‘Nostalgia’: 10 Questions with Mark Pellington

❉ Director Mark Pellington spoke with We Are Cult about his latest motion picture, Nostalgia, and his artistic process.

Eclectic filmmaker Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, I Melt with You, The Last Word) can’t be pinned down. Able to shift from action thrillers to intense dramas, he’s a gifted visual stylist with a deep music video background, while also a storyteller who is interested in full-bodied characters and narratives that offer unexpected grace notes and surprises.

His latest motion picture, Nostalgia, is a contemplative and emotionally rigorous film, and as such, won’t be an easy movie for everyone to experience. Told in the aesthetic key of current-phase Terrence Malick (minus all of the wide-angle lensing) but feeling tethered to something more universal and tangible, this is a defiantly artistic piece of independent filmmaking, and as such, it will evoke many different responses from those who encounter it.

It also seems highly personal for both Pellington and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry; they both collaborated on the story which was inspired by a New York Times article, and then Perry wrote the script. The star-studded cast includes Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, John Ortiz, Catherine Keener, James Le Gros, Bruce Dern, Joanna Going, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Annalise Basso, Patton Oswalt, Beth Grant, and many others, all of whom were clearly attracted to the ultra-intense characters and the poetic yet forceful dialogue provided to them. The multi-layered yet very much cohesive story revolves around some depressing themes of loss, and cycles characters in and out of the action like the passing of a cinematic baton.

Nostalgia asks some heavy questions: What are the items that you would attempt to save from a fire, and how does sudden loss affect the human psyche? And what of our connection to objects from our past, and how those objects inform the present and the future? These are ruminations that many of us have likely pondered once or twice in our lifetimes, but these items are tough to dwell over, because of the inherent sadness of losing everything you value in the face of catastrophe. Nostalgia‘s POV shifts from person to person, with the connections from character to character feeling refreshingly organic for a template such as this.

And then there’s the visual style of Nostalgia, and the way that light plays with a room, or the way that color and texture bounce off of objects and surfaces, which helps to create an almost ethereal feel. This is a work, similar to Pellington’s polarizing drama I Melt With You, that goes to some extreme places of human pain while delivering breathtaking visuals – it’s an aggressive combination to be sure. After recently premiering at the Palm Springs Film Festival, Nostalgia is now playing in limited theatrical release, and Pellington spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about the film and his artistic process.

Mark Pellington. Photo by Rich Polk – © 2017 Getty Images.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Mark. I’m such a fan of your work and this is one of your finest achievements yet. What’s it been like showing the film to audiences?

Pellington: Thanks, Nick. Yeah, you know, we had a screening just last night, and it was fantastic. People are going to have a lot of different opinions about this film, be it critics or just regular audiences who are looking for something a bit more challenging. This is getting tougher and tougher as we progress through the years. Cinema is a subjective art form and what works for one person doesn’t work for others. I don’t think it’s going to be as polarizing as I Melt With You, but honestly, you can never truly figure it out. As a filmmaker I’m driven by my passions and the stories that I feel that demand to be told, and Nostalgia is something I’m extremely proud to have made. I had a person come up to me recently and say that they hadn’t been affected by an American movie as much as they had been by Nostalgia since they’d seen Magnolia. That’s enough praise for me.

Wow, and that’s funny, because there’s a Paul Thomas Anderson element to Nostalgia that I wanted to ask about – those colorful and expressionistic visual motifs you used for the scene transitions. They reminded me of what PTA did in Punch-Drunk Love. Was that an inspiration?

Pellington: To tell you the truth, I still haven’t seen Punch-Drunk Love! So I can’t compare what he did, but for us, those visual bits were a happy accident. A camera had been left on by mistake, and we were going through dailies one day, and we saw all of these light-streaming and visual texture and weren’t quite sure what had happened, let alone thinking of using it. In the first edit, we used a lot of cut-to-blacks with the character’s names on screen as a way of moving the narrative forward, but that wasn’t working for me. My editor called me over and showed me how these little bursts of visual energy could be used to propel the narrative. It had never connected with me to do this until the very end. I had an immediate emotional response to seeing it spliced in, and I absolutely love how it came out.

What was the impetus for Nostalgia?

Pellington: I’d read an article in the New York Times called “Nostalgia – What’s It Good For?” and it really struck a chord with me. I filed it away in my various files, and kept coming back to it, thinking the article might inspire some experimental music videos, like my recent project, Lone.  I also became very intrigued with the Greek word for “nostalgia,” which roughly translates to “long for home,” and I read about how the term was coined in reference to soldiers who were returning home from war, afflicted with PTSD. We’re always nostalgic for something, and we always feel that things were better in the past than they are in the present. So I started to think of it as this big idea collage, with poems and song lyrics   and letters and spiritual notes and visual bits that inspired me on the basis of the article.

How much of your personal life is contained within the confines of Nostalgia?

Pellington: There are many aspects to the foundation of the story that I very much feel in line with on an emotional level, and I think the themes that we discuss in the film are universal, whether or not critics or audience members want to explore those more sensitive areas. But yes, this is a personal film – how could it not be? It was made because everyone wanted to make it, and it certainly wasn’t made as any sort of grand financial statement. Everyone who helped to cover production costs has gotten their money back, which makes me happy. But this was one of those blood, sweat, and tears type situations where I just had to get out there and make the picture that I wanted to make. And I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.

What was it like working with Alex Ross Perry?

Pellington: It was a great experience. I wanted to reach out to one of the least sentimental cinematic voices I could find, and I contacted Alex through Facebook, and we got to know each other a bit over some conversations. I asked him if he wrote material for other people and he said he did, so I gave him my pitch and he was intrigued. We worked on the idea over a few phone calls, we made a deal, and six weeks later he brought back a wonderful script.

Were you ever concerned about people’s willingness to give such a sad story the chance it deserves?

Pellington: I can’t ever worry about what people are going to like or not like, or how they’re going to respond to something. Art is a subjective thing, and I’ve had to balance out the more polarizing responses some of my work has received with the fact that I know I’ve made an impact on many viewers. Art should challenge people to think in different terms so it’s always a question of how willing people are to take a specific journey with you. Hollywood is all about power issues and getting people to say “Yes” on many levels in order to get something accomplished. To set a film like Nostalgia in motion, you have to believe in it and take a micro-budget approach to it in order to get it made.

I got a major Terrence Malick vibe from this picture. Was Joanna Going’s casting because of your love of her from The Tree of Life?

Pellington: I’m a huge fan of The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life and I met Terry a long time ago, and he was so gracious to me in terms of bestowing some advice which I’ve never forgotten. There are passages in the Tree of Life that left be bewildered and I think it’s a glorious work. He stated to lose me a bit with To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, as I think the narratives didn’t involve me as much as they involved him. And he’s someone who is working with big stars and making extremely personal projects. As far as Joanna, she’s a personal friend and neighbor, and I needed someone who could come in quick and nail it and she did. She’s great and I love when I see her on screen.

How important is color to you? You’re in intensely visual filmmaker, and I’ve noticed in recent efforts that the level of color in your work is striking. Did you shoot on film, because it looks like you did?

Pellington: Color helps to define mood and texture, and those are big things for me as a filmmaker. I’m very much of the notion that cinema should show you as much possible with images, and I’m attracted to a more experimental narrative approach, where the characters and themes are upfront, and it’s less about plot and the mechanics of A to B to C. My style is non-linear and structure is more personal to me in the sense that, of late, I’m not trying to be as plot driven. And these colorists, they’re amazing at their jobs, and they can do things in post to alter the mood or context of a shot or scene in a way you can’t achieve on set. We shot in anamorphic digital, and I haven’t shot on film in years. My cinematographer Matt Roe, who shot second unit on I Melt With You, did an amazing job.

What was it like working with that cast? It seems like on each new shooting day you’d be interacting with some major acting talent.

Pellington: At the end of the day, they’re just people and they are there to collaborate with one another, especially on a project like this. We could never have gotten this cast had they not fully believed in the material and made the commitment we were asking of them. They knew their roles and how they were going to play them, and when you have people of this caliber you trust their instincts and you wait to watch the magic unfold. And it really helps when the material speaks to the actor on a personal level, and they’ve all made up their minds to be a part of something independent like this.

What do you want the audience to pull from the experience of watching Nostalgia?

Pellington: I want people to know that they’re not alone in this world. They may think they are, but they aren’t. But I could never guess how people will respond to anything I’ve made. Nostalgia is something I hope that will linger in the viewer’s mind for a bit longer than normal, and I want people to access anything they can from within themselves by experiencing the film.

❉ ‘Nostalgia’ opened in US theatres February 16, 2018. Running time 114 min. Director: Mark Pellington. Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry (Story: Mark Pellington, Alex Ross Perry). Cast: Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener, Bruce Dern, Amber Tamblyn, Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn, Patton Oswalt, Mikey Madison, Annalise Basso, Dendrie Taylor, Joanna Going, James Legros, Arye Gross. Distributed by Bleecker Street.

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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