With only four films on his resumé after an 18-year career, Florida-based filmmaker Victor Nunez hasn't exactly kept a high profile. Though 1993's subtle drama Ruby In Paradise attracted a great deal of critical praise, most of the press attention went to the debut performance by star Ashley Judd. The similarly superior Ulee's Gold has drawn the most notice for resurrecting Peter Fonda's career. The Onion recently spoke to the man behind both films about independent filmmaking, the importance of quality material, and the ambiguous charms of Florida.
The Onion: Ulee's Gold has primarily gotten attention as a Peter Fonda comeback vehicle, but do you feel it will finally call more attention to you as a director?
Victor Nunez: In terms of the kind of films I'm interested in, it's always easier when your previous work has gotten a positive response. I'm delighted with the attention and focus on Peter—I'd like to claim that I knew this was going to happen—but basically, I cast Peter because he's a fascinating actor and the best person we could get for the part. In hindsight, he was the perfect person.
O:You started directing in 1979, and have made four films since. Do you feel the small scale of your pictures has made it more difficult to get projects made with the frequency you would like?
VN: Boy, you know, you can do Monday-morning quarterbacking in a lot of directions, and believe me, I have, especially at three in the morning. I don't know if it's the scale so much as the focus on the interior, intimate moments of the people involved… There have been times when nobody was interested in that. We had to convince people that moviegoers would be interested in a middle-50s granddaddy beekeeper. You know, in hindsight it all makes sense, but at the time it was, "Who's gonna watch that?" That's why you make little movies, because you're interested in things where you don't feel like you have to justify a gross of $120 million, or something.
O: You used to get described frequently as a regional filmmaker. Did that tag bother you?
VN: Well, I probably started it. I discovered European film as a college student at about the same time I was really immersing myself in Southern literature, and I felt there was a kind of connection and affinity. Certainly Italian neo-realists declared that character, place and story were integrally involved, and I had the very romantic, naive notion of becoming a Southern filmmaker in the way that writers had become Southern writers. Naive, because I didn't realize that buying a ream of paper and a typewriter is a little easier than making movies. But there's a big difference between regional and provincial. I think that film, to attain the universal—and this another one of those grand clichés—has to become very, very grounded in specifics. And one of the ways to do that is to become grounded in a place and time, and build from there.
O: Why do you feel so few filmmakers are concerned about doing that?
VN: Probably because they're smart and practical. One of the big questions for me has been, "Can you be an American filmmaker without being a Hollywood filmmaker?" Hollywood seems to have such a hegemony over everything in our culture. And, what's happened, I've realized, is that the French filmmaker and the German filmmaker are asking themselves the very same question: "Can you be a French filmmaker without being a Hollywood filmmaker?" There's nothing wrong with Hollywood, it's just that I think our world would be less interesting if there were only one mass pop-culture, and it all came from one place, or one market or one company, as it looks like it's heading.
O: What is that makes you continue making films in Florida? What do you find so fertile about the area?
VN: Well, for one it's my home. That's pretty big. If I were from South Dakota or New Hampshire, I'd have a different set of things I'd appreciate, but I think Florida is a fascinating state: There's this mythology that this is where you come to escape, this is where you come to relax, and this is paradise. The whole notion of vacation and reward for work lived is a little more ambivalent. But that's part of its charm, that there's a sort of complexity and ironic charm to what Florida means.
O: A lot of attention has been devoted to Peter Fonda, but part of what impressed me about Ulee's Gold and Ruby in Paradise was the other performances. Where did you find your other actors?
VN: Well, I'm delighted you said that. I've worked with the same casting director three times, and we've always gone for as strong of a cast as we could find. I think there are actors out there who so want the challenges of acting that if you can get the script or a project to them, you have an excellent shot of getting people who are very, very good, just because they want to work on this kind of material. Pat Richardson (Home Improvement), for example… I had heard of Home Improvement, but I had never seen the show, and she came in and read, and she was wonderful. And part of what drew her to this part was the chance to do something besides what the world has come to know her as.