INTERVIEW: From "Sunday" to "Signs," Jonathan Nossiter Takes on Kodak, Nike, and Chaos
by Stan Schwartz
(indieWIRE/ 02.08.01) -- After his success with "Sunday" (winner of Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in 1997), Jonathan Nossiter is back with a provocative and ambiguous new film called "Signs and Wonders." Co-written with "Sunday"-collaborator James Lasdun, the film may be about an erratically troubled marriage and a concurrent destructive love affair. It may star Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger (all of whom turn in first-rate performances). But you simply wouldn't be talking about the movie if you didn't look carefully at the particular setting the director has chosen for his anxious, psychological examination: Athens, Greece.
Never has the teaming, chaotic quality of the Greek metropolis been captured on film (or in this case, digital video) with such a piquant mix of intensity and lyricism. In Nossiter's ambitious vision, the city, in all its political/cultural contradictions and complexities, becomes a vital character in the story being told, interweaving as it progresses an honest consideration of the American government's support of Greece's military dictatorship in the late '60s and early '70s.
The ever-eloquent Nossiter recently spoke to reporter Stan Schwartz about the signs and wonders of chaos and capitalism, the state of his career, and the state of film technology.
indieWIRE: What happened to you after the success of "Sunday"? Why did you choose the particular "post-Sunday" path you did?
Jonathan Nossiter: (laughs) I like the idea of choice and will that you're suggesting! I'm more of a believer in the random nature of actions and the consequences of those actions. Everything that happens in terms of the film world surprises me in all directions. I was shocked that "Sunday" got into Sundance and it seemed ridiculous that it won. And that has nothing to do with the inherent quality of the film. The constellation of events and personalities that it requires for any film to see the light of the day is so peculiar and so little based on inherent worth. All this stuff is completely serendipity. I was very lucky - but luck also runs out. And sometimes luck also continues. Who knows if I'll ever be able to make another film again. But yeah, definitely stuff opened up after "Sunday" -- but with a degree of caution. Winning Sundance forced certain people in Hollywood to at least make a courtesy call on me. There was definitely what seemed like some genuine response to the film. I don't know what else to say. I mean, I wasn't interested in doing "Batman IV."
iW: What about the question of reaching a mainstream audience?
Nossiter: I'd love to reach as wide an audience as possible and I tried, for better or for worse, with "Signs and Wonders" to try and pursue the things that interested me. But also, see if there was a way to find a story line that would have a larger resonance. Whether that is going to be the case or not, I have no idea. [And that] has to do with me and the way the film turned out, which fortunately you can never predict. Which I think is spectacularly good, [the fact] that you have no idea. I can only believe that not knowing what you're doing is a good thing, since I don't know what I'm doing.
iW: You honestly believe you don't know what you're doing? You're being somewhat glib.
Nossiter: I'm being semi-disingenuous, but only semi. Obviously, you don't spend three years of your life losing ten years of your life, which is what it takes me and I think a lot of other people to make a film -- unless something pretty strong is burning inside you. And I feel ten years older. ["Signs and Wonders"] was an unbelievably difficult film to make, in some ways much harder than "Sunday."
iW: How so?
Nossiter: It's a more ambitious film, logistically, in human terms, in technical terms. The scope of it, in every way, is larger. "Sunday" was waging a guerilla war and this was waging a tactical war. It required mobilizing forces from Greece, from France, from Sweden, from America, from England. And you know, shooting under conditions of considerable duress, along side Mexico City, [Athens is] perhaps the most difficult metropolis.
iW: But you at least had a larger budget than on "Sunday."
Nossiter: Certainly, but not with the sort of luxury of being able to pad yourself -- which is what I wanted. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. The point of shooting in Athens was to try and throw myself and the actors up against a kind of overwhelming reality. And that's what happened and it was pretty damn overwhelming. Every day was virtually uncontrollable.
iW: How did the actors deal with it all?
Nossiter: Stellan and Charlotte are really amazing human beings. They threw themselves in to the chaos of Athens, into the chaos of the streets. Often, it was me and them and the camera on my shoulder and the soundman, and the four of us would just go, and there'd be 40 people trying to trail behind us. There's almost a kind of carnal delight that they took [in it all], because they are fully alive human beings. These are not actors who believe that they are anointed by God to be pampered and act as marionettes, or worse, to act as belly-clearing artistes. These are fully alive human beings fully engaged in the world around them. Which to me is the greatest blessing of the film, the fact that Stellan and Charlotte were curious at every moment. It was a full exchange with them every day. It wasn't, "Oh gee, okay, lets do the dialogue." It was a complete and absolute collaboration. And they were as interested in their relationship to the city as characters as I was.
iW: What is this on-going relationship with Athens you have?
Nossiter: Pornographic. No, seriously. I first started going there when I was 3 or 4. We were living in Paris and my Dad was a journalist and was especially interested in Greek politics. This was right before and during the military dictatorship. So he went often, and I guess the shreds of my political consciousness to some extent were formed by these trips that he took and that we often took together as a family. So growing up in Europe and constantly going to Greece, this was an important place for me. And I studied Ancient Greek in university. There's something quite insular about Ancient Greece, which I think is quite beautiful. (laughs) And I lived with a Greek woman for five years! But Athens is a city that has struck me for a long time as a kind of peculiarly modern hell. But it's the hell that I think lurks in any Western city. Essentially, if you took away the fa