Last weekend saw an exclusive deadCenter 2015 one time showing of native Oklahoman Tim Blake Nelson’s upcoming film titled “Anesthesia”. The film follows the stories of several people in New York leading up to the tragic mugging of a Columbia University Professor. It’s a story dealing with the existential crises faced by millions of people in the post modern era ruled by technology and a lack of direction. It stars an impressive ensemble cast made up of Sam Waterston, Kristen Stewart, Glenn Close, Michael Kenneth Williams, Corey Stoll, and K. Todd Freeman. You can check out our thoughts on the film here.
After the screening, writer/director/star Tim Blake Nelson hosted an extended Q&A session with the audience and had more than a few jokes and interesting insights up his sleeve.
Q: The movie had an absolutely pristine look. What sorts of cameras and equipment did you use to film the movie?
Tim Blake Nelson: We filmed Anesthesia only with 35 and 50mm lenses. We wanted for you to see what the eye sees so there’s not much compression. No telephoto lenses really at all and no wide angle. Just really frank photography that’s meant to be present in the room. And we shot the entire film in 28 days.
Q: Your past films are very very personal. Can you tell us the genesis of this idea.
I can tell you, some of it is a little too personal, but I’ll just say it’s a movie I’ve been waiting a long time to make. The initial idea came when I was in graduate school and I lived in a walk up. It was in a bit of a dodgy neighborhood. To get into the building you would buzz in and then the tenant would speak to you on an intercom, to determine if you deserved access. You could listen to the street and so I would go late at night and listen to the street as people passed by. I’d hear a word here and a word there. And then I started to fantasize ”what would happen if a tenant witnessed a moment of violence’. What if they decided to become involved in its cause or causes in the aftermath. That was in 1986 when I came up with that idea. Then I left it alone, but always wanted to write about New York. But I felt that I needed to learn more about New York. I had plenty to write about Oklahoma and for some reason the Holocaust with The Greyzone, but the other movies were about Oklahoma. And so after living in New York now for over 30 years, I am now raising kids there and having most of my closest friends there as well. And my brother lives there who is is two years older than I and he’s raising a family.
*Nelson’s mother who is in the audience interjects and shouts “1 year!”
Well…14 months. That error came about because I has three children and two of them are two years apart.
I thought, now I’m ready. And then that notion of hearing something over the intercom. The rest of it is just a stew of personal experiences. Really, pretty much of it is put altogether based on what I’ve observed from my reality and the reality of my closest friends.
Q:There were some things about this movie that reminded me of a movie called “Mindwalk” which also starred Sam Waterson. Are you familiar with that movie?
TBN: I’m not. I’ll go and look for that. I’ll gladly talk about any movies that influences this one. That’s not one of them, I’ve not seen that. One of the biggest influences is probably my favorite Woody Allen movie “Crimes and Misdemenors”.
Q: Was Crash one of those influences?
TBN: This is going to sound oxymoronic. I admire Crash, but I’m not so much of a fan of Crash. I saw Crash once in the theater when it came out and I didn’t go back and watch it. I certainly thought, well ‘this is a New York version of that style of storytelling’. I hope even to the fans of Crash that it’ll work on those terms. New York is a much tighter place. We’re more densely in relation to one another. It’s just a place of more density. I think that this movie has an intimacy that is appropriate to New York.
Q: How did you balance the writer/director/actor duties. Did make lots of changes while you were shooting?
TBN: Well most of my scenes; all of my scenes were with those two amazing kids, Anna Marks and Ben Koenigsberg. Hopefully they’ll have wonderful careers if that’s what they want. And then with Jessica Hect who I’ve known for years. Then with Sam. I was surrounded by wonderful actors. A lot of what you’re doing when you’re acting on stage or in film if the on set environment is right, is you’re knowing what it is you want and who you are and you’re working with those around you. In a strange way making what they’re doing almost more important than what you’re doing. Like in life, when we’re with someone else, we’re so focused on what their response is and trying to figure out what they want. So I had great scene partners. So it was actually a lot less difficult than what I imagined it would be. Of course, I never had time because of the 28 schedule to watch anything I did so I’d just turn particularly to Jessica and Sam and say ‘do you think we got that’. And I knew if that they said yes that it was probably pretty good.
*smiles* Of course I to edit my own performance and take all of the really egregiously bad horrible acting stuff out.
Q: In the writing process did your write this linearly or did you look at each sub-story and then connect them after the fact?
TBN: Wonderful question. I did not write it linearly. I built it laterally as it were. I never knew where each story was going. I certainly didn’t know Joe was going to try to save the Zarrow character until it happened. Then what happens is, once you’ve achieved that, then you can go back retroactively and say ‘fix this,’ ‘clean up that’. and then you can go back and revise.
I’d gotten a dog for my boys. Of course, those of you who are married and have children and dogs, it’s the husband who ends up doing the crate training.
Well I did anyway!
So I was up a lot dealing with this damn dog. And then during the day dealing with the dog. I wrote this doing that. I was just like water and cracks on the sidewalk. When I needed to be by the dog, I was really writing the heart of this. It was interesting.
Q: What kind of dog?
TBN: You know I’m a little embarrassed. It’s one of those designer dogs. What little macho credibility I have is just really….it’s a cockapoo! It’s a very good breed.It’s not a Blue Heeler or Australian Shepherd. We don’t go raccoon hunting or anything. It’s just a little domesticated designer dog.
Q: A lot of the pain the character had seemed to be a response to a nihilistic society. Do you think that this story was in any case an argument for God?
TBN: Well…*pauses* First off, I don’t think our society is nihilistic. Strangely enough, other than aspects of what Zarrow has to say, there’s no character’s point of view in this movie which I entirely agree or espouse. I don’t think this movie is arguing a point of view. I think of it more as an abstract painting. There’s no lesson here other than the really really unnervingly broad statement that if you’re going to live a life that has any sensitivity to your surroundings, pain is going to be inevitable. That’s why the movie ends the way it does. At least he’s not in any pain. That’s the only way that’s going to happen. I’m not anti-technology. I loved Kristen’s monologue. I loved writing it and I especially loved the way she delivered it. I loved being able to lavish attention on it in the film. It’s kind’ve an aria. But do I agree with what she has to say whole heartedly? No. I think there’s truth in it. I think that she from her point of view is expressing something totally legitimate, but that’s not the way I feel. I am not a nihilist nor do I necessarily despair over the contention made by Nietzche that God is dead. It think that once he made that statement and we started to contend that in the 20th century that it placed us in a terrific kind of predicament and we’re still dealing with that. Aspects of technology are desperately and unwittingly trying to take its place. I am placing that in the movie so that going away and saying ‘well the filmmakers want me to believe this’ instead that you’ll talk about the movie amongst yourselves because that’s what I like when I go to see a movie.
Q: Something that I thought was prevalent was the work of the ensemble. What are your opinions on an ensemble in the film and the challenges of trying to create that?
TBN: No challenges whatsoever. I guess when you cast an ensemble in a movie like this you have to be careful. I got a great piece of advise from Joel Cohen. He said you can cast one pain in the ass, but just one. Two…it’s really going to hurt your movie. That’s kind of it. There were really none of those in this cast. I have this wonderful casting director whom I always use from Atlanta who now lives in New York named Avy Coffman. She and I put this group together. I guess more broadly, Yeah I think ensemble movies can be incredibly interesting.
There always has to be a gravitational force in a movie. In this case it was Sam. Sam was not my first choice for this role, but he should have been. That’s one of those interesting lessons you learn as a director. I went after this actor and that actor. The first actor I went after I’d done a movie with. I thought I’d just send it to him and of course he’d want to the role. And then he said no. Then I sent it to another actor who I didn’t necessarily want to work, but maybe he was going to be my one pain in the ass of the ensemble and then he said not. But then Sam and his agent were just chasing the role. And then I went to another guy who was off in France doing a movie and he wasn’t reading it quickly enough and I got my little feelings all hurt. And then I said ‘Alright, I’ll have lunch with Sam Waterson.’ And then I sat across from him and said ‘what an idiot I’ve been. He should have been my first choice.’ Sam’s generosity, he’s just such a nice guy. Those monologues are so hard to learn. I did another movie with the professor at the heart of it and that actor didn’t really learn the monologues. He kind’ve paraphrased it. You know….I f**king wrote those monologues. It’s like ‘why are you paraphrasing them? I poured over all of those words.’ But then it’s an indie film and you just have to deal with it. But Sam, he just learned them verbatim. This other actor who’d done this other movie with me is this academy award nominated, you know major film star. So I was just so grateful. I asked ‘how did you learn them so well’. Sam is from the city, but he has this farm in Pennsylvania and he said ‘I just go out and just deliver the monologues to the cows’.
Anyway, in terms of ensembles, if its right for the movie, it’s great. But you know, you can’t argue with Lincoln. That movie is Daniel Day Lewis’s movie. The rest of us are just in his orbit. It kind’ve just depends on the project.
Q: At the beginning of the film, we see the ending scene. Conceptually, how and why did you decide to begin there?
TBN: In New York because we’re all packed in there..and I grew up here where that’s not the case, especially in the Paris of the southwest, Tulsa where I grew up
* Wow, shots fired!*
Oklahoma is more of the Moscow.
I actually now love Oklahoma City. Not because you invited the film here, but the revival in Oklahoma City has been incredible and of course I’m a Thunder fan. Having grown up with space around me where you didn’t encounter your neighbors so much. In New York you just see….you’re just with everyone. You witness these interactions that just seem quotidian every day. Nothing going on there, just something casual. I love this notion of this aloof camera(35mm lens) from across the street and you just see this guy go across interact with this guy with flowers. You see some girls go by while he’s buying the flowers. There’s a beggar out there acting for money. The guy comes out and goes on his way. You just take that for granted in New York. But what if you had access and you really knew what was going on. Then you went inside and experienced an interaction inside. What if you actually penetrated the reality. That’s just a phenomenon of living in New York. It felt essential to tell the story that way.
Thank you so much for showing up tonight and coming out to support this wonderful festival!