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  • Rob Nilsson

Epic Digital

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Excerpted from: THE GIFT AND THE PUNISHMENT, autobiography of Rob Nilsson:

“If pressed, many cinephiles would admit a magnetic attraction to truly magnum opuses: whether crafted by Tarr, Rohmer, Rivette or Syberberg, the mere existence of such titanic features or multi-film cycles suggests an important artistic event. There’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of discovering a huge project that in cinematic terms reaches for the extra-wide narrative/cinematic embrace of THE BROTHER’S KARAMAZOV, Proust, even INFINITE JEST. But does anyone work with that kind of scope in contemporary American cinema?

Meet Rob Nilsson, who with very little self-promotional zeal has spent the last dozen- plus years creating a fascinating collection of exquisitely shot digital features under the umbrella of 9 @ Night… a sprawling black and white tapestry of separate but overlapping feature narratives that encompass a broad character scroll of homeless, hustling and bourgeois types in San Francisco and environs.”

- Dennis Harvey, Film Comment, Sept./Oct. Issue, 2008

Epic grass roots black and white video cinema shot with digital DSLRs which look like still cameras and cell phones like the iPhone 7 Plus with its great 4k pictures and steadicam quality suspension system. Add an H4 Zoom mike and a couple of high quality lavs and you’re set. Today all it takes is epic intention to realize epic proportion.

I’m not the only one who thinks large and spends little. I am particularly impressed with Daniel Kremer and his epic OVERWHELM THE SKY, a tad under three hours, loosely imagined from the early American novel by Charles Brockden Brown.

Here’s how it describes itself: "An Existential Epic Neo-Noir," loosely adapted from Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Overwhelm the Sky tells the story of an east coast radio personality who moves to San Francisco to marry Thea, the sister of his best friend Neil, a successful entrepreneur. Shortly before Eddie's arrival, Neil is found murdered in Golden Gate Park in what the police surmise was a simple mugging gone awry. As the sullen Eddie steps in as interim host of his old friend Dean's late-night talk-radio show, he obsessively makes regular visits to the forested spot where Neil's corpse was found. One such visit unleashes a chain of unpredictable events that sends Eddie snooping into the life of a sleepwalking drifter with a mysterious, tragic, and possibly scandalous past. The film takes many unexpected twists and turns, winding up in the Arizona Desert, where a trading of places occurs...during a series of surreal, often frightening encounters.

Critics have had a lot to say:

"An endlessly intriguing, breezily enigmatic yarn that hangs out in the unincorporated territory between waking and dreaming, reality and paranoia. Daniel Kremer does not lack for ambition, persistence, bravery, and talent, and his work deserves a wider audience."

- Michael Fox, KQED/NPR

"A masterpiece! The filmmaking is so confident that it's astonishing. The paranoid atmosphere, the perfectly calibrated camera moves, the always surprising but ineffably right compositions, and the precision of the cutting, reminded me of Jacques Rivette and Paul Thomas Anderson. –

- Michael Glover Smith (director of Mercury in Retrograde), White City Cinema

Many of the players in Daniel’s film have also worked in an improvisational style with other members of the Bricolage group (Josh Peterson, Deniz Demirer, Jeff Kao, Penny Werner, Kris Caltagirone) centered in San Francisco’s East Bay. Daniel has shown his faith in what each of his players brings to the table and has knit them together into a weave and warp of everyday familiarity, fact or fiction, one is never sure which. And we don’t need to be sure because the film runs on waving its own flags, propelled by its own energies and regardless of any spin we might want to put on it. This was a film Daniel made because it pleased, inspired, and directed him to make it. And most impressively, it was done with a large cast with many different points of view and motivations.

Daniel knew he wanted to be a filmmaker when he was 8 years old when he started making films with family and friends. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of film rivaled, perhaps only by Tarantino’s. He looks at every kind of picture and remembers it, how it looks, what it means, and the names of everyone associated with it. And he shoots with an artist’s curiosity, a field general’s determination and where he wants to all over the city. No trucks, trailers, no yellow tape designed to keep life away, no cops, permits, trailers for pampered stars. He leads a band of cinematic poets into great scenic places where life is likely to be found and he surrounds himself with it. This is piracy of the most elegant kind. Someone objects. Of course, no argument. Sorry to have bothered you. But in fact most people are not offended. Most are flattered. That’s the magic of film making which attracts life rather than buys fakery. Yes, the law may be upheld, but many of the permit cops perform their duties with a smile and at a later date, off duty, find themselves in a film.

But Daniel didn’t stop there. One day with three cars and 8 people he left the city and went East over the Sierras to Bodie, a well preserved mining ghost town. Majestic mountains, desert terrain high above Mono Lake. Grand. Western. John Ford country. Old weather beaten mining shacks and clapboard houses. DP Aaron Hollander, sound person, four actors, and Daniel. They no sooner got out of their cars than they were stopped by a Park Ranger asking for a shooting permit. Too bad a permit could not be had on site.

So they drove down the mountain and found themselves on a dirt road. None of them had ever been there before. No buildings of any kind but old, worn fence posts began to appear and suddenly rusty barbed wire half buried in the sand.

Daniel had a hammer in his pocket. Angles appeared, vehicles parked out of shot and on “Action” there was a ranch woman out mending fences when two characters came along in their pick-up. No house. That was later purchased from a stock footage service. The interior was found in Dogpatch, San Francisco. High desert sand, sage brush, arid hills and mountains in the background and abandoned fence posts inferred a classic Western ranch which wasn’t there. A wandering sleep walker picked up by a cow hand meets a ranch owner, a drama played out with the magnificent backdrop of high plains country. In the film business we’re talking thousands of dollars. In the business of making epic no budget films: gas, food and a cheap motel. When Daniel got his idea, there was one hour of light left in the sky. More time than he needed as it turned out.

Daniel created a long forgotten road show opening complete with overture and intermission music and formal attire at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco. OVERWHELM is about to open in New York City and Chicago and has also been shown at Brussels International Film Festival.

OVERWHELM THE SKY, beautifully shot, is a remarkable achievement both for what it is and for how it was made.

Another mini- budget film Daniel told me about was shot in India right out of the landscape of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. PARIAH, directed by Riddhi Majumder, a 23 year old first time feature filmmaker, was made with little money, but with profound access to a nature we rarely see. This is partly because the cinematography rivals the best: black and white, shot in a seemingly unspoiled rural area of Bengal, evoking an era long gone for city dwellers and rapidly disappearing for any but the most isolated rural, pre- industrial villagers. But one could shoot ten years in what appears to be a single pastoral village and never see what Majumder shows us. This is a transcendental vision. It has to do with choosing what to see and how to frame it, minimal interior lighting, exteriors unlit and chosen at ideal times of day, surprising compositions and points of view, and most importantly, a poetic vision.

Even in rural India the 21st century shows up everywhere but here we don’t see what century we’re in. The patrician attitude of the self- indulgent landlord seems pre-1950s when Ray began his work. Harsh class divisions probably still exist there accompanied by Pepsi ads, dusty Ford trucks and Monsanto billboards but there is only one time bound artifact in the entire film, a rusty old rifle you knew didn’t work but fired via a filmmaking trick. A photo of some dignitary in the background of the landlord’s mansion might date the film, but it’s too far away to see clearly.

What is epic in this film? Nature, photographed masterfully. (Abhirup Halder is the DP.) Sounds of the animal world almost too present, but a constant reminder of non-human cultures hidden in the forests. And suffering. The untouchable pariah of the title, a wandering mute, a helpless and humble castaway living on the outskirts of a small farming village, tolerated by the children who know he’s harmless as they scold and play with him, infuriating to the mothers who fear his childish ignorance may be dangerous. Certain men despise his helplessness, torture him for his handicap and, encouraged by the landlord, in one grotesque scene, rape him.

Whereas Ray’s films find virtue in lives led close to nature, Majumder focuses on the cruelty and ignorant fear of peasants, egged on by quasi- religious propaganda, who guard the little power they have by scapegoating a tender soul trapped in a defective body. And Majumder doesn’t turn away out of delicacy. He holds on to these terrifying shots of the Pariah’s suffering far longer than is comfortable. With an unrelenting determination to show the pain and degradation inflicted on the helpless and sorrowful by the ignorant and arrogant, he won’t let us get away. No romantic view of the sensitivity found in nature’s children will survive his insistent gaze. You can’t cut away from this depravity. These tillers of the soil are also killers of the soul. And pain is pain. I remember that much of the Cannes audience for IRREVERSIBLE scurried for the exits after the Monica Bellucci rape scene, thereby missing the deep ethical reason for watching it. Epic films such as PARIAH show us that the victims of human atrocity don’t have the same luxury. They can’t walk out or walk away.

In October ARID CUT, the first feature in my trilogy of dramatic feature films, epic in the way I’ve been talking about, had its World Premiere in the Mill Valley Film Festival. Interlocking personal stories concerning the lives of homeless and houseless people will continue in multiple locations on the road from California to Nevada. Statistics I’ve seen estimate that about a third of those in that category are likely to be afflicted with drugs or alcohol. Another third suffer from mental illness. The characters in the NOMAD TRILOGY are the 70 percent, more or less, likely to look much like you or me. Lost a job, their house, faith in the system. They may operate on either side of the law. Young lovers are out on the road on a personal quest. Wildcat construction workers are looking for work. An RV of meth dealers are trying to get out of that business before they get caught in it.

Could we do better off the grid and away from credit card compulsion? All of us feel, to varying degrees, that our society has betrayed its original values. The fact that money and power are money and power, go together and always have, is not news. Both with and without the other, they now seem “the way of things” rather than a temporary aberration of human cupidity. When political campaigns are not only determined by, but advertised as, the measure of a candidate’s valor, when exorbitant fees for TV ads are the measure of ardor and passion for a cause: when TV networks say they are seeking “truth” when everyone knows they’re in the business of making profits for investors, when religion has taken a much to be thanked for back seat to scientific wonder at the miracles of the universe, but then replaced by the dark arts of party politics and lobbying, the missionary practice for a rapidly growing secular hierarchy of corporate profiteering, we start to wonder. Is there a better way? Do we have to leave society as it has become, in order to find a way of living based on what it still might be? Questions like these are embodied in the NOMAD TRILOGY as it watches people and what they do, cut loose from the America we know, looking for a country we do not yet know how to find.

ARID CUT, the first in the series, produced with lunch money and three stick of licorice has just had its World Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. CENTER DIVIDE is in production, and the last film YONDER is cooking.

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