The Actor: Tim Blake Nelson won the Workman/Driscoll Award For Excellence In Classical Studies and served as the Senior Orator at Brown before graduating from Juilliard. That education more than adequately prepared him for a professional career playing everything from a singing convict to a brilliant scientist to a listless stoner to a Scooby-Doo villain. The filmmaker and character actor is best known for playing a convict who escapes alongside John Turturro and George Clooney in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 hit O Brother, Where Art Thou? Nelson subsequently lined up memorable roles in films as dissimilar as Minority Report, The Good Girl, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and The Incredible Hulk. Nelson is also an accomplished playwright, writer, and director with acclaimed films like 1998’s Eye Of God and 2001’s The Grey Zone to his credit. Nelson draws on his rich and varied personal and professional experiences as the writer, director, and co-star of Leaves Of Grass, a freewheeling comic drama about an uptight Brown professor (Edward Norton) who becomes entangled in the messy life and career of his pot-dealing, incorrigible redneck identical twin (also Norton). (UPDATE: We just received word from the film’s publicist that Leaves Of Grass has found a new distributor and won’t be coming out until this summer, exact date TBD.)
Leaves Of Grass (2010)—“Bolger” (also writer and director)
Tim Blake Nelson: I started writing Leaves Of Grass when my professional life was falling apart, somewhat. I just had a movie implode in pre-production. And so I came back licking my wounds to New York, where I live, and started to write a script about a protagonist for whom the exact same thing happened: His life was falling apart. And I thought it would be really funny if that person took a measured and regimented approach toward his own life in a Platonic mold. Being a professor of classical philosophy and in spite of all his best efforts, the very kernel of who he was—meaning his background, and how he was raised, and his home state—emerged to teach him that it’s really impossible to control what happens to you. And this happens in the movie in the person of his identical twin brother who is a hedonist to his Platonist.
AVC: That’s kind of your background as well, in that you graduated in classical studies from Brown.
TBN: I drew very heavily not only on my own history but in particular of the history or the essence of my mentor at Brown, Martha Nussbaum. Her rationalist approach to life and her gorgeous control over how she lived and approached her life was something I always admired. I set out to personify a male version of her as the protagonist.
AVC: And then there’s the other character that Ed Norton plays who is something of a fuck-up. Was there a part of you in that as well?
TBN: I think we all live dichotomies. I’m a father of three boys and a loyal homebody sort of husband and father. And yet I act in movies and write and direct movies. So I can spend months at home, cooking meals, and dropping kids off at school, and reading to kids and doing their homework with them and living an extremely structured life, and then I suddenly go off to do a movie for a month. Or in the case of directing a movie, I can go off and do a movie for five months, sometimes bringing the family with me and sometimes not. So I often feel like I live two lives.
AVC: It seems like movies involving pot seem to get ghettoized, especially if they’re comic. Were you worried about that?
TBN: I don’t think anyone could construe this movie accurately as just a pot comedy. I think its ambitions are far greater. And by the way I love pot comedies. [Laughs.] I think this movie is interested in issues as practical as the difference between an indica and a sativa and how to grow hydroponic pot to ideas as abstract as how do we live a healthy life and how do the choices we make about the rhythms and truths and tenets by which we choose to live impact not only ourselves but those around us at our deepest emotional core.
AVC: So you’re saying the movie is all about getting baked?
TBN: [Laughs.] I mean, again, we all live by these dichotomies. I remember in high school working all week on my Horace and then getting baked on the weekend with the same buddies with whom I was figuring out how to translate Latin text. So I find those juxtapositions really fun. It was a delight to get to put them on the screen. Financiers are not into subsidizing your abstruse vision of the world, so I feel very lucky that we got to make this movie. That’s in large part, of course, due to Edward’s agreeing to star in it.
AVC: To a certain extent the movie is about finding balance. You have these two characters who occupy extremes in terms of their lifestyle. The professor is on the path leading a little more toward a measured, balanced existence.
TBN: Although Plato featured heavily in various allusions, my favorite of the Greek philosophers was actually Epicurus. And there’s this quote from Juvenal: “Mens sana in corpore sano,” which means “A sound mind in a sound body.” I think at the core of that beautiful phrase is a sense of balance. So that we approach life not just to be able to think about it and talk about it and discover its truths, which is the sound-mind part, but also to enjoy it. And so a healthy life really isn’t about abstinence or asceticism, it’s about enjoying your time on this earth.
AVC: The professor lives in a world of ideas.
TBN: Yeah, but I think by the end he discovers he can actually have both, and he ends up getting high in the movie, he ends up falling in love in the movie, and he ends up returning to a truer version of himself than the one he’s espousing at the beginning of the movie, which is all about restraint.
AVC: You were the senior orator for your class at Brown, what does that entail?
TBN: Brown is the funky Ivy League school, so rather than have a valedictorian speak they have a class orator who delivers the address at graduation.
AVC: What was your address?
TBN: Mine was about satire and, again quoting Juvenal, the title of it was “Difficile Est Saturam Non Scribere,” which means, “It is hard not to write satire.” The aim of the address was about comedy as a rhetorical force. And at Brown there had been an amendment while I was there to amend the Brown constitution to demand that health services stock cyanide tablets for students to take in case of a nuclear attack. There was a great uproar about this, but it seemed to me that the proposal was more of a rhetorical gesture than a practical one. In other words, the authors of it were equating in everyone’s mind nuclear holocaust and suicide. That juxtaposition was really interesting to me and also strangely comical.
AVC: In a Dr. Strangelove sort of way.
TBN: Yeah. So that’s what my address was about.
Heavyweights (1995)—“Robert Johnson”
TBN: Yeah, that was my second film and I had met [director] Steven Brill through my college housemate for two years, Davis Guggenheim [An Inconvenient Truth].
AVC: Who went on to become a very prominent filmmaker himself.
TBN: We were housemates at Brown. So it was one of those situations in which I went in to audition to read for Steve and because I already knew him I was already very relaxed even though I was essentially just stepping out of drama school and I just had a great audition. In addition Ben Stiller, who was somewhat involved in the casting, was dating my friend Jeanne Tripplehorn at that time, with whom I’d gone to acting school. And so I think that because of all that goodwill and since I was very relaxed when I went in to read for the part I got it. And I just had a blast. I worked for two days. I was really miscast because I was too young to play that role.
AVC: What was the character?
TBN: The shill for the camp. He would visit the homes of overweight kids and convince their parents to send them to this camp. I’ve always been somewhat of a gargoyle, so I think Steve liked the fact that this weird looking guy who seemed slightly shady could be really funny as the salesman for the camp.
AVC: This would be the guy who would seduce people into sending their children there.
TBN: Yeah, and they shot me in profile and, I didn’t even realize I was doing this, but my mouth is kind of slightly open as I’m watching the video with the family, it’s just utterly wrong. [Laughs.] But right for the movie and that was a blast. And of course it would have been extraordinary to have been able to predict where [co-writer] Judd [Apatow] and Ben would end up. Although Ben at the time was already pretty much a star.
The Thin Red Line (1998)—“Pvt. Tillis”
TBN: That was like film school for me. So many of us in that movie ended up barely being in the movie even though we spent five and a half months in Australia with Terrence Malick. It became obvious early on that Terry had really brought a group of us over there to pull from and improvise on a daily basis what his movie was going to be. So you really never knew when you were going to be on set or when you were going to have a day off, when you were going to be on camera when you were going to be in the furthest reaches of the background. So because I had just directed my first film and was eager to direct my next one I just decided that I needed to leave my actor’s ego at the door and try my best to embrace the experience as a film school. And so what that role became for me and what that experience became for me was about watching Terry and learning from Terry because he has an utterly unique approach to how to make a movie in which the script is really something that’s handed into the studio to get them to agree to give him the money to then go and make a movie which is really going to be written as he makes it, rather than using the script as a clear blueprint for what the movie will be. If you were to read the Thin Red Line script and use it to try and follow the movie you would be utterly lost. You would imagine that you had the wrong script.
AVC: I remember reading that the original cut of The Thin Red Line was something like six hours long. In a six hour cut I imagine everyone would have a lot more screen time.
TBN: Right, I wish I could see that movie.
AVC: Do you think that it will be released in any form?
TBN: You know, [Malick] had talked about doing a Japanese version that was six hours long but I’m not sure, actually. Terry and I are friends and I happen to know that he never did that. And Terry and my friendship, or his loose mentorship of me, is one of the great gifts of having done that part, even though I am not so much in that film.
AVC: What did you learn from Malick and The Thin Red Line?
TBN: That one should as a filmmaker, and as an actor, embrace what’s possible in the moment, what’s possible and unexpected in the moment rather than try to plan or prescribe what an artistic event is going to be. And Terry is truly an improvisational filmmaker, but he accomplishes that with studio budgets and that’s a remarkable feat. I also learned from Terry—because right after I worked with Terry I went and did O Brother, Where Art Thou?—that there’s no one way to make a film. The Coen brothers approach moviemaking in a completely opposite way from Terry. Because with Joel and Ethan everything is story, everything is storyboarded, and you never deviate from the script. They’re so meticulous and so clearheaded about what they want that improvisation, while it can happen, is almost parameter-ed off. I don’t even know if that’s a word. Actually let me put it this way: Improvisation, 99% of the time, is going to be less interesting than what they have planned ahead of time.
AVC: It seems doubtful that what comes out spontaneously will be better than what Joel and Ethan Coen have written.
TBN: Yeah. Well, Terry would say, [affects accent] “Oh, let’s not worry about the dialogue. Lets just throw that out. Let’s find out if maybe we can do this without dialogue and just be silent. And then maybe some voiceover will come in here.” Whereas with Joel and Ethan, if I was literally going to change the place of a subordinate clause, or even a word in a sentence I would go and ask their permission.
AVC: I seems like Malick finds the film while he’s shooting it whereas the Coen brothers have already made the film in their minds so it’s just a matter of getting it on film. Yet O Brother, Where Art Thou? has a loose, freewheeling quality to it.
TBN: It does and yet I can tell you that’s pretty much word for word what they wrote.
AVC: That’s probably the role that people know you best for.
TBN: Well you obviously haven’t seen Scooby Doo 2.
AVC: [Laughs.] I saw the first one I did not see the second one.
TBN: O Brother, Where Art Thou? was this role that utterly fell into my lap and changed my life. I was making O as a director and Joel sent me the script along with a letter saying that he wanted me to read it and get some advice from me. And I thought, well maybe he wants to talk about the transposition from The Odyssey to this Depression-era story. Me, because I was a classics major. I read it, and then he offered me the role of Delmar and I was so surprised that I actually said that I needed a day to think about it because Joel and I were already friends and what I didn’t want to do was get on set without even auditioning for this role and disappoint him because he’d never heard me utter a word of the dialogue. And so I said let me make sure that I’m not going to disappoint you, let me try this on for a few days.
I quickly got off the phone and started figuring out in a very casual and shallow way an approach to the role and figured that I had an in. And I said I would do it and subsequently had one of the great summers of my life. Again, this was like going to film school. On that movie I think I worked 51 out of 54 days of the shoot and I got to be around these absolute masters of the craft, which so interests me. And they’re so completely true to their own aesthetic and so confident in it that as an actor you just feel that there’s no way you can go wrong so you can try anything. So really nothing you can do is wrong in an environment that allows that much risktaking. For gargoyle actors like me who happen to be their favorite type of actors—George Clooney and Brad Pitt aside—that makes for an experience like none other.
AVC: As a classics expert, how loose of an adaptation was it of The Odyssey?
TBN: Oh it’s extremely loose. It’s an extremely loose and lighthearted adaptation. Although you know, I guess the serious and rather poignant part of the movie, which I think is played out beautifully and most effectively by the music… There’s a sadness to the film that I think is key to why it resonated so beautifully that is also in The Odyssey. Because ultimately it’s a story about a guy who is separated from his family and who is desperate to get home and to get his life back. So even though many of the conceits of O Brother, Where Art Thou? are really ludicrous and comical it’s a sad movie with a real soul to it, and that, I think, makes it a classic. And that’s all Joel and Ethan. We were all just doing what they asked.
AVC: Where you just as surprised by how it took off, especially the soundtrack?
TBN: I was definitely surprised by the soundtrack but I wasn’t so surprised the movie took off. That’s because John Turturro said to me on set one day, “Look, the way it works with their movies—and I’ve been in enough of them to consider myself an authority—is that you take the script and the movie is gonna be two times better than the script. And this script is a classic. Tim, we’re going to be part of a classic.” And I learned after about two days with John to trust pretty much what he said. He was certainly right.
AVC: Why do you think that is, if the films are so rooted in the screenplays?
TBN: You know, I’ve got to tell you that they just execute what’s on the page so beautifully and with such confidence and with such daring that they exceed even their own wishes. That’s the best way I can put it. They also surround themselves with incredibly talented technicians who are desperate to give them everything they want.
Minority Report (2002)—“Gideon”
TBN: [Laughs.] That also just came out of the blue. And I met Steven [Spielberg] the day that I went to shoot. As with the Coens all you want to do is please this person and give him exactly what he wants. Steven had seen O Brother and just gave me this role. The day I met him was the day the showed up. What was difficult about that role, and delightfully challenging at the same time, was that I had these long monologues to Tom Cruise. That’s pretty much the sum total of what the part is about. And I worked and worked and worked to memorize them so that they were word perfect. Because, again, like a Coen Brothers script it was clear rhythmically that the way this guy spoke was something that Steven wanted to be very specific and to be achieved with little deviation. Steven wanted Tom Cruise to be burrowing through this world populated by a lot of weird eccentric characters and I was to be one of those and the rhythm of the dialogue was quite specific so I learned it and took great pains to do so.
Then I arrived on set and was summoned to Tom Cruise’s trailer. To Tom Cruise’s bus, which was more like a shopping mall. It was just enormous, so I went in and made my way past the Foot Locker and the Body Shop and found Steven and Tom in the food court, and they both had these yellow legal pads and I quickly realized that they were going through the speech and changing words and phrases here and there in almost every sentence. [Laughs.] I suddenly felt like I was on this cliff and I was going to plummet into the abyss of disappointing Steven Spielberg. So I got all these changes and I went back and started desperately trying to learn them. Then I got back on set with Steven. And he wasn’t happy with what I was doing and it wasn’t that I hadn’t fully memorized this script. He just said, “I want an extreme character here.” And I thought, “Well, my God, how extreme should I go?”
Then he said, “Do a Boston accent.” It seemed so arbitrary but it was really a brilliant piece of direction because everything suddenly started to click. Not only did it click in terms of pushing me to an extreme that he would appreciate and would work for his movie but every single change they made suddenly made sense rhythmically. Then we went off and started shooting. The other remarkable thing about Steven is that he can do pretty much everyone’s job on a movie set. He doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t try to, but he can do it. That man could literally operate the camera, set dolly tracks, flag lights, sew costumes, design costumes, work the soundboard. He can put a lav mic on an actor. I wouldn’t be surprised if he could do my makeup. He knows every single facet of a movie set. It’s utterly remarkable and therefore it’s no accident that he accomplishes what he does.
The Good Girl (2002)—“Bubba”
TBN: I finished Good Girl at about midnight the night before I was to be on set on Minority Report. So there was literally a six-hour pause between those two movies in terms of working on them. It was a really lucky summer. [Director] Miguel Arteta has also become a really close friend. The fun of Good Girl was getting to know and work with Miguel, who runs such a low-key, relaxed set that, as an actor, you feel like taking risks and failing is not going to be punishable. The other great joy in that movie was getting to play so many scenes with John C. Reilly, who is probably as funny an actor as I’ve ever met, just as a scene partner. He’s a guy who you just look forward to working with every day because he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s truthful and he makes everyone around him better. I loved being around him. I learned a great deal and also getting to operate inside the world of Mike White, who is an extraordinary voice as a screenwriter. That was a pleasure. When I got that role and told my wife I was going to be having sex with Jennifer Aniston in a movie her response was a derisive, “No you’re not!” Then I said I blackmailed her into doing it so she said, “Oh, now I get it.”
Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004)—“Jakobo”
TBN: I had a great time working on that movie. I did it, quite simply, because I was on the phone in my son’s room—who was five at the time—when I got the offer and I said to my agent, “Scooby Doo 2?” And my son said, “Scooby Doo 2!” And I was in.
AVC: It went from a question mark to an exclamation point, and that made all the difference.
TBN: My sons were six and two at the time. And we got to be on the set of this movie of an iconic cartoon that still plays constantly in our home. I also got to say, “I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids and your dumb dog!”
AVC: That surprises me, because Peter Boyle plays a character named Old Man Wickles and it seemed like every show ended with them ripping a monster mask off an old man and revealing him as the bad guy. Now we’re going to have to have spoilers so we don’t ruin Scooby Doo 2 for our readers. Other than nearly getting away with it, what did your character do?
TBN: Despite his Italian last name, I was able to maneuver him into being German. I convinced Raja Gosnell, the director, that this was O.K. Thankfully he said yes. He was a maniacal Teutonic genius with an Italian last name who created the monsters who afflict Coolville in Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. So I’m the one who’s discovered to have unleashed the monsters at the end. I do this for nefarious, vengeful reasons.
The Amateurs (2005)—“Barney Macklehatton”
TBN: That puzzles me because I think the film is a lot better than it was given credit for, either critically or in the marketplace. I’m delighted I did that movie. It was a great deal of fun. I don’t think it would rate as some of the best acting I’ve ever done. There’s a lot I would change about the performance, but very little I would change about the movie around the performance. Each movie is a completely different experience, which is what’s so exciting about getting to act in films. It’s almost as if you’re figuring out, each time, how best to approach storytelling. In this case, it was a quite enviable way, because the core cast gathered at Jeff Bridges’ family house on the beach at Malibu and we spent a debauched weekend rehearsing and hanging out [Laughs.] and found our way, very quickly, into the friendships reflected in the movie.
Because what the movie’s about, really, is a group of best buddies. Jeff understood that, for that to work, he would do everyone a great service by having us convene in this house where we lived together for three days and were constantly in one another’s presence. We rehearsed on the beach with set plans lined out in the sand with sticks. It was just idyllic and I think the movie is wonderful. It’s puzzling why that movie didn’t do better. Michael Traeger is a wonderful writer-director. As someone who has directed movies, what I like best about acting in movies is getting to meet and be around so many extraordinary directors. Some have been first-time directors and some have been directors with these legendary careers, but each one is in pursuit of something specific and rich and unique. It’s a delight to be a part of that and I hope to continue doing it.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)—“Samuel Sterns”
TBN: I got that role when Eddie [Norton] and I were planning to do Leaves Of Grass. I thought of it as something that I hoped, and still hope, will inspire sequels, since I had a great time on that movie and I felt particularly lucky to be around Edward on a set, knowing that I’d be acting and directing Edward on Leaves Of Grass within a year. I felt blessed. I always love being in these technically demanding movies because that process is so mystifying to me in that I still go to movies and marvel at how stuff is achieved. How do you make it creditable onscreen that a 12-story high creature is storming through Harlem smashing cars? On Hulk I got to ride inside the camera car and watch them film that and learn how it’s done. When I’m in a movie what I always do, instead of sitting in a trailer or watching a DVD, is I go on the set and watch the director work and the actors work and sometimes I’ll hang out with B camera and watch what they’re up to and ask questions because there’s so much to learn about the medium. With Hulk, during the scene where Harlem gets destroyed, I was like a kid in a candy store watching them achieve it and then ultimately getting to see it in the movie at the premiere and then remembering how they put it all together. Louis Leterrier, the director, is a phenomenal shooter. He comes from that Luc Besson school and he understands how to put action sequences together in a really exciting way.
AVC: In the comics, your character becomes a villain. Has there been discussion of sequels?
TBN: All I can say to Marvel is, “Please make a sequel.” I think we all had a great time making it. To get to play The Leader would be fantastic. So maybe some day they will make it.
AVC: Speaking of technical matters, what was the most difficult part of directing a film in which the two lead roles are played by the same actor?
TBN: The easiest part was working on it with Edward because he has such an extraordinary mind that he was able, in an utterly masterful way, to play one role while anticipating what the other would do but then to also have memory where, when he’s playing the second half of the scene, to react to what the other character had done. It takes almost a cubist approach to playing a scene because you’re approaching one side from several different angles and Edward did that with very little coaching from me. In a sense, I stayed out of his way in terms of his approach to performing with himself. Technically it was very difficult because I had never done anything like that as a director so I leaned heavily on this guy named Gray Marshall, who’s the go-to guy for identical twins work on movies, going back to Adaptation. We used everything from split screens to the more complex demands of motion-control technology where the camera moves wherever the characters move within the frame, which took a lot of time and a lot of meticulous technical preparation. It was really challenging. My strength as a director is working with actors. I’m getting better with the technical demands of filmmaking but this was the biggest jump I’ve had. It’s the first time I’ve used digital effects. Everything else was special effects, like on The Grey Zone. It took a lot of time, a lot of patience and a lot of preparation to pull off what we did.
I originally thought, when we were planning the film and storyboarding it, that we would seldom use these twins’ shots where Edward appears twice in the same frame. I argued this approach with our technical advisor, Gray Marshall, by saying, “When we use a twin shot I want it to make a point. If we’re very sparing then when the two Edwards are onscreen it will have this rhetorical power that will be really good for the movie in making a point about the characters intersecting or their similarities or it will heighten the climax of the film.” I said, “Let’s not be profligate with our twin shots.” He said, “That’s an approach, but I would urge you to do the opposite. Actually, treat the twin shots as you would master shots. Approach it as if it were two actors and there’s no technical restraint to having a twin shot. Take them for granted. If you do that then you have a shot at the audience taking for granted that it’s the same actor. They can hopefully forget that it’s the same actor.”
Donnie Brasco (1997)—“FBI Technician”
TBN: That was opposite Paul Giamatti very early in our careers. Now look at Paul. To be in a scene with Paul Giamatti and Johnny Depp… Jeez, I feel like a broken record here, everything was so great and wonderful.
AVC: Dammit, be more bitter and angry!
TBN: If you sit where I sit it’s hard to be bitter and angry. I’ve been extremely lucky. I never fail to recognize that. That was early in my career. I remember vividly [director] Mike Newell walking on to the set and saying, “Everyone’s looking at me as though I understand how this scene is to be shot and blocked. I know nothing, I have no idea.” I thought, “That is a great leader.” Because he had no fear of honesty. He was so confident in his authority on set and in his crew’s belief in him that he didn’t have to hide his uncertainty. I’ve taken that with me everywhere since I experienced it. Better to be honest and expose your process than to conceal with bluster.
The Grey Zone (2001)—writer/director
TBN: Have you seen that one? It’s one of the favorites of The Onion readership.
AVC: I have a hard time with Holocaust movies and one of my colleagues described it as the most depressing Holocaust movie ever made, which is saying something.
TBN: There was an associate artistic director at a New York theater, a well-known Off-Broadway theater, and when this was a play and we did a reading for them to consider staging it that season. He responded, “Gee, you didn’t just take us to Auschwitz. You took us to the bad parts of Auschwitz” [Laughs.] So launching my answer from there, thankfully this legendary and eccentric and extremely successful financier named Avi Lerner decided that, even though he probably wouldn’t make money and maybe even lose money, he wanted to make this film. He gave Pam Koffler of Killer Films and me four million dollars and some stages in Bulgaria and a crew in Bulgaria and said, “Go and make this movie. I want to make it with you.” There were no inhibitions from them, or prohibitions, about what the movie would be and how far we could go in depicting the subject matter, which was pretty far because this movie is about the Sonderkommandos, which were the janitorial staff in the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz and Birkenau. These were Jewish inmates who, for extra food and alcohol and a few more months of life, effectively aided in the extermination process.
In 2000 we went over to Bulgaria and made exactly the movie we wanted to make. Four million dollars in Bulgaria stretched a very long way so we were able to build these massive composite sets based on the architectural drawings for the crematoria. We were able to stage credible battle sequences based on historical records of the Sonderkommando uprising of 1944 and the result is The Grey Zone.
AVC: What about that subject matter appealed to you, first as a play and then as a movie?
TBN: My grandfather was a Holocaust refugee and he would often say to me, “We shouldn’t be alive.” He and my mother and my grandmother escaped Nazi Germany just before Kristallnacht and somehow got across the Atlantic during the war from England to America. That notion of luck and privilege always stuck with me because my grandfather then made quite a good life here for his daughter and my whole family. So I wanted to honor his background and my background by exploring, as a Jew whose mother was a Holocaust refugee and honoring that story. So I set out to tell their story and the results, which I wrote, were kind of boring and familiar. Because as emotional and purgative and horrifying as they are, most Holocaust stories follow a familiar pattern, even though the details might be wildly different. So I had a story about barely escaping Germany and getting here and feeling guilty about having left but also trying to make a life and reflecting on what had happened back in Europe.
I set it aside because I felt that, if all you’re doing is repeating another version of a story others have told and others have told better, you’re only diluting the power of those other stories. So if you’re going to write about this event it should be something nobody knows about or that no one has explored. That’s when I read this Primo Levi essay called “The Grey Zone” in which he revealed that there had been these Jews in the crematoria who were given extended life and privileges if they ushered other Jews into the gas chambers because they were Nationals and could speak the same language and expedite the process and then clean the gas chambers, repaint them after each gassing, then burn the bodies. So I thought, not only is this something I did know about, and I felt pretty well-versed about the Holocaust as a Jew who’d spent a lot of time in Hebrew and sunday school, but i also speaks to the sort of zero-balance sentiment that my grandfather was implying when he said, “We shouldn’t be alive.” I always thought that when he said that he meant, “We shouldn’t be alive and there are others who are maybe dead in our place.” I wrote The Grey Zone to explore that. I never imagined it would be a movie. It was a successful play Off Broadway. It was beautifully directed by Doug Hughes. And then when I was watching Terry [Malick] and how he directed The Thin Red Line, suddenly I realized there was a way to make it a movie that would be very different from what the play was. So I started writing it as a movie while I was working on The Thin Red Line.
TBN: I received that script while I was still working on The Thin Red Line and I thought, “I don’t want to be a part of this phenomenon of transposing Shakespeare plays into high school.” And yet this was a Shakespearean tragedy and in reading the script it struck me that not only did it work as a tragedy set in high school but that, at that time, when there was this raft of schoolyard shootings, it was the perfect place to set Othello in a sad and ironic way. I really wanted to do it. It wasn’t my idea, but it was a really good idea.
So I signed on and was lucky enough to work with this casting director, Avy Kaufman, who introduced me to this cast of great young actors who all, while I was editing the movie, became these big stars: Josh Hartnett and Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles. So the movie took on this commercial appeal that allowed us to sell it to the Weinsteins at Miramax while we were shooting it. Again, I feel very fortunate to have made the movie I wanted to make. That’s the one film I’ve made that’s been commercially successful. I’m proud of all three of the ones that have been released, but that’s the one that did well. While I was editing the movie, Columbine happened, which delayed its release for a while. Then it got released the week before September 11th, 2001.
Eye Of God (1997)—director
TBN: That was due to my brother Mike, who is a line producer and saw that as a play that I’d written up at Seattle Rep in 1995 and said, “Why don’t we make this a movie?” And I said, “Great. I’ll write it. Now we need to find a director.” And he said, “No, you’re going to direct it.” It was my brother Mike who gave me the confidence, some might call it hubris, to think I could direct movies. We went back to Oklahoma and made Eye Of God, which I encourage everyone to rent on Netflix because that is truly a low-budget independent film. That’s an experience everyone should go through for their first film, cutting corners and making things work on a tight schedule but gathering remarkable actors to help you tell a story. Martha Plimpton in that movie is exquisite.