Young artists in the Ringling College Digital Filmmaking Studio Lab recently received a visit from filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson. A seasoned character actor known best for his portrayal of the dim-witted Delmar in the Coen Brothers’ O’ Brother Where Art Thou? and with memorable turns in films ranging from Oscar-winners such as Lincoln and blockbusters like The Incredible Hulk, Nelson has carved out a successful career in Hollywood while making time for his own projects, including his 1997 writing and directorial debut Eye of God and 2009’s Leaves of Grass, which starred Edward Norton in dual roles.
Recently wrapped on his latest film, Anesthesia – which Nelson wrote, directed and also stars in – Nelson stopped by Ringling to meet the students, share stories and guest-instruct, workshopping scenes with budding artists. Before sitting with students, Nelson took a moment with SRQ to talk Anesthesia, the importance of education and why he loves James Franco.
“We just had a very impressive tour,” Nelson began, sitting down. “It’s remarkable how the school has ascended so rapidly in national recognition.” Soft-spoken and sipping his tea, Nelson comes across more as a college professor than someone likely to have George Clooney’s phone number in his pocket. He hadn’t met the students yet, apart from the odd spotting and handshake, but the campus alone made an impression. “The facilities are incredible in terms of what you’re providing here,” said Nelson. “I’m envious.”
However, it was in reaching back to his days as a student in graduate school in New York that Nelson found inspiration for Anesthesia. Starring Sam Waterston (Law & Order, The Newsroom) and Kristen Stewart (Twilight, Snow White and the Huntsman), the film follows the intersection of strangers brought together when a college professor is attacked and seeks refuge in a nearby apartment building, ringing buzzers and hoping for help. As a student, Nelson lived in a very similar building.
“I would sit often and just listen to what was going on out in the street and I wondered what would happen if one witnessed some violent episode over one of those intercoms,” said Nelson. It’s not an autobiographical film, but Nelson won’t deny that much of his own life did go into the story. Grown and a father, he wanted to explore marriage and family, just as he wanted to honestly reflect New York, where he made his home for 20 years. Still, he was careful not to force anything. “The story just built itself,” said Nelson. “That’s the way I write – I choose a central event and build from there.”
Though his writing may come organically, mastering his craft as an actor has been the result of years of dedication and training. Never counting on being cast for his looks, Nelson says, he focused on learning as much as he could, and never stopped.
“Education has been essential for the type of actor I wanted to be,” said Nelson. “For certain types of actors, it’s not important at all, I just didn’t happen to be one of those types of actors.” Classically-trained, Nelson cut his teeth on the works of playwrights such as Shakespeare and Shaw. As a character actor, he could be called upon to play a hotshot scientist in a blockbuster film one moment and a backwoods bumpkin in an indie period piece the next. His ability to inhabit different characters and understand their place in time is his bread and butter. “To do what I had my training for, you’ve got to be educated,” said Nelson. “You’ve got to understand the historical context and the vocabulary is pretty daunting.”
“I got a serious education because I wanted to be a good citizen of the world – that’s essential – and I want to be a good dad,” said Nelson. “I want my kids to speak well, think creatively and understand the time and context in which they’re going to come of age.”
Hearing Nelson speak of his family, the great role they play in his life is clear, as is the joy he gets in watching them grow. But with domestic bliss comes contentment, and such things can be dangerous for an artist. “I had grown somewhat complacent,” said Nelson, who, with a family and successful career, fell into a routine. Roles were coming in steadily and Nelson could work on a few films a year easily. “I was in my late 40s and I thought ‘This is my life and I’m happy with it.’”
Then he received a call from James Franco. Franco wanted to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s gothic Tennessee tale Child of God and he wanted Nelson to play a role.
It was a tiny production, with a young crew and a young cast and nearly all of it paid out of Franco’s pocket. The young star, Scott Hayes, lived in a cave for a month to prepare for his role as violent rural troglodyte Lester Ballard. It was “seat of the pants,” “half-improvised,” and “wrong-headed,” according to Nelson, but in the best possible way. It was just what Nelson needed to stir him from his slumber. “It reminded me why I got into this in the first place,” said Nelson.
He remembers one day in particular on that shoot. Standing on a promontory overlooking the set, he could see the entire production gathered in one little holler, just a couple boxtrucks, a tent and 50 people or so huddled in the snow. “I thought, ‘There are no frills here. It’s pure, unadulterated, healthy artistry,” said Nelson. He took a photograph of that moment, and he brings it out from time to time to remember.
Since Child of God, Nelson has gone on to collaborate with Franco four more times, twice more adapting classic American novels for the screen with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Without these invigorating projects, Nelson says he doubts he ever would have made Anesthesia.
“James changed my life. I’ll be forever indebted,” said Nelson. “I love him and I love what he does.”
Nelson hopes to release Anesthesia in New York City in the coming months.