Terence Nance on An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is such a fine, rare bird: Terence Nance’s Gotham Award-winning debut film is, regardless of its aesthetic pyrotechnics and self-reflexivity (it consists of a series of short experimental films that radically deconstruct Nance’s romantic foibles), wholly, fully, truly accessible to everyone. If Hollis Frampton and Nina Paley had somehow, through the force of magic realism, had a black love child, it would have grown up to direct something like this. It’s altogether unusual strategy for detailing Nance’s obsessive courtship of a young woman named Namik Minter — using reenactments, direct address, doc interviews, stop-motion and traditional animation to detail his poverty and idiosyncratic nature, Minter’s ongoing, problematic relationship with another woman and their differing points within the constellation of a impossibly chic black-Brooklyn-bohemian milieu — is so winning and otherworldly, I was a convert before I even knew what the fuck was going on.
A fast-paced iteration of young male infatuation, obsession, and yes, the oh-so-overused L word, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty throws the kitchen sink at the problems of modern film. It seems to be inventing its own cinematic language from the ground up. It’s no surprise then that Mr. Nance, whose film is marching to the beat of its own drum from the sensational opening credit sequence onward, is a visual and audio artist first, a filmmaker second. Nance, a prototypical blipster with a wavy ‘fro, an overwhelmingly goofy smile and the occasional bow tie, explains in an insistent voice-over that informs the visuals for much of the movie how he came to meet and become too encumbered by infatuation with Namik Minter, who earns a “starring and inspired by” credit in this madcap, multi-format evocation of and meditation on the director’s obsessive love for her.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which premiered at Sundance before a long fest circuit run full of prestigious stops, opens from Variance Films this Friday.
Filmmaker: You made this in a very artisanal fashion — you’ve personally overseen almost every aspect of this extraordinarily layered and formally dense film and for long stretches were the only person working on it. When you set out to make this movie six, seven years ago, did you envision anything like what you currently have? Or did you see it as a much smaller thing?
Nance: It was an ever-evolving thing in my mind, I guess. Back then, I didn’t know what a film festival was. I had really no idea that that was a thing that existed. I definitely was not a cinephile; I was a casual film watcher, I didn’t see many independent films. I wasn’t plugged into films as an influence. So I think I had no precedent for what I was trying to do other than the art world. Slowly I started to build awareness just working and directing music videos, stuff like that, and on the producing side learning a more traditional way to do it. You go to film festivals and there’s sort of an independent filmmaking community. That all came to a head when I did the [IFP] Narrative Lab in 2008. It was an education in how you do festivals and get a distributor and all that and I’m like, “Oh, OK.” There were people around me who were going to Venice, Toronto and other major festivals. I saw people doing for the first time and that changed my expectations.
Filmmaker: The picture has some many constituent elements, whether it’s live-action reenactments or various kinds of animation — you talk about how it was a process that evolved and I’m curious, where did you start from a physical production standpoint? Was it the interviews with Namik, was it the reenactments or some of the animation, and how did one aspect lead to another? Did you already have the necessary skills and know-how to accomplish all those different forms at the beginning of the process or were you acquiring them along the way?
Nance: Both. The first thing that came was the shooting. I already had footage of Namik sort of lying around but then we spent about a week shooting what became [the short film] How Would You Feel? The reenactment stuff. There was no animation of anything in that part. My original conception of the film is that it was a very lo-fi thing that felt like real life even though it was fiction. There is this not-so-subtle part where it’s clearly about us. I already knew how to animate; I was making other smaller animated projects that were not related to this, so when I tried to expand it that was something that was already part of what I was doing on different projects. I was in school so I was learning everything on the job, so to speak, especially the producing element of all of this. I still don’t know how to so many things. I’m still constantly making mistakes so it’s been a tremendous education in making a film, especially outside of the whole art side of the thing. All the creative decisions you have to make on the other side of the thing, I’ve had to learn on the job.
Filmmaker: You bring a perspective to feature filmmaking that I find very unique. Obviously you’re a musician and a visual artist. Given how you saw other, perhaps more traditionally trained filmmakers approach narrative film during the lab, how do you think the training you had in those other disciplines inform your own process in a way that’s different than others?
Nance: I think I was by far much more individual. I came from the background of being a studio artist and walking in the studio and thinking, “What are you going to make today?”, especially as a young, emerging [artist] who doesn’t have resources outside of what you personally can do. Not that it is frowned upon to get help or collaborate, but it’s just not in the culture of it to have several voices in any given piece. So I think that I brought that, for lack of a better term, “auteur theory” that you find in film and applied it from a fine arts perspective where it’s less about reclaiming control of the film and more about just what artmaking is in the fine arts world. I think people who were around me retained that, but I think they’re better at working with the normal collaborators you would on a film, whether it’s a composer or an animator or a title designer for instance, but I never got used to that. I was never in a process or in a space where that was a normal way to make a movie; I was always in a space where you just do all that yourself and it’s all your voice. I definitely think that that is not necessarily healthy for all projects, but I think it contributed to what this is because what I’m doing is very much self portraiture.
Filmmaker: Beyond that, I also think it’s a portrait of the way you saw another person, in this case Namik Minter. What was her perspective on this process you went through? Did she ever look at material as you were making it? Obviously she’s in the film, you interview her and it’s very much about your obsession with her.
Nance: We have a personal relationship outside of this film so it’s hard for me to track specifically our interaction in our personal relationship with regards to just this film throughout our knowing each other. But I do know that I did not show her footage while we were shooting it until I had finished editing it and screened it. At the same time that was only the matter of a month or two. We chatted, I edited it and we screened it in a few months, the first short. After she saw that, she became much more of the process. She’d talk about how she was making a movie, how she was being interviewed, we had this whole process of coming up with a section in the movie that’s based on some reading I had been doing. After she saw the initial movie, she became a collaborator on a whole lot of pieces of what the feature has become.
At the time, I wasn’t really sure what I was attempting to do. I think most of that interaction and collaboration came from a desire to be close to her, wanting to consistently work with her, because I loved her. The idea of all the Oversimplification stuff with the animation kind of came a little later after I moved away to France.
Filmmaker: Once you had a clear idea of all the elements you would need, who did you reach out to help you execute those? I know you did have a few other collaborators on the more involved animated aspects, correct?
Nance: Yes. The key people were this guy Markus Kempken, a German animator who I gave a lot of animation to in different stages of development. Not to sink to far into animation lingo, but I’d give him layout frames, storyboards and concept art and the project files for some things and he’d flesh it out into full movement. I worked with a lot of my interns on doing the really early hard work of drawing or painting every frame on paper for each of the sections. I think one of the most cohesive collaborations was with an animator and a puppet designer, Leo and Natasha. They’re based in England and they worked on the stop motion section remotely out there while I was here. So, yes, there were a few key collaborators as the years went on and I think one of the most cohesive things was the little factory we had at MOCATA, which is where we made the movie with myself and about five interns. Hannah Buck was the main one, and Jeanne Mailloux. They were constantly working, making frames, without pay, literally for years. That was the one that was the most intensive and it was hard because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I know how to make it but I don’t really have any money, I don’t know how to produce it and I was doing it myself so there was definitely a learning curve.
Filmmaker: When you were editing — which I imagine mainly took place well after you shot and after most of the animation had been conceptualized and at least partially executed — what were the most difficult things to make work? Did you ever spend a lot of time creating a stylistic piece that didn’t fit in the finished film? Where you showing cuts to people and getting feedback toward the end? What was the process like at the end, as you were actually finishing it?
Nance: Man, it was terrible. It was that period of like, I have all this stuff, [I’m] trying to get all this animation produced, it’s taking forever, people are kind of coming in and dropping out, I don’t have any money. It was really a difficult process because I had the script so I knew what I was making, but I had never seen anything exactly like what I was doing and neither had anyone else. I was flying blind in terms of putting all the mediums together into a coherent hour-and-a-half feature film.
Nobody was really watching it, I wasn’t even really watching it as a full thing until literally the very last second before Sundance. I think that helped. I think I would’ve gotten cold feet about some things if I had seen the whole thing too early and had had too much time to go over it. We had sent an early version to Sundance and had gotten in, and so I had to finish it. The cut that played Sundance had not been tested by anyone at all. Even the other producers hadn’t seen it, so they didn’t actually have any input.