“I want to create a depth, I want it to last with you long after the credits roll.” These are the words of soon-to-be superstar filmmaker Oliver Nias, who is currently taking his feature directorial effort–The Return, on the road through the grueling International festival circuit. Thankfully, he made his way to Buffalo, NY for the Buffalo International Film Festival last month, which allowed me to meet the man behind the enrapturing and enigmatic independent–black and white noir thriller.
Filmmaking isn’t exactly something that an individual approaches lightly, at least if they expect reasonably coherent results. Oliver not only directed, but also wrote The Return, which is ambitious for even the most seasoned directors. When discussing what motivated him to get into the business of filmmaking, he cited a short he made in college, which helped ignite a passion that bred the creativity leading to his freshman directorial effort. “It was no good at all, but I really enjoyed it” Oliver said jokingly. To make a movie is no small task, To make a reasonably good one is monumentally difficult, and to make a truly excellent one is lightning in a bottle. Oliver Nias has officially caught a whole lot of lightning in a very small bottle. Oliver sat down with us to talk independent production, his personal influences, and the story behind making his first feature film–a black and white opus on the perils of explicit duplicity.
Interviewer: You had mentioned music as your first love, but regarding film, who or what were or are sort of your biggest influences? You had mentioned Christopher Nolan?
Oliver Nias: I would guess that most people were influenced by Christopher Nolan, even if it’s to say they don’t like him. My first experience with him was in 1999 with Memento. I was young, I was a teenager, and I had never experienced a thriller which had used that kind of structural conceit to enhance the genre. That’s why I feel completely indebted to him, because of his structural renovations.
I was equally influenced by Michael Mann and the way he uses texture and what he describes as–the meat of the material. Whether that be a chase or heist or gun battle. Also having researched some of his process, he apparently, in pre production, will get a room full of the physical textures that he believes speak to the film. Whether that’s a slab of concrete or a shard of glass or a grouping of knives, I love that kind of approach. He has said, and I subscribe to this as well, he’s at once a formalist and a structuralist and likes visceral secrets.
Tim Burton was also a kind of instrumental in my understanding of film. Tim Burton was the guy that helped me understand that a story can be a metaphor, I learned that for the first time watching Edward Scissorhands.
I: Just to touch on the Michael Mann point and his use of texture or totems, is that something you adopted for your own film? Or do you use any other similar methodology to get yourself in the framework?
ON: Yes, I fantasized about having the resources and time for that. Actually my one borrow from that, I sent music to the heads of department and the actors, that spoke emotionally to the film but wasn’t directly to do with it, the same way a piece of concrete may not be directly to do with Heat (1995 movie directed by Michael Mann). I like that kind of using an array of items or influences to triangulate what a thing is, but not actually say what that thing is, on the nose.
Really, to answer the question about process, we had to be very, very pragmatic because we didn’t have a lot of time or money. The main place I put my focus in lead up to the shoot was with the main actors, I would sit down with them and we would just be quite forensic. We would kind of excavate the script because in something like The Return, and in many thrillers, there are many subtexts and secrets going on. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to discuss that on set, everyone had to be on point. That was my main methodology in the lead up, just old fashioned script work.
I: As a filmmaker yourself, I’ve always been curious if you are able to watch a film without dissecting it analytically. Is that a struggle for you at all?
ON: Absolutely with every single movie, I am never dissecting it. I think my job as a director is to be the audience. I don’t have to try hard at this, but every movie I watch, I’m watching to enjoy it. For some reason the analytical part of my brain doesn’t seem to be switched on when I’m watching films. My favorite movies that I have watched over and over, or at least a couple of times, I will break it down or start noticing some of the techniques. I’d really say that I almost enjoy every movie ever (Laughter).
I: People view filmmaking as traditionally glamorous. With an Indie film set, that’s not really the case. Can you summarize what it’s like, at least for you and your experience?
ON: It all comes down to your reference points. I would guess that being on a massive set could potentially be far more nightmarish than being on a budget and time constrained indie shoot, for all the reasons we’ve read about before. Because of the lines of communication. I felt like we put together a very blessed set. There wasn’t huge luxury, but for me, luxury is a cup of tea and I really mean that. We had a lean team, which was helpful because we weren’t “herding cats” as the saying goes, on a day to day.
Communication was borderline immediate, and I think I’m right when I say we didn’t use walkies on set. Every single member of the team was a room or two away at any point. My experience on The Return was one of–not quite luxury and certainly no glamor, and glamor is all very well, but really what’s nourishing, instead of a big three course lunch opposed the sandwiches we had, what people are really looking for in terms of nourishment, is the work being good and getting what you want your of your day.
I: The Return is shot in 35mm film. For an indie, that seems like a luxury, as film is typically the more expensive option to digital. Can you talk a little bit about why film was right for your project both creatively and financially?
ON: Absolutely, I’ve said it before, on The Return, film was cheaper than digital. That argument has many strands to it. The first is when people make the comparison that film stock is more expensive than digital, of course it is thousands and thousands percent more expensive because–with digital, the cost is data management and archives, which does cost something, but no where near as much as every second of footage costing something. If you really break it down, you’ve got a lot of expensive kits on set already. I will always alert people to remember that we’re talking about one line of budget with stock, especially if you’re shooting a low ratio. We were shooting a plan of 4:1.
What 35mm not only helped us get artistically, which was the atmosphere, look and feel of our story, which is paramount to me justifying why you might spend 10 pounds or 12 pounds to come see the film. Above that, as soon as we turned over after a load of rehearsal, where we knew what we were going for was going to be in the movie–and a lot of the film is made up of first takes. As soon as we called cut, we knew that from there to the lab and back to the edit where we digitized the footage, we already had all of that baked in, the atmosphere we talked about, the world of the movie. If I would have got a cheap digital camera and tried to shape it, we then would have spent way more than the stock processing was worth–in post, trying to achieve to you guys–the audience–which is my priority and the films priority, trying to get it to a point where you guys can really enjoy it as a movie.
On a costing point of view, when I pitched the project to our crew, when we said to them we were shooting on 35mm they were interested and they turned up. That was worth to our production, probably double in terms of monetary value than the stock itself. It was right for our production, that’s the other caveat. I would happily shoot digital, digital is amazing, but you must consider the qualitative as well as the quantitative expenses and benefits of your medium.
I: Another aspect of the film which adds to the rich atmosphere is that it’s in black and white. Can you talk about why you developed your project sans color, and what the process was like that led to that decision?
ON: What first led to it being in black and white, was the story. It’s a film noir and it’s emotionally gray. You have a world of crime and darkness and it makes a lot of sense in there to go black and white. From a narrative point of view, is that, while again I was trying to make it feel real, the mission of the movie was to transport the audience a bit. This is a heightened elevated space, and I knew I didn’t have the money to do that in color. Black and white gave us our world. It didn’t matter what color it was (in reference to sets and wardrobe), as long as the space was right and we could load in and shoot that day.
I: I definitely agree the color palette lends itself to the story, tonally.
ON: And another thing to add, we originated in color, and that was one of the unexpected benefits. We went into black and white using the RGB channels and it allowed us to get a lot of dimension out of the footage. We could pull back a yellow and push up a blue which would make this item pop or a character’s face push into the background a bit, which was a really fun experiment.
I: The cast is fantastic. Everyone seems to have incredible chemistry, it’s a great ensemble piece. What was casting like for you on this project?
ON: The film was cast by a wonderful casting director called Emily Tilelli, who I had known before. She’s an absolutely brilliant casting director. She cast this in a day, we knew what we were after. She put together a day, she put the casting out and we got people through the door and by the end of the day we were pretty clear in agreement who was who. A footnote to that is that Sam Donnelly who plays Jack and Amie Burns Walker who plays Laura, I had known from before and I had brought them on myself. That was more because we were on a wave length and had known each other for many years.
I: If you see Sam Donnelly anytime soon, please give him my regards. He was incredible, doing so much emotionally with facial expressions and body language.
ON: Yes, he’s great and I will pass that on. Case and point there with him pushing out that kind of energy, but on very little, is the interviewer scene at the start, where the film presents itself and what it’s all about, that was done in one take.
I: In terms of reactions for audiences, what are you hoping people walk out the theater thinking?
ON: I want them to come out and want to see it straight away again, that’s the whole idea. And for them to be experiencing flashbacks of their own as they head home, and to be sweating the details. I think that’s true to life, I want them to enjoy the movie and stimulate their evening and their minds, and for them to be nourished by that. That’s the main thing.
I: As an audience member I can assure you, that’s how I felt. Confused, frustrated and ultimately satisfied. I do find this difficult to synopsize, because you don’t want to ruin it, but I exited that theater wanting to see the film again.
ON: That is the sort of under the skin effect that we wanted.. One that follows you.
I: What’s next for The Return, in terms of distribution or release?
ON: We’ve got our heads together at the moment for a distribution and release plan. We’re actually looking at something a little bit new, a little bit innovative in terms of getting the movie out there. I’ll say no more on that at the moment. One thing I can say is that we will be at some more festivals in the coming months through to early 2017.
I: What is next for you as a filmmaker?
ON: During this year when we were promoting The Return, I became very interested in the concept of rivalry, and the concept of gang theory, that started to blend into a new thriller. Rivalry and brinkmanship have fed this next one. It’s written and we’ve had the first script reads.
I: Only one more question, something I like to ask filmmakers. It’s the desert island question. If you were stranded on an island, and only had access to one filmmaker’s catalog for the rest of your life, who’s would it be and why?
ON: I skate around what my gut instinct, my head instinct, and my heart instinct says straight away, and what a lot of people would say just because of the amount of great depth there is there, Stanley Kubrick. It’s very hard to resist that man, for so many reasons. They’re so watchable, there’s so many layers there.
I: Haha, yes absolutely, a lot of people, most people, will pick from the “Mt. Rushmore” of directors including myself. No one will ever argue you on Kubrick. He’s one of the, if not the greatest filmmakers of all time.
ON: One of the reasons I find it hard to resist saying him, and I have so many on the tip of my tongue. I mentioned Tim Burton, which was formative for me, Nolan with what he does with structure, formative. But another thing that was highly, highly formative, was my second viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I suddenly realized that a movie, at it’s heart, should really be about a single sentence, in terms of a theme explored. That was so educational for me.
The Return is a film that still remains neatly tucked into my subconscious. It’s the kind of story that doesn’t come around often, similarly to Oliver not being the type of filmmaker you encounter often. His brilliance behind the camera, is parallelled to his genuine sincerity and passion to engage his audience. This is the beginning of a very successful career for a budding superstar. The Return continues to make waves on the festival circuit, most recently, the Nottingham International Film Festival, where it received rapturous applause, and a special jury mention along with Best Screenplay and Best Music awards. This serves as Oliver’s resounding statement piece, and has solidified him as one of the next big talents to come out of the UK. “What I wanted to do was create an exploded view.” Oliver said. “I hope it stimulates people.”
You can check out our review of The Return by clicking HERE. Also check out the Bro Knows Best of The Fest list to see where The Return ranks. Be sure to follow Oliver and the film on all social media, for updates on the release. Also visit Oliver’s website Olivernias.com.