Lights! Camera!! Direct Action Cinema!!!
Filmmaker Rob Nilsson, a chronicler of genuine human experiences, will share his techniques with students during a month-long campus residency

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



Director Rob Nilsson, a Pacific Film Archive Artist-in-Residence this month.
photo courtesy of Rob Nilsson

02 October 2002 | It was 1960 in New York City when Rob Nilsson, a student at Harvard, stumbled into a movie theater and saw his first John Cassavetes film, “Shadows.” Though almost accidental, the event changed his life forever.

“The movie was like an impressionistic painting,” says Nilsson of that epiphanic moment 40 years ago. “Instead of trying to present perfect images, like most movies I had seen, it was rough and textured — an unfiltered portrait of real human behavior.”

Though familiar as an actor, starring in blockbusters like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Dirty Dozen,” Cassavetes is most recognized for his groundbreaking independent films, such as “Faces” and “A Woman Under the Influence.” Compared to traditional Holly-wood fare, his character-driven stories seemed shockingly spontaneous and genuine.

“Cassavetes took a completely radical approach to filmmaking,” says Nilsson. “He built stories out of human circumstances. It was the process of life that fascinated him, and it fascinated me as well.”

Staying true to his inspiration, Nilsson has been making independent films for nearly two decades, using methods that try to mirror the way everyday life actually unfolds. He will share this expertise with the campus during October, serving as a Pacific Film Archive Artist-in-Residence.

While here, Nilsson — who’s won awards at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals — will introduce screenings of his own films as well as three Cassavetes movies. “I was fortunate enough to meet and learn from Cassavetes before his death in 1989,” Nilsson says. “We took long drives together and he’d talk to me about his process. He was such a great inspiration.”

Building upon what Cassavetes taught him, Nilsson’s own productions are highly improvisational: filming is done on the streets in the midst of real-life situations, using a mix of actors and “regular” people. Guiding his work are his principles of Direct Action Cinema, an approach that forgoes conventional scripts and dramatic structure, focusing instead on collaborative interpretations of feelings and experiences.

These principles will be imparted to film and art students on campus during a workshop Nilsson will conduct during his residency, during which the students will develop a film of their own. At the start of the process, Nilsson says, he’ll guide them through a series of relaxation and concentration exercises, enabling them to “dig through the layers and get in touch with themselves.” He wants them to re-connect with deep emotions or circumstances that they might have been compelled or even frightened by. Getting to this level, he avers, will enable them to reach what he calls “activated states of invention.”

Through discussion of these experiences, possible starting points for a film can be identified. Once an idea has been selected, the group will develop a scenario that includes descriptions of the film project’s concepts, scene order, and character suggestions.

Using Nilsson’s own camera, students will shoot over a four-day period. The guiding principles, says Nilsson, are to “film in the moment,” using no- or low-cost methods, with minimal waste of resources. “Instead of setting things up, I want them to be practical and, wherever possible, work with what’s already there.”

This style of filming is a very collaborative process, so each student will “do a little bit of everything,” says Nilsson, including shooting, co-directing, sound, acting, and evaluating locations.

Once shooting is finished, the group may gather other elements to incorporate into the movie, such as art, music or poetry. Then, depending on how much time students want to commit after the workshop ends, the film must be “massaged,” an editing process that can take up to a year or more.

“The film we produce may or may not end up as a final product,” he says. “It really depends on the kind of chemistry and energy that is generated during the workshop, and how willing folks are to see the project through to completion.”

The goal of the workshop, says Nilsson, is to provide a model that students can later use to produce these kind of films themselves. “I want to give them an avenue,” he says, “to create movies that show what’s really happening in the world.”

Nilsson’s films have spotlighted such dark topics as pool-hall hustling, sexual jealousy, the unfulfilled dreams of those living on the edge, and the debilitating affects of a stroke suffered by an aging poet.

But are audiences interested in this down-and-dirty, sometimes depressing depiction of life? Nilsson admits alternative cinema isn’t very popular with traditional filmgoers, most of whom prefer movies that transport them far away from everyday stresses and strains. But it is crucial to capture, dissect, and share life’s conflicts and experiences with others, he says.

“It does take more work on the viewer’s part,” says Nilsson, “but these films serve a very important purpose: to make people confront their own fears and discover valuable things about the people we share the world with.”

For a complete listing of Rob Nilsson and John Cassavetes films to be shown at the Pacific Film Archive during October, visit


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail