In a film career that has been going strong for the better part of two decades, writer/actor/director Tim Blake Nelson may have just faced his most daunting challenge to date.
His latest feature, Leaves of Grass, sees Nelson co-starring in a film he also directed for the first time in his career. Additionally, mega-star Edward Norton signed on for an extraordinary challenge in his own right–playing the roles of identical twins with entirely different personalities who interact with each other throughout the film.
The tasks facing Nelson were as plentiful as they were intimidating. Still, when asked about these challenges, Nelson deflects from complaints and insists on praising the performances from the cast that made his movie a possibility. It’s precisely this rare and refreshing sense of humility that seems to evade some of Hollywood’s seasoned performers and it’s what keeps Nelson’s career flourishing in these difficult times for moviemakers.
Nelson took the time to answer MM’s questions on how the film came to be—both as a marvelous technical achievement and as a story he is delighted to share with the world.
Michael Walsh (MM): Did you always want the roles of Bill and Brady Kincaid to be played by one established actor, in this case Edward Norton, or did you ever toy with the idea of having two separate actors play the two parts?
Tim Blake Nelson (TBN): Always one established actor. You know, not only do classical references proliferate in the movie, but the movie itself is meant to allude, thematically and as a narrative, to classical literature. So I really wanted to put it in the tradition of plays which use the twin conceit; stage plays that use the twin conceit in a very overt way. What stage plays can’t do, of course, is use the single actor. Movies can, and so the game of winking at the audience—because they’ll always know it’s one actor and they’ll be able to participate in the game of that—is a theatrical convention in film only if you have one actor playing both roles.
MM: Well, you’re right. Initially you’re amazed by the whole concept, but as the film progresses it becomes very seamless and you forget Edward Norton was actually one person playing both parts. It was an amazing performance.
TBN: Yeah, you know I could sit here and talk for hours how we achieved it technically, but that would be meaningless if it weren’t for the very soul of Edward’s performance and his own technical wizardry as an actor. What he does is astonishing.
MM: Very briefly then, what went into editing the two parts together where Edward was essentially playing two roles at the same time?
TBN: Well, we decided we would be ad hoc in our technical approach to the twins’ shots, meaning that I would decide how we wanted to shoot; what we wanted the result to be in terms of the coverage of each scene and then choose the technical approach that would best suit that. So, for example, I knew that on the porch scene which had a lot of talking and conversation between the two characters that I really wanted for what they were saying to be foregrounded. We decided to just lock the camera off and use very traditional coverage of a master shot with the two guys in it and then loose-reverse singles and tighter singles.
MM: And in that scene, Brady had to actually hand something to Bill. That had to have been difficult.
TBN: That was really difficult. So we said, “How do we do this?” That was split screen. And then for passing the bong, we just had to put it on a c-stand and try to match it across the scene. And then we thought that it’d be really funny if we stuck a dog in the middle to kind of toll the audience and make that scene more invisible. Then in the grow-house, we wanted to show this Taj Mahal of hydroponics, and that meant moving the camera, so we decided that wouldn’t be split screen. That would be motion control. Then there’s a scene with a fight, so we thought that we would have to do that in the poor man’s way, which was using a stunt double. And lastly there’s the scene in the mirror which is done with what’s called rotoscoping.
MM: Wow, there were so many different techniques.
TBN: Yeah, but then again, it’s ultimately about using the best techniques that were going to foreground this extraordinary performance by Edward. Because the movie isn’t going to work if the audience doesn’t delight in watching an actor accomplish this feat. And so, your technical wizardly is only as good as the performance.
MM: This was your first time acting in a main role in a film you directed, correct?
MM: What challenges did that bring about that you had never dealt with before when just acting or just directing, as opposed to both in the same film?
TBN: Well, directing is certainly demanding enough to soak everything out of you in a way. There were times during the shoot when I thought “What was I thinking?” It was often too much, and yet I would do it again. It was a real joy. Having Edward around was a big help because he could essentially help me direct my own performance at my request. And so that made it easier—I could turn to this guy, a close friend who I really trust and say, “Look, do you think I got it that time?” And if he said yes I knew I could move on.
MM: And it’s not as if you had one or two scenes as Bolger. He was a very important character in the film. It had to be a constant challenge.
TBN: And you know, I had to walk around with that ugly facial hair.
MM: (laughs) Well, I couldn’t help but notice there were many similarities between you and Bill Kinkaid’s character. You were both born in Oklahoma, you both relocated to the northeast, and though Bill isn’t Jewish as you are, Judaism was a very present theme in Leaves of Grass. How much of the film would you say came from your own upbringing and your own eventual life in New York, and how much of that was put into Bill’s character?
TBN: Thematically, from a schizophrenia point of view, I often feel like I’m living two lives as identical twins. I’m a Dad and I have three kids; a husband in a marriage that’s in its 16th year and I live a very structured life. I embrace that and I love it and it’s a safe harbor for me as well. I feel good about myself for that structure, and yet, I never know what my next job is and I’m going off to crazy locations to shoot movies.
MM: Not exactly the typical 9 to 5.
TBN: Right, and that doesn’t really square with the structured life that I try to live, and I’m both intoxicated by that life and afraid of it. And so the movie is very much an exploration of that and it’s also in a sense biographical for the reasons you described. I did grow up in Oklahoma and moved to the northeast, and I guess I got to put a lot of my favorite themes and details into one movie–most like a celebration of so much of what I love. You know, it’s got all these home-state idiosyncrasies. There’s music in the movie and the bags of water hanging from the rafters on a porch. There’s the vernacular of the film too, plus the exploration of morality that religion, classical literature and philosophy have to offer. So I guess getting to put all of that under one roof was pretty exciting for me. I’m delighted that somebody was willing to put money behind it and make it.
MM: Roger Ebert for one called it his favorite film at the Toronto Film Festival. Do you ever find yourself wrapped up in how your films are received critically or do you try to avoid that all together?
TBN: I find it impossible to avoid it all together because the movies I make really depend on a good critical response. You know, Roger’s support is huge. And I’m sure if you can find Roger’s review you also have read some negatives. People who don’t go for the movie have had issues with its tone and that just mystifies me and that gets to me. So I’m answering your question very honestly. This movie does have a shift in tone which was utterly intentional, and I think that’s one of the magic tricks in the movie. It’s almost like an empirical inclusion about the different forces we have in our own lives and the external forces which change our lives. That’s what the movie is about—how in one moment, everything can be moving along gorgeously and you think you have utter control, and as Bill says in the opening monologue, the Gods might think you’re pretending divinity and you’re going to crash like Icarus.
MM: Do you find it easier to direct a film like Leaves of Grass where you wrote the script, or is that something that’s inconsequential to how you direct a film?
TBN: That’s a great question. I prefer directing movies I write. It is consequential, and because I prefer directing a movie that I wrote, it’s easier because I’m probably having a better time. At the same time, I did direct one movie I didn’t write [O], and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy that experience as well. But that feeling you have when you’re on your own set and you wrote the film is really unlike any other. Not from an ego point of view, but just because there’s a completeness to it where you feel like you have ownership in almost every direction.