Nathan Silver is a relentless filmmaker who thus far has chronicled a variety of naturalistic social dramas which combine the weirdness of Harmony Korine with Fassbinder’s unwavering gaze at dysfunction. Silver’s fifth feature-length film Stinking Heaven, which has won some serious critical praise, sees the Brooklyn-based filmmaker continuing in this tradition.
The year is 1990, and Stinking Heaven drops us in the middle a sober living house in Passaic, New Jersey without few hints as to what’s happening here. Things spiral out of control, and the house becomes the center of a chaotic, dark-as-hell comedy on the perils of communal living and human error. Needless to say, we were mesmerized. We spoke with Silver about how he made the film and what’s up next for him (here’s a hint: he has no plans to let up any time soon).
The first thing anyone talks about with this film, and it’s the first thing you notice as a viewer, is that you’re using a vintage film technique. Can you talk a bit about that?
We shot it on an Ikegami 79-E. It’s an analogue broadcast camera from the ’80s, and once we decided it was going to be set in the late-‘80s, early-‘90s, we came to this decision because of a bunch of documentaries I saw on YouTube, and one in particular by Jon Alpert. I loved the way it looked and there’s just this impending sense of doom. The camera helped exaggerate that, so I knew I had to shoot on this camera. I met up with Jon Alpert and he couldn’t remember the exact model, so we did some research and we found one in Florida that they shipped to us.
Why did you choose this era? It’s just so distinctive in the film. What was it that drew you to this time period?
I guess, well I was born in 1983 and I was, like, a really anxious child and as soon as I saw these documentaries with an apocalyptic feeling to them, I knew I wanted to revisit that anxiety I felt as a kid. I don’t know, it’s some sick thing but I wanted to return to that and show that.
Yeah, that word ‘anxiety,’ that’s definitely the feeling you get as the viewer, because the camera way the camera moves, it’s speedy and shaky. And the closeups make you feel like you’re right there in this very intimate space with these characters.
There’s really no character set-up at all, and it’s really not about character development. You’re just lost in all these personalities and all of these fights and whatever information you can glean from it. But it’s more about experiencing this commune-slash-halfway-house.
And for the ‘rehab story’ aspect, did you draw on any experiences of your own or those of your friends?
We decided to make the setting a sober rehab after I had discussions with Keith Poulson, he was one of the first actors I cast in the movie. We talked a lot about what kind of commune he’d run, and so we decided to do this because it was an alternative to AA/NA so I just started doing a lot of research.
But then the communal aspect, you know, part of my family was involved in the ashrams, so I’m sure that some of the interest is due to that fact. And also film festivals are basically these small communes for a brief period of time. And I’ve constantly been doing films, making one a year, basically– so I feel like I’m just going from one commune to another.
I didn’t do any reading, but I did watch a shitload of stuff on YouTube, and I feel like that’s what I do for all of my movies – just going down a YouTube rabbit hole and talking to people.
Some of the practices at the sober living facility are super bizarre – there’s the one where the residents are compelled to reenact their rock bottom, while someone videotapes it. The charades are so real seeming, that I found myself often being like – ‘Wait, is this really happening?’ It’s crazy intense, so was that based on an experience someone had at one of these rehab centers?
I mean, no. We decided to do the reenactments because Keith had a whole notebook — or maybe it was online I dunno — but he kept a list of all these humiliations the members could go through. We realized, what if this could be some form of therapy? And one of the other actors, Henry Douvry knew about psychodrama therapy, and it kind of borders on what happens in these scenes, actually. I think it was the production designer, Britney, who suggested we have them film it, during the shoot.
Improvisation is a big part of your filmmaking, the dialogue has that very natural flow that works super well. But were there any particular scenes in the film that were entirely improvised?
Actually, the dialogue was improvised for every scene in the movie. So I would do these extremely long takes and just let the characters go. The actors would have objectives, and we discussed characters together before shoots, but when we got to [the set] each day, I’d hand them a sheet of paper with all the scenes we were going to shoot that day – they had no idea what they were actually gonna do beforehand. They had certain points to hit, and we would try it a few times to see what kind of direction it was going in, and then I’d go in for coverage if I needed it.
But I like to just let things run long and see what happens, because as soon as the energy dips, someone will come and ramp it back up because no one wants to be a boring scene. I find that interesting.
The fact that the characters are in this very tight space both physically and emotionally, it seems very real. Did you create a situation where people were together all the time in order to achieve that? Or were the actors already really comfortable with one another other for some reason?
It just so happens that we were filming in Jersey and the traffic back to the city was always hell, so a lot of us would end up crashing in the house where we shot and turning it into a commune of sorts, I guess.
But I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’ve been traveling to festivals and stuff like that. But when I’m back in New York, I realize that we’re in these confined spaces constantly. And I think that the last two movies [Uncertain Terms and Soft in the Head] have been about confined spaces. I just find myself always in small spaces with people — and that’s city living, I guess, and travel.
You’ve described the film as a “black-as-tar” comedy, can you talk about that?
Yeah, I think it’s like a human comedy. When you put people into a hectic situation, there’s always going to be humorous elements to it. Bruegel’s always been my hero. You look at his paintings and it’s a human comedy, human folly, and that’s how I like to see it. There are some people who see the film that way too, and I appreciate that. They don’t just see it as a bleak, bleak portrait, there’s actual humor there. And maybe it takes a few viewings to get to that point because at first you might not know what to make of it.
Also, I’ve read some descriptions of the movie that peg it as ‘rehab film’ and for some reason that seems just so off. To me, rehab films are cliché, either about redemption or tragedy or whatever.
Right, [Stinking Heaven] is more about group behavior than it is about rehab. It’s more about how to deal with other people. I don’t know if it’s a lesson on how to deal with other people, but it shows you how other people deal with each other. But I certainly didn’t set out to make a ‘rehab film,’ I was just interested in someone like Jim’s character — who sets up a sober rehab house and it all just goes to shit — that’s what fascinated me the most. I like stories of people who set out to do something and then fail.
Group-think and isolation are pronounced themes in the movie, and this idea of losing yourself to a greater ‘we.’ Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, that’s the danger I think. It’s prevalent on the internet too, and it’s just part of human nature and I thought about it every day. Looking at Facebook seeing where opinions go, it’s like the dumpster for group-think.
I dunno, I guess my next two movies I’m moving away from this, I think this was the end of doing ensemble pieces for me. I want to do more single-character studies. It was a natural end to this kind of movie making. And the next two movies are certainly much more scripted. So I think I needed to do this in order to reach this conclusion and let it be this story without a main character, where it’s about this house, and this group, and about them basically allowing for their own demise to come about, you can sense the demise of the whole group in all the scenes, I think.
In terms of the filmmaking process — because so much of it is open ended in a way — would you say that most of the film is formed in the editing process?
Absolutely, yeah. I edited this throughout the shoot. We’d shoot for four days and then take three days off, and I’d work on the editing with Stephen Gurewitz in that time. We ended up rewriting the whole outline because of how the edit was coming together and what the film was doing. So yeah, the film was completely shaped during the edits, and the story was completely rewritten during the editing process.
It’s also interesting that there’s this demise of these characters that maps onto your being finished with this kind of filmmaking.
Yeah, exactly. I guess it’s just the banal poetry of life, that’s how it goes.
Totally. I was definitely thinking about Warrendale by Allan King — he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. And also, A Married Couple by him. The technique of shooting through beveled glass we stole from Married Couple and the group dynamics and violence we took from Warrendale. And all of Jon Alpert’s movies like Junkie Junior, parts one and two, those were definitely reference points.
It was shot in Jersey and we shot in two houses that we made look like one. One of the people who appears in the scrapyard in the film and once at the end, who talks a lot, he was the location manager. He’s from there, and his great aunt who had passed away recently, that was her house and also his grandmothers’s house down the block, and they were just absolutely perfect.
There’s this lingering ambiguity in the film that’s so interesting. You’ll be watching a scene are think one thing is happening, and then you’ll realize it might actually be a completely different thing happening. Then suddenly, it’s like — wait, it could be both things happening at the same time. I know that sounds strange, but…
Absolutely, it’s supposed to be that you can’t put your finger on what exactly you should take home from any given scene. I like that ambiguity, I think it’s extremely important and I think we’re too scared to let ambiguity be a part of scenes, because people want to quickly nail down what’s happening right away. For this one, that didn’t interest me.
That’s funny you say that, because that’s just how it all came together. It came to be through sheer chance, I guess. And because of the lo-fi quality of the camera, some information is lost. It’s just not clear who’s who, there’s definitely some confusion. In a way, the camera negates individuality.
Can we talk a little bit more about this new direction you’re taking toward individual character studies?
The next movie that I have is in post-production, Actor Martinez, it’s this character study of an actor I met at the Denver Film Festival who’s also a computer repair man. We basically put all these fictional elements into his life and turned it into this real mind fuck.
And then I’m co-directing a movie this spring with the co-writer of Stinking Heaven, Jack Dunphy and that’s called The Pervert, and we’re shooting that in Chicago and it’s a portrait of Jack and his family.
And I’m developing something called Thirst Street with Chris Wells and that’s about this American tourist who ends up in this insane situation that becomes this psychotic romance in Paris and causes her destruction. I guess I have some interest in foreign elements entering into situations and causing disruption. It’s much more focused because it centers on the main character, Gina.
You make movies so fast, do you ever think you’ll take a break or are you just gonna keep em’ coming?
I just keep doing them, I feel like actually making movies, like doing the shoot is the best. It’s just the logistics of how to get them filmed and all the post-production and getting things to festivals is the part I hate— I hate sitting in front of the computer. I hope there’s no break.
Watch Stinking Heaven on Fandor.