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  • Rob Nilsson

Direct Action Cinema

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Direct Action Cinema is…

…a practice created to allow actors and technicians high freedom and deep responsibility to create memorable cinema. It is a dynamic jazz ensemble of actors, camera, sound, directors, and editors that creates and interprets together, seeking the unexpected, the extraordinary, the miracles only a well-prepared combo can play.

  • Create a situation, define and develop a character. Combine the two and watch them collide, attract, and repel. Build drama from this dynamic, closer to the way life happens to us and we happen back.

  • Grow a narrative with the story spine hidden, accreting like a coral reef from within and according to its own inner energies.

  • Reject the ‘film as short story’ dictum promoted by Hollywood and the film schools. Smash the iron ball and chain of excessive plot. Create a poetic cinema based not on writing but on observing. Mistrust your ideas and trust your experiences. Discover, don’t prescribe.

  • Build a cinema not of auteurs but of interpreters. Film is not a director’s medium. The magicians who bottle the genie are the actors. The magician who lets the genie out of the bottle is the editor.

  • In acting - situations, rich discords, conflict, laughter, human dilemma, emotion

  • In editing - a scavenger hunt for the miraculous.

  • Fear is the last barrier. Our path is towards our fear!

This is my Direct Action Manifesto, written 10 years before the days of Dogma. Then, as now, I ask myself where ideas, stories, and movies come from. We don’t know and yet we know. One way or the other, they just ‘occur’ to us. We look around us in the world. Something strikes a note. Then another and another and then there is a chord. And the chords and notes combine to make a pattern, which becomes a structure. And that structure works itself out and is called a poem, a song, a screenplay, a novel, a painting.

We don’t create what we know, although if the creation is going to be any good, we have to start with that. Young creators are constantly making the mistake of starting with ideas of exterior to their knowing. In this kind of creation, if it’s a movie, the movie becomes a movie about other movies, and the context is usually derivative and only occasionally interesting. The trick is to capture what we come to know as we work, dredging it up out of those mysterious swamps we usually traverse only in dreams.

Good creation always comes from the creator’s particular viewpoint, urgent hunch, or unexpected surmise, moving back and forth from inside urge to outside perception, and the end result is personal - a fingerprint - a unique, idiosyncratic statement peculiar to the creator’s mind only. And this seemingly tiny peculiarity is the thing that singles out the great from the mediocre, the unique from the commonplace.

I believe that everyone’s uniqueness, if wholly expressed, will have genius in it. My job as a filmmaker is to gather up the uniqueness of each person involved in the production and fashion it into a creation. I try to make that creation as much a reflection of my vision and taste as I can, taking into account all the critical input I can handle without losing sight of my own intentions.

Film is a great, unique gathering device, an apple barrel that holds all kind of delicious fruit. It is unique in that its gathering mechanism is random, eclectic, non-linear, intuitive, and wild, accepting of any and all input with much greater range than in theatre. In the production phase of cinema, there is almost nothing irrelevant. Anything might be used later in the cinema magician’s laboratory: the editing studio. As the early Russians pointed out, context is everything and the assembly of contexts a sort of infinite grab-baggery from the cosmos.

In my Direct Action lab the story which occurs to me, coming from God knows where, is only a starting point, a road map, a pithy suggestion of a juicy outcome. If I were writing a novel, I’d write it, edit it, worry it to death, and it would come from inside me, onto the page, and into your minds through the medium of language.

But if it’s a film, I have many more tricks up my sleeve, many more arrows in my quiver to employ, a totally different set of possibilities to explore, wider and more fertile collaborations to manage. My idea is: the more open my process in the beginning, the more options I will have for form, structure, and content in the end.

Therefore, I don’t write scripts. Most of the time. SIGNAL 7 and HEAT AND SUNLIGHT didn’t have scripts. STROKE, HUSHED, SINGING, and SCHEME, the new 9@NIGHT features, don’t have scripts. They have what I call scenarios: descriptions of a film idea, scene order, character suggestions. Rehearsals consist of improvising the character’s back story at great length, taking as much time as possible to give actors on-location experience (as opposed to intellectualized ideas) of their characters. The ideal is to do all of this out in the world in front of cameras. Then one day the back story ends and the film begins. Nothing changes, but now we’re making the movie. I have set the actors, cameras, art directors and other creators free into their cinematic world. I am still a sort of puppeteer, yes, but a puppeteer who wants to set the puppets free.

Wants to, but never quite does.

R. Nilsson

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