Moving Pictures, Hard Questions

A film cycle from San Francisco's Tenderloin

It was a rare rainy night in Los Angeles. Filling up his tank at a local gas station, a man noticed the silhouette of another man, just beyond the gas station’s overhang, getting drenched. The two struck up a conversation. The second said he was a novelist, adding that he always carried his work with him. With that, his hand dripping, he brought out a small metal box from inside his jacket, filled with index cards. The first man began to finger his way through. But every card was the same: blank, except for one letter, the same letter, written in the middle of each card.

This may sound suspiciously like the opening scene from a movie, but it’s an event from the life of award-winning independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson ’61. The “novelist” in the story is Nilsson’s brother, Greg, a homeless man, who had gone missing more than 10 years prior to that rainy night in Los Angeles. The man who found him, a good Samaritan who would take Greg in, eventually located Rob Nilsson two years later.

At the time, Nilsson, a winner at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals, was running an acting workshop for street people and aspiring actors (some of the attendees were both) in a warehouse in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The continuing workshop has resulted in nine feature films, comprising the 9@Night cycle that was presented this past fall at the Harvard Film Archive. Using largely untrained actors and operating on a shoestring budget, Nilsson has burrowed into the shadows of the down and out: Need portrays the desperation of workers in the sex trade; Scheme C6 follows a charismatic homeless man, equipped only with a motorcycle, a toothbrush, and an ill-fated plan. In these films the scenes are unscripted and the dialogue improvised by the actors, though the director himself works from “story scenarios.”

Since his graduation from Harvard, Nilsson’s aspirations have shifted from poetry—he cites the Grolier Bookstore (see “Grolier Reincarnated,” November-December 2006, page 30) and the 1960s folk scene in Cambridge as early influences, along with a visit to Conrad Aiken, who was then living on Cape Cod—to painting (which he still pursues), to making movies. “Filmmaking, in the end, was the one thing where I could use all the other arts,” he says. After stints with the Peace Corps in Nigeria—where his interest in filmmaking began as a lark with friends—and as a cab driver in Boston, Nilsson gained public attention in 1979 with his very first feature film, Northern Lights. That low-budget drama, focused on the Nonpartisan League, a populist movement that rallied the farmers of North Dakota in 1916, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Nilsson was 40. After a fallow period, he released Heat and Sunlight in 1988, a portrayal of a faltering love affair that took the Grand Prize at Sundance.

As his films attest, Nilsson—who looks a little bit like a street version of Clint Eastwood—is less interested in art as escapism than in art that bears witness, that gives some sense of “the way the world seems to be.” And one inescapable part of that was his brother, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. In the early 1990s, driving through San Francisco’s Tenderloin every day on the way to his editing room, Nilsson couldn’t help but be reminded of his missing brother by the people he saw on the street corners. The district, heavily populated by drug addicts, sex workers, and the generally down and out, is typically described the same way as Nilsson’s films: gritty and raw. “It was probably an area I feared more than anything else, because I didn’t know not to be afraid of it,” he says. But he began to explore, to get out of his car, and to begin searching again for his brother.

At the time, the director was developing a film about a homeless Vietnam veteran, a role Danny Glover had signed on to play. To secure extras, Nilsson and two former students from film classes he’d taught at San Francisco State University created the Tenderloin workshop, recruiting participants primarily from halfway houses. But the movie fell through—Nilsson couldn’t get funding, and Glover took a role as a homeless man in another film. “So we had this ongoing workshop, which we were thinking was going to be preparing our secondary cast,” Nilsson says, “and it became the heart of our work for the next 14 years.”

Those films are often difficult to watch: the subject matter is grave, rarely leavened by humor, and the improvised scenes can hit dead ends. But other scenes are unforgettable. In Need, for instance, an aging prostitute, considering suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge, is interrupted by the headlights of a car at the bridge’s edge. She walks closer, into the lights, until she sees that the driver is not a cop, but simply a lonely man who has come to drive golf balls into the Bay. And it is unclear what is more painful—the mask of despair she has been wearing, or the momentary fracturing of that mask.

Also memorable is Chalk, a pool-hall story that features Nilsson’s brother, who came to live with the director in Berkeley after the good Samaritan call came from Los Angeles. “Never been a worse actor,” Nilsson says with humor and evident love. “We’re doing a scene, and he’s just watching it. We’re saying, ‘Greg, you’re in the scene.’”

Nilsson’s movies are not easy to find—distribution continues to be a challenge—but perhaps even less visible is the work he’s accomplished in the workshops themselves. “In the street,” he explains, “the thing that you have to give up first, because you have to protect yourself, is strong emotion.” Working with people who have often gone invisible, not just to others, but in fundamental ways to themselves, Nilsson asks the workshop participants to let go of some of their defenses, if only for a time, through acting exercises. “I’m not asking you for your life,” he says, “I’m asking you for the hate, or for the love—for the feeling.” While Nilsson admits his approach may be “a little Californian,” the workshops have led to some very powerful moments; and the emotion of those moments often carries into the films themselves.

The director can’t remember the letter his brother wrote on those index cards, but he says that, over the years, he’s always thought of it as Y. The small jump to the word “Why?” is not lost on him. And yet, movie after movie, Nilsson seems to be asking the more poignant question “How?” How do people, marginalized for whatever reason, manage to get along?


Howard Axelrod ’95 is writing a memoir.

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