Five Questions with Soft in the Head Director Nathan Silver

Soft in the head

Nathan Silver’s Exit Elena was one of the surprises in the 2012 crop of American indies, a delightfully idiosyncratic lo-fi portrait of a withdrawn live-in nurse who becomes a key figure in the family household where she’s working, far beyond her professional role. The film, which featured all non-actors including Silver’s mother, girlfriend and Silver himself, premiered at Edinburgh and has played around the world since then, in the process winning fans such as director Hal Hartley and Filmmaker‘s own Brandon Harris (who recently programmed the film as part of Hammer to Nail‘s screening series).

Though Exit Elena is still on the festival circuit, Silver is already back with a follow-up feature, Soft in the Head, an engrossing drama about high maintenance Nathalia (Sheila Etxeberría), a pretty twentysomething girl just dumped by her boyfriend who is taken in by the kind-hearted Maury (Ed Ryan), a middle-aged man who feeds and houses a gaggle of misfit males who otherwise might find themselves on the street. Soft in the Head vividly portrays both the world of the men who depend on Maury’s charity (they are a squabbling bunch who recall the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and also the contrasting, sheltered realm of Orthodox Judaism which Nathalia also invades, through her best friend. Featuring an array of great performances (particularly from Ryan), Soft in the Head confirms Silver’s talent and his status as one of the most interesting emerging directors in U.S. indie film.

To coincide with Soft in the Head‘s world premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival, Filmmaker spoke to Silver about his new movie.

Nathan Silver

Nathan Silver

Filmmaker: Where did the idea for Soft in the Head come from? How much of this world is familiar to you?

Silver: Initially, I set out to adapt my favorite novel, The Idiot, by rounding up a group of folks that resembled the characters in the book. I thought something of the book’s plot would remain intact, but as I worked out the characters with the actors, my initial ideas went to hell. So, with the book far behind us, we had this whole new framework in the form of a 12-page outline: all action, no dialogue. But then three days into the shoot the outline went out the window, and the rest was made up on the spot. So, to answer your question, the idea came from failure on multiple levels: failure to adapt a novel, failure to follow an outline, and failure to shut things down in the face of failure. In the end, I’ll never work this loosely again, but it sure felt grand to allow the chaos of the shoot to dictate the story.

As far as familiarity goes, I’m familiar with chaos, anxiety, New York – the actors brought the rest of the world crashing into the movie. Luckily, we had Cody Stokes behind the camera – a Swiss Army knife if there ever was one. He captured things as they fell apart and then glued them back together in the edit.

Filmmaker: In your previous film, Exit Elena, you used all non-professional actors and shot it in your family home. How much of what you learned on that film spilled over into your approach for this one?

Silver: Pre-Exit Elena, I’d tried and failed to adapt The Idiot. Post-Exit Elena, I knew I had to contend with this failed Idiot project, so that’s what I did. Simply put, Exit Elena allowed me to make Soft in the Head. On Exit Elena, I worked with those closest to me: my mother, my best friend, my girlfriend at the time, etc. It was my first non-scripted film, and I hoped those folks closest to me would stick by me through thick and thin and thinner – and for some demented reason they did, and we wound up with a movie…luckily. So for Soft in the Head, I brought on a larger cast and crew to see what would happen.

Filmmaker: How did you approach casting the film? There are a lot of great performances from unfamiliar actors.

Silver: Sheila, who plays Natalia, was my roommate’s sister. We found Ed Ryan, who plays Maury, through a casting website. In my mind, he has an undeniable resemblance to Prince Myshkin, the main character in The Idiot. I think in the end it’s fifty-fifty: fifty percent friends and family, fifty percent blind submissions. We didn’t have a casting director or anything like that. For me, it comes down to this: let in people, keep out performers. I can’t exactly explain that, but it’s how I work.

Filmmaker: Were there any particular films that were touchstones for you while making Soft in the Head?

Silver: Mike Leigh’s Kiss Of Death, Andrzej Zulawski’s The Most Important Thing is to Love, Allan King movies…The Real Housewives of New York.

Filmmaker: You’ve had two films premiere at festivals in under a year. What allows you to work so quickly? And what are you working on next?

Silver: I can’t stomach the thought of sitting around and waiting for festival rejections to pile up, so as soon as I finish one picture, I move onto the next one. I’m a few weeks away from shooting my fourth feature, Gun Under My Pillow. All I can say about it is that it’s my distorted view of what a romantic comedy should be. It’s keeping me up at night…which is a good sign.