A Conversation with the Creators of "Sunday", Part I: Patience & Pre-production
by Anthony Kaufman
“Sunday“, winner of the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year,
premieres in selected theaters today. A powerfully subtle and moving
document of lost identities and lost homes, the film carves out a strong
presence for itself in the arena of American indies. I met with director
Jonathon Nossiter, along with his creative partner, poet/writer James
Lasdun, and Alex Campbell, the producer of their upcoming project “Signs & Wonders“, a thriller set in Greece.
Nossiter, who cuts a frame similar to Liam Neeson, first stormed into
his apartment, late because of a “creative dialogue” with his
distributor: “when you talk to a journalist, you try to avoid the
subject of your distributor because generally it’s nothing but rancor
and resentment.” Nossiter calms down with a glass of wine from his
personal collection of samples. (He makes a living creating wine lists
for New York restaurants) The interview begins with the popping of a
Jonathan Nossiter: Nice color. (Referring to the wine) It’s great. This
is fucking great. . . that’s a very sophisticated wine term.
indieWIRE: “This is really great.”
Nossiter: Fucking great.
iW: I’m working on it.
Nossiter: If you take my course, you’ll learn to get to that extra level of
iW: Half wine testing and half directing — a joint venture? That might work.
Nossiter: It’s based on two notions: drinking and saying fucking great. . . or
fucking terrible. And then getting them to say the same thing. Probably
not that different from directing, or at least the way I direct.
iW: How do you direct?
(Everyone laughs, avoiding the question.)
iW: Let’s go back to “Sunday“? Did you have a complete script before shooting?
Nossiter: Absolutely. James and I worked on the script for a couple of years.
It was a very honed and polished piece of work. We had written it with
an openness. If you look at the script, James is a very distinguished
poet and writer and I think you can see his mark, the level of craft and
polish and is very much a part of the way James writes. There were
things that were left open to allow it to breath. We got the best of
both worlds, because I think the film has the benefit of a very
disciplined and very talented craftsmen- writer. That sort of level of
polish and understanding of the way words and stories can be shaped and
at the same time, it benefited from my incompetence and my desire to
keep things open.
James Lasdun: You always wanted both those things. You wanted us to work
out a real screenplay, but you also wanted the option of improvisation.
And we filmed both. And a lot of the best moments are improvised. Some
of the best lines were improvised by the actors.
Nossiter: But they only exist. . .
iW: Because of the framework you set up.
Nossiter: Which is something that a lot of people don’t understand. They think
that improvisation in itself has merit and it doesn’t. I think that we
had written something that allowed the actors both to have something
concrete to work off of, but they could feel there was this spirit of
openness. Even the writing of the script came out of a fairly complex
ping-pong match between me and James and our experiences. My experience
in Queens over many years and James’s experience in the shelter. We were
drawing on concrete things that had some resonance. I got James to hang
out in Queens and James got me to work in the shelter.
iW: The scenes in the shelter are incredibly authentic — very, very real. It occurred to me that some of this must have been improved. And I
wondered how much was developed?
JL: It’s hard to say. They were actors, they weren’t homeless people.
The only guy, maybe was the Chinese guy, he didn’t live in the shelter.
Nossiter: But he’s virtually homeless. There was something extremely moving
about him, very beautiful, tragic, but also, to me, it’s indicative of
the intention of the spirit of the film, there was something incredibly
moving about him, but he was never maudlin or sentimental. He didn’t
evoke a sentimental response. He didn’t ask you to pity him. He evoked
real emotion, but he has a dignity and a pride, which is sort of
surprising given also the inherent comic element.
There is a misconception among some people in their reaction to the
film. I wouldn’t say it’s common, but I’ve seen it enough to remark on
it. They think it’s a film about misery, because it’s about middle age
people which is not very trendy in America. Because it looks at some of
the problems that are involved with being on the edge of middle class
and the underclass, not for a second did either one of us, or one of the
actors, think that we were engaging in some sort of descent into horror
or depression. It’s quite the opposite. You know the point is that
people haven’t given up. There’s nothing remotely depressing about human
beings who are still struggling. What I find depressing is complacency
and lack of imagination, lack of sympathy.
And when I see those elements in a film, no matter how happy the
apparent ending is, I find that so dispiriting. And I think most people
do. And I think people who make those kinds of films deeply
underestimate the sophistication and intelligence of an ordinary
moviegoer. I see this film all the way has a very strong energy to it,
not at all pessimistic, not at all cynical, not at all downbeat.
(Nossiter turns to his VCR where we look at videotape that was shot a
year and a half before shooting “Sunday”. The Queens locations and stray
homeless people look as if they are scenes from his film or should I
say, they are scenes from Queens that he has lifted for his film.)
Nossiter: In low-budget filmmaking, you have the obvious disadvantage of not
having money, but the huge advantage you have, the huge benefit you have
is time. And in that time, you can compensate. I would make no apologies
if the film doesn’t work or displeases people. I would never say it’s
because we didn’t have enough money. I think you can make things succeed
and fail on their own merits if you take advantage of the fact that you
have the time to engage and explore — this is the advantage we have
over the 50 million dollar movie.
The fact that first of all we could build it out of the years of
experience that James had, that I could, during the writing of the film,
spend a year and a half in this place, that I could take the time to
build up relationships, which were safely established by James, build on
those relationships, gain their trust, and after 6 months say, look, I’d
like to bring a video camera in, I’d like to start a relationship with
the lens. I wanted to develop this relationship so when I come in here
to shoot, I’m not searching for something. It’s invaluable. It’s a huge
benefit that people don’t realize about low-budget filmmaking.
[For more on the collaborative process and set politics of Nossiter and
Lasdun’s “Sunday”, the interview is continued in part 2]