There’s a concept in existentialist philosophy called bad faith. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, a person experiencing bad faith has shirked the responsibility of introspection: in succumbing to the pressure of societal values, he adheres to beliefs that are not his own because they are easier to digest. Thus, he deceives himself. He does not look himself in the eye to find that he is inauthentic.
In Tim Blake Nelson’s “Anesthesia,” bad faith has spared no one. The interlocking narrative features characters undergoing various degrees of self-deception as they navigate an increasingly complex modern world. The stellar cast — Sam Waterston, Kristen Stewart, Gretchen Moll, Mickey Sumner, Jessica Hecht, among others — bring Nelson’s vision of New York to life as they struggle with senseless violence, troubled marriages and technology that alienates more than it connects.
This is Nelson’s fifth directorial effort. He’s known for his penchant for character acting, but in person Nelson feels more like an enthusiastic PhD student. He speaks thoughtfully and deliberately; when he has a big point to make, he doesn’t hesitate to get off his chair to demonstrate. Indiewire sat down with him to discuss his philosophical film, which premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
This is a very quintessentially New York story. What about New York inspired you? What do you love most about it?
What I love most about New York is the unbelievable density of the place. The chance encounter in New York is, to me, essential to its being and its flourishing. I think more than any other city in which I’ve been, you literally can brush up against anyone, anywhere, with certain exceptional pockets where maybe a certain type of person doesn’t go because they feel it’ll be dangerous. So with a few exceptions, you can go anywhere and be among a polyglot assortment of people, unlike any other place in the world. I love those chance encounters, and I like being out in the city, and walking in the city, and riding the subway in the city, and experiencing what strangers are reading, what they look like. I have a game I play with my oldest son, and we send each other photographs of other New Yorkers all day. He’s 16, so he’s often at school, but on his way to school, and on his way back, when he’s out and about and I’m out and about, we’ll send portraits of people. What you lose in this not being a particularly bucolic place to live, you gain in access to architecture, culture, and above all, humanity. Everywhere you turn. And I guess the movie, in its own way, is a celebration of that. I think New York really is like an abstract painting of humanity itself. You’ve got every color, every shape. And it only makes sense as a whole. Like an abstract painting. You look at one section of it, it’s not going to be as interesting as the whole. I’m not so interested in a cohesive narrative freighted with a specific message. I’m more interested in a coherent whole, that opens up more than it closes. That asks more than it answers. And again, that’s why I love abstract art. I like a work of art from a painter in which I can get lost, not in which I can find my bearings.
What’s the hardest part about the directing process for you, given you’re also coming to set with the subjectivity of an actor?
Organizing the day; not lavishing too much time on performances. I often have to direct actors in film in a way that would be anathema in the theater. Because at a certain point in the day, particularly on a low budget film, where you cannot come back tomorrow — there just aren’t the resources — you need results. I’ve always been taught and I’ve always preferred, as an actor, that being result-oriented is inhibitive. And suddenly you’re just going to get some version of what’s been asked for from an actor, as opposed to an ineffable, ephemeral moment, that is actually the stuff of life. What you want to do as a filmmaker is capture people being as essentially human as possible. When you say, look, there’s got to be a ferocity in this moment, you’ve got to attack her, you’re suddenly saying, “Here’s what I need.” You’re not pushing the actor organically in the way that you would like, so that the actor is discovering it and surprising him or herself. It’s difficult for me to go for results with actors. Sometimes it’s comforting for actors, because they say “Oh, finally somebody is just gonna tell me what they want.” But I continue to believe it’s always best if an actor discovers it him or herself. And every day as a filmmaker you’re just saying, “Look, here’s what I need. I’m sorry.”
Can you give me an example of a time when you weren’t getting a result that you wanted, so you coaxed something out of the actor organically?
On my first movie, on our second day, I came up to Martha Plimpton after a take, and I said “Martha, don’t—” and she stopped me, and she said “Tim, why don’t you tell me what to do, instead of what not to do.” From then on, that’s all I did, and that’s all I’ve done with actors. I will say to actors, “Don’t change lines.” Because I guess the positive way is saying, “Please do the lines as written.” But sometimes I get so frustrated, I say “Please don’t put an ‘uh’ in there, don’t say ‘I mean.'” Because I’m very particular about the writing, and I like writing smart, articulate characters, and I want them to sound smart. But by and large, I’ve followed Martha’s rule. I think the best way to work organically with actors is by giving them positive choices. So open the world up to them, don’t close it off.
On this movie, there was one actor who was really bright, but she disperses her energy. She walks around, and she gets up, and she smokes. So she came in, and the speech was all over the room. So I talked about how to use words in concrete ways. You’re not hammering or bludgeoning with these words, you’re cutting and incising and stabbing and puncturing. And it just got the performance down to a point. She is now focused in that speech. All that anger that was being sprayed, dispersed around the room, came right in. And that’s, to me, an organic way of talking with actors.
You mentioned the technology theme. That’s something I noticed in Gretchen Mol’s character and in Kristen Stewart’s. There was an overarching sentiment that technology is tearing us apart, or at least inhibiting human communication. Where did that come from?
Well, I love my devices. I think we’ve gained a tremendous amount from them. The movie was photographed digitally, and many more people will see this movie because of satellites and digital advances and hand-held devices. I’d rather they see this movie in movie theaters, but I’m not naive. I’ve been interested in technology ever since college. I’ve always been interested in how we’re gradually becoming our original notion of the divine. So we can now destroy cities the way God did in the Bible. We can communicate face to face with these devices across the planet. We can fly from city to city. Perhaps in this century, we’re gonna achieve some form of immortality, through medical or computer advances. And yet, are the questions with which the thinkers before all that happened consumed themselves still valid ones? And that’s of course what Zara’s [Sam Waterston] lecture is about. That’s his whole point. He argues they are. That really is where technology comes into this movie. It’s not about a rejection of technology. Although Kristen’s character rejects technology, I personally don’t. I think she makes great points; I agree with her, that these devices teach us how to think. We can’t do anything without them. Where should we go to eat? Hold on. UrbanSpoon. Oh, here’s the rating, look at the menu. Oh, so-and-so goes there! A lot of what I love about the cities is dissipating.
That discovery element.
Yeah. Like on the subway, I love looking up and seeing somebody reading David Foster Wallace, and saying, not being able to stop myself, “Did you read his book on infinity?” or “Oh, it’s ‘Infinite Jest,’ are you reading the footnotes? ‘Cause you can’t skip the footnotes.” Those conversations don’t happen anymore. Because everybody’s reading on a Kindle or an iPad. Including me, I carry an iPad around and read the paper that way. What I want to know, and what the movie desperately wants to know, and why that character is in there saying that, is there still room for introspection? We don’t have God anymore. We’re even becoming God. We don’t have a priori truths anymore really, it’s all relativism now. Can we still ask questions of ourselves? Are we still going to take the time? And is it going to make us better? It’s like in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” why are we still unhappy? That’s where the movie is trying to locate itself. That’s why that Sophie character’s monologue, and the constant intrusion of technology throughout the movie, has to be there. Even in Joe’s death, a cell phone rings, and a detective says, “Oh you guys get service down here?” Joel Coen’s favorite moment in the movie. That actor is so good. He has one line. He’s incredible. I just wanted to kiss him. I was so grateful.