All Moviemakers Are Liars

Nick Efteriades on His Short Noir Thriller, 'Pronoia' (premiere)

by Paul Risker

13 June 2017

With the protagonist thrust into a fictional situation inspired by an actual event, Pronoia is like a fusion of Melville's Le Samourai and Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad.
 
cover art

Pronoia

Director: Nick Efteriades
Cast: Stelio Savante, Hannah Jane McMurray, Lou Mastantuono

US theatrical: 28 Apr 2017

It starts with an assassin…

PopMatters is pleased to host the exclusive online premiere of writer-director Nick Efteriades’ short film, Pronoia, a noir thriller about a man (Stelio Savante) and a woman (Hannah Jane McMurray) waiting out a rainstorm in a hotel bar, whose brief and seductive encounter is unexpectedly impacted by the TV news report of the disappearance of a high-ranking Pentagon official.

Pronoia recently won the Gold Remi Award at Worldfest Houston, while simultaneously premiering in the Sunscreen Film Festival’s Short Narrative Competition in Florida. Efteriades’ previous work includes the 1995 short film Fat Tuesday and the 2000 narrative feature Astoria, a story about the struggle of the American Dream for one Greek family in Queens, New York.

To accompany the premiere, Efteriades’ joins PopMatters in a conversation to reflect on his relationship with cinema, in which he discusses the influences of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad on his noir thriller, and the importance to recognise film history as the roots of contemporary cinema. Alongside the filmmaking process, and the ideas of spectatorship and collaboration, he also addresses the role the festival circuit plays within contemporary cinema while offering advice to aspiring filmmakers and students.

Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Well, it’s the old adage, “It finds you.” We are all creative beings; it’s part of being human. Something about movies as a kid had an enormous grip on me—the verisimilitude to ‘reality’ and how they could manipulate it.

Two moments come to mind. From the 11pm weekend late movies on TV in Boston where I’m from, I remember watching Costa-Gavras’ Z. Being that my parents experienced those events in Greece, I remember the excitement of everyone sitting up to watch it. The scene where Yves-Montand is assassinated by a blow to the head, falling to his knees, kept me up for days. 

Soon after, Scorsese’s overhead shot of De Niro brushing his hand across a desk in Taxi Driver was a moment when I realized a creator was behind a vision. I may have been 11 or 12 when I realized movies were not just the pleasures of Dr. Dolittle—there were ‘other’ types of movies.

Have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced the way you watch films as a spectator?

Strangely enough, I really try my best to keep it the opposite way. When I watch a movie for the first time, I simply want to enjoy it as any moviegoer would. It’s still all about the fun of it, like sports. I’ll play ‘Monday morning filmmaker’ afterwards if I want to break down how a particular movie worked behind the curtain, so to speak.

You’ve said, “I was always fascinated by the very notion that cinema is essentially a magic trick on ‘reality.’ So, running with that notion during our current, bizarre political environment seemed apropos.” With this notion underpinning your ambitions for the story you wanted to tell, how did the story take its form? Was it a piece by piece process, a search, or did the story quickly reveal itself?

Fellini said he was a born liar, right?!  All moviemakers are. That’s what we all experience as spectators when the lights go up—that jarring sense of coming back to the real world. Pronoia started as a straight-up conspiracy thriller, and then, the primaries were well underway when I was finishing up the script. I had never experienced such a bizarre spectacle about how facts and logic were being muddled, and so that had an effect.

Pronoia began as—and still is—a feature treatment that grew out of a particular scene I had written down in the treatment. I had to see if I could execute an aspect of the concept in short form, packing it with all the aesthetic ideas.

It was actually inspired by something I caught on the news one night several years ago. A military/defense aide under Reagan and the two Bushes named John (Jack) Wheeler was seen disoriented in a Delaware parking garage. He was found murdered the next day, I believe, in some landfill with his empty car nearby. The surveillance videos were being played, which you can still find on the internet. It was creepy. The story spilled out from there with ideas about the nature of how our instincts gravitate towards conspiracies racing in my head. What artform is so suited for thrillers? Movies, of course! So, it started with a character, an assassin.

Continuing from the previous question, looking at the process as a whole, there’s a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script: the script that is written, the script that is shot, and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?

Oh absolutely. I made this short piece to see how something precisely plotted with lots of clues, foreshadowing, and all the answers could translate from page to final cut.  During shooting actors bring something new to it, and then the DP, producers, designers grab a lot of their magic. Jennifer [Spenningsby], my editor and I had a lot of fun moving pieces around, and finally, we arrived at this. But, one has to go into any movie firmly confident in one’s script. If not, it will never work.

You’ve also said: “Melville’s Le Samourai and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad are movies that play in the background all the time for me.” Why have these two films made such an impression on you? For young filmmakers such as yourself, how do you look upon directors like Melville and Resnais, and the place they occupy within cinema?

In this film, once I had the idea of who the main character is and then thrusting him into a fictional situation inspired by some actual event, Le Samourai immediately came to me. Then there was this organic gravitation towards Last Year at Marienbad. So it was a fusion of the two. 

Filmmakers are sponges full of favourite films and directors, and I’m at the bottom of it all, a movie geek. Melville and Resnais were modernists. When I teach filmmaking, my other job, it’s always a challenge to try to get aspiring filmmakers to go ‘backwards’ to see where the movies they love so much today find their DNA. I have so many favourite directors that it’s hard to isolate a few: Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kubrick—and I already feel guilty for not listing 45 others for the sake of space.

Stelio Savante as Jef and Hannah Jane McMurray as Camille

Camille (Hannah Jane McMurray) and Jef (Stelio Savante) in Pronoia (2017)

In spite of their sociable encounter, Stelio Savante has a strong sense of presence as a silent, almost introverted character, while Hannah Jane McMurray’s is wholly extroverted.

Oh yes! I wrote characters I didn’t want to understand fully, and I like that. Stelio’s character was written with him in mind because we’ve been friends and collaborators for years. He shares the same movie tastes with me to a 99th percentile. What a great thing that is to have in an actor. I knew only he could find the right modulation for Jef, who he saw as a tragic character, and then I knew it. Voila!

Hannah Jane came in through an audition. She walked in, said hello, and I knew I had found Camille. Her character was written to feel like a figment of Jef’s imagination, but she brought such grounding to her work that it helped create the relationship I needed. They were wonderful. 

Speaking with filmmaker Babak Anvari about Under the Shadow for FrightFest, he said: “Just a minor adjustment can really transform a scene and so those minor adjustments are how an actor can surprise the filmmaker. And that only comes if they truly understand the characters they are playing, but it needs to happen naturally.” Not only in terms of performance, but is a significant part of the filmmaking process allowing for those subtle surprises, which we could describe as organic moments?

Oh, of course. I agree wholeheartedly. In the crazy, logistical rush and hubris that is shooting, it’s the actors whom I need to protect in a space all of their own, so they can really work on what they are discovering, before and in-between takes. It’s those subtle surprises that, to me, become the most important moments of a movie—a certain glance, a pause. I started out in theatre, an actor’s medium and I want to allow that as much as I can in film, usually seen as a director’s medium.

By operating as a magic trick, the film is a reminder as to how the spectatorial experience is shaped by familiarity or lack thereof. Pronoia is the type of film, perhaps like Les Diaboliques, amongst many others that we naïvely first encounter, only to discover a different emphasis on repeat viewings. Within this is the reminder that perspective is everything.

Thanks for Les Diaboliques! I never thought of that one. But yes, I’m glad to be in that company for sure. What I’ve always loved about movies are the ones that leave us with questions. I know Pronoia is a cryptic, involved watch on first viewing, but on the second and third viewings, people come around to it with the: “A-Ha!” That’s gratifying. 

But I’m also intrigued by the idea of enjoying a piece, even if one doesn’t truly ‘get’ it, and I don’t mean that in a self-indulgent way by any means. I’ve seen Contempt over 50 times and I’m still seeing new things in it. The world of David Lynch, Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Inception, and Chris Marker’s La Jetee which became 12 Monkeys,  I eat that stuff up. Michael Clayton was one of those films too—very underrated. Go back and watch it a few more times and you’ll see how brilliant it is.

In this sense, could we say that to experience a film is its death? I think particularly of films I’ve encountered in my lifetime, such as Lost in Translation, in which the first viewing experience resonated so powerfully, yet was lost on a repeat viewing. Sometimes a film is to be remembered rather than experienced again.

Oh yes, that’s so true. Certain movies hold us rapt in the moments we first view them, and then, they can’t have the same effect once viewed again. Lost In Translation is a great example of that. It was such a beautiful experience to see that unfold before my eyes, and then it stays with me. Taste of Cherry is another film that resonates just like that. Kiarostami’s work has that sense of watching a film play out its own lifetime.

Speaking with Carol Morley about her film The Falling for Starburst Magazine, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

Ah, that brings us to Barthes’ death of the author! Even Tarkovsky said something about: “1,000 different viewers, 1,000 different interpretations”. Well, it gets to the core of being a storyteller or any type of artist. What we express is intended to be shared, but whatever dialogue or communion that forms amongst all who experience a work collectively or individually, it becomes its own separate thing. 

Looking back to your feature debut Astoria, which was well received on the festival circuit, how do you view the place of the film festival circuit in contemporary cinema? If it were to disappear, what would be the impact on filmmakers and more broadly speaking on cinema?

The festival circuit these days feels like a glass half-full / half-empty proposition. On the one hand, it’s so important, especially for features, to play festivals because they need to. Distribution deals are harder and harder to get, and so a festival, any festival, gives so many filmmakers the outlet to show their films, interact with an audience, and meet other filmmakers. 

On the other hand, the industry itself has become focused narrowly on a handful of festivals to ‘assume’ that’s the best of the stuff out there. I don’t believe that. I, like everyone else, will get excited about Cannes every year and then many films in the competition are disappointing. Then, you wonder, is that the so-called ‘best?’ What does that mean? I’ve seen amazing work at lesser known festivals. 

It’s not a perfect system and I wish indie filmmakers had more outlets to show their work. I also know that buyers and agents can’t possibly view every film on the planet, every year. I was a programmer and I know how tough it is. Gut, short films don’t need the festivals like they used to in my opinion. They have the internet and it’s a beautiful thing to just get a shorter work out there by hitting an upload button. People will find it.

If you could offer any advice to aspiring filmmakers and film students, what would you tell them?

Write the best possible script you can, show it to trusted people, re-work it as necessary and don’t rush it. Also, take a look at what budgetary resources you have and write accordingly. I know this is time-worn advice, but it does come down to that. Sure, writing and re-writing can be frustrating, but it doesn’t cost you a dime. It’s much worse to have spent a small fortune only to realize all your problems were in the script stage. 

Secondly, get involved on shoots and help each other out. Be a gaffer, a grip, whatever. This is how you build your filmmaking network—work with those who will help you get to the next level. But don’t do it just for the sake of networking, make true friends and be likeable.

Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

Yes, it’s like life. We learn and reinterpret continually as we go through its stages. So it affects what we have to say. At the same time, we don’t want to get too far away from a comfort zone in our aesthetic, particularly where the formal aspects are concerned. 

People say many of the best filmmakers have been making the same movie over and over again. I think it’s a question of relativism. Those filmmakers are trying to get to some truth, a variation of the same theme. They’re in the process of discovery and then there are those who can reinvent themselves from film to film. The end result is the same. You have learned something new about the world you live in, and hopefully, your work has challenged viewers to make the world a better place, or given them a few hours of pleasure, of reminding them of our shared humanity. 

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