While studio executives often gripe about the gamble in mounting dramas, Nelson has a knack for getting his feature ambitions off the ground, topped off with a number of notable prestigious actors. Some indie filmmakers have to wait years to get their films funded, or have to grin and bear an actor’s unavailability before rolling, however, Nelson admits, “I have not found it incredibly difficult to get my movies financed with one exception, my project Seasons of Dust. At a certain point it seemed to be financed, but then fell apart, but I intend to make it. I have a sense of how to get my indie projects off the ground.”
Nelson doesn’t wince at the industry’s whining about dramas. For Nelson, no indie drama is stigmatized when it come to financing. “I think at the right budget with the right cast, and the right vision you can make a movie. It’s not necessarily going to make a lot of money, but none of us are making money as we work for scale. But when we get our movies made, we all end up subsidizing because the market is so squeezed.”
His latest film Anesthesia was funded from all private equity, “a combination of somewhat sophisticated movie financing and first-time investors” says Nelson giving a shout out to his producers Julie Buck and Josh Hetzler who handled the money-end. Anesthesia was funded before Nelson secured his cast which doesn’t happen that often in the indie finance world . “My financiers knew because of my track record that I would deliver a good ensemble, and that made them feel safe about their investment,” says the director/actor.
In general, Nelson makes his films for seven figures. His first film Eye of God was made below seven. “My attitude is you have to make the movie for a price where investors have a good shot at making a little bit of money. All of us working on the film are subsidizing it. I’m not asking investors to do that. I feel very responsible, grateful and beholden to the people who invest in my movies.”
Anesthesia takes place over a 24-hour period and follows a Columbia University professor, Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterson) who is mugged on his apartment doorsteps. The film follows the chain of events that triggered the attack, while bringing together a number of people in Walter’s life including his son (played by Nelson), his daughter-in-law (Jessica Hect), a troubled student (Kristen Stewart), a cheating spouse (Corey Stoll) and a drug addict (K. Todd Freeman). Glenn Close, Michael Kenneth Williams and Gretchen Mol round out the cast. Even though Manhattan has been a safer place since the Mayor Rudy Giuliani era, Nelson says that muggings “happen near the Columbia University area. I live on 104th Street and this film is about my neighborhood. While you can walk around New York and feel safer than than you did during the ’70s and ’80s there are still areas where you can get mugged in the city, like any city in the world.”
Casting is also a painless process for Nelson, thanks to the actors, as well as their reps, that he has gotten to know over the years. Not to mention, Nelson isn’t above cold-calling a manager or two to get who he wants. His golden rule is “I don’t go out with a script unless I know the roles are going to appeal to the sorts of actors that will attract financing.” When it came to landing Twilight actress Stewart in his film, “it wasn’t challenging at all. I just texted her and sent her the script. She read it and texted me back ‘Yes'”, says Nelson who is an acquaintance of Stewart’s. The cast for Anesthesia was assembled in two and half months, with casting director Avy Kaufman leading the charge, particularly with the younger actors. Nelson didn’t know Waterson, rather met him over lunch after being pursued by the actor’s manager Keith Addis.
In the past, Nelson has landed such top-shelf talent as Edward Norton, Susan Sarandon, Kerri Russell and Richard Dreyfus for his 2009 directorial Leaves of Grass about an Ivy League professor who returns to his Oklahoma hometown, only to contend with his pot-growing twin brother. For his 2001 Holocaust film Grey Zone, Nelson landed Harvey Keital, Steve Buscemi, Natasha Lyonne and Mira Sorvino. It grossed $518K at domestic B.O. for Lionsgate. Nelson’s highest grossing directorial is his millennial version of William Shakespeare’s Othello, entitled O which made $16M stateside for Lionsgate in 2001 and starred Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles.
However, Nelson emphasizes again, “I will not send out a script that is going to get passed on. I’ll sit on it and write for months and months. I know when it’s not ready. I know when a script is not working. I’m very patient. You only have one chance for actors and their reps to read your material, and I let folks know that if I’m sending out a script, it’s well worth reading. Even lesser known actors can be quite choosy.”
As a filmmaker though, one thing Nelson is picky about is that “I still want my movies to be seen in movie theaters”. While Nelson understands indie distributors’ needs to make their release models work with theatrical-VOD day and date; it’s not an auteur’s ideal deal.
Says Nelson, “When we are all making the movie, the production designer, the DP — we’re all thinking of our film for the big screen where a lot of strangers have gathered for a collective experience with great sound and beautiful, immersive colors. That’s what I’m still after. I’m less interested in home viewing experience when it comes to film.”
In addition to its premiere, Anesthesia is also showing at the Regal Battery Park Stadium on Thursday, April 23; Friday, April 24; and Saturday, April 25. UTA and Gray, Krauss, Stratford, Sandler Des Rochers are handling sales.
“In real life, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Moretz were looking at Juliette, and yes, there’s something Juliette has that is exciting and interesting for them,” Assayas explained. “That is, how does one protect their integrity, their freedom, their own life throughout a major acting career? After being an actress for 30 years, how does she still remain independent, not get swallowed up by the system? Juliette is a free spirit, a very original actress. I think that was exciting for Kristen and Chloë to look at.”
“I suppose that I can empathize with them both, because like most viewers of the film, I am on both sides,” Assayas said of the scene. “I’m closer to Juliette in terms of age, but I’m interested in cinema as entertainment, and I think a lot of Hollywood movies can be very exciting, even the bad ones.”
There's a line in the film where Kristen Stewart's character says, "The text is like an object that's going to change perspective depending on where you're standing. " Do you feel your perspective has shifted in terms of looking at your body of work?
Well, hopefully. I've learned to be less theoretical. Hopefully I have learned to trust more of my instincts, to leave space for the actors to not exactly improvise, but certainly reinvent the scene. You learn that the process of filmmaking is about capturing real life and capturing real-life emotions. Ultimately, you don't have to be too stiff, you don't have to be too controlling, you have to let things happen.
But, in terms of how you can tell a story in a million different ways, that's something I subscribe to. When Kristen's character says that, it's practically the definition of the movie you're watching in the sense that, if you imagine the same film with two different actresses, it's a completely different story. At some early stage of the film, I was about to cast Mia Wasikowska instead of Kristen Stewart. I admire her and I would have been really happy to work with her, but it would have been a completely different film. We would have had completely different dynamics.
It feels as if these roles were written exclusively for Stewart and Binoche.
I let them appropriate the roles. I encouraged them to go in whatever direction was defined by the dynamics between them. I knew when I was writing and preparing the film that it would be completely depend on something happening between those two girls. And whatever happened was in a certain way beyond what I had imagined. I pushed things in the direction I felt they were leading me to.
And what direction was that?
Well, one side of it is obviously hard to handle, the fascination, the form of desire that attracts them to each other. And that's something that's created by tiny touches, like little dots here and there. The way it was expressed, what is actually happening comes straight from them. I never told them, "Do this" or "do that," I just told them just go find that direction. The thing is that they had fun functioning together. There's a certain comedic feeling that could have been there or could not have been there. And I think they are both very smart, so there's a certain irony and sense of humor that was much more present than what the film would have been with other actors.
Especially Stewart, whom most people have undervalued throughout her career. What did you see that compelled you to cast her?
I think she's amazing. I've always liked her. I always thought she had a huge potential, and I always felt she had such a striking screen presence, even when I saw her for possibly the first time in Into the Wild. And I remember thinking when I was watching that film, Who's that girl? She's great! Someone who should be a background character comes to the forefront. But honestly, I'm not sure I trusted her, and I've always felt there was more to her than what normally people thought. I had no idea she would go that far. And even when we were shooting, I was watching her, and thought, Oh my god, she's really great. But it was really in the editing room, that I realized so many of the nuances, the subtlety and the depth of what she was doing. I think she will do great things.
TriStar Pictures has slated the wartime drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, from director Ang Lee, for release on Veterans Day, November 11, 2016. The 3-D film is using new, high-res cameras with a frame rate that will allow audiences to experience drama, including the heightened sensation that soldiers really feel on the battlefield and on the home front. The film is based on the best-selling Ben Foutain novel and stars Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, newcomer Joe Alwyn, Steve Martin, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart. The studio previously had the spot held for Sinister Six but moved that superhero film off that date.
The story, according to the announcement, follows Bravo Company and 19-year-old private Billy Lynn who survives an Iraqi battle that is captured on news cameras. They are brought home by the U.S. administration for a promotional tour, culminating in the spectacular halftime show of a Thanksgiving Day football game. Unbeknownst to all, there is turmoil as the group faces an imminent return to the war. The film unfolds during the game with flashbacks to Billy’s heroism under fire.
The film is currently in production. Producers are Marc Platt, Ink Factory’s Stephen Cornwell, Rhodri Thomas and Simon Cornwell, and Ang Lee. The project is a partnership between TriStar, Studio 8, Bona Film Group and Film4.