, get two people in a car, get them talking, and let the story write itself.

Nathan:

Two people sitting at a table talking to each other and often it’s more engaging than a lot of densely plotted movies.

Jim:

Right, completely agree.

Nathan:

So a lot of filmmaking is just give interesting people something to do and get out of their way, and that’s not all of it, obviously you need to tell a story and have something to say but in terms of engaging an audience, letting your actor do the engaging and not doing the, you have to over, over do it, is often the most effective thing.

Jim:

For my last question here, it’s really just a matter of wondering if there’s something you want people to take away from when they watch this movie, like an idea to ponder over dinner or in the car ride home. Or is it really, and you mentioned this earlier, is this more of an experience of simply letting the audience come up with their own theories about what was taking place and what happened?

Nathan:

I would love to say the movie speaks for itself, get what you want out of it, so that’s how I feel at the same time you know I am not Hitchcock, I’m not Michael Haneke, so I’m happy to, and I do a lot of Q & A’s at festivals. I’m happy to talk about it and try to frame it in a way that is helpful to people. Some people really have an immediate response and some people — they act like I just gave them homework or something.

The movie fundamentally is about trust, about what information do you trust, who do you trust?  The core kind of dramatic conflicts between the two characters is can they trust each other and what it takes to trust each other and I think that one of the most important issues in our world right now is, is you know… we have this election that just happened, you have different sources of information and people trusting some sources more than the other coming to very different conclusions about our world.  And it’s not people that you know, I don’t think and I’m not a sociologist so I’m way out of my debt here. I don’t think it’s a matter of people saying oh this is what’s going on and I want to do the wrong things.  There is just a lot of distrust going on now, but I think it started in the 70’s with Vietnam and Watergate and this distrust in the government and distrust in media and there is distrust in big business and there is distrust amongst the people.  Our tag line in the crowd funding campaign was:  “You have to trust someone, so who do you trust and why?” I will not tell people who to trust and why as much as I think people need to ask themselves consciously what trust choices are you making and why? That’s what I am trying to get at and hopefully on top of it all, tell an interesting story.

Jim:

I do look forward to your next film, this is a great accomplishment for a debut.

Nathan:

Cool, thanks great, hopefully in about 2 years, we are doing this again!

Jim:

Awesome, well I look forward to it, and we will talk again then, ok.

Nathan:

Yeah, great talking to you.

Jim:

Great talking to you, thanks again!

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