NICHOLSON: I was in the College of Creative Studies at UCSB and majored in film. After graduating I came to L.A. and worked in an equipment rental house. I started working on productions as a driver, grip, electrician, bestboy, gradually working my way up to Gaffer and finally D.P. (Director of Photography). I was able to finance my short films by working on other people’s projects, but writing and directing was always the goal.
Where did the idea come from?
NICHOLSON: I’ve had this idea for a long time, to explore inner realities of characters living outside the norm and how they choose to express themselves. More importantly how they keep going, though never knowing why they do what they do. The Box symbolizes this, the unknown. Is it a blessing or a curse? I suppose it’s autobiographical in that sense.
What was the writing process like?
NICHOLSON: I was drawn to the films of Fellini, Bunuel, Tarkovsky, French New Wave, films that were philosophical by nature and big on character. Later I was inspired by Emir Kusterica and Jim Jarmusch. Their films have a great “vibe.” They’re ironic but point to something deeper. I wanted to write like that.
The Beatnicks actually started out like Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise in that I had made a 30-minute version of it in black & white that could have served as a first act. We decided to shoot the whole thing from scratch and in color when we made the decision to re-cast. It was a painful decision at first but it soon became clear it was the right thing to do. Though the film uses a surrealistic device (the Box) to move the story along, both of these guys had to feel real. They had to represent the predicament of striving for recognition in L.A. and trying to find a universe they could participate in as artists.
I was able to use much of what I had originally written for the short and added a brief back story for the box as well as developing the relationship of Nick Nero and Nica (Elodie Bouchez).The dark obsessive character of Mack Drake. (played by Eric Roberts), and Hank “the guru” (played by Patrick Bauchau), were created to show what Nick Nero (Norman) and Nick Beat (Boone) might become if they were to split up and follow their respective paths to their conclusion. Fortunately they don’t. Though their fate remains uncertain, they ultimately remain true to themselves and each other.
They say life imitates art. It took seven years from when the short was made to finally turn it into a feature, so Nina Jo Baker (Co-Writer) and my partner at the time had plenty of time to work things out. We were on a mission. Jason Cairns, who originally starred in the short also contributed to the story, and one of the producers, Paul Hahn helped with the final polish.
How did you fund the film?
NICHOLSON: Co-producer Stephanie Danan was good friends with Elodie Bouchez. Elodie had recently won the Cesar Award (The French Oscar) for Best Actress for her work in the Eric Zonka film The Secret Life of Angels. She came to L.A. for a visit. We were all living in an old Craftsman house in Silver Lake then and she loved it there. I think she liked the anonymity of L.A. and the creative spirit we had going.
I was writing music sketches for the film and I recorded her doing dialog over some of them. Her voice is magical. She was the perfect muse. In short we all bonded in a way and she liked the idea of doing something interesting in L.A. Once Elodie signed on things started to happen. There were a lot of actors that wanted to work with her. She brought up Norman’s name who she had met in Cannes. Instant chemistry. Stephanie and Paul got in touch with Garen Topalian who was a stockbroker on Wall St. at the time. The three of them were able to find private financing through their connections. It was shot on 35mm color negative over a 26-day schedule.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
NICHOLSON: Smartest? Trusting the crew. D.P. Joe Montgomery and his Gaffer, Foster Danker were awesome. Production Designer Ted Burner and his crew, truly gifted. Everyone worked for small dollars and did a big dollar job. I never second guessed them. I just leaned on them a bit.
Dumbest? Caving in on certain things I thought important. There’s always that pressure, to make the day. Sometimes you have to let things go. Sometimes you wish you hadn’t. Postproduction sound is an example. On this film the dialog is very important and I think the mix got away from me at times. On the other hand sometimes things happen on set you could never have planned for that are really beautiful. Those are the magical moments.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
NICHOLSON: Patience and perseverance, to push for what you want and still keep an open mind. No matter what the format is, or what the budget is, or what the odds are against you. It’s in there, waiting to be discovered.
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