Tim Blake Nelson Enters The Grey Zone

Tim Blake Nelson

Tim Blake Nelson

Tim Blake Nelson makes his own rules when it comes
to working in the film industry. Best known as an actor with key
roles in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Minority Report and The Good Girl, for the past five years Nelson has been quietly
building a reputation as a talented writer and director, beginning
with the film adaptation of his stage play, The Eye of God, which
premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. Nelson continued his
dramatic directorship with Kansas (1998) and O (2001),
though none have plumbed the depths of human emotion as his latest, The Grey Zone, is sure to.

Based on Miklos Nyiszli’s Auschwitz: a Doctor’s
Eyewitness Account
, the film probes the “quintessential human
predicament” faced by a group of Sonderkommandos, prisoners who
were offered a better quality of life in exchange for helping the
Nazis in the crematoria. The story turns when the men discover a
young girl who was able to survive the gassing, and must decide
what to do with her. With a budget of just $4 million, Nelson was
able to recruit an esteemed cast including Harvey Keitel, Steve
Buscemi and Mira Sorvino, and recreate the camps in which these
Sonderkommandos existed. Unrelentingly authentic, Nelson considers
his film fairly unconventional in the tradition of other Holocaust
films: “The characters aren’t cowering in corners or simpering.
They’re not skulking off to pray; they’re not feeling sorry for
themselves. They’re dealing with their situation in a strong way.
It was very important to us to depict Jews in this way.” Here, Nelson
talks about adapting his play for the big screen and the joys of
being an actor-writer-director and (now) editor. He also answers
the big question everybody’s been asking: David Arquette???

Jennifer Wood (MM): What was it about this
story that made you want to tell it? The situation of the Sonderkommandos
is an intriguing one, but what was most interesting to you about
the story from a character or storytelling perspective?

Tim Blake Nelson (TBN): When I first read about
the Sonderkommandos in Primo Levi’s essay The Grey Zone,
I felt that the predicament these men faced in the camps was as
quintessentially human a predicament as I have ever encountered
in history or literature. These men, in choosing to abet slaughter
to save their own lives, were pitting the two most essential human
impulses against one another: the impulse to survive as an individual
at almost any cost against the impulse as a social animal to work
for a greater good and the betterment of those around them. The
challenge of what the Nazis proposed at gunpoint that these men
do was simply irresistible to me as subject matter for a dramatic

MM: Why do you think that yours is the first
exploration of the Sonderkommandos- either on stage or in film?

TBN: Well, understandably, people are not interested
in nuances when it comes to the Holocaust. We want to construe history
as a continuing struggle between good and evil, victims and perpetrators,
us and them. We want to be able to interpret history from the extreme
margins, not from where history really occurs and where the human
story really occurs, which is in the center of all these poles where
most of us exist. That’s too inconvenient.

MM: Which brings me to the question of financing-

TBN: “How the hell.?” [laughing]

MM: Well it certainly doesn’t have the upbeat
ending audiences like. And obviously there are a number of people
who aren’t going to want to take a chance on this kind of material.
So how did the financing happen? Was it a long road?

TBN: I was told it would take seven years to
get it made, and Killer Films and I were willing to set out on that
journey. I had been asked by Millennium Films to write and direct
a book for them and I said I would do it if they looked at my script
for The Grey Zone, because that was the script I really wanted
to make next. My agent and I were able to make a deal with them
in which I would do the one film and then they would finance TGZ.

I was so fervent in my desire to do TGZ that
I ultimately had to go to them and say ‘I really do just want to
make TGZ next. I’m sorry, I know we made this arrangement,
so why don’t you find someone else to do the project and I’ll find
someone else to do TGZ.’ And they said, “No, we want to do TGZ.” We had this extraordinary meeting with Avi and Danny
Lerner, who run Millennium. They said “we are prepared to lose money
making your movie. We don’t expect to make our money back, we just
want to make this.” An astonishing thing to hear! As I had found
the material irresistible when I had read Levi’s essay, they found
the prospect of working on this film irresistible, which was very
lucky for me.

MM: You were told it would take seven years.
How long did it take?

TBN: In less than two years, I was in Bulgaria
making it. So it was less than two years to get it financed.

MM: The Grey Zone originally ran as a play.
When did you decide to make a film out of the material?

TBN: Well, at first I didn’t feel it was possible.
The play was a thoroughly “theatrical” experience: You saw no bodies,
no corpses. There were no ovens. The set was minimal-just tables,
chairs and benches. Everything was created with light and sound,
and depended on the audience inferring from what the characters
said to one another was, what the setting was, etc. The film obviously
takes a completely opposite approach-you really see everything.
I think that there really was no other way to make the film, which
I realized when it was a play. Because film audiences, with an ever-more-mobile
camera and with miraculous digital effects, simply expect to be
able to see anything. And in a movie like this, where killing and
violence become workaday and monotonous, you do have to show that.
That’s the aesthetic strategy of the movie.

There’s so much casual violence in the film that,
like the Sonderkommandos, you become somewhat inured to it. And
it’s a gradual build-up. By the end, you really can’t believe you’re
able to tolerate some of the things you’ve been watching. I just
didn’t think I was the filmmaker to pull that off-or the screenwriter
to pull that off-when the play was up. And I thought well, the play
did really well and had a wonderful life and that will be that and
I’ll move on.

But then I acted in The Thin Red Line with
Terrence Malick and I watched him. Having made two extraordinary
but intimate films, Days of Heaven and Badlands, I
watched him work on this enormous canvas of a war film and something
clicked in me and I just became a student of Terrence Malick, in
a sense. By the time I’d left Australia, I had compiled, in my own
mind, a sort of list of approaches, and they added up to the script.

MM: The recreations in the film are amazing-particularly
considering a budget of $4 million. How far in advance did you begin
working with your production designer?

TBN: Oh, I love that question! [Maria Djurkovic],
the production designer, and I were the first to arrive in Bulgaria
and we arrived three months before principal photography. We worked
six-day weeks, 12-plus hours a day. It was an incredibly arduous
and incredibly invigorating process.

MM: How much research was done beforehand?
The sets are so authentic.

TBN: The sets were based on architectural plans
for the actual camp, which Maria Djurkovic found at the Imperial
War Museum in London. The crematorium you see in the film is a replica,
to scale, of the number one crematorium in Auschwitz Two Birkenau,
which was the largest crematorium in the Third Reich. The one you
see is a 15-crucible furnace room. In each crucible they would burn
five bodies at a time; it would take 20 minutes to burn the five
bodies. We wanted the feel of a factory, so we built practical ovens,
and we were burning dummies in them. And then we were mixing real
bodies in with the dummies. They were littered around the room and
being heaved up onto the pushcarts.

I think the wardrobe came from five different European
countries. We scoured Europe to get the right sprinkler heads for
the sprinklers you see. There were arguments about what type of
grass seed to use to get those lawns to be the way they were. The
Nazis built these buildings with reconstituted bricks. Basically
they’d go around Poland and destroy buildings and then take the
bricks from the buildings they were destroying and use those bricks
to build the crematoria. So we bought farmhouses that were abandoned,
took the bricks and used those to build the crematoria so that we
would get exactly the right texture.

MM: How long a shoot was it?

TBN: Well, this is extraordinary: it was a
45-day shoot, but we finished in 41. And that was a function of
great pre-production. I also had the actors in Bulgaria with me
for 2 1/2 weeks of rehearsal. We were incredibly prepared,
and we never used any overtime, either.

MM: Having seen the film, and hearing you
talk about how realistic each aspect of the film was, I can only
imagine that the atmosphere on the set was very serious.

TBN: I can speak for myself, and I have to
tell you I saw this in the eyes of the people who worked on the
film with me-and I include the actors, the designers, the crewmembers:
this was, ironically, an incredibly invigorating and life-affirming
experience. And it was that way because we were waking up in the
morning absolutely sure of the validity of what it was that we were
doing. You felt proud to be involved in telling the story. You felt
proud to tell it the way we were telling it. And those are two distinct

It’s not only about telling the story, it was about
our approach. We knew that whether people came to see the film or
not, we were doing nothing cheaply or casually. That what we were
about-and the rigorous nature of the process-was as unimpeachable
as probably anything we would try to do in our careers. Not more unimpeachable, I’m saying as unimpeachable. I really don’t
know what I could ever try and accomplish which is going to feel
more important to me than this movie. I’ll feel that way whether
it succeeds or not, and I feel that that’s a common emotion on our

MM: You made a number of interesting choices
on this film-from some of the technical aspects to your casting.
One question that I’m sure you’ve been asked-

TBN: Arquette! (laughing) Right?!

MM: Uh, yes. That’s what I was going to
ask you. What was the casting process like for you in general, and
David Arquette in particular? Do you think that your experience
as an actor makes you better able to see something in another actor-what
s/he is capable of-than someone who has only
directed actors?

TBN: That may be true. I’ll tell you real shortly
the way the film was cast; it’s kind of a funny story, really. Harvey
[Keitel] was first.

MM: He produced the film as well?

TBN: Yes. He got hold of the script; I didn’t
send it to him. I was summoned to his office in New York and he
announced that he would like to produce the movie and he would like
to act in it, but that acting in it was not a condition of his producing
it. And he also said he wanted to play the German, and Harvey is
Jewish. [laughing] So I was speechless, as one can be
around Harvey, regardless of the subject matter. But since this
involved my own movie, and Harvey said he’d produce it, act in it
or both, I was particularly speechless. I went away, thought about
it for over a month and I came to the conclusion in a snap one day
that having him play Muhsfeldt was actually a great idea. So I called
him and there we were. Then Killer got involved, and so then we
started to gather a cast around the movie.

Then I added three more people-who shall remain nameless.
That’s when Avi Lerner said, “Well, okay. If you get three of those
four people, it’s a greenlight movie for us-and we still don’t expect
to make any money.” And I said ‘great!’ and I called all four of
these actors, who had made promises personally to me that they would
do the film. Harvey said “Fantastic. Just tell me where to be and
when, and I’m yours. Whatever the money is, it’s the money. Deal
done. Let’s go.” I couldn’t be happier. The other three actors.
(laughing) I think committing to the movie cost them nothing
because they thought “This guy is never going to get this
made. What does it cost me?” Actually, one of them had a legitimate
reason-his wife was going to give birth a month after he was to
get back and he didn’t want to abandon her. So he and I still get
along. (The other two others, they vanished! (laughing)
But I thought to myself, because I am an actor, there’s such a paucity
of material out there which asks of its actors what this movie asks
of its cast. We are going to replace them and we will still make
the movie. So Avi Lerner furnished a list of actors commensurate
in foreign sales value with those who had left us. Within a few
months, the three were replaced, and we actually wound up giving
Avi five actors who were useful to him, because we added Harvey,
David, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne. So there
we were. Now, onto David…

I’d known David from having done a western with him,
as an actor, in 1996 and we became fast friends. I quickly realized
about David Arquette that  in spite of his goofy persona and his
ability to play goofy characters extremely well in really goofy,
sometimes suspect, films, that this was a serious person. And that
he had about him an incredibly seductive and palpable sadness that
comes from the very strange life and troubled life he has lived-and
troubled life he has lived, at times. Have you read my theory on
David’s comedy? Cause if you’ve read it I don’t want to bore you.

I think that David’s comedy is based on shame. With
his goofy characters and his goofy public persona with the clothes
he wears, he is allowing you to laugh at him in a way that is extraordinarily-even
extravagantly-open about who and what he is. He allows you to pass
judgement. The ability to play goofy characters that the audience
can laugh at is to me very much related to the ability to play vulnerability
and shame in dramatic characters. When David expressed interest
in this material, it made immediate sense to me. And so we met and
worked on the role for about an hour and a half and, like with Harvey,
I went away and thought about it for about a month.

What troubled me about David playing the role had
absolutely nothing to do with David personally or his acting ability.
I honestly wondered about an audience’s ability to accept him in
a film like this. As a filmmaker, you absolutely must make choices
with an eye on what an actor has done before-it’s essential. Quentin
Tarantino is the best filmmaker I know at this. He makes really
intelligent casting choices, and he does so not only with full knowledge
of what actors have been in, but he then exploits it on behalf of
his movies in a very clever way.

MM: I would agree. Tarantino is definitely
the master of changing your perception of someone…

TBN: By exploiting your perception of
someone at the same time! And I actually thought “Well, we can do
that with David in this movie.” And I remember saying to Pam Koffler,
on the day I finally decided to cast David, “I want to use David.
And the film is going to begin with a close-up on him.” And the
message that that’s sending to the audience is that you see David
Arquette absolutely still-with such gravity and fear in his eyes-I
think the film is saying to you in its opening moment “this movie
is different.”

MM: Did you ask your actors to do any research

TBN: [laughing] Yeah! It was kind of merciless!
They did a huge amount of research. Each actor got a different reading
list: everyone around the number one crematorium had to read the
[Miklos] Nyiszli book [Auschwitz: a Doctor’s Eyewitness Account]; The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi’s book of essays which
includes The Grey Zone; and a book called Amidst a Nightmare
of Crime
, which is five diaries by Sonderkommandos who perished
in Birkenau, but buried diaries before they were killed. They had
to read Filip Muller’s book, Eyewitness Auschwitz. They had
to read Daniel Bennahmias’ book, Sonderkommando. And then
there were many optional books. [laughs] The women were required
to read Olga Lengyel’s book Five Chimneys; Primo Levi’s book, Survival in Auschwitz; a book called The Kingdom
of Auschwitz
by Otto Friedrich. And everybody read everything,
and we were able to reference this stuff. That sort of material
cannot help but live in a performance.

And what’s particularly good about reading survivor
accounts is that they are about people actively trying to live.
They’re not about suffering and how hard it was; they’re about living.
And what you see the characters doing in TGZ is living active
lives in the context of death. They’re trying to cheat death for
another moment so that they can die with dignity. That’s the kernel
of this film. And the result, how that tangibly reads in the performances-and
this is unconventional for Holocaust films, I think-is that the
characters aren’t cowering in corners or simpering. They’re not
skulking off to pray; they’re not feeling sorry for themselves.
They’re dealing with their situation in a strong way. And it was
very important to us to depict Jews in this way. What the survivor
accounts offer are these incredibly vital experiences that were
extremely useful for the actors. And I really think that you read
that in the actors.

MM: Was the use of a handheld camera at
certain points a budgetary decision, or one to further the storytelling?

TBN: When I was writing the film, [using a
handheld camera] was the intention. Actually, it was more expensive
to do it that way because we had to get a MovieCam SL, which cost
a lot of money. You’re meant to feel like you’re in the middle of
this experience, rather than standing in front of it as a viewer.
And that’s why there’s sound all around you throughout the film
as well. The sound team actually got the script before any of the
actors did.

MM: You also edited the film, which is not
an area you’d had experience in before. Why now?

TBN: It was so personal to me that I just didn’t
want to hand it over to someone for an assembly. I was terrified
of coming back from Bulgaria and watching the footage cut together
without my having controlled that. So I found this wonderful young
editor, Michelle Botticelli, who’d been an assistant on O and who was willing to bump herself up to associate editor and work
with me. Her contribution ended up being at a level where I ended
up saying that even though I came back to do the assembly, she worked
her ass off and at certain points made very viable contributions.
So we ended up sharing the credit. But it’s what I’ll do from now

MM: What’s your favorite part of the process?

TBN: I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.
For me, some of the worst parts of the process are my favorite parts-like
the shoot. Shooting the movie is where I’m the most unstable, and
yet that’s incredibly exciting. On these indie films, during the
shoot you’re really doing a high wire act because you can’t get more money and basically, if you’re not making your days, you
have to start rewriting your script and dropping stuff. Now that’s
never had to happen for me, but I’m always terrified it will.

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