Variance Films will open Terence Nance’s Gotham award-winning (Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You) film, An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty, this Friday, April 26; here’s our interview with Terence done last summer.
I was unsure at first whether to ask Terence Nance to be part of this series, as he’s reached a relative tipping point within cinema – that is, the moment when your work catches the attention of a broader audience, and suddenly everyone seems to know your name. Though Terence began as a visual artist experimenting with film and performance in installations, performing music as Terence Etc, and directing short films and music videos for artists like Pharoahe Monch, it was the Sundance festival premiere of his debut feature An Oversimplification of Her Beauty that seems to have tipped him to the masses, leading to a string of other screening engagements and interviews across the country.
Still, we haven’t yet spoken to Terence specifically for this site, and there are many questions left to ask about him, his work, and his views on the industry. And of course, he is very much a representative of the wave of black creatives referred to in the introduction for Finding the New Black.
With this interview, we try not to tread on too much ground that has already been covered. So if you’re unfamiliar with Terence or Oversimplification, I’d recommend checking out Tambay’s review of the film here first. Thanks also to Tambay for his contributions to this discussion.
S&A: Much of the conversation surrounding Oversimplification has been about whether or not this kind of filmmaking – the combination of visual styles – is where you feel most comfortable. Do you plan to continue to make films in this specific mold, or will you aim for more conventional narratives?
TN: The short answer is, I don’t really know. I know how I want things to turn out for the movies that I’m making, but I would never want to frame people’s expectations around what they’re going to see. But also, the idea that my first movie will have anything stylistically to do with my second or third, is an idea that I reject a little bit, other than it being engaging and good. That’s just my way of working. If I have a concept and it’s something that I want to execute, the process has to serve that, and whatever the best way of articulating that concept is – if it’s more traditional, scripted, and everyone’s saying every line on the page – then that’s what it’s going to be. If it’s going to be improvised, camera work-wise – whatever it needs to be, it’s going to serve the concept.
S&A: What about with animation specifically? You’ve mentioned previously that it was used in this film for a very practical purpose. Would you like to explore it in different ways going forward?
TN: It has a role in my future projects, but that’s not necessarily based on my use of it in this project. I think I’m attracted to the idea of creating something from scratch. I think that animation follows my general ethos towards making work. So maybe it will find itself in my work more than it would in other people’s, but I don’t think it’s informed by my “style”.
I think there’s something to be said for having a way of approaching everything. And my way is that all forms, all ways of making an image, are on the table. Nothing is off limits. There’s nothing that’s too lo-fi, too hi-fi, and I think maybe out of that – not just animation, but there’s all kinds of visual effects in the movie, and randomness and formats – I think all that stuff will continue to be in my toolbox.
S&A: Given how narrowly-defined “black masculinity” is, especially with regards to expressing any kind of vulnerability, did you take that into consideration when you decided to make Oversimplification – a film that you literally insert yourself in, placing the man in a position that, on film, is more commonly “reserved” for women?
TN: Going in, the film is self-portraiture, and it’s very impulsive, so the initial seed of the idea was void of any intentions to make any grand statement about anything. But just being self-aware about what I was making, about who I am, and what I look like to other people when all the pieces of my identity are illustrated, it was very clear to me that what the film ends up saying about masculinity is that it’s not monolithic. You can’t say it’s just one thing.
But I think that also, it just says that there are people like me out there, but there’s no cameras on them. And I think specifically that whoever’s making movies is not interested in how I interact with people I’m in love with, or that story is largely just unexplored. There have been films that deal with it. Even She’s Gotta Have It deals with that. And so it’s not new. But between She’s Gotta Have It and my movie, there wasn’t some explosion [of black romantic films]. I’m sure that there’s just as many men like me out there, so I think it just more so says something about the culture of filmmaking and what gets to people’s screens, that kind of makes it feel like something is being said.
S&A: Did you wonder about how the film would be received?
TN: While making the movie I wasn’t really thinking about that, but then after it was done and I was watching it, it was obvious to me it would be polarizing. Some people would love it, some would hate it, some wouldn’t care. And my general MO with that whole thing is I would rather be polarizing than people be indifferent to it. I think that’s the price of originality almost, that’s the price of ambition, that some people are going to want it to be one thing, and it won’t be that; and some people will be refreshed by the idea that it’s nothing that they’ve seen before.
S&A: Thus far, what’s been the reaction from black audience members specifically?
TN: They seem to laugh at the jokes. For instance, when I was in Rotterdam, or at Sundance even, I think a lot of the jokes definitely didn’t land as hard. But the audience at ND/NF was overwhelmingly black, and there was some laugh-out-loud. Also, a lot of black women have expressed how much they appreciate the beautiful black women that are thrown at the audience during the movie. So that was important to me, because it was definitely a celebration of my relationships, and all of them have been with black women, so there’s some sort of appreciation there. I think specifically with black women, there’s a little something more there, but I don’t have a large enough sample size to make a real statement about it.
S&A: In previous interviews, you’ve indicated that the film has gone far beyond what you expected. What did you expect?
TN: I think I expected to go to film festivals and everything. I expected an audience to be there. I didn’t expect so many people to like it. What’s different for me is, I had never really seen a movie like mine, so I just didn’t really know. But I think the general response has been extremely positive. And the people who don’t like it don’t say anything to me. I’m probably in that little glass bubble where the criticisms that I’ve heard – like 2 or 3 reviews – haven’t been some uproar of negativity. The most negative thing anybody has said to me was “Your movie was really, really complicated.” And I was like “Yeah, that’s true. That’s kind of the point.” And some people say it’s very self-indulgent. But that to me is kind of par for the course.
S&A: It’s an interesting consideration to have to make – to create a film in order to say something thematically or to deal with an emotion, versus doing it with more of an outward eye towards how people will respond. What were your thoughts on that while making this film?
TN: I would say that [Oversimplification] is about me, but it isn’t for me, in that I didn’t make it as an act of self-therapy or even really self-reflection. At the very beginning when it was a short film, it was just kind of an aggressive act of trying to profess my love, I guess. That was in some ways for me, but it didn’t help anyone really. But with the feature, it was pure self-portraiture; it was just trying to explore that way of “making.” It kind of goes in line with my ethos – to me, art making is communication, just talking to people saying, “This is how I feel, this is what I think,” and then they talk back to you. I think that’s sort of at the heart of what makes life worth living, socializing in that way. And so I made it about me as a way of socializing. I think I make everything in that way, you know, just to talk.
S&A: You’re from Dallas, but you’ve travelled internationally and lived in Paris and New York. You’ve also made mention of being part of The Swarm*, which has a strong identity to Brooklyn. Tell me about how that idea of environment contributes to the work you do.
TN: I think it’s mastering that “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” type of feeling. Sometimes I’ll say “I miss home” and in my mind, I mean Paris. And it’s a weird feeling. I only spent two years there, it was the two years directly after college – my first apartment, my first adult life situation – so I have a relationship to that time. And I miss Texas in a very different way; that’s my childhood.
I think at the heart of it, the Swarm is a lot of people who have learned how to create community and adapt and be dope and work on the outsides of things. It’s a band of outsiders, not in the negative sense, but they’re just so diverse that they can’t belong to any one thing. So you know, [Oversimplification] partially takes place in Paris, and it’s about transition and transience, because a lot of why things didn’t work was because of that, the mental space of ambiguity and transience that we’re all in as a community. It’s not a bad thing, but that’s just what life is like for people like us in some way. Not necessarily living in all those places, but just being duplicitous geographically and culturally, and kind of “cheating on yourself” all the time.
S&A: You’ve hinted at the Swarm being the focus of a future film project. Tell me about that.
TN: Yeah, that’s in the works. I’ve got a script called Brooklyn Is Masquerading As The World. [laughs] I do want to be one of those people who puts the Swarm on screen. Because it just doesn’t exist. You don’t even have Swarm musicians who are highly visible. Every time I play the movie, people ask me what’s that first song. It’s a Janelle Monae song, 57821. But there are people who don’t recognize it.
One thing about the Swarm is that it doesn’t identify as the Swarm. They don’t want to be a part of a group or a scene or whatever. But I think it’s beautiful. I’m proud that I’m in this thing, and I’m a part of this sort of demographic. I think it’s a wonderfully positive and beautiful community that is dope. I didn’t create it or anything, I just started calling it something. Other people call it other things.
I do believe in cultural nationalism, that we just need to prolifically make our own stuff for our own people and we’ll be alright. Sort of the microcosm of globalization is happening in media, where everybody loves Transformers, and everybody’s going to go watch Transformers, but that’ll take the place of you going to see that thing that is you, that reflects you and your culture. I think that breeds something like the Swarm and our cultural nationalism in a specific way. So it is important for me in my future movies to make stuff that is us and markets to us.
S&A: Tell me about your experience at NYU.
TN: Because of my work in film I was always in the film school and interacted with a lot of the people there. I used to work in the production center and took film classes, so I think a movement is happening from alumni of NYU. When I got there, it was very clear. In my year, there was Nikyatu [Jusu] and Yvonne [Shirley]. Those are my sisters. And we’ve all known each other since we arrived, and even the years before us, Darius [Clark Monroe], Daniel [Patterson], Dee [Rees], Keith [Davis], Rashaad [Ernesto Green], Alrick [Brown], I could go on and on. It’s definitely a community. I think that’s the point and the nature of any professional school.
I went to the art school, and I considered going to film school but I didn’t apply because my misconception was, they’re just going to teach you how to use the camera, and I felt like I knew that. So I thought our school was about art making and the film school was about filmmaking; it is, but also what it’s about is introducing you to the industry and interacting with it in ways that are going to make you successful. I feel prepared for success in the contemporary art world, but when I graduated I did not feel prepared for how to interact with the film industry. Luckily I’m in this community of people who know how to interact with it, or at the very least are experiencing it the same way I am.
S&A: How important do you feel it is to foster those relationships later on, after graduation?
TN: It’s the most important thing. There’s a reason there’s Roc-A-Fella Records and Young Money Cash Money. There’s a reason why they all came in with a team. I’m not co-signing any of these people aesthetically or artistically, but just saying that their way of dealing with the business is to enter into it as a set of voices. That was a lot of the energy around us collectivizing Cinema Stereo. It was obvious that there are very few of us out here, and it’s extremely important that we not only talk to each other, but share resources, and make sure that all of our stuff is getting made and there’s grease in those wheels.
Because somehow that continuity hasn’t happened with that last movement [of black filmmakers]. There’s a little bit of a void in there. And our perception is, it’s for lack of enough voices at a certain level to put that hand down and pull us up. There’s Spike [Lee], and there’s a super-human effort being made on his part, and there’s some others. But looking at the future, we all want to have not only our own careers, but when my little brother comes along and he’s got his feature script ready, I want to be able to say “I’ll produce it,” and have it mean something. I think a lot of [our generation] feel we’re left to figure it out on our own.
S&A: What are your thoughts on where black cinema is headed in the U.S. now, and where do you see yourself within that?
TN: We’re definitely undergoing a coloring of the United States, not that it wasn’t already that way. We’re lucky, I think, in America, that we’re only a European country from an economic perspective. I was listening to CNN the other day and somehow they started playing 50 Cent as the intro music to one of the news programs. The Rolling Stones is playing; that’s just Muddy Waters with a white guy singing it. The stuff that makes up America generally, that’s valuable culturally, is African or indigenous. Not to say that Europeans don’t have a contribution, but to say that the landscape is this Eurocentric thing, I think is kind of fatalist and inaccurate.
Really it’s just the economics, in the fact that there’s a whole lot of white people, and they’re going to go see The Hunger Games if there’s a white girl in it; if there was a black lead, they probably wouldn’t go see it. So it’s just clunky realities like that as opposed to, “If you make a black thing, will it be able to sell.” Because hip hop has proven that you can make the blackest stuff of all time and anyone will like it; the whole world will love it and patronize it.
Where I fit is, I feel like [the industry] is already ours. We made it, on some level. I feel at this point it’s more about control, and infringing upon those spaces that are not us, which is the economic side of it. And making sure that we have a stake in places where the decision-making happens. And I think that will follow what’s already happening, which is a movement of people in my generation deciding, “I’m going to make what I want to make. I’m not going to make Blindside. I’m just not going to do it.” That’s also going to require so many of us making films that whoever they call to be the actor in a Blindside will say, “I’m not going to do it because I’m doing Terence’s movie,” “ I would never even consider that because I’m doing Steve McQueen’s movie.”
S&A: How soon do you think we’ll reach that level?
TN: Pretty fast. Because I think one of the bigger things holding us back is a culture of methodically making movies. And also just the nature of filmmaking, like why [the dynamics of] hip hop didn’t happen in the film industry. There were a few hundred rappers in 1980 and now there’s two billion, and why hasn’t that happened in film? Because being a director is the hardest work of all time. Even being a terrible director is extremely hard work, and there’s no easy way to get rewarded for it monetarily. So if the question is, when is the tipping point going to happen, it’s going to happen when people are just like, “I’m going to make it, come hell or high water this year, and then next year I’m going to make another one.”
S&A: What else is next for you, in terms of new projects?
TN: I’ve got a feature narrative I’m trying to shoot in the next year. The title of the movie is The Lobbyist, and it’s a surrealist dramedy/thriller. I play a con man.
Many thanks to Terence for sharing his thoughts.
For more on Terence Nance and his projects, visit his website at terence.mvmt.com
Or his film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, at oversimplification.mvmt.com
* By Terence’s definition, The Swarm is “a demographic with 5 criteria for inclusion. They are not mutually exclusive. 1. The Swarm consists of people who are of color or culturally of color. 2. The Swarm consists of people who went to a four-year university, most of whom graduated. 3. The Swarm consists of people who work in a non-corporate environment or aspire to do so: Education, Philanthropy / Activism, Art or Film, Government. 4. In New York City, The Swarm lives in Bed Stuy, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Crown Heights, and to a lesser degree Flatbush, Washington Heights and occasionally Harlem. The Swarm NEVER lives in Williamsburg, “The City”, or Queens, unless they are originally from one of these places. 5. The Swarm consists of people who largely deny that they are in The Swarm… The Swarm is BEAUTIFUL.”