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  • Rob Nilsson

The Calling

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Actors have a calling. The deepest, richest, grasp of animal being is the first step. A lion cannot rule without a roar. A loon must wail. Orangutans’ arms have a fluid power hard to comprehend as they swing through the forest. A whale’s keening can be heard from miles away… but underwater. Each creature has its own muscles, its unique physical and psychic equipment which works in a singular environment somewhere on earth.

Actors have their own animal languages and actions. The most potent sources are emotion, imagination, neural responses, and the intuitive gambits most people guard against but avoid to their peril. Intellect is important to actors, but can be the worst inhibitor. Self consciousness leads to fear which blocks contact with an audience. Actors search and express their personal pathways to joy, rage, despair, intimate longing so that audiences can re-connect with what they’ve lost when they’ve chosen safety and turned away from the power of curiosity. Audience members are partially reborn out of the actor’s unrelenting passion, lament or praise, pious or savage rant, sensitive and gentle prayer.

And to be fully born they find ways to experience catharsis “overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Dramatic structure and content, as well as circumstance and character lead to an “account” (a film) and also figure into this electric state of recognition. This is the ideal. How close can we come to this ancient Greek idea?

How can actors (players is a better term) create these states of mind for the sake of others looking to be transformed by inspired practice of the Arts? No one knows for sure and the experience is different with each participant. But the Direct Action workshop is a living, breathing laboratory seeking to answer that question in the open and truthful practice of each individual player trying to pursue the “Calling.” Our “way” is through the vehicle of cinema and the practice of emotion, back story improv, and an improvised production method we call Direct Action. We practice an improvisational drama which goes back to pre- historical religious ritual, 15th Century Commedia dell’ arte, and modern jazz music.


To be an “actor” today you have to shuffle between many unappetizing options while trying to keep alive that part of you which is a “seeker”, looking for a place to seek. Industrials, advertisements, corporate profiles, most of the “work” in the film business is press agentry, lobbying for products, with you paying the bills while waiting for a chance to show your dramatic potential. Many dream of Hollywood but most will never get there. And if they do they may find misfortune in the deal to exchange the richest part of themselves, for money. Does it have to be that way?

Are you someone who feels your real worth can’t be expressed in these commercial formats? Do you have a secret, or an expressed, wish to try for something more authentic, more daring, more artistic? Or have you postponed your wish to be an actor for many years while engaging in the often numbing practice of “survival?” Or maybe you’re just starting out with an idealism not always practical in the film business.

The films of the American John Cassavetes (the director, not the actor), the existential dramas of Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, some of the Neo-Realist work of Italians DeSica and Rosselini, the Taiwanese films of Hou Hsiao Tsien or Tsai Ming Liang, or the inspiration of filmmakers like the Indian Satyajit Ray are just a few of the non-Hollywood filmmakers who have inspired me. Some of these films are made with money. But all of them are imbued with avid questioning and a search for “the way things seem to be. These films are closer to the ground, closer to the way people actually “seem to be”, and closer to what I call “the miracles of the ordinary” which put us in touch with who we are when we escape the many illusions we adopt in order to be what we think of as “good citizens” rather than enlightened practitioners.

How about trying to be “emotional communicators” in search of a common truth not backed up by money, hucksterism or the desire to be famous? How about trying to find out who we are through investigations of an individual, and therefore common, humanity? Maybe it’s better to be honest, rather than altogether good, or only a little bit crooked. Maybe the Arts can be used for the purpose of daily questioning, artistic wondering, and practical work in a cinema which engages in pursuing the questions people live through daily.


The “Independent” filmmaker is actually the most “dependent” of all, dependent on wits, personal savvy, boundless energy and most of all dependent on colleagues, friends and supporters of all sorts. Over the years I have made films with tax deductible donations, grants, financial instruments such as Limited Partnerships and LLCs and with whatever money I had at the time, and with whoever wanted to come out and work if I didn’t have any. I owe what I’ve accomplished to the casts and crews of, by now, over 50 feature films. These have been shot in various parts of the world at large and in various parts of the U.S. I have never failed to have fun with these grass roots films, and to be inspired by what I find in the grounded performances of the “you’s and I’s” of the world, some consummate professionals, others brilliant amateurs.

I ran weekly workshops, and made 10 feature films for ten years in the San Francisco Tenderloin with homeless people, inner city residents, and with well known “ringers” such as Robert Viharo, Stacy Keach, and Ron Perlman who decided to throw down with us, and every sort of all- comer, in workshops located at the Golden Gate Y and Pacific Rim Media (now both gone), and, still present and potently supporting those in need of help, at the Faithful Fools Street Ministry near the corner of Turk and Eddy. I’ve done workshops in places like South Korea, India, Armenia, Hong Kong, etc. and made workshop/dramatic feature films in places as diverse as Japan, Italy, South Africa, Jordan, Kansas City, Ripon, and many in California and occasionally, Nevada. More recently I’ve been running workshop/feature film projects with my Citizen Cinema group in Berkeley. Some of these films are available for download on the Fandor website. Unlike the free workshops of the Tenderloin, I now charge people who can afford it for these workshop/features and bring in others on a trade, or a scholarship basis.

The point I’m making is that, this is a shoestring operation which makes films I’ll put up against any in the world, and which is always looking for friends and allies. The quote I use in FOURTH MOVEMENT, this year’s Citizen Cinema production which just had its World Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, is “You can play a shoe string if you’re honest,” from John Coltrane. We try to be both honest and irreverent, obeying the law when we must, and challenging as a way of life in our practice in the streets, alleys, waterfronts, highways and byways wherever we happen to be. If you have interest in what we do, and wish to get involved in any way, including financial arrangements or providing gas to get to the next town, please contact us.



The DIRECT ACTION CIRCLE- an open circle of “risk and protection” with Players who are working to become more expressive, more spontaneous, and more emotionally available. We emphasize three areas: relaxation, concentration and emotional experience. The objective is to quiet the nerves, clear the mind, activate the instincts, and to discover the cathartic effects of emotional discovery. No prior acting experience necessary.

One four hour session per week for 8 Weeks: Fee: $500


The DIRECT ACTION WORKSHOP/FEATURE FILM: three four hour sessions of Direct Action experience in the “circle of risk and protection” including backstory improvs in the service of creating characters, inventing relationships, and establishing the rich discords necessary for dynamic drama. Built around a through line of set scenes and new departures created along the way, the film creates a reservoir of material to be re-discovered in a rigorous course of editing. The production schedule is built around the availability of the players, ideally spread over a 1- 2 month period.

One four hour session of Direct Action exercises per week for 3 weeks. Production of a feature film in the following 1/2 months. Fee: $1500


The FEATURED PLAYERS WORKSHOP/FEATURE FILM: for those who can afford a more focused experience in Direct Action and play one of 4-6 leading roles in a drama created for the particular characteristics and skills of the players. 3 weeks of Direct Action experience in the circle, will be followed by a production schedule designed to fit the schedules of the participants. Since there are only a very few players who can live entirely on acting income and have day jobs, we adapt to the realities of life, and work when we can, and further prepare when we cannot.

2- 3 Months of individually scheduled workshop and production sessions leading at the end to a viable feature film designed for festival and other media distribution

Fee: $5000 per person


*Note: Although we are located in San Francisco we have created feature films with workshops in Japan, Jordan, South Africa, Italy and have done workshops in Seoul: South Korea, New Dehli: India, Yerevan: Armenia, with Life Time Achievement Awards from places as diverse as Moscow, Valencia, Fargo: North Dakota, Kansas City: Missouri, St. Louis: Missouri, Mill Valley, Syracuse: New York, Bulgaria, Ripon, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland along with festival and commercial screenings in London, Paris, Dublin, Stockholm, Tokyo (which included an art show of Nilsson paintings) Hong Kong, Toronto, etc.

With the support of local organizations and individuals we would like to offer our workshop programs to interested groups throughout the world.



For investors looking for professional film projects with both a conscience and an artistic result, we are open to creating LLCs and other financial structures for your financial participation with our creative team.

For donors looking for dramatic projects they can believe in we have a 501C3 outlet which can include a tax deduction for money donated to qualified not for profit dramatic feature projects.

  • For those interested in Financial Participation this notice is not intended as an offer. This is for the purposes of information only. Anyone who is interested in the creation of fully independent low budget feature films is invited to contact us to discuss how they would like to get involved.

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