50-year-old playwright, screenwriter and director Tim Blake Nelson never imagined he’d act in movies. Born in Oklahoma, Nelson originally dreamed of a career in writing and theater. His first screen credit came in 1992 with This is My Life, but he’s known more for his work in The Good Girl, Minority Report, and, most famously, for O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As he spent time on sets for independent films, that’s when he became interested in directing.
Nelson has made four feature films, including his upcoming film, Anesthesia. Nelson was just finishing up his latest when we spoke, as well as coming off filming next summer’s The Fantastic Four. We interviewed him for his role in director Michael Cuesta‘s Killer the Messenger, the true story of journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) uncovering the government’s involvement in bringing drugs into the United States. In addition to discussing his work in the film, we also covered the shooting of Anasthesia, working in front of and behind the camera, and more. Check out the discussion below.
Did you have a good summer?
I did. I was working on The Fantastic Four. Then I had this movie I’ve made called Anesthesia which I was finishing up. So yeah, very good summer.
Did you finish editing the film or are you still working on it?
It’s done. I’ve edited it and color timed it and mixed it. Now all I have to do is figure out just the titles, just the font for the titles, and look at the DCP I’ve done.
Have you watched it since just to see how it’s working?
I thought I’d finished it before I left for Fantastic Four. And then I just thought about it a lot when I was working on Fantastic Four and watched it again. As a result, I went back in and made some changes after Fantastic Four.
Does that usually happen when you finish a film?
No. This was a singular opportunity just because of Fantastic Four. I also had some of the contingency on the movie left, so I threw myself at the mercy of the producers and asked if I could go back in and they said yes.
Do you find editing maddening or is it the most enjoyable part of the process?
It’s both. I’d say it’s a lot of fun for about a month and a half, and then you look at the movie and you realize, oh, it doesn’t work. And then you have to start eliminating, and reshaping, and massaging, and moving scenes around. And then, suddenly you have a movie that does work. And then it’s fun again. And then as you become more and more meticulous and frame oriented, it becomes a bit frustrating again. And then, finally, you are finished.
I’ve read a little bit about the movie. Tonally, is it similar to your other work or is it a new kind film from you?
It’s my first New York movie. In that regard it’s different. It probably has, per-capita, the most articulate characters I’ve written. So yeah, I suppose it’s a departure. I’ve also never done as much of an ensemble piece as this one. It’s tricky to balance that in telling all the story.
Is shooting in New York as difficult as they say it is?
It is, just because if you are shooting low budget in New York and you don’t have a big crew and you are shooting exteriors, there’s not a lot of respect for sound issues and people walking through frame. People want to get where they want to get and they don’t want to wait for your long dialogue takes.
And then, subsequently, when you are mixing you’ve got people shouting, and traffic, and airplanes all over your tracks. So that can become very difficult. You end up shooting right in the LaGuardia flight path and it’s just murder.
Do you like to keep any of that background noise for personality?
A little bit of it, but if you are shooting coverage on a scene, you’d much rather have backgrounds in a library where you have control over them as opposed to corrupting certain takes and not other takes. So if you want to shift between different takes, you have continuity issues. So, ultimately, you just end up cutting.
Are you hoping to bring the film to any festivals?
Yeah. We’re going to show it to festivals and see where we get. Hopefully we’ll be somewhere in the winter.
Great. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it at Sundance.
Yeah. That’d be great. We’ll see. Who knows? Obviously it wouldn’t be in competition.
Have you had a chance to see Kill the Messenger yet?
I haven’t seen the film yet, just snippets of it. Did you like it?
I did. It’s one of the movies where, on every level, it’s just really well done.
Oh, that’s great.
Are you someone who watches their work?
Yeah. I mean at this point I’m endeared to it. So I don’t get to anxious anymore. I’m sure Michael shot and edited us all very well. I loved what he had to say on set. Jeremy is fantastic. So yeah, I’m very eager to see it.
When you started out, were you very analytical watching your work?
I suppose I’ve grown more analytical but less repulsed. Initially, in I’d say for about the first 10 films, I would go into the theater with a high degree of anxiety, which would only be supported by having seen the movie, or by having seen my performance, I guess. And then I just got used to seeing myself. And now I’ve grown more analytical and just try to use each experience to become better.
There’s no film acting school. There’s theater school. I spent four years at theater school. But particularly for actors who train for theater, doing movies ends up becoming your school. And so, I probably spent about the first 30 movies I did just simply to get truly proficient at it, at having a relationship to the camera, to the directors, and scene partners, and to just manage that trichotemy.
Now I feel I’ve gotten to the point where I can worry a little bit less about that and more about just depending the character.
Does the school of film acting ever end?
Hopefully it never ends.
What do you take away from Kill the Messenger as an experience?
Finding intimacy when the camera is far away I think was the issue on that movie, because the feel of the movie is…there’s an espionage component to the movie so that the world is being spied on or investigated, rather, as a journalist would. And so, the camera spends a lot of time far away compressing space. So you have to try to find an intimacy with your scene partner when the camera is far from you and the crew and director are far from you. There’s an inherent contradiction there that needs to be overcome in performance. That was interesting to try and accomplish.
I know there are film directors who will stay behind the monitor, or some will get very up close to where the actors are. Which camp do you fall into?
I stay by the camera unless an actor says, “I’m more comfortable if you are at the monitor,” and then I’ll begrudgingly retreat.
So it’s a case by case basis?
Yeah. Edward Norton on Leaves of Grass found my presence sometimes distracting. And so, out of respect for that, sometimes I would get behind the monitor and give him a few takes without me there. And then I would spend subsequent takes by the camera when we were both more comfortable with where the scene was heading, if that makes sense.
Completely. The last time we spoke you discussed how working as a supporting actor, you have to let the lead performance inform your work. How about behind-the-scenes? Say if the lead actor is a method actor, will you, as well, try to stay in character?
I’ve had that experience working with Daniel Day-Lewis on Lincoln. It just became clear with Daniel that we all needed just to stay out of his space unless he approached us, because he’s got his own improvisation going. It was hard to know what the terms of that were. And you certainly didn’t want to intrude on his preparation for a scene or for the day. So it was just clearly more appropriate and helpful to let him guide what that was going to be. Any impulse on my part to get in there when the camera wasn’t rolling probably would have been more of a distraction for him.
In terms of Jeremy, my part was originally going to be played by Jeff Goldblum. It didn’t work out with him, so they brought me in on a week’s notice. I made the mistake of reading the character and thinking about Jeff and what Jeff might do with it, therefore imposing a characterization on Fenster in my own preparation that didn’t have anything to do with either me or what was going on down in Atlanta where they were shooting.
In my first rehearsal with Jeremy before the camera was even rolling, I realized that what I had brought in as informed by Jeff having preceded me in the role was just not right. My image of Jeff in the role would have worked for Jeff acting with Jeremy. But my putting that one wasn’t going to work for me acting with Jeremy. I had to bring my own characterization, I guess. I had to bring my own characterization, because Jeremy is so subtle and so utterly present that I just wasn’t going to be in the same movie by larding my performance with some preconceived notion refracted through what I imagined Jeff Goldblum would have done with the role.
And so, I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that Jeremy commands a level of truth and subtlety from his scene partners, just by virtue of the fact that he brings that to his own performance. What I was going to be doing wasn’t going to work. I haven’t seen the movie, so maybe I seem to be hamming it up.
Not at all.
But it would have been a lot worse… [Laughs]
[Laughs] I wasn’t being sarcastic.
[Laughs] That’s OK.
[Laughs] I promise there’s no hamming it up in your performance. This goes back to what you were saying about not wanting the school of film to end, though, that you’re still learning lessons. Since you studied theater, is that a different kind of school?
It is like that for theater, but you can’t see yourself in a theatrical role. I guess if you went to The Lincoln Center Library and looked at the work in a filmed version of it you could see yourself, but not like you can in movies. And then, of course some actors, like Jeff Bridges, they will watch every take right after it’s done as a way of nuancing their performance while it’s happening.
Do you like to do that?
I do that on an ad hoc basis. But it can be a real time suck. In most of the movies I work on there just isn’t that amount of time to go back and watch every take. So I’ll do it if there’s something the director is after that I’m not getting. I’ll say, “Look. It would help if I could have a look at playback.” And sometimes the director will say, “Well, I don’t really allow the actors to do that.” And you have to respect that.
I’ve heard a lot of actor/directors say that one important lesson they’ve learned is to give themselves enough time, because someone they rush themselves, worrying they’ll appear selfish to other actors. When you are working behind the camera and in front of the camera, do you feel that pressure of moving faster than you typically would?
I do. I tend to give myself the minimum number of takes. And I do that because I never want a scene partner to say, “Oh, well he gave himself a lot of takes. This is all about him.” You have to be really careful about that because there’s a protocol that gets set up on a movie based on its budget and schedule.
When you are working on a film like Leaves of Grass, I imagine that’s even more difficult.
Even more so with Anesthesia, which is far lower budget than Leaves of Grass. And so, you never want the other actors to feel as though they are not getting as much attention as you are. In fact, you need to overcompensate so that they feel as though they’re getting more attention that you are giving yourself. That’s as it should be.
Edward Norton seems like the kind of actor who goes beyond the regular acting duties. What’s that collaboration like? Is it a little different than the normal “work for hire” actor?
No. It certainly is. Edward was invaluable to me as an actor on that movie because all my scenes were with him. And I was able to turn to him and say, “All right. Am I good here?” And he would say, “Yes. You really got it that time.” I’d feel confident moving on once my scene partner, Edward, who also directs, said, “Yes. What you just did was wonderful.”
And then in the editorial process, Edward was never in the editing room. But I showed him successive cuts of the movie and he was very helpful, and I might add quite generous in urging me to cut back his performance in service of everyone else’s, including my own. Edward really helped, from his notes, shape my own performance in the editorial process.
A lot of filmmakers say the business is a contact sport. Having an experience that rewarding with Mr. Norton, is that a rarity? Or, in general, do you not run into much trouble in the indie world?
I’ve had successively easier time with my movies. My best experience so far as a director was this most recent one. There was absolutely no friction in terms of the creative process. The producers of the movie, Julie Buck and Josh Hetzler, were completely supportive, never intrusive. I think we all very much looked forward to going to the set and working with each other every day.
But a lot of that is my own approach to making these smaller movies as a director has been informed by the experiences with Rabbit Bandini. James [Franco] has really resuscitated my interest and understanding what independent film is supposed to be, which is relentlessly author drive and director driven, but utterly inclusive, and to use that seeming contradiction to balance a collective approach to filmmaking that, nevertheless, has a very clear point of view.
In an effort to do that, you surround yourself with really confident, ambitious, mostly young people. [Laughs] And so this was just a really, really good experience. I just turned 50 this year. This was also, on Anesthesia, my first experience of looking around and realizing that the production designer and I were the oldest people on the crew.
[Laughs] How was that feeling?
It was great. I felt, “Wow. I’m with all the hip people.”
Looking over your career with acting, writing, directing, and playwriting, when you were younger, what was your primary interest?
My writing and theater. It’s not that I didn’t want a career in film. I just never imagined I would have it. I always loved movies and craved to be in movies. But I didn’t imagine that anyone would ever cast me. And I started getting acting work in movies. As I spent more and more time on indie sets, I became interested in directing. So I started writing for film instead of for theater.
Creatively, do you get something different out of each job?
It’s all of a piece. [Laughs]
Kill the Messenger opens in theaters on October 10th.