“Everybody Can Make Their Money Back and You Get to Make the Movie”: Mark Pellington on Nostalgia
Director Mark Pellington has long been one of the American cinema’s foremost chroniclers of the connection between mortality, memory, and identity; questions related to how we define ourselves in life and how those lives define our legacies have been key in films as diverse as The Mothman Prophecies (a thriller in which Richard Gere becomes obsessed with the supernatural ramifications of his wife’s death), Father’s Daze (a documentary about Pellington’s father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease) and Of Time and Memory (an unconventional adaptation of Don Snyder’s novel about Snyder’s attempts to know his deceased mother). In Pellington’s last several features, these preoccupations have become obsessions, forming a kind of unofficial trilogy consisting of Henry Poole is Here, I Melt With You, and last year’s beautiful and hilarious The Last Word.
Those movies, which explored Pellington’s usual themes via a wide array of tones ranging from acidic to sentimental, have now led to what may be the director’s masterpiece, Nostalgia. A film about the relationship between our belongings and our memories and experiences, it’s a gorgeous and heartbreaking meditation on loss in the form of an ensemble character study. That ensemble, which includes Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener, Nick Offerman, Bruce Dern, Patton Oswalt, John Ortiz, Amber Tamblyn and James Le Gros, is one of the best Pellington has ever had, and several of the actors do the best work of their careers under Pellington’s direction – subtle, layered, and self-revelatory. Combining his own sensibility with that of screenwriter Alex Ross Perry, Pellington creates a rich tapestry of anguish and emotional devastation that’s also funny and exquisitely life affirming – one of the best American films about grief since Ordinary People and The Accidental Tourist. I sat down with Pellington in his office to discuss the film a few days after its premiere. It opens on February 16.
Filmmaker: How did you come to collaborate with Alex Ross Perry on this script? To my knowledge he’s never written something he didn’t direct.
Mark Pellington: Right before Nostalgia he wrote Winnie the Pooh for Marc Forster and Disney, and I think that probably opened him up to the idea. I reached out to him on Facebook, because I had seen a couple of his movies and really, really liked them. Not just the movies, but his model – that he did them cheap, in a very short time. I heard that he was a fan of I Melt With You, so I wrote him and asked, “Do you write for other people?” He said, “Yeah, I’m writing this thing for Disney now. Sure.” I said, “Well, I have an idea, a rough theme. Would you be interested in talking about it?” So a couple of phone conversations and meetings led to him saying, “Great. I’ll do it.” It was a low budget guild agreement, and the process – batting ideas back and forth and coming up with a seven-page outline that the script then sprang from – was just pure joy. It was very open and collaborative and free, and we came up with this structure that was more musical than other ensemble movies, movies like Men, Women & Children and Disconnect. I wanted it to unfold more like an album. You put the first song on, it leads to the second song, then before you know it you’re into the fourth song and maybe they’ve changed the vocalist or some new instrument’s been added. Characters could show up and disappear – we didn’t have a central event like Nashville. Alex and I agreed on that, that it would be like sequencing an album, and once we agreed on that he wrote the outline and then wrote the screenplay. Other than two scenes that I asked him to write later, that’s what went out to the actors.
Filmmaker: It seems to have come together pretty quickly. Were you guys working on this while you were shooting The Last Word?
Pellington: I think I was editing The Last Word, because I remember looking at the Shirley MacLaine/Philip Baker Hall scene and thinking, “God, I love that naturalism. I want to do a whole movie like that.” And when we finished The Last Word in July or August, I said, “I want to make another movie this year.” I just wanted to be prolific, and I had nothing else that was really happening. I decided to do it in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when actors aren’t making anything. So, backing up, if we could get the money and start prepping by October 1, that would give us six weeks of prep and we could pull it off. That meant being financed by September.
Now, if you want to start saying you’re going to make a movie, what do you really need? You need a casting director to get it to actors, you need a location scout to start looking at some locations, hire a line producer, that’s it. I reached out to Tom Gorai, with whom I’ve worked many times going back to my first feature, and asked him to produce it with me. We quickly came up with three budget levels — small, medium, and large — and the largest was barely over a million. And depending on who’s going to be in it, that tells us what level it is. In terms of financing, if you’re doing, say, the Dermot Mulroney and Kevin Corrigan and Robert Forster and Jean Smart and Chris Messina version, that’s your $650,000 version. They’re all terrific actors, but that’s their value in terms of financing. And I didn’t really care whether I made that or the million-dollar version – all I want is great actors who are committed to it. Tom got the script to a great casting director, Victoria Thomas, and we sent it to a couple agents we knew. Pretty quickly we got great reads from CAA and some big names were getting thrown around. Jon Hamm read it and liked it, and we met a week later and he was in, which is what you need – you need to build behind one person. Ellen Burstyn and Catherine Keener came on too, all within a day, and that was our solid triangle to start raising financing. And at that point you just keep going like you’re definitely making the movie, because you’re not out of pocket that much – just the casting director and the location manager. Until you start putting deposits down, you’re pretty good, so you walk this tightrope knowing that if you don’t get the money by a certain date, you’re going to have to pull the plug. Eventually we got in so deep we just had to keep going, and then some equity came in and we got Bruce Dern, and we knew we were going to make the movie and go the festival route.
Filmmaker: Speaking of Dern, I find it interesting how in your last couple movies you’ve started working with actors who are tied to an earlier era, a different style of filmmaking – people like Shirley MacLaine and Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn. Do they enjoy working on these independent films?
Pellington: I think Shirley certainly got used to letting the camera roll. She hadn’t really done a scruffy indie, and she hadn’t worked with somebody who was as abstract and stream-of-consciousness as me. But she grew to like it, because it freed her up. By the end, she really was in the moment. I said, “Don’t worry about hitting your mark. Just do what you want.” Bruce enjoyed it, too. Bruce just kind of let it rip. Ellen was amazing. She has a nine-page scene that she completely memorized. That’s where you really got her theater training — literally not one bump in a word. You don’t direct her as much as create the space for her to inhabit, and then guide her, let her know what’s going on visually, show her the picture, let her kind of play within it.
Filmmaker: On a schedule like this, I’m presuming there’s not a lot of time for rehearsal or things like that. Let’s say you have however much money and time you want. Are you the kind of director who likes to rehearse or not rehearse with the actors?
Pellington: Less and less. I like to sit and talk to them. I like to hear their process, how they like to be directed, what works for them, what doesn’t. I like to talk through the text. I like to read it with them – preferably, hear them read it and see where the bumps are with the script.
Filmmaker: Are you generally covering those performances with more than one camera on a movie like this?
Pellington: All the time. Always shoot with two, unless you’re in a closet and it’s impossible. But I can almost always find a place to put the other one, depending on the DP. If your lighting scheme is flexible enough and naturalistic enough, you should be able to do that. On this movie I had a great shorthand with Matt Roe, who started with me as an intern on Henry Poole and later became my assistant, then started shooting second-unit for me. This was his first feature as director of photography, and I just knew he was ready after the work he had done on some of my music videos and the Chelsea Wolfe piece that I directed.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you use?
Pellington: We used the Red with Cooke anamorphic lenses. There was a lot of discipline because of the budget; we had a Steadicam for three days, and I was very specific about what days we needed that for. We had a drone for three days. I think we had something like six lenses total, because there was only one set. No zooms. We got rid of zooms.
Filmmaker: That discipline informs what I think is part of the movie’s power, which is its restraint. Everything is essential, and focused, and precise.
Pellington: I wanted the movie to be very still. It’s got the least amount of music I’ve ever used, the least amount of camerawork. It’s written in a way that doesn’t require a lot of unnecessary movement. It’s very observational, very objective and not very subjective. There’s a scene between Ellen Burstyn and Nick Offerman that consists of a wide shot at eye level — two singles, no overs. I trusted the scene and the actors and didn’t see any need to dial into it. I got a lot of help from my executive producer, O’Shea Read, who encouraged me throughout post to stay still and not use a lot of music.
Filmmaker: I think it has the fewest cuts of any of your films. A lot of places where you really let the camera contemplate the actors rather than editorializing.
Pellington: The editor, Arndt-Wulf Peemoller, and I definitely wanted each character to have a long piece or song, where we didn’t cut away and were able to just really observe them. And every character gets one, because it was on the page. But boy, I’m really ready to go do an extremely aggressive genre movie now, and get out of the personal or the navel-gazing.
Filmmaker: Well, it feels like Nostalgia is kind of the last word on a lot of things you’ve been exploring for a while. Is that intentional, or do you discover what the movies are about after you’ve made them? In other words, were Henry Poole, I Melt With You, The Last Word and this meant to be a kind of quartet about loss and grief?
Pellington: It wasn’t intentional, but I can look at them that way. Really, it’s just that while other movies weren’t happening or I wasn’t getting hired for things or studio movies weren’t going, these are the ones I was able to make. Each movie was where I was in my life at that moment, and I don’t think I could make any of them again. Nor do I want to. In the case of Nostalgia, I wanted to make it as quickly as possible. If I’d waited for the system to tell me it was time, no one would’ve made the movie. By just starting the ball rolling yourself and keeping the price point low, everybody can make their money back and you get to make the movie. I think that’s important. How do you get better as a filmmaker? Make more movies. It’s not always easy. Sometimes you get to a location and you can’t get a bad shot – the location is so great that it looks good from every angle, or it looks good from such a specific angle that it tells you where to put the camera. Other times you walk in, and there’s like, nothing. You beat your head against the wall. I think doing a lot of commercials and TV helps with that – it helps you just think on your feet. If you’re given a location, and you have to shoot there, okay. You don’t love it, but on any movie, you’re going to have to bite the bullet at some point, and you’re going to have to figure out how to make it work. The building sucks? Put them in a car outside. What’s the best way to tell the story, if what was in your mind isn’t there? Well, then fuck it. Get used to something else, right? You’ve got to love your limitations.