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Cindy Silver: The Dancer, Teacher, Mother, Reluctantly Abides In Cutting My Mother

Cutting My Mother

“I’m not an editor… I’m not a director. I’m also not an actress.” But Cindy Silver is the mother, teacher, and compliant subject of her son, writer and director Nathan Silver (Stinking Heaven, Thirst Street), who asks his mother to act in nearly all of his films. In his new docuseries Cutting My Mother, playing Anthology Film Archives today beside Exit Elena (also featuring Cindy), he asks more of her than he ever has before. He asks her to direct her own film. [Silver’s short, Solo, plays at the Anthology as part of the program.]

As a child, Nathan drew depictions of his mother with scars and his father, Harvey, shot portraits of her on black and white film. She’d become the bemused muse of her husband and youngest son without expressly asking for it. This spotlight was something she grew up beside with mixed feelings towards. Pursuing an early career in dance, Cindy’s teachers ridiculed her “unrefined” voice and assured her place on the sidelines. Before she got to prove them wrong, she had her first child. She was 16. Her life path had changed.

Cindy’s close collaborations with her son took a bleaker turn on Actor Martinez, a freak docu-narrative aberration co-directed by Mike Ott (Littlerock, California Dreams) and Nathan Silver in Denver, Colorado. This was my first feature film as an AC, and the grizzly key grip on set, Jonathan Fulton, would kick the ground and tell me, “Don’t get used to this” every day at every hour of the shoot. Everyone on the crew was kept in the dark. No one could tell fabricated scenes from candid, or whether they were some mind numbing in-between. There were many fights on set, real and fake, so when I witnessed the tension unfold between Cindy and Nathan, which didn’t make the final cut of the film, I processed it passively and with the same brain-whisked, meta-confusion.

In Cutting My Mother, Actor Martinez is depicted as a collaboration that Cindy felt betrayed by. It’s the one she’ll never forgive her son for. She tells him that plainly in the series. But, knowing Nathan, I smelled an emotional arc being contrived. I had to ask Cindy her take and I wanted to learn more about her story. In Cutting My Mother, she swung the spotlight away from herself. She pushed attention to the people around her and turned the light back to Nathan. As she told me her story, she often did the same. She may not fancy herself a director, an editor, or an actress, but, here, she sure tells a story.

Filmmaker: I saw the banter between you and Nathan on Actor Martinez, which is an experience you said you’d never forgive him for, but on set I didn’t think it was so grueling. How was this collaboration or banter any different from the others?

Silver: I was somehow thrust into Nathan’s films. I was given lead roles, and I had no idea that would happen. For some of them I did have very small roles. Then Actor Martinez came along and my husband and I were flown out to Colorado. We were told we’d be put up in a beautiful place, that we’d eat a big dinner when we arrived so I could just relax and acclimate to the altitude. He gave me an idea of some of what the movie might be about, but Nathan’s always very mysterious about where his movies are going to lead, so I didn’t really know. We arrived at the airport, my husband and I, and we were picked up by someone who had no idea [what gate we were arriving at]. The Denver Airport’s a huge airport. They were missing for over 2 hours, and then the person ended up having an anxiety attack on the highway. So that was the beginning introduction. And instead of being led to this beautiful mansion and allowed to rest and acclimate, I was brought to the dive bar [Nob Hill Inn, the seediest bar on Colfax], which I’m sure you’re familiar with.

Filmmaker: I didn’t realize you had just gotten in.

Silver: Oh yeah! And, Nathan being Nathan, the movie was being directed, everything was set up! I wasn’t even allowed to use the restroom and I hadn’t eaten! Suddenly, I’m in a new place and there’s an entire crew in this bar I’d never dream of being in. So I’m told, “We’re starting,” and I’m like “What are you talking about?”

It was Nathan the director, it wasn’t Nathan my son — this was the movie. Were you there at that bar?

Filmmaker: I was there. It’s an interesting bar for sure [during an early morning call, one of the crew members saw a Denverite shooting up in the alleyway beside the bar — a noted regular occurrence].

Silver: [Laughs] So that was the beginning! Then I was introduced to, and I say this in a very affectionate way, a mad man, Arthur [the studied star of Actor Martinez]], and I’m told to talk with him about love and life and whatever. It’s early in the day and he’s drinking one glass after another. I looked at him and felt this deep connection, I felt that he was like this Marlon Brando kind of guy — very complicated. And there’s all of these weird pictures [large clown paintings] on the walls and all of these people at the bar who were actually there drinking at that hour [laughs]. So I’m just told, with no fanfare, no gestation, or ideas, to just start.

“I have to use the restroom.”

“No mom. There’s no time.”

We had long discussions, Arthur and I. I felt they were very sincere. Normally in Nathan’s films I don’t get invested in my role, I get invested in the film, like the whole movie that I know: all of the locations, all of the people, everything that happens is the film. And when it’s edited and I see the end results I’m wondering where this or that scene is. Not “where’s my part?” Just these parts of the film that I’m aware of and am there for. But with this I really felt I’d connected with Arthur, and thought it was an important part of his character, all of these things that he was discussing with me.  

So the week went by. We’re staying at this place with stone steps. My husband fell, sprained his ankle, and there were no drugstores. It’s a very upscale neighborhood with no normal stores. I couldn’t even get him an ice pack. So I’m wandering the streets of this area, in a mall with all of these fancy stores, and there’s not even a way to get an Ace Bandage or anything. And we were in a part of the house that had no air conditioning. The rest of the house had it. At night they were constructing a building down the block, and they worked all night. It was so hot during the day, and we couldn’t even open the windows [laughs].

Every day we were told by Nathan to wait and that they’d let us know when our scene was up. Well, finally some scenes came up and they were very, um, interesting, challenging, and different. There was a tattoo artist in the house, there was the medicinal marijuana that Arthur used, and a crazy cast of other characters. Nothing was what Nathan said it would be [laughs]. There was one mishap after another. Ultimately Nathan and [co-director] Mike Ott decided to go a different way with the film, and I totally got cut out of the movie. I was very shocked.

Filmmaker: And he wanted to catch you off guard and keep you on your toes, right? Or do you think what you were frustrated with was more circumstantial? 

Silver: In earlier films he’d come up with ideas and suddenly things were happening that I had no idea would. But I understood them. I believe Actor Martinez was a difficult shoot and fraught with a lot of different things going on and an interesting collection of actors. It was more due to circumstance, the way the shoot began, and it was very off putting. But I thought I rose to the occasion. Never asking to be in Nathan’s films, never expecting to have a lead role in Uncertain Terms, or Exit Elena, or to be written up on in the New Yorker, and the New York Times, and Filmmaker, going to film festivals all over the world, standing on stage next to Darren Aronofsky, Jennifer Connelly, and Natalie Portman at Woodstock Film festival. Never did I expect these things. But neither did I think I’d be cut out of a movie I flew halfway across the country for.

Filmmaker: Cutting My Mother touches on some of your early aspirations. Can you tell me more about your background?

Silver:  I was an activist when I was 12 for the Vietnam War. I was very involved with the 92nd Street Y when I was a teenager, working with and tutoring immigrants, always wanting to make the world a better place. I was very involved in a lot of dance classes. I studied at the Martha Graham studio, not that I was a great dancer. I loved modern dance. I did take ballet when I was younger but hated being confined to tights and shoes. Someone like me who likes folk dance, who likes Bob Dylan, Joan Baez — I wasn’t a hippie — I was at the end of the beatnik era. So I took all these dance classes with a dance group that no longer exists at the Martha Graham studio and I entertained, as a kid, the dream of becoming a dancer. I realized I was not cut out to be a dancer. But I planned to passionately pursue becoming a dance therapist, and I did first try for the High School Of The Performing Arts for dance. Funny story, I went with the mother of a woman who was in one of Nathan’s serie. She didn’t tell me, but I overheard her telling others that I danced like a baby elephant [laughs]. This is a girl I had a very fraught relationship with since the time I was little. She was this perfect little blonde girl named Bonnie and her family lorded over me how I was not like her. But that’s another story…

Anyways, I didn’t get accepted and I did become a teenager mother, so the idea of becoming a dancer didn’t happen. I ended up going to college as a single mother and lived with my parents while I finished high school and then went to Queens College. I studied education. I was encouraged by my relatives who were teachers, you know? Obviously, if you’re a teacher, you’re done early and you get summers off. I was raising a child, so that was very helpful. 

I did begin my career teaching at very scary inner city schools where, pretty much, my life was at stake. At the first place I worked, five minutes from when I entered the class, a group of kids surrounded me and pulled my hair out. My class comprised the kids who had the most problems in a self-contained classroom ,and I’m a brand new teacher teaching every subject. Needless to say, chairs and books were thrown out the window, there were knives shown to me, I got flat tires, and they poured milk in my car so that it smelled on my trip to Florida with my oldest son for the weekend. I wanted to self destruct [laughs]. So that was not an auspicious beginning. But I persevered and got my masters. I met my husband when my oldest son was three. We moved to Indiana so Harvey [her husband] could attend school there. It’s a teaching town, so I ended up frying donuts for $2 an hour at a supermarket [laughs], and then I worked at a deli. We waited for him to get a masters, and the only job that came through was in Fresno, California. There are a lot of migrant students there, I taught English as a second language and found what I love doing, which was teaching kids who really appreciated learning. Fresno is not a place you want to live, it’s the middle of the middle of the California desert, and it was pretty strange. 

Then we ended up on the East Coast. Through trials and tribulations I got to work in different kinds of teaching and started to teach privately. I had Nathan, and he was very attached to me. He was very involved with everything. If my husband was working on the walls of our house, Nathan would dress in a construction hat with two tool belts on. He had a screwdriver collection. Whatever Nathan did he did in a big way. It was almost as if he were preparing to make movies since the time he was a baby. He would study things and set up a scene. He would dress according [to what we were doing]. If went to a museum where they had beautiful Native American clothing, we’d dress him in that. Or, he’d see an astronaut and his room would become a spaceship. 

Then he would have his friends act out his ideas. Riot grew out of one of his birthday parties, in which I appear as an awful mother, but let me preface this by saying, Nathan didn’t just have a birthday party, it was like a whole weekend, it was a happening. It was filled with kids with migraine headaches who’d been up all night the night before, kids who wanted to go home. It was boiling hot at the park and I believe a rocket was misfired and Nathan was really upset, so by the time I got to the house I had enough of these kids. I was like why are they in my house? 

But little did I know that he would make a film at that age, 9 or something, about the LA riots. Only Nathan would come up with a plot so advanced. It’s quite interesting looking back to see him kicking his friends. And the reason, since nobody knows why I drag Nathan into the house in the film, is that one of his friends, who used to kick him in the hallways at school — he was not my favorite on the list — had hit Nathan on the nose with the toy gun.

So I just wanted to give an excuse for why I look like an abusive mother [laughs]. That ended up being a short film that he edited that ended up going to Locarno. At the time it was just life with Nathan. He had actually made Stand By Me in the backyard. He made his friends wear striped shirts, he made train tracks, but we didn’t have a video camera so it’s not on film. That was actually his first production [laughs]. So you get the picture. He was an amazingly interesting child to raise, and very, I’m not going to use the word challenging, but you knew if he was interested in something you were in it for the full commitment. 

Filmmaker: My mother also had me when she was a teenager. I think all kids feel some responsibility for taking away some of their parents’ autonomy, but it’s more so for children of young mothers — who don’t get to live out their teens and twenties. Watching Cutting My Mother, I felt like much of what Nathan was trying to do by making you direct your own film, was to give you back some of that autonomy he might have felt responsible for taking.

Silver: Your mother raised you since a young age, so you had an interesting life?

Filmmaker: I had a comfortable life at some expense of [my parents]. They didn’t get to live out the same 20s I am. 

Silver: With my first son Eric, we had no money, but we lived around the country, as well as that disastrous trip to Florida. I think Nathan saw something in me that he wanted to get on film. And I think the series was a way of trying to make amends, or whatever the word is, for what happened on Actor Martinez. I feel like I moved to Upstate New York and wasn’t teaching because I didn’t have the clientele. My parents were dying, and I think he wanted me to know that he appreciated me and wanted to honor me as a teenager mother, like with Uncertain Terms. I actually was in a home with unwed mothers and it was very draconian, like straight out of a novel. It was very rough, and no one outside that house knew I was pregnant. When I went home to my family my father left it up to me to sign no papers. If you’ve seen the movie about the triplets, Three Identical Strangers, you’d know they were taking kids away from their parents at that time. Luckily my father had signed nothing. So I brought home my baby after a few weeks, and put him in my little part of the bedroom, which had been divided because I lived in a bedroom with two brothers [laughs]. So here I was. I had to change highschools to a nursery school for mothers.

With Exit Elena I think Nathan saw something in me that I never knew existed, except that I had a very irritating voice — my mother could never figure out how I didn’t come out sounding refined. Nathan always listened to me on the phone as a child. We had a lot of conversations over the phone. I guess he just thought I had a lot of stories to tell. Exit Elena was Nathan’s way getting to tell a story with my black sense of humor and everything else. 

Filmmaker: Well I think you have a very calming voice.

Silver: Oh, yeah [laughs]? Thank you. That was always a big part of what he shows in the series. In dance classes I was embarrassed. I wasn’t even allowed to sing with my classmates in my elementary school because I sang out of tune. I had to mouth the words [laughs]. And when I went to the performing arts camp the director wouldn’t even allow me to act. They did a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and of course my close friend, who’s still my close friend, was the lead role and he’d say, “Cindy you can’t even talk in tune.” [laughs].

Filmmaker: That’s the worst when those few words and people stick with you for so many years. And for what? Why does it matter? 

Silver: Yeah. I still have nightmares of Bonnie and my ballet teacher embarrassing me. That’s what I appreciated about Nathan. He’d say, “Mom, wear your own clothing, wear your fanny pack, no you don’t need makeup, just be you.” He was always very adamant that I just be who I was. So it made it very easy, and I didn’t consider it acting because I was really just being me. But take after take, big film crews in my house, certainly it was a major upheaval in a fantastic way.

Filmmaker: I know much of the reason Nathan puts you on camera is due to your sense of sincerity , but do you still sense anything that turns on in you when the cameras roll? And do you like that thing? 

Silver: I think what I feel is just that I’m in Nathan’s film, he has a vision, and I’m trying to fulfill that vision. But for myself, other than realizing that I have to come up with what’s applicable to the film, I don’t feel like “Here I am in the spotlight. Here I am in front of the camera” I just feel like I’m doing what Nathan has asked. And it still amazes me that Richard Brody has written glowingly about me and that I have walked on red carpets. I had people come up to me at a Starbucks in Cambridge with their phones, and one of them told me,  “I just watched Uncertain Terms on Netflix last night, it had me crying, I watched it twice and I made my boyfriend and my friends watch it with me.” 

And the way she knew it was me was that she saw me doing my usual, which Nathan has put into some of his films, where I complain about my food or whatever. I was returning a coffee because it was cold. She heard me and literally came up to me in tears to tell me how touched she was by the film. I think the thing is, is that it’s just me, so people recognize me. When Exit Elena played at Woodstock people came up to me who had parents with dementia and could relate to my story. A group of women approached me while I was in line for the bathroom after the movie and told me how much it struck a chord in them.   

Filmmaker: What do you think of that attention?

Silver: I don’t know. I never expected it. I went to the Viennale and Hans [Hurch] came up to jokingly say to Nathan, “I only accept the films that have your mom in them.” [laughs] Just to be accepted in a world of filmmakers and actors and actresses. I’m in awe of them and suddenly they’re talking to me like I’m an equal. I don’t know. I think what I always say is that Nathan is the genius, Nathan is the director, he creates these environments and somehow he gets together amazing casts and crews — and I’m just honored, even though I complain and make him crazy, I’m honored to be a part of it.  

Filmmaker: Nathan’s always toying with fiction and non-fiction. Did he walk back some of that artifice for Cutting My Mother? 

Silver: I think Jared Alterman [cinematographer on Cutting My Mother], who has a lot of documentary experience — as I was doubting and questioning whether anyone would find this interesting — kept saying that everyone has a story to tell. Nathan kept encouraging me that I had an interesting story to tell. So when I’d ask them, “Is this what you want?” Jared would tell me it’s the quiet moments, the real moments in life that are most affecting in documentary. So it gave me encouragement to, I don’t know what word you use, but to expose my life or show it on film. When Nathan asked me to direct a short film I was totally astounded. I had no clue where that came from [laughs]. It seemed impossible. But the cast and crew was so warm and made it feel possible. Everyone was amazing, and I should add that they’ve always been great on all of the films. I was allowed to be around a lot of creative young people who are now blossoming into full-fledged artists. I guess ultimately what I feel is really proud of Nathan. That he can put up with my crying and fighting on every take, shooting front, back, and center — I guess knowing how many hours they shoot to make 70 or 80 minutes is pretty amazing. 

Filmmaker: You mention this in the film when Nathan asks you what you got out of the experience. But are you also proud of yourself? Did you get something out of this experience that’s separate from what everyone else is doing?

Silver: It’s very hard to answer because it’s so fresh. I enjoyed the days where we discussed the film before we shot it. I guess it felt good to connect with the sound and lighting people, as I got to direct them to shoot closer or farther back. Ultimately it gave me a sense of achievement. I appreciated that Nathan had the faith in me that I could do it. But if you asked me, “Do you want to direct?” I believe my answer would be “No. I want Nathan to be the director.” 

Filmmaker: But I think you’d make for a good filmmaker. When you and Nathan looked at the edit you knew exactly what you wanted and didn’t get.

Silver: I think in this story, because it’s sort of a conglomeration of several things from my dance career, which you know. I was supposed to perform in elementary school with that girl Bonnie, perfect beautiful Bonnie, and so I tried to make myself sick the night before. I sat in a cold bath tub and sat near the window with my hair wet. I was able to bring those feelings about through collaboration. We came up with a situation that combined several things so that Nicole [the actress that plays Cindy in the short film] could express something from my life through her, and my friend Dianne played my ballet teacher who I still have nightmares about. She stopped the class one and said, “We will continue when Cindy stops talking.” I guess in the end, it’s great that Nathan really loved my stories. People always felt that I talked too much, of course, like my family. There are all of these films of me from the days when there was no sound. I don’t know what it was, it was like regular movie film from the early days. There’s a film of me as a little girl in the bathtub playing with little cups and you can’t hear anything I’m saying. But I’m just talking and talking — I was always famous for talking.

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