Tuesday, January 29, 2008
NELSON OLIVER - FILMMAKER
Determination is one thing but you have to admire a plan, or even vision. Nelson Oliver knows what he wants. He has since the early teens that is, to be a filmmaker. At 19, Oliver is a second year film student at UNCW directing a short not for a class project but for himself. He plans to complete the editing and use the film to apply to USC film school.
Not content to sit around with other students discussing what film should have won Best Picture in 1989, he set out to make his own film, diverting energy into something more productive.
“Many students don’t take advantage of the equipment to make films,” he says.
He’s not one to discuss, but rather, is the type of individual who has an idea and sees it through. He is essentially working outside the school’s film department and doing what any filmmaker would have to do, apply for permits, contact a casting agency. However, the process didn’t come without help from some of his professors, Glenn Pack loaned him a Frinell light and Frank Capra, Jr. put him in contact with a casting agency.
“Frank Capra, Jr. helped me out a lot on this short,” he says. “He’s the one that helped me get contacts like Johnny Griffin. Everyday I would stay after his class and get the information I needed.” Support from his professors came from Dave Monahan, Terry Linehan in addition to Glenn Pack.
He’s doing it on his own, away from everything, doing what independent filmmakers normally do. The young director is getting on-the-job training by doing it all himself, something that’s not easily taught in the classroom.
“With this film I wanted to see how efficacious I was in terms getting the shots I wanted,” he explains. “How well my vision was translated to the screen.”
On a bright morning last April at Greenfield Park he directs a scene from his film on a bridge deep in the park. Wearing jeans and a dark blue shirt he pulls his lengthening hair away from his eyes revealing a slightly terse brow. He’s not stressed or upset, just focused. There are shots to get, pulled from a notebook plotted out long before he and the crew arrived this morning.
The story, written by a roommate last year, behind this fifteen minute short concerns a submissive man who wants to drop everything to do stand up comedy but his subconscious won’t allow it.
Actors Devin McGee and Stacy Emery exchange lines walking across the faded and grey boards of a bridge that extends across part of the lake. It’s a beautiful view of the lake and elegantly quiet. In the water below turtles stick out their heads and ducks slowly move, barely making waves, their large feet paddling like a leaf flowing in the wind.
Oliver gets the shot and assistant director Luke Dalecki moves the dolly down the bridge, onto grass at the foot of the bridge. In high school Oliver saved up money to purchase a dolly, a guide rail that allows for a camera to move smoothly across its plane, and a digital camera. UNCW won’t allow students to use anything unless you’re in a production class.
Oliver sets up his shots and works the camera alone, making adjustments and directing the actors.
“I’m doing most of the camera work,” he explains. “In an ideal situation I’d want a camera operator. I learned that in high school, it takes too long to direct the actors, the camera operator, go back and look at it, when you’re recording it yourself you know if it works or not.”
There is no sign on his face of what should I do or where to put the camera. It’s as if he’s done this before, came down the night before and rehearsed. Taking away the fact that this is a very small crew the members carry on in a relaxed and business like manner, everyone in attendance to accomplish the same goal. They are enjoying the work but the goal is to get the work done, to create this film.
Once the dolly is in place (and waiting for park visitors to move past) the director gets his next shot with McGee delivering lines to Stacy. It’s a long take with McGee saying much of the lines. Oliver gets two more takes till he’s satisfied.
“That was perfect,” he says laughing a little. “That was really good guys.”
They decide to break for lunch. It’s just after twelve o’clock. Oliver asks who’s hungry and says he’s getting lunch.
Growing up in Allegheny County, on the North Carolina–Virginia border, Oliver worked through his high school years learning the equipment cutting his teeth shooting projects around the county. The high school he attended had a community college attached, a cyber campus. And Oliver’s boss was in charge of it.
“It paid really well but wasn’t creatively satisfying,” he says.
In high school Oliver had his own 12 – 15 person crew. “They really got into it, made it really fun.” Senior projects were presented to the school. The most videos done before was two and Oliver had completed five. It was his concentration in course studies but those projects were beginnings. One project specifically, was about lighting.
In high school the budding filmmaker saved up money and bought film equipment realizing the benefits of having his own. Oliver owns his own boom mike, a small crane that you can’t tilt, so he took a tripod head off and used to tilt with and a mini crane. The parents helped out a lot too, once seeing that their son had more than a passing interest in film. Anyone could suggest that it was risky. Oliver was shooting for the moon while other kids in town are looking for a vocation, let alone a career.
At an early age Oliver asked his parents how a film was made, specifically watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They explained it as best they could, how the character gets from one place to another so quickly, how things are created for the film, or how Harrison Ford remember his lines.
“They explained to the best of their ability,” he says. “Of how a director shoots in takes and then all of it is edited.”
It didn’t make complete sense until Oliver saw a documentary on the making of Jurassic Park at the age of seven and things came together. While a lot of kids his age were digesting popular music he listened to a lot of film scores. It would be several more years before he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Oliver didn’t want to post flyers for actors. Most of the characters in the film are around thirty and he needed actors of such an age. He sought out Wilmington casting director Tracy Kilpatrick who was suggested by Capra. She’d never worked with a student before but sent the word through. It was a no pay production, productions that are good for building a resume for actors. All the actors are through her agency.
The shoot took place over the month of April. There were five locations total, Keenan auditorium at UNCW, inside and out, Greenfield & Hugh McRae Parks and downtown Wilmington.
“Downtown was rough, people kept asking if we were shooting One Tree Hill,” he says. “Finally, we just told people that we were. Cause we had the dolly out and the boom.” Oliver shifts gears in his mind, going from a humorous anecdote to one about creative fruition. “Its fun seeing how well the shots have turned out compared to the storyboards.”
The production was supposed to shoot downtown on a specific day but the director got all but one of the actors so he reworked the schedule. These are problems that filmmakers come up against on any size production.
Another location included the offices of the Insider’s Guide of Wilmington where shooting was tight to say the least, but scene-wise, was profitable.
“The contacts were what took the longest, meeting the right people, talking to the Wilmington film office, getting the permits written,” he says listing item after item as if there was so much more. “Getting the lights for shooting was one of the biggest difficulties.”
Shooting at Keenan was fortunate but the crew only had one day, April 13th to film. “The only day I could get,” he says. The scene is not terribly complex but required a lot of lighting to simulate performing in front of a large crowd. The shot involves dollying the camera back to reveal an actor buried in lights sweating it out in front of people, but namely, having a meltdown in his own mind.
“I think there were fourteen takes on that one,” he says about getting it right.
The character is doing an internal diagetic scene, a comedy routine actually, all in his head. Oliver went on to create a parallel between that scene and the final scene, the climax in which everything goes haywire.
“I created a parallel because this starts in the auditorium and mirrors the climax that takes place at the amphitheatre at Greenfield Park, both scenes are in theatres.”
Preparation is key. Over the years there have been stories written about productions where directors come on a set and find their vision at that moment. It may work for some, and not for others, but either way it could be costly in the matter of time and patience. On a film set time is a director’s enemy.
“Prep really helps. I write down all of my shots first and what I want to do. Then I just have a script supervisor and tell them what lines are to be said in the shot,” Oliver explains. “We’re going to redo all the sound in post.”
Oliver used a lot of extras, mostly his friends, recalling what he learned from The Wizard of Oz, where the same people were used over and over. He was appreciative of the fact that everybody showed up and helped out.
In Oliver’s bedroom the walls are lined with posters of films he clearly responds to, from classics to modern hits. There’s a variety to them but also the whimsy of adventure. There’s no need to mention titles because that would categorize him. He doesn’t care who knows what his tastes are, he knows what he wants to do in terms of telling stories. He clearly wants to do just that.
There are sketches that line the top of one wall that are conceptual designs for a sprawling adventure that he says will take some time to flesh out and write. He prefers to write his own material but also prefers to take his time, not wanting to rush.
“Before I shoot I do conceptual sketches, shot set-ups, storyboarding, preliminary sketches for scenes,” he says explaining the pre-planning. On his bed lies a notebook filled with small sketches of shots and description of what he plans to get. There is another project lying on the bed, and drawings, his mind poured out onto paper.
“That notebook is my life support,” he says.
He holds his camera, playing back scenes from the short film, take after take. The view finder is taped off to allow for understanding where the frame line will be when the film is completed. It’s the camera he’s had for several years now and appears as an extension of his hand.
A scene appears onscreen in which actor Devin McGee is arriving late to work and an actor in the background spills coffee on himself. It was something that was added, a surprise that was good enough that it added levity to a scene. A following set of takes shows the actor playing his boss who berates McGee for being late.
The actor traveled into town from DC that weekend, on a Sunday morning. “C’mon Miles get to work!” the older actor yells at McGee. McGee flinches. With each take the actor, who’d not had much rest, seemingly got more into the scene and appears as if he’s about to explode.
“He had many Red Bulls. He had to go to DC to shadow an actor for a role he’s taking as a military officer,” Oliver laughs. “I wanted to get him out of there as soon as possible.”
There’s something to be said about not just creative people but also energetic people, those with big ideas, of doing something above the norm. Some students were interested in what Oliver has done, realizing that if he could do it so could they. He’s an example of a self starter, someone who does more than talk about creating. Someone who set about to depend on himself to produce and not an institution.
Francis Ford Coppola, in the documentary Heart of Darkness about the struggle to complete Apocalypse Now, said that with technology anyone will be able to create their own films, that limitations will be reduced. It won’t make school obsolete, but it does put some power back into creative hands.
“I think it’s good that film school is focused on the business side of it,” he says. ‘But I think you need spark. It takes your attitude in terms of what you can do. Some students talk poorly of their projects and that they’ll never finish. Pessimism is one of my biggest pet peeves and I won’t have that. I think you could come without that spark and that Film School might ignite that but I think you’re better off if you have that already. If you look at the history, the filmmakers, they went in there generally knowing what they wanted to do.”
Oliver carefully pauses and then casually smiles.
“I don’t see myself doing the same job everyday.”