Interview with Laurel Nakadate

by Cine-File contributor Kalvin Henely

Stay the Same Never Change
(Stay the Same Never Change)

Laurel Nakadate is a photographer/video artist. Her short videos are interesting cherry-bombs about the male-gaze, voyeurism, power dynamics between genders, and loneliness and heartbreak. STAY THE SAME NEVER CHANGE is her first film. She presented it on Monday at the Chicago Underground Film Festival after presenting her new film, THE WOLF KNIFE, at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier in the month.

KH: How did you start on making STAY THE SAME NEVER CHANGE?

LN: I was given a grant from a place in Kansas City called Grand Arts, and they asked me if I wanted to do a project in Kansas City, so that’s how it all started.

KH: Coming from a background in photography and fine art, how did you find the experience of making your first movie?

LN: It’s a completely different process working with a script, working on a set – working with a script or working with a large cast is really just an experience…not like the previous way of working for me…my earlier work was about going out into the world with one person and making it up as we go along whereas when I scripted the movie I had a strict set of story lines that I wanted to hit [...]. It’s a different sort of problem when you set out to tell a very specific story.

KH: Do you think that making the movie allowed you to explore themes or ideas in a way that you didn’t find possible before?

LN: I think movies, because they’re longer and there’s more time involved, I think there’s the possibility of saying things in a different sort of way than you can say them when you make short videos. The thing about a photograph is that it’s a perfect world in an 8×10 frame or 4×5 or whatever you’re shooting in, but the thing about a film is that it’s time based – it goes on and it goes on and it goes on and so. It’s a different set of tools that you’ve given, they’re completely different things…that’s hard to really compare them. They’re both perfect in their own way. I’m a believer that a photograph can say everything and it’s not necessary to even defend the photograph really because it’s just the perfect medium, but there’s something really lovely about time based work like film and certainly feature length film because you can describe an entire world in an hour and a half that can follow people and haunt people – that’s a really great thing.

KH: Why do you like to show STAY THE SAME NEVER CHANGE to audiences in the Midwest?

LN: Yeah, for me it’s about accessibility. I love being able to get the work in front of people who don’t necessarily live in New York or LA or places where it’s easier to see art, and I love that because it’s a film it can travel and it can go to places that maybe I can’t go to because of where I live or time or whatever and so there’s something great about having created something that can go out into the world and go out to places where people might not normally get to see art.

KH: Also, you grew up in the Midwest, in Iowa. So, you grew up in the Midwest, you made a movie about the Midwest, you’re showing it to the Midwest. Do you get something out of this?

LN: Yeah, it’s interesting because most Midwesterners who’ve seen it have really identified with some of the characters in the film. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after and say, “that was so much the sort of anxiety and feeling I had as a teenager growing up in the middle of nowhere.” That’s the greatest compliment for me because I created these characters and these stories around the idea that it is really uncomfortable and claustrophobic to be a teenager in the middle of nowhere, but there’s also great possibility and beauty in it. So, for me it’s a great compliment when people come up to me and say that they really identified with the story or that it was a feeling that they had had when they were a kid.

KH: Was this the first screening of the film in Chicago?

LN: It was, yeah, it was the Chicago premiere. It was really great. I’m really glad I finally got to show it in Chicago. It’s been one of those cities I’ve been waiting for.

KH: How was the reception?

LN: It was really great. We had a small crowd. It was a Monday night screening which is always kinda rough to get a really big audience out. We got a really nice core group of people who seemed to really enjoy it and every single person in the audience asked a question afterwards, it was a really long Q&A. It was really strange actually, we’re like “not that many people showed up…Monday night…rough ticket situation…,” but everyone who came stayed and asked questions and talked to us afterwards and was fully invested in the challenge of being there. I left feeling like it was an incredible screening and the theater was so beautiful, the Gene Siskel Film Center.

KH. I wanted to ask you about your choice to use music in your movie. It doesn’t seem like you use music much in your short videos besides, of course, your use of Brittany Spears [Nakadate did a series of videos where she danced to "Oops" by Brittany Spears while sharing the room with male strangers in their homes].

LN: I’ve used little bursts of music here and there and for me it was always about how I really loved pop music and so in the video art I would use pop music to speak about an emotional landscape or a shared connection or a cultural happening. That was sort of the way I used pop music in those very sort of emotional heartbreak ways, but I knew for the film I wanted the music to almost be an extra character and to really define the aural landscape of the film in a way that I was hoping to then cinematically define the visual landscape and have those two things work together. Owen [the singer songwriter behind Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, who did the soundtrack] worked really really hard to form that world and I think he succeeds and I was really fortunate that he was willing to work so hard on the soundtrack. In THE WOLF KNIFE [Nakadate's new film] there’s only like 4 songs so it’s really spare but in STAY THE SAME it’s really extensive.

Stay the Same Never Change
(Stay the Same Never Change)

KH: What do you think his music brought to the film?

LN: I think what’s so great about his music is that it really speaks about a sort of lonely heartbreak but also real optimism underneath all that sadness. We spoke a lot about what the theme song would sound like and I said I wanted it to sound really glittery and sparkly and sad like a prom in 1950s. The theme song is this little heart breaker and it just made it very clear to me that he is a genius when he sent that to me. We spent a lot of time sending files back and forth on iChat so he would compose stuff and iChat me things and I’d listen to it and iChat back. It’s funny because we ended up cutting the film and creating the soundtrack via a means that teenage girls would do it. It’s like this weird teenage girl movie and we’re sitting here and rocking the film via iChat.

KH: What kind of camera did you use?

LN: Canon XH A1, a digital video HD camera. It was kind of a brand new camera, looks like video but that made me happy. The Canon that I used for STAY THE SAME I didn’t get to keep, it was the non-profit’s camera [Grand Arts], but I used a similar camera to shoot THE WOLF KNIFE.

KH: What about for your videos?

LN: I’ve just been using a little consumer grade Sony, a PC1000 or something like that, but I think I’m gonna move to 5D. I think when I get back to NYC I’m gonna start shooting with something like that because I’m a still photographer, it makes total sense to be shooting with an SLR.

KH: As a photographer you had you’re influences, but when you decided to make films were there any directors or movies that influenced you?

LN: I’ve always loved Ozu. I think there’s something really beautiful about watching people move about the world and letting the world be slow when it needs to be slow. The act of observation is something that I’ve fallen in love with through photography and I think that Ozu’s films just speak so much about letting the world break your heart in a really patient way. I fell in love with photography when I saw the work of Diane Arbus and Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander and photographers who travel about the world looking at the world and trusting that it will be amazing and it might destroy them but it will be an amazing thing along the way and along that path maybe heartbreak and destruction. So, that’s my biggest influence is really photography and documentary photographers, but certainly Ozu when it comes to directors. If I could sit down and watch Ozu I could pretty much survive any post-root-canal-recovery possible. That’s definitely where I’d go for my comfort recovery movie-wise…certainly a major inspiration at all turns.

KH: Our contributor Ben Sachs reviewed your movie on our site. I wanted to ask you about the comparison he made between you and Rineke Dijkstra.

LN: If anyone compares her work to mine then I am deeply humbled. Her work is just incredible, it’s so much about just observing a person at a stage of their life when perhaps they just don’t want to look at themselves and perhaps the world ignores them and I think what’s so brilliant about that work is that it’s so simple but it haunts you.

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