Life as a movie maverickby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis, Minn. — While some film directors dream of dominating Hollywood, directors like Rob Nilsson just dream of telling perfect stories. For the last 30 years Nilsson has been a favorite of many critics, while working outside the studio system.
Nilsson will appear tonight and tomorrow at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival to talk about his unusual collaboration with actor Stacy Keach.
Nilsson, a native of Wisconsin, is an extraordinarily prolific filmmaker -- even though he didn't make his first movie till he was 40.
"Because I was a poet and a painter and stuff," he says. "But since that time, I'm at just about a film a year."
Nilsson is 70 now.
That first movie, "Northern Lights," released in 1978, told the story of North Dakota farmers struggling against bank foreclosures during World War I. It won him the Camera d'Or, the prize for the best first film at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Some might have used that as a ticket to Hollywood, but Nilsson has always wanted to work on his own terms.
"I do it for the love of seeking out what the next film will look like," he says.
He's made a name for himself for producing edgy stories on a shoestring, often working with improvised scripts and untrained actors.
So that's why his newest film, "Imbued," is a bit of a surprise.
It's about a chance meeting between an aging bookie using a room in an empty highrise, and a call girl who arrives at the door looking for someone else.
"You came to the door looking for Brent," says Donatello, the bookie. "Brent wasn't here. I was here. I wasn't even supposed to be here. And then all of a sudden you start crying. Why?"
They talk. He finds out she owes a lot of money. Yet when he offers to cover the debt with no strings attached, she questions his motives. As the evening progresses both have epiphanies about hidden sadnesses in their lives.
"So truth and untruth and protection and vulnerability all are mixed and together in a kind of contradictory, paradoxical relationship I think," Nilsson says. "So there is neither one nor the other, there is both."
Nilsson admits "Imbued" was once dead. As often happens in the film world, the project just collapsed.
"The money went away, the lead actor went away, and everything went away. I was in bed for about 10 minutes when I said, 'Nah, I'm not going to let this happen.'"
He has just met veteran actor Stacy Keach, so decided to pitch him the idea.
"I read the script," Keach said. "I loved the script."
But Keach says he then made an unusual request.
"Being a frustrated composer I said, 'Rob, I would love to do this. Could I also do the music?'"
After hearing a couple of Keach's pieces Nilsson agreed. With Keach on board, Nilsson quickly got the money to make the film. Keach says while he's done blockbusters, television and Broadway, he loves making small movies.
"It's art, it's not commerce," he laughs. "But it's film. It's an expression of a feeling from an writer's point of view and a director's point of view."
Keach's moody melodies form the musical backdrop to "Imbued." It also features large oil paintings in the bookie's apartment -- paintings by Nilsson. What the film does not contain are simple answers to the questions posed by the film's two main characters. Keach says that was sometimes frustrating for him, but Nilsson says it was deliberate.
He says during his visits to film festivals he asks audiences what they think his movies are about.
"People really get into it, because there is enough there that is suggestive, I think."
Asked if he regrets his struggles as a film independent, Nilsson says no. In fact he delighted that at a recent film festival he realized what he really is -- an itinerant peddler of cinema.
"I had my DVDs there, my poetry book for sale, and all this stuff. And I said 'This isn't bad. What's wrong with this?'"
Nilsson will peddle his movie "Imbued" tomorrow night at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival. He'll be joined via internet connection by Stacy Keach.
Tonight he'll present another recent film, made in Wisconsin, called "Presque Isle."
- Morning Edition, 04/28/2010, 8:25 a.m.