A Talk with Victor Nuñez of "Ulees's Gold"
by Anthony Kaufman
"Ulee’s Gold", released by Orion Pictures (on selected screens) over the
weekend, is the story of Ulee (Ulysses) Jackson, a Florida beekeeper and
Vietnam veteran in his mid-50s who is struggling to raise two granddaughters
on his own. With a powerful performance by Peter Fonda, the film has a
classic sensibility, reminiscent of Fonda’s forties films. Following his
widely acclaimed "Ruby in Paradise", Victor Nuñez directs with realism, subtly,
and with uniquely southern sensibility.
indieWIRE: Well let’s start by asking, “Why Beekeeping?”
Victor Nuñez: (laughs) Well, why not? I was looking around for a part for a
man. After “Ruby”, I had wanted to do a film about a man. It was
purely by coincidence but the films I’d done were alternating male and female
protagonists. I remembered seeing a photograph of a beekeeper out in the
swamps. And there was a child with him that was too young to be a worker.
And it was just sort of a very haunting picture. I remember coming back to
it as I was looking for new projects and thinking “well who are these
people?” Maybe a grandfather and granddaughter out for the day. Then I
thought, “Where are the parents?” Out of discovering the crisis that had led
to the absence of the parents, that’s sort of where the story came from…
Beekeeping just sort of has the notion of a person who had dropped out of
the world; and they weren’t quite sure if they wanted to come back or not.
The further we got into learning about beekeeping and researching the more it
seemed like the perfect profession for this man.
iW: You brought up the subject of working in Tallahassee. Almost all of your
films–well actually all of them take place in North Florida and in the areas
around Tallahassee. . .
Nuñez: Well technically “Gal Young’un” took place in the Piney Woods area in the
central part of the state. But the simple version is around Tallahassee,
yeah. As a young person I was looking for something to do. I discovered
European films, that had this very strong sense of place, and Southern
Literature. I felt a real affinity between those two. But I did not feel I
was drawn to being a writer. I thought well I’ll just become a southern
filmmaker. It was a very naive notion. There have certainly been times in my
life when I have deeply regretted that commitment. On the other hand it has
been very wonderful way to work. I’m very proud of all of the features and
what they’re about and what they explore.
iW: I guess your sense of place and environment give you an added measure of
Nuñez: The biggest measure of control comes from having budgets so low that
basically there’s no reason not to let you make the movie. I think what’s
interesting– and again this comes out of the Italian Neo-Realist view of how
films should be made– but character, place, and story are inextricably
linked. Hollywood’s tradition is characters and hardware… The Italian
Neo-Realists felt that you could tell a story like Ulee Jackson in Maine or
Greece, but it would be a different story because getting to the bee hives is
different. It wouldn’t be Tupelo. It would be something else. Every time I’d
come back from one of the bee yards something happened out there that would
change things and would show that something wasn’t quite right [with the
script] and it had to be resolved. So that’s the type of benefit you get
from working this way.
iW: Tell me about the team of producers [Jonathan Demme/ John Sloss] you
worked with on the film.
Nuñez: Jonathan Demme’s company [Clinica Estetico] is infused with his spirit.
We had a couple of approaches and scales of budgets to make this picture. I
was determined to keep my independence. We initially had a budget of around
$900,000, which is basically the “Ruby” budget with a little inflation
adjustment thrown in. And when the Clinica people came on they said what
every filmmaker wishes could be said, which is we love your project and we
want to be a part of getting it made. We went out with that notion and John
Sloss came on; we’d talked for years about working together. He’d also
talked for years about working with the Clinica people. So it was a pretty
high-powered team, but no money at that point.
Ed Saxon, the head of Clinica and Jonathan Demme’s right hand man was having
lunch with Lynn White of Orion Pictures about some other business. And as
they were leaving he said, “And we’re also doing this other project, a film
in Florida, and we all really love it.” Lynn White said well if you guys love
it then lets do it. And in that one luncheon we suddenly had the resources…
It got to the point where it was easier and the options were better to accept
doing a 2.7 million dollar movie than to risk not being able to raise
$900,000 and keep it completely to ourselves.
iW: Music seems to be a key element in your films. Yet you manage to use it
not as many filmmakers do; to establish sort of an emotional bed for the rest
of the elements in a scene. Where does your music sensibility come from?
Nuñez: Music is the last thing you put in. When you’ve been living with the
film from the script and the shooting, you have a sense of the rhythm and
flow of your project and where it’s supposed to go. That said, on all four of
these movies I’ve worked with the same composer… It’s a very intense, very
focused stage in the process because there is a very fine, but significant,
line between traditional underscoring and the kind of way that music can
really contribute to the storytelling. In one case, and this relates to Peter
[Fonda], one of the decisions that was made fairly early in the music process
was to go for a more traditional classic feeling, as I was aware that Peter
had a kind of Hollywood quality. And again I think it’s very much a part of
what’s working in this film, and gives perhaps a classical feeling to the
iW: You always seem to have these instances in your films that are sort of
dialogue-free zones. How do you develop those kinds of moments? For you does
that come out of the moment and working with the actors, or is it
Nuñez: Well it’s in the script, and it’s in the way Peter does it. One of the
things about writing this script was that if the characters are moving and
the situation is moving then you understand what they are doing and what they
are about. It’s amazing sometimes how little has to happen for something
moving to occur. It’s almost one of those Kuleshav things. You cut there and
everyone who has heard Penny tell Helen knows what he’s feeling, almost
without seeing him. Some people may even argue that maybe I should have shown
him from the back of his head. Peter certainly understood as an actor exactly
what Ulee was feeling.
One of the nice things about being a writer-director, and there are a lot of
things that aren’t nice, but one of the nice things is that your best
direction is what you put in the script. That’s direction that the actor is
able to absorb personally, immediately, directly. It becomes part of their
sense of character. They enrich that and bring what they are going to bring.
Then on the set you just have to get what you both know needs to be gotten.