Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Nelson Vicens
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Since graduating from Temple University, Minnesota-born and Pennsylvania-bred Nelson Vicens has carved out a career as cinematographer while creating his own work. Made after a two-year break from writing and directing, experimental short OPUS follows a painter struggling to complete a piece who’s tormented by inner demons.
PFS: When did you start making films?
NV: I’ve been making movies since I was like five. Pretty much since my parents let me borrow the family camera. I was making movies on Windows Movie Maker and Adobe Premiere Elements. I guess I started to get more serious about making movies when I was in high school. I made a kung fu thing called Monkey Paw. It was dubbed over, so the lips moved weirdly, and it had all these funny sound effects and fight scenes. It was framed like a TV show so there were little fake commercials selling Christmas carols and liposuction. I showed it in one of my science classes, and the teacher liked it so much that he showed it to all his classes. Shout out to Mr. Palme. In the hallways people started going, “I want to be in your next film,” and, “Oh my God, I like your movie.” So, Monkey Paw became an epic trilogy. I guess that was kind of my way of connecting with people, because I was such an outsider. I live in the forest, I should probably let you know that. I’m pretty isolated from any neighborhood. It’s always just been me, and the trees, and movies. That was my way of reaching out, I guess.
PFS: What was your experience studying film at Temple like?
NV: It almost debilitated me, in a sense. I look at the people who didn’t know as much as I did back then, and they’re so much further ahead than me because they’ve made connections and worked in the industry, while I just kept focusing on my own isolated stuff. I have a lot of social anxiety so talking to people about normal non-weird stuff can be difficult, especially back then. And filmmaking is a very social activity. So I had an odd college experience. I commuted for three years, and the one year I lived on campus I was a hermit. I pretty much stayed inside, did my studies, read books, and only went to a few parties. I know Temple’s a big party school, but it really felt more like a breeding ground for people who just wanted to bang. And that was definitely not my scene. Looking back, I think I definitely could have been more social. But nobody was doing the kind of content I was interested in. Now, after a few years bartending, working construction and dabbling with the nine-to-five life, I’ve started to work more in the industry, which is cool.
PFS: So, when you say you live in the forest, you mean that you literally live in the forest?
NV: Yeah, I’m actually walking right now back and forth on my favorite tree. It’s this tree that fell down a few years ago. It’s really an enchanting tree. It’s where a lot of my ideas came from: just walking back and forth on this tree, thinking about characters and worlds. I think walking is great for coming up with ideas. When the Ancient Japanese would build their gardens, instead of sidewalks or little paths, they had rocks placed in positions so that you had to be mindful of where your foot was going to be. You always had to be present. That’s kind of what I like about this tree. I’m in another world, but at the same time I have to make sure I have the balance not to fall off. That’s also maybe why I’m a little out of breath right now.
NV: Well it’s interesting, because right now, my favorite medium is probably graphic novels. I’ve been reading and watching movies my whole life, but graphic novels I only got into two or three years ago. It’s a whole world; a completely different medium, really. I love it. If I could right now, I’d be more excited about making a graphic novel than a movie. But I don’t draw. I’m not a painter or anything like that. That being said, right now, I write more short stories than I do movies. Making movies, you need a lot of people. You need a lot of money. But writing a short story, all you need is a bottle of Jack, a few cigarettes, and your computer. OPUS is actually the first film I’ve both written and directed in two years or so.
PFS: Tell me more about OPUS and where that idea came from.
NV: I had this vision. It came to me as a dream and I saw the whole film in my head. I woke up, and I went outside right here on this tree, and I started thinking about all the images I’d just seen. Normally I’ll get visions for a story, and then I’m like, “How do I get to that point? How do I tell this story? How am I going to write this script?” But with this movie it was so short. There was no script for OPUS, I just drew everything out, storyboarded, you know, and then shot it. After I shot it, I put it together in the way I’d originally planned, and it just did not work. It wasn’t at all what I saw in my head. It was a really big lesson for me to realize that no matter what, even if you get exactly the images in your head, nothing’s going to work out exactly as you pictured it. With OPUS, I took a screenshot of every shot, printed them out, then put them on a board. Then I sat back and said, “This image can go here. This image can go there.” I pretty much chopped the hell out of that film. It became a completely different beast that I wasn’t expecting. It kind of grew organically that way. I think I must’ve exported this film 100 times before the final version.
PFS: Who’s the lead actress?
NV: The actress is actually my sister, Lucia. We’ve been making movies since we were little. She’s also an artist and painted all the paintings in the film. Actually, there’s a funny story behind that. I’d asked her to paint something for a film and told her what I was picturing. And I said, “The only thing is, when you’re done, the whole thing’s going to be covered in white. There’s going to be a big white splatter all over it.” She was like, “Oh ok, that’s cool.” Then she finished the painting and loved it. She was very proud of it. When I said it was time to cover it in white paint she was like, “Noooo!” She got really mad at me. She couldn’t bring herself to do it, so I had to do it. I felt like this evil villain grabbing a white paint bucket and just tossing it all over one of her favorite paintings. But then she saw it in the film and thought it was totally worth it. I think. I hope.
PFS: The music and sound design play such an important part in the film. How did that come about?
NV: So much of the film I owe to Greg Klein. He was actually my roommate at Temple. He makes music, and he’s also an artist. I reached out to him because he had helped me out with some projects in college where he did the sound design and it blew my mind. I brought him onto this, and let me tell you, we went through I don’t even know how many different versions of this film. I edited while the sound was coming together so it was very back and forth. He’d come up with something, and then I’d be like, “Oh, well I love that, but it doesn’t work with what I have. I have to change what I’ve got.” I’d change what I had, and then he’d be like, “Oh, well, now I have to change this up a little bit.” So we kind of went piece by piece until we had the whole thing put together. It was very much like a pendulum swinging back and forth, trying to find that balance. In retrospect, I think we went mad for a couple months trying to figure out how to put together this random collection of images. It really was just bad planning but we were making it work. Experimenting. I guess that’s why they call it experimental films. The story of the film is pretty much a documentary of what it was like trying to make it, but in the end I think it came together really well.
PFS: Why do you think you were compelled to tell this a story?
NV: I’ve wondered about that. I have crazy dreams, and a lot of my ideas come from my dreams. I’ve dreamt about an artist going ham on a canvas before. To me, OPUS is about anybody who has grand, lofty goals for themselves and for their art. They want to create something long-lasting, and beautiful, and larger than themselves. But it paralyzes them. I spent many years not pulling the trigger on projects that would’ve been great, solely because I felt like I wasn’t ready or I didn’t have the right materials. To me, it’s kind of a cautionary tale about getting lost in listening to that voice. To me, the demonic voice in the film that says “Complete me” wasn’t even the piece of art talking; it was death. It’s the struggle against death to create something beautiful before you’re gone. And the pressure that it creates. But it’s an unnecessary pressure, really. At the end of the day it’s better to create and do your best, and not be paralyzed by fear. I think that she destroys the work of art at the end with the white paint because in a sense she’s giving up. That’s why the hand is there at the end: signifying that she succumbed to death. And art didn’t get made. But despite all that, if you watch it you don’t have to get all these grand ideas. I hope that you just feel something. If you just feel the struggle of what it’s like to try to create something extraordinary, that’s enough for me.
PFS: I think that definitely comes across. Before we wrap up, is there anything you’re working on now (film-related or otherwise)?
NV: I’m working on a few things, but I guess the thing I’d like to plug is I’m directing a film in October. Throughout my career I’ve been making very strange, very experimental, very loose stories that kind of challenge the medium of film. I’ve been trying to tear up all the rules, but I never bothered to read the rules. I wanted to rip apart the three-act structure, you know? But then after making OPUS I went so far from the norm I boomeranged back and was like, “Oh wait, so what were those rules about?” So, I spent a summer studying story and learning the fundamentals. Right now, I’ve started working on a film called Mrs. Barton’s Famous Cakes. I’m writing and directing it with a friend and collaborator of mine, Jared Hirsch. It’s the first time I’ve focused on telling a more traditional tale. It’s a dark comedy disguised as a thriller, and we are shooting it and writing it in the style of old Twilight Zone episodes. It’s got a lot of suspense, and it’s very interesting trying to hit those beats. Before, I didn’t care so much what the audience thought, I just wanted to make them feel things. But their feelings were up to them. more like Hitchcock. He said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” I’m trying very hard to make sure that I’m in control of what the audience is thinking. I’m really excited about it.
OPUS screened on Thursday, September 13 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.