Filmmaker Rusty Nails on Chicago, punk rock, and being a teenager
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“Documentary’s wonderful because it’s so immediate, and it’s terrible because it’s so immediate… With the narrative, you’re controlling the situation; with a documentary, the situation’s controlling you.”
Chicago filmmaker Rusty Nails does a little bit of everything: Though primarily a director, he’s also an actor, producer, writer, film-festival organizer, musician, and all-around workhorse. In June, Nails completed his years-in-the-making debut feature, Acne, a comical, ’50s-style B-horror movie about kids whose heads turn into giant zits. Nails has also made several music videos and has two documentaries in the works: Highway Robbery, about a 65-year-old Rockford man whose land is taken by the federal government to make a highway, and Dead On, about horror-film icon George Romero. Nails also organizes the occasional Movieside Film Festival and runs the production company New Eye Films. This weekend, Nails will debut a new horror short at the Music Box Massacre, a 24-hour horror-movie marathon Movieside is co-presenting with the famed theater. Before the event, he spoke to The A.V. Club about filming in Chicago, punk rock, and his current teenage phase.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that it can be hard to film in Chicago because moviemaking here isn’t as common as it is in New York or Los Angeles. Has that changed at all?
Rusty Nails: I must have been having a bad week or something. Making films here is really easy, in that I think that there’s a great pool of actors, and as far as locations go, a lot of people are willing to let you use their spaces—stores or parks, etc. In Los Angeles or New York, I think people are a lot more weary and money-oriented about that.
AVC: You’ve had a lot of luck getting people to work for free.
RN: The truth of the matter is, a lot of people like films, want to be involved with films… There aren’t always films being made in which people can get paid, and there will be a number of projects that people will be really excited about participating in where they’re more than happy to not get paid.
AVC: Can quality be an issue if you’re not paying?
RN: I’m a big fan of rehearsal. I think everybody should be rehearsed, and you should have a good understanding of what’s going on in the scene. And even if you’re creating the scene at the moment, you should really channel your energy and just try to get everything together as much as possible.
AVC: You often mention how much punk rock has influenced your work, which some people may not understand. Could you elaborate on that?
RN: For me, the punk ethic is mostly about the freedom to do everything creatively. With Acne, I knew that I wanted a film that was going to be silly and ridiculous and personal and horror, sci-fi, film noir, and French New Wave. I wanted to create something that was fresh for myself, and I knew that if I sent the script out, nobody would probably want it. I also felt that if I made it, my ridiculous sense of humor would probably appeal to some people. I just didn’t really want anybody else’s influence on my film. I wanted to make it exactly the way I wanted to make it… I think that you should try to make a story as creative and ridiculous or interesting as you can, and if you can’t get permits, you should just shoot until the police come.
AVC: You’re still finishing Highway Robbery. Was it difficult working in the documentary format for the first time?
RN: It was extremely hard, because I’d only worked in narrative up until I started that project in 2000. For me, as a narrative person, generally it was very hard to formulate the flow of the story and the arc of it. Documentary’s wonderful because it’s so immediate, and it’s terrible because it’s so immediate. You want to be there all the time, filming as much as possible… With the narrative, you’re controlling the situation; with a documentary, the situation’s controlling you.
AVC: Have you shown it yet?
RN: We actually did a rough-cut screening at the Kansas International Film Festival two weeks ago, for me to interact with the audience to get an idea of what they thought was working and what wasn’t. I like to invite people to tear my work apart. After Acne came out, people felt at ease telling me whatever they felt. [Laughs.] So I think that helped me develop a thick skin, which is very important for filmmakers. You have to let everything bounce off you, but you should still listen to what people are saying—unless they’re total jerks.
AVC: Is the Movieside Festival on hold for now?
RN: My goal is always to be a filmmaker. Movieside is something that I love, and what’s great about it is we do it when we feel like it. But my guess is that there will be another one in spring.
AVC: It was originally monthly, right?
RN: It was, and it was great and overwhelming and horrible and nerve-wracking. The first one we did at Fireside Bowl in June of 2001 was immediately successful, and all of them have been successful since then. At first, Movieside was created to get tension off my back from making films, and then it was creating tension.
AVC: What else is coming up?
RN: I’m writing a new feature horror drama [Teenagers From Mars] that I hope to film in the near future. It’s basically using a small town in the Midwest as a microcosm of America to explore violent urges of teenagers, whatever that means. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re a fan of using teenagers in films, but you make them look intelligent.
RN: They blow my mind because they’re so honest and uncompromising. I think the same holds true for older people and children, but teenagers… There’s just something very uncompromising, brutally true and beautifully open. So I’m definitely interested in teenagers. I’m interested in people in general, but at the moment, I’m sort of in my teenage phase. It’s interesting with the narratives, there have been a lot of adolescents, but with the documentaries, it’s two elderly people.
AVC: The people in between just don’t matter?
RN: [Laughs.] I guess so.