In the ’50s and ’60s, the cineastes of the French New Wave first posited the auteur theory of criticism in the pages of noted film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema. They opined that movies were to be read as an expression of the director’s unifying vision, taking Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford as examples. American luminary of film criticism Pauline Kael objected to the auteur theory, citing prominent writers and cinematographers capable of exerting their own influence on the final product of a film, diluting the allegedly absolute authority of the director. She countered that the finished film was inseparable from the plurality of its own labor.
In theory, Kael’s rebuttal could be undermined by some director dementedly determined enough to mount an entire film without any outside interference. It’d be a crazy undertaking, but doable: If a filmmaker was able to somehow shoot a feature-length project managing both sides of the camera, getting shots depicting only himself while simultaneously capturing his own audio, and then slogging through the daunting work of post-production in total solitude, that could effectively cement the auteur theory as legitimate, at least in the most extreme circumstances. Though, to be completely fair, that director would also need to finance the project using only his own money, to guarantee that the whims of a financier wouldn’t taint the absolute purity of the film’s authorial integrity. But again, you’d have to be totally crazy to attempt such a quixotic quest just to prove a point.
Ontario native Daniel Robinson wasn’t setting out to make any grand symbolic statements about creative ownership when he began production on his debut feature Nestor in 2014. He was going to war with the army he had, and at the time, that happened to be an army of one. The 32-year-old graduate of the Toronto Film School figured that dispensing with all the stuff that unnecessarily complicates film shoots, stuff like a camera operator or a cast or any other people at all, would clear the path for him to complete his first full-length project. And he did it—but the astonishing part is that the final cut of this film is not a collage of the amateurish, incompetent ravings of a madman. Such endeavors had been completed before by experimental types—Stan Brakhage churned out loads of avant-garde films all by his lonesome—but Robinson’s distinguishes itself by virtue of its fundamental movie-ness; it has a character, a plot, a 61-minute run time, and the rest of the core components that define narrative cinema. And for a full-length feature shot by a guy working with a nonexistent budget in complete self-imposed isolation, Nestor is, incredibly, pretty good.
Robinson knows how this all sounds. He’s a self-aware guy, and the first to dispel any sage-woodsman narratives that might romanticize his impulse to eschew the core nuts and bolts of filmmaking as some Bon Iver-esque retreat to commune with the restorative forces of nature. His threadbare process was a matter of necessity, he explains during a phone call with The A.V. Club: “I didn’t have any film community to do [a feature] with. It’s not that I didn’t have the ambition to mount a traditional production; it’s that I wanted to get started as soon as possible. I didn’t want to wait a year or two, writing a script and finding a budget. I wanted to get started, and the only way I knew how to do that was alone.”
Famous last words, but to hear Robinson explain his process, it all makes perfect sense. In his estimation, this was the simplest way for him to complete a feature, counting on a wealth of ingenuity to compensate for a dearth of resources. He used his own standard-issue DSLR camera (a Canon T3i); recorded ambient noise on his iPhone and hid a small shotgun mic wherever he could to capture sound; completed post-production with the aid of user-friendly software; shot either at his parents’ vacant home or the great outdoors; and made use of no costumes or artificial set-dressing. He measures his budget not in money spent, but in money unearned; Robinson sunk precious little of his own worth into Nestor outside of his sanity, instead estimating a total cost of approximately $5,000 in terms of time taken off from his job. (Robinson daylights at an enormous, often empty self-storage facility.) This approach sounds almost hilariously impractical, a fool’s errand on par with dragging an entire ship through the jungle or shooting for months in the bitter cold using only natural sunlight. As Robinson would tell it, finding a place to stash his microphone in wide shots was the stickiest wicket.
The real challenges were psychological, issues of the mind rather than the image. A blend of fiction, metafiction, and documentary, Nestor tracks a solitary man (Robinson, of course) as he goes through the quiet, dignified work of introducing running water and other material comforts of civil life to a tucked-away house deep in the woods. In no small way, it’s Robinson’s self-reflexive report on the trials and tribulations of his lot as a filmmaker. He couldn’t conceive of any other way to accurately convey the loneliness he felt: “I think what I wouldn’t have been able to capture is the sense of isolation that this man goes through. There’s no way I would’ve been able to give the sort of performance I did on a full set, and I wouldn’t have been free to make the choices I made about this person’s isolation if there were more people there.”
Robinson has formulated an odd sort of symbiosis with this loneliness. The same isolation that enabled his performance effectively drove him to go it alone in the first place. “Having made this movie alone, I fear that I won’t be able to adjust to a production that has many different voices,” Robinson said. “I’m not anti-social and I’m not a hermit, but I do like quiet, controlled environments where I’m not asked to stick to a schedule. Being alone takes away all the pressure. To be clear, I’m definitely going to work with other people in the future, but I thought a gradual transition to bigger and bigger productions would be the best route to take.”
Naturally, he speaks of Shane Carruth in admiring tones. The Texan filmmaker became a folk hero in microbudget film circles on the merit of Primer and Upstream Color, a pair of self-produced, highly polished sci-fi projects that inspire as much wonderment as puzzlement. Robinson brings Carruth up when speaking about the most appealing aspect of the solitude, which was his complete autonomy as a creator. Without any backers to report back to, or collaborators with opinions that deserve respect (or at least placating), he could do whatever he felt like with this project. Due to both the emotional toll and the final-cut rights to end all final-cut rights, he’s confident that he’s captured material that he would have been impossible to produce under kinder conditions. “This movie wouldn’t exist unless I had gone it alone. This movie lives, breathes, and dies by my hand.” He pauses, and chuckles. “I hope that doesn’t sound too egotistical.”
I’m skeptical—not of Robinson, exactly, more of the necessity of his process. It’s hard not to be, in an era when filmmakers with names that rhyme with Schmiñárritu seem intent on making the act of filmmaking into a game of one-upsmanship to determine who can forge the most rigorous, elaborate, or demanding piece of work. The director of The Revenant has drawn a considerable amount of attention by playing up the arduous nature of his shoots in interviews, presumably as part of an effort to drum up awards buzz for his film. I’m a bit leery of this same tactic in Robinson, a guy in the process of getting his labor of love out of his laptop and into the world’s attention spans. (Nestor has screened at a couple of festivals, but awaits a distributor.) After all, the initial email that Robinson sent me contained the most hooky detail of this project in the subject line. Getting someone to give a damn, even from the pure curiosity factor, is no simple feat: “As recently as the mid-’00s, it was a new thing for somebody to go out and make a movie and have it polished enough to get into Sundance and major festivals,” Robinson says. “Now, having submitted my film to festivals, it feels a bit saturated. Pretty much everyone can make a movie; some of them are making better movies than me. What do I do?” The cynic in me detects the faint whiff of gimmickry, suspecting that Robinson may have deliberately foregrounded his odd ordeal in production to generate buzz for Nestor.
But Robinson knows himself, he knows what he’s about, and he knows his position in the crowded indie marketplace. “When making this, I feared that people would look at it as a gimmick, and they might not want to watch it because it’s sort of a crutch,” he admits. “When I first started submitting it to festivals, I didn’t even mention that. Someone sitting down and watching the film will notice that there’s just one guy in the credits and some thank-yous at the end. But I guess that didn’t do it? So I started mentioning it here and there, but I never wanted to use that as a crutch—it was just my method of filmmaking.”
And it’s true that the aesthetic at play in Nestor clearly stems from the obstructions that Robinson faced. More than a mere factoid, Robinson’s choice to go it alone dictates his composition, pacing, and story. Rather than devise workarounds for these challenges, Robinson embraced them and incorporated them into his creative framework: “I always knew this was going to be a still, static, blocked-off kind of movie. I wanted to see how much story I could tell in a single frame.” His film works as a testament to the value of loneliness as a guiding ethic; it demands patience from its audience as Robinson’s character trudges around his property for wordless minutes at a time, and in turn, this brings out a soothing stillness of mind in the viewer. Quietly, inconspicuously, and perhaps even incidentally, he accomplishes something impressive by placing the folks at home in his sparsely peopled world. The pensive, open spaces of Nestor—the extreme wide shots, silences that stretch on forever, the conceptual thinness of content—afford the audience space to take leave of themselves and clear the head for a few minutes.
Nestor has worth outside of its status as a curio or a thought experiment dragged into being. It’s a bona fide movie, which is an estimable accomplishment all on its own. It might even be the opening salvo from a fresh directorial talent. But more than that, it’s a living monument to the DIY ethic and the undervalued nobility of being alone. If this was all a ploy from Robinson to gain a little critical traction, then congrats, he’s successfully made me his patsy and landed a feature in The A.V. Club. But looking at his frostbitten face as he trembles ankle-deep in snow with nothing but running shorts on, it’s apparent that Nestor came from a place of pure intentions. No one said this job was supposed to be easy, but nobody said it was supposed to be that hard, either. For Robinson, it’s neither. It’s just how he does it.