An Interview with Terrence Nelson, Film Director

An Interview with Terrence Nelson, Film Director

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Film and Video

Terrence Nelson was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. After studying film and video production at University of the Nations in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, he interned at Killer Films, an independent cinema company in New York City.

Mr. Nelson has written and directed four short films, and also worked on the upcoming feature films, all due for a 2001 release: "Series 7 - The Contenders" directed by Daniel Minahan (Premiere at Sundance Film Festival); "Last Word on Paradise" directed by Ethan Hawke; "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival); "Serendipity" directed by Peter Chelsom. Terrence is currently based in Toronto, developing his directorial debut feature, "Nicotine Pirates".

Additionally, he has written poetry and short stories, acted in film and theater, and performed throughout Canada and the United States.

Mr. Nelson & His Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks


Mr. Nelson & His Career How did you discover your talent for film and video?

Terrence Nelson: My dad is a film buff, and I was raised on John Wayne movies. We also had a VHS video camera that the family used on special occasions, and I often "borrowed" it to make my own little TV shows and movies with friends. Whether we were creating a parody of a certain show or movie we liked, or creating something completely original, I was always the director. No one seemed to mind, except for my parents who freaked out whenever they saw what I'd done to the house while shooting the movie!

How did your career unfold?

Well, truth be told, my career is just getting under way. I've been in the industry for just over a year now. So far, the key has been making the right choices in my work, coupled with a lot of initiative. As soon as I finished school, I secured an internship at a thriving production company. Since then, I've continued to find crew work on larger production, as well as shooting my own small short films on the side. It is all lending itself to the greater scheme of being able to direct my own feature film.

What has been your personal key to success?

The film industry can be intimidating. It's a big and broad field with a lot of people vying for the same piece of the pie. One of my lecturers in school could not stress enough that it takes a "bulldog tenacity" to be successful in the industry. I agree with that, but it all starts with your own creativity and passion. I have always been a storyteller, and I have a passion to reach people with those stories and make films that matter.

How has your experience in theater contributed to your success in film and video?

I was actually really surprised at the differences between telling a story on stage and telling a story on film or video. Theater and film have separate approaches to reaching the viewer's imagination. From the performance standpoint, however, I was able to try a lot of things as a stage actor in front of several different types of audiences. When directing actors now, I like to keep it loose and allow for improvisation. I owe that attitude to my experiences in theater.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

I've always been completely intrigued by the concept of capturing moving images, not to mention how fun it is entertaining people. Make 'em laugh, cry, or even angry, there's just something magical about it. I get to meet and work with people who just have this monstrous amount of creativity and energy, and it is contagious. Most of all, there is absolutely nothing like seeing an idea born in your head becoming something you can share with your family, friends, and the world. And they last forever.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I can't really think of anyone that I'm necessarily patterning myself after, but I have to admit that like some others my age, I decided that I wanted to make films for the rest of my life after watching Pulp Fiction. Tarantino definitely left an impression on me. Martin Scorcese's movies have their own particular intense style. As far as I'm concerned, Wes Anderson is one of the most inventive and brilliant storytellers out there right now. Spike Jonze made the jump from directing music videos to features, quite successfully I might add. I draw inspiration from innumerable directors by specifically watching the direction in their movies. The more films you watch, the better understanding you have of the medium.

You're currently working on your directorial debut. How important is this to you, personally, and to your career? How did it move from concept to reality?

Until you're actually shooting the picture, it's all concept. The idea started in my head, swam around up there for about a year, and ended up on paper a short while later. After that there are rewrites of rewrites and more rewrites, then it's all about trying to get others to help you get the thing made, whether by craft or with finances.

As far as how important this project is to myself, it's huge! All of my stories mean a lot to me on a personal level. I want my stories to mean something to others as well, which is one of the main reasons it is important to my career. Nobody wants to make a feature that someone else is not going to want to watch.


The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

That all depends on which hat I'm wearing! I've directed four very small short films so far, and my job began at the conception of the story and ended once the final editing of the footage was done. I had complete creative control, from choosing locations for filming, casting, selecting or composing music, and editing.

However, if you work in a crew on a feature film, it's different. Each person on the set is almost like part of a greater organism, and the director is the brain. The first film I worked on I was as a Production Assistant (PA), very much an entry-level position. In her book, "Shooting to Kill", Christine Vachon refers to PA's as the "circulatory system" of a film set. My job ranged anywhere from getting coffee for the crew to assisting the camera department on set ups, running all over the countryside to acquire an item needed on set, or locking up traffic to allow time for a shot on a busy street. It can be a taxing duty, but it's a great way to become familiar with how a film shoot operates. A good PA will be on their feet all day, coming into contact with pretty much every department on the set.

I've been a Director's Assistant, which is almost like being the boss' personal PA. It involves scheduling and facilitation, and generally reminding the director that there is a world going on outside the set.

Recently, I was an Assistant Director (AD) for a couple days on another film. I was responsible for directing extras (background) on a busy street scene. Job description: "Keep all background together between takes, and be sure they all move on cue." What I really felt like was a shepherd! People were moving all over the place between set-ups, running off to the restroom without telling anyone, and sometimes completely missing their cues. It's not so bad; you just have to be able to shout louder than a megaphone at times.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

I don't care if it is a cliché: there is no such thing as a typical day on a film set! Perhaps to best illustrate this, I can describe my first day on my first feature film. I was given a 14 foot cube truck that was rented by the production to collect and deliver props and equipment to set. Manhattan is one of the world's most intimidating cities to have to drive in the entire world to begin with! I was hauling around over $250, 000 worth of paintings destined for the Chelsea Hotel during rush hour, and it was Christmas shopping season to boot!

After making it to set safe and sound, I had the opportunity to do set decoration for the shoot later in the evening. I was setting up instruments for Wilco, who by coincidence happen to be my favorite American band, as they were to play live music for the scene we were shooting. The band showed up and everyone was hanging out, and the lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, strummed a couple of my requests on an acoustic guitar.

Later on, after more back-breaking equipment hauling, it was time to roll. I was called upon to be an extra in the scene we were filming, a 70's- style lounge scene with a band and cocktail waitress at Serena, a bar next door to the Chelsea Hotel. After a long, exhilarating day of traffic, heavy weightlifting, and "first day on the job" jitters, it was nice to kick back, appear in a movie, watch Wilco play a private intimate set and have Heinekens served to me by no other than Uma Thurman (she was playing the waitress). It turned out to be one of the most exciting days of my life! I may be romanticizing, but on an independent picture, it's safe to say you have no idea what to expect in the day ahead of you.

Is it important to collaborate with your colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

It is essential for all departments on a production to create a team dynamic and collaborate. If even one aspect of the product you make is faulty, it can throw off the atmosphere you're trying to create completely. The better people work together, the better the final result will be.

For me, I have been fortunate in my fledgling career to have met and worked with a great many people with superior talents in their respective fields. Without delving into name-dropping, I can safely say that because I have been co-operative and friendly with colleagues in all facets of the productions I have worked on, I have become exposed to a world of future collaboration potential with people whose talent and experience go beyond my comprehension. That goes for actors, actresses, cinematographers, production and costume designers, and so on. It is an incredibly exciting notion.

What are some common myths about your profession?

The glamour. Movie premieres, award shows, magazine spreads, it's very wonderful and magical and has NEXT TO NOTHING to do with the film industry. If you go into it thinking it's going to be all wine and roses, you will be infinitely disappointed. We work long days, eat catered but temperamental food, and things can go frustratingly wrong all the time. There is a lot of pressure to make your day, and people are known to bicker. You can take the strenuous nature two ways: you can let it cave you in, or you can laugh through it and look forward to the end of the picture, when all the hard work has paid off. I choose the latter.


Education Information & Advice

What is your degree in? What did you like and dislike about your film and video education?

I was certified at the University of the Nations, a small Christian institution on the Big Island of Hawaii, film and video production. I received a lot of great filmmaking theory, film history, industry lecturers and, of course, a lot of hands-on production. In this time, I made three short films, produced one commercial, and almost drowned in the Pacific one fateful afternoon. What I really enjoyed about the school was the wealth of technical information: understanding and measuring light intensity, photo composition, storyboarding, audio levels, film stock, and so on. Schooling didn't change my perception of how to make films, it just became a platform on which I could test my ability and truly find out if this type of thing was for me. By the time it was finished, I was more excited about film than when I had gotten there in the first place.

If there were anything I disliked, I would have to say that almost nothing can prepare you for being on the job in film. When you are a student making a student film, you have all the ambition and zeal in the world, and I was convinced that I was going to make the greatest movie in history. You instantly compare yourself and your style to an established Hollywood filmmaker and set your expectations a bit high. Personally, with no budget and no professional actors and a very small crew, I felt my projects did not live up to what I had hoped. I can still look back and be proud of what I did with what I had, but one must remember the large difference between making a film for grades as opposed to making a film for profit points.

In any career, the best way to get a feel for the field you are in is to get out there and learn hands-on. Nothing could have prepared me for this career better than living as an office intern, and then making the jump to the set. I was exposed to both production and principal photography in "real life". Now, I feel confident enough to get out there and run my own set, because I know how a set operates. But, of course, aren't we always still learning?

How can prospective art students assess their skill and aptitude for film and video?

I think it's natural. Some people have it in them from a young age, through performing and entertaining, or having a natural ability to tell a story. A lot of people test their interest in the genre and play around with little experimental films, ones that often don't have a narrative or are completely unconventional. I have some friends whose primary interest does not lie in film and video, but they are keen on helping me with my own films. I think someone with an aptitude for filmmaking just knows it. It's not quite as simple as having a good singing voice and deciding you want to be a rock star (I ruled that one out some time ago). It's just knowing that you have something to say in a particular way and knowing that out there, someone will enjoy it. It seems now, more than ever, there are festivals and demonstrations featuring every possible type of movie there is to see.

Must a film and video professional also be a gifted artist? What are the specialties within the field?

Anyone with creativity can find a happy home in the film and video industry. People who enjoy building, sculpting, carpentry and painting can find plenty of work in set design and decorating. Folks with an eye for fashion and costuming can design and shop for shows. Production designers, who by the way have one of the most difficult but rewarding jobs in the industry, are simply people with a strong eye for detail and color. They capture the writer and director's vision and create the atmosphere of the entire movie before an inch of film is shot. Composers and musicians are called upon to score the project, as music is crucial to add the perfect touch when called upon. Animators, despite a sometimes long and arduous road to a finished product, are finding new ways to dazzle audiences in alternative environments and worlds.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an art school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in film and video?

Research, and lots of it. It is always best to test the temperature of the water before jumping in. There are a lot of specialized training centers out there, you just have to know what it is you want from your training. If you just want to study film and video for fun, there are several schools that offer evening courses in continuing education, or semester programs at community college. Of course, if television broadcasting or film is your calling, there are three and four year degree programs available at community college and university.

As a native Canadian, what factors influenced you to go to school for film and video in Hawaii?

My comedy troupe was performing at a convention in Colorado a few years ago, and I saw some information on this school in Hawaii. I had already been shopping around locally in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada for a good program that wouldn't take four years to complete. After a few months of research through mail, Internet, and word of mouth, I decided to apply. I found the price to be comparable or even better than most of the programs up here in Canada, and I mean, hey! This is Hawaii we're talking about!

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious film and video schools, departments or programs?

I know the Tisch School of Arts at NYU has a very reputable program with an infinite amount of successful alumni. I met and worked with several NYU film students while I was in New York, and they were very pleased with the course. University of Southern California has a great program in Los Angeles, and also University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In the US, you don't have to go to the east or west coast to find a good film program, as there are other universities and specialized institutes that can offer a quality school.


Job Information & Advice

Who are three of the most renowned film and video professionals in the world right now? How did they get to the top of the profession?

That's a tough question to answer. It all depends on what department of the industry you are talking about. Steven Spielberg, for all his success, could be considered one of the most respected and lauded directors in the world. I'm sure that if he wanted to make a movie about people blowing their noses, people would back him because he's Steven Spielberg. He started out like anyone else, making movies as a kid, and keeping that passion right through to adulthood. I may not like a lot of his films, but I respect him for what he is: a great director. With Jeffery Katzenburg and David Geffen, Spielberg has created something of a small empire with Dreamworks.

Steven Soderbergh has suddenly become a director everyone wants to work with. He started out making small independent films that were very well received, such as "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." In the past two years, he has made the jump to studio pictures, like "Out of Sight", "Erin Brockovich", and "Traffic". He just has a unique way of telling a story in a stylish manner. The films may not always be commercially successful, but credit from within the industry goes a long way.

I suppose it would be fair to say that actors have a lot of power in the industry, too. People like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and yes, even Adam Sandler have the ability to get a project green-lit by the studio just because their names are attached.

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of this profession paid?

This is one of the only industries I know of where salaries are published in the newspapers almost every day. We all know that Jim Carrey makes between $20 and $25 million on each picture. Directors on even small budget features can make upwards of $100,000. Often with producers, directors, and key cast members, there are percentage points on the gross receipts. It all varies, but even entry level crew members are paid enough to get by, and pretty much everyone makes a decent living, to say the least.

How did you land your internship at Killer Films in New York? What did you do and how important was this experience for your career?

While I was in Hawaii, I did a paper on a book by Christine Vachon entitled, "Shooting to Kill", which is about how an independent film producer "blasts through the barriers" to make films that matter. I had never heard of Killer Films, but I was very familiar with their catalogue: Kids, Velvet Goldmine, I Shot Andy Warhol, Happiness, Boys Don't Cry, and so on. The school called to find out if any internships were available for the coming autumn. After finding out that there were, my resume' was sent to New York, and after I arrived back in Canada I had an over-the-phone interview. I guess they liked me and I was in.

I knew an internship was what I needed for my next step after school, and I could have chosen to go to Los Angeles to land an internship at a studio. However, I really wanted to get the most hands-on experience possible out of the deal. I wanted to be exposed to as much of the business as possible, and hopefully land a job on a film set. I figured that I would have the best opportunity to do this at a smaller independent company, like Killer. Fortunately, it worked out exactly that way.

For the first couple months I worked as on office PA. This entailed lots of photocopying (scripts), running all over Manhattan delivering and picking up miscellaneous items, script coverage, receptional stuff, and so on. Before long, I was doing some daily Production Assistant work on a movie, then I landed a full time gig on another Killer project. By the time the internship had ended, I went back to Canada with a paying gig on a film shooting in Toronto. My expectations were met and exceeded. The internship was instrumental in getting my feet wet in the industry.

Generally speaking, how available are internships in film and video?

If you live in New York or LA, there are always internships available. Those two cities house most entertainment companies in the country, and most of those companies are looking for people to do some dirty work for free in exchange for some valuable marketplace experience and paying job potential. In Canada, internships aren't quite as easy to obtain as in the US. I don't understand it: it is a really beneficial agreement for all parties concerned!

How is the job market now in the film and video industry? How do you think it will be in 5 years?

As stated earlier, there are a lot of jobs out there, but there are also loads of people looking out for those jobs. If you have initiative and you know how to find work, you can get it. There are unions out there for specific job titles in the industry. The grips have a union, still photographers have a union, directors have a union. If you pay into them, you can get work that way. I don't see this changing over the next few years. You would be surprised how set in its own lovely ways the film and video industry can be.


Industry Trends

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of film and video which could help students plan for the future?

The hot topic in the past couple of years has been the arrival of digital video. A lot of very established filmmakers have experimented with the format, and have seen success. Mike Figgis, director of "Leaving Las Vegas", tried an improvised digital film called "Time Code", which played four separate scenes on screen simultaneously in real time. George Lucas is shooting the next two installments of the Star Wars "prequilogy" (I just made that word up) on high definition digital video. Film purists downplay the whole thing and say it's a fad, but more and more people are latching on to it. There is a new independent company in New York called Madstone, which is designed to birth a new breed of filmmakers using nothing but films shot on digital. I have worked on a digital feature, and I am very curious to see how it will turn out.

What specialized computer programs do film and video professionals typically use? How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?

When it's time to take the mostly-finished project to script, the industry standard software is called "Final Draft", but there are several fine computer programs out there for screenwriters. If I'm shooting a film on digital video, I've used "SONY DV-CAM" and "Mini-DV". Most people in the industry use Mac Computers for editing, and I was trained on AVID, the premier industry software for digital, non-linear editing. I've also used "Adobe Premiere", which is a fine format for a tighter budget. "Final Cut" is a popular editing software that almost anyone can learn to use fairly quickly.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

To a degree, I suppose. Obviously, smaller-time filmmakers have the opportunity to distribute their work to an audience that simply clicks a button to see the show. Information on films is available at a host of sites. Studios have altered their marketing strategies a bit, but the Net really hasn't put a dent in anything. It just gives people who otherwise wouldn't be heard a chance to speak.


Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in film and video?

I'm constantly moving on to bigger and better things, but I'm still a student out here. I won't take a job on a film just because it's work. I have to connect with the script I'm reading. Like everything in life, there's no point doing a job if you don't like what you're doing. I still like to get away from the commotion of a big set and do my own little films, where I get creative control.

As I further develop my debut feature, Nicotine Pirates, I want to choose who I work with carefully. I want to feel comfortable with what I'm doing and who I'm doing it with. The film industry is a big and intimidating field, and you have to choose allies wisely. Most of all, in the craziness of the biz and the whirlwind that ensues when you start meeting and working with new people every three to six months, you have to keep yourself humble, grounded, and remember who you are at all times. Now, please excuse me, I'm off to go meet Tom Cruise and munch on some cavi-ah!

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