The littlest picture show

For Bitterroot filmmaker John Nilles, size matters



It’s been a bumpy road for filmmaker John D. Nilles—speaking figuratively, and, for the last 10 minutes, literally. He’s running errands today, one of them picking up his paycheck. With his tan pickup rattling up a bony gravel road just outside Hamilton, it seems as good a time as any to talk about why he decided to drop out of film school in Bozeman.

The big reason, he says, was that he was bored and felt like he wasn’t learning anything. He’s not a great test-taker, so he didn’t have much patience for the “weed-out” classes he claims are designed to cull students like him out of an already crowded program. Then he bought a book that completely changed his outlook on filmmaking and the relevance of film school. And then, of course, there were the words exchanged during filming of the one-minute short he made with four other students.

“Um, yeah,” Nilles chuckles. “I called the director of photography a fucko. I apologized to him later—I don’t really know why I chose that word, but it’s a good one—and it ended up being OK.”

It’s hard to imagine this outburst from the soft-spoken Nilles, but easy to imagine the apology; his sheepish recounting of the incident accounts for the only swear word he’ll utter all afternoon. Unless you count the business half of “pretentious bastard”—which is exactly what Nilles says he doesn’t mean to come off as when he talks about film school being a waste of his time.

“I respect people for going to film school,” he allows. “It gives them a base of knowledge that they don’t have if they haven’t already dedicated their lives to filmmaking. But I felt like I had already dedicated my life to it, and [I felt] kind of disrespected because they wouldn’t listen to my ideas.”

So, after an unsatisfying year of formal film studies, Nilles decided to quit the program and come home to the Bitterroot. Today he’ll tell you that he did finish film school, that his studies were 100 percent hands-on, and that his tuition cost him far less than the equivalent degree from MSU. Nilles’ film school was his feature debut, LITTLE.

The Book of Rodriguez

“Film school can teach you a lot about how to make movies,” Nilles explains over a pork chop sandwich at a Hamilton restaurant, “but really, the only way to learn is to actually make them. Robert Rodriguez says that a lot of people go to film school, they’ve never made a film, they spend a thousand bucks on their first short and get discouraged when it turns out crappy—because everyone’s first movie is crappy. But the people who have already experimented on their own tend to make better first shorts in school because they’ve got some experience. The people who make that first short and get discouraged—they become producers.”

Nilles quotes Rodriguez the way some folks quote scripture or The Simpsons. At age 23, so the oft-told Cinderella story goes, the filmmaker single-handedly wrote, shot and directed the cult hit El Mariachi for an astonishing $7,000, half of which he’d saved up by volunteering for medical experiments. Rodriguez later wrote a book about his experience: Rebel Without a Crew. The Rodriguez legend is an article of faith for Nilles, also 23, who plainly sees himself as an outsider and upstart in the Rodriguez vein.

Nilles started shooting LITTLE in 2001 with $3,500, a skeletal script and a secondhand camera. He drafted friends as actors and handled most of the lighting, filming and directing duties himself. Many of the actors also contributed their musical talents to the soundtrack. In brief synopsis, LITTLE tells the story of Jeff Ring (played by Nilles’ friend and former Corvallis High School classmate Jay Webber), a Bitterroot ranch hand who putters up a simple engine modification that could revolutionize the automobile industry. After experimenting on his own pickup, he modestly presents his findings to a pair of corporate officers, who hand him a “We’ll look into it” song-and-dance number and later dispatch a squad of nattily dressed “corporate soldiers” to kill him before word of the innovation gets out. According to Nilles, the story is based on an urban (or, rather, rural) legend that has been making the rounds in the Bitterroot (and probably elsewhere) for decades.

Nilles, on the other hand, forswore technological innovation by deciding to shoot his feature film debut on 16mm color film instead of more economical video. Ultimately, film and related costs consumed $2,800—80 percent of his budget. People said he was crazy for choosing film, Nilles recalls—but that’s what Robert Rodriguez did.

“Almost everyone I talked to said, ‘why don’t you shoot it on video?’ Because I wanted to make a real film. I never would have done that if it weren’t for Robert Rodriguez. I knew it was going to be expensive and that I would only have two hours of raw footage to work with, but I’d pretty much made my decision. And Kodak 16mm looks pretty darn good. When you watch LITTLE, especially the exterior scenes, it looks like a big film.”

The soothing whir of a vanishing budget

He still needed a camera. In acquiring one, Nilles cemented a cornerstone of his future filmmaking mythology that even Robert Rodriguez would have envied: A Hamilton camera store offered him a hand-cranked 1955 Bell & Howell for $160, and Nilles paid it off by mowing the owner’s lawn eight times.

LITTLE does look, in many places, like a “bigger” film than it is. The editing, though not quite as Hong-Kong-crazy as El Mariachi’s, is quick and tight, particularly during the action scenes.

The quick cuts were not entirely of Nilles’ choosing; rather, they’re a virtue born of necessity. One complete wind of the Bell & Howell’s spring carries 30 seconds of film whirring past the gate. The camera’s limitations, factored with a budget that left little room for error, necessitated a film composed almost entirely of short takes, and mostly first ones at that. For every 2.4 seconds of film Nilles shot, one second ended up on the screen—an astonishingly low shooting ratio for a feature film, even a no-budget independent one. (Rodriguez’s shooting ratio was lower still: about 1.5 to 1.)

“It was like running a marathon with a ball and chain,” Nilles grimaces. “I couldn’t even shoot a master shot of the entire scene. I had to pick beforehand which part of it I was going to shoot. And whenever I pressed the button, all I could hear was the ch-ching, ch-ching, ch-ching of my budget disappearing. I felt like I was trapped in a cage.”

Three years later, he reluctantly concedes that the experience was good for him.

“I might not like it at the moment,” he says, “but in the long run it’s good that I’m forced to work with what I have. It was good to have those limits imposed on me, because now if I’m ever able to break free, I’ll break free even, um, free-er. But the whole time we were shooting I was frustrated and striving to get more out of the resources I had. I guess you’re always going to do that if you’re a filmmaker, though—you have a $100 million budget, you want to make it look like you had a $200 million budget.”

“If you can ignore the difference in quality,” Nilles admits, “the film itself would have been better if I’d used a [professional video camera] because I would have had so much more footage to choose from. The acting would have been two or three times better.”

Au contraire, some would say. One could argue that, had its creator opted for the economic safety of videotape, the film would have lost much of its considerable charm. LITTLE is filmmaking at its go-for-broke-est, yet it has a fragile quality that might have been lost if Nilles hadn’t been constrained by his limited means. Heretical by Rodriguez standards, Nilles’ personal preference is to make individual takes “as long as possible, as long as they’re still meaningful.” Had Nilles had his druthers, LITTLE might have buckled under the weight of all that freedom. But with limited means, at roughly $50 per three minutes of footage once processing and video transfer are figured in, 16mm color film has a way of breeding economy of style.

Lost epics

John Nilles got his first glimpse of filmmaking long before LITTLE, long before El Mariachi and Rebel Without a Crew. He was 8 years old when the production of Disorganized Crime came to town.

The 1989 movie, a gangster comedy about a team of inept criminals starring Lou Diamond Philips, the late Hoyt Axton, Rubén Blades and L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernsen, was filmed entirely in and around Hamilton. An impressionable Nilles got to watch several scenes being filmed on locations already familiar to him. Better yet, he got to attend the wrap party once filming was completed.

“That was amazing, “ he recalls. “I got to meet Lou Diamond Philips. This was in 1988, and La Bamba had just come out the year before—my favorite movie as a kid. So I got to meet Richie Valens! It was awesome.”

He still counts Disorganized Crime among his favorite movies. LITTLE makes use of many of the same locations, and Nilles credits the film with his abiding love of “team” movies like Reservoir Dogs, not to mention the desire to make movies himself. That was his first taste, he says—the thing that hooked him on the “magic and mystery of movies.”

He pleaded with his mother to buy him a video camera (“Probably the best investment she ever made,” he beams) and by the time he got it, he was already thinking bigger than the average dabbler. The summer before his senior year of high school found him working on the third version of what he hoped would be his first feature: a thoroughly unlicensed Indiana Jones 4.

“Actually,” he clarifies, “it was going to be called Indiana Jones and the Ancient Laser. The laser was supposed to control the weather. The Nazis were going to use it to annihilate civilizations and also grow crops by being able to have sunny or rainy weather, whatever they needed. A lot of it I made up as I went along.”

Production came to a halt 10 minutes into what was supposed be an hour-long movie. Sadly, a massive battle between French villagers and Nazi soldiers (both sides to be played by members of the Corvallis High School football team) never came to pass—although the surviving film does include a helpful animated schematic of what Nilles had planned for the scene.

“Maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t happen,” he says wistfully, watching the stand-in X’s and O’s moving sluggishly around on the TV screen and plainly wishing it had. “I’m sure someone would have gotten an eye poked out or an arm broken or something. It was going to be awesome, though.”

The first 10 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Ancient Laser are pretty much what you’d expect from a 17-year-old with a video camera: a raging case of action movie-itis and a thousand bucks saved from his job at the car wash to throw at it it. What you might not expect, however, is the sophisticated opening shot, in which the camera starts filming at tree level and lowers steadily, fluidly into the tall grass. Nilles built the crane for it. With his uncle’s help, he also built a 4-by-6-foot dolly with wheels from an old wheelbarrow.

He might be an outsider to the movie business, but Nilles revels in the cottage industry aspect. When he’s not working on various screenplays and filming smaller video projects, he spends hours designing animated storyboards for future features. He designed and built a good deal of homemade equipment for LITTLE, including a special mount for his camera so that he could operate it with a remote cable release. During the driving scenes in LITTLE, the whole apparatus was mounted on the hood of Jeff Ring’s pickup with duct tape.

One of the things he’ll do today is window-shop for tricked-out pickups online. He’s going to need at least three of the same model: one to use as-is and two to be retrofitted with experimental camera mounts.

“I write as though budget weren’t a concern,” he says. “You’ve got to. It’s too restrictive creatively if you don’t. And then, when the reality of the budget sets in, if there is a budget, you make changes. But you’ve got to start out big.”

Long time coming

Principal photography for LITTLE was supposed to last only three weeks. Instead, it dragged on for three months—a draining, discouraging experience for Nilles, who wore almost every hat on the production, as well as the actors, who Nilles says found it difficult to maintain their enthusiasm during the long breaks in shooting while he ran around trying to do everything himself.

“I was lonely,” Nilles recalls, “because nobody could help me. We hit a point where the production stopped, or felt like it stopped. [Actor] Jay [Webber] was starting to lose interest when we passed the two-week point and I knew it was going to take at least another month. That was the lowest point. Those three months were the most stressful of my life, for sure.”

They were not, however, without their exciting diversions. The filming of one scene, in which Webber’s character gets chased by gun-wielding corporate soldiers, was brought to an abrupt halt by Hamilton’s finest.

“Someone saw us with our fake guns and called the cops,” recalls Josh Wagner, who plays corporate soldier Silent Flank, “who promptly surrounded us and told John to ‘Drop the weapon.’ He was holding his camera and tripod and was seriously confused. I thought he was going to get shot. I was in the car at the time and an officer came to my window. ‘I have a fake gun in my jacket,’ I told him. It is a treasured memory for me to have a cop telling me, ‘OK, take the gun out slowly.’”

Nilles, the ringleader, was issued a citation for disorderly conduct. “I don’t want to sound bitter or negative about it,” he says, laughing. “Because I am! I had to get a lawyer, but the charges were dropped. I just informed [local police] every time I was going to shoot in town after that and there were no more problems.”

The worst part, Nilles says, was that he never got one of his fake guns back—the Mac 10, a black steel tube stuffed with firecrackers to simulate full-auto. He also adds that legal expenses to the tune of about $500 were not included in the $3,500 budget.

And then there was the tense encounter with a team of firemen who arrived, somewhat belatedly, to extinguish a burning car on property belonging to a friend of Nilles’ family. The script called for the car—the director’s first, a grimy blue ’81 Oldsmobile station wagon doused in gasoline for the occasion—to be ignited by a road flare tossed by Webber. This time, the director had taken the precaution of notifying the fire chief; the firemen who arrived on the scene, Nilles suspects, simply hadn’t gotten the memo. He also left a memo with the sheriff’s department, just to be safe.

It took Webber three tries to hit the car with the flare. Nilles guesses the car had been burning for about 45 minutes by the time the firemen arrived to put it out but admits that he really can’t remember.

“Actually,” he says, “the whole day was kind of a blur.”

LITTLE movie, big plans

There’s nothing in LITTLE itself to specifically suggest the choice of title; Nilles says it refers to the LITTLE man standing up to the GIANT corporation to fight for what’s right. Though he downplays any suggestion of autobiography in the character of Jeff Ring, the director does allow that, to a certain extent, the film parallels his own struggle to complete it.

LITTLE had its Bitterroot premiere at Hamilton’s Roxy Twin in 2002 with about a hundred people attending—mostly participants, friends and family. A DVD of the movie was financed by California-based BAM Publications and released four months ago. Odd though it might sound after such a trying experience, Nilles can’t wait to make the movie again. Maybe with bigger actors. Possibly filming it in Texas. Definitely with a bigger budget. All he needs is a financial backer willing to take a chance on him.

“I think John has one of the most talented eyes for cinematography that I’ve seen in a young filmmaker,” says Josh Wagner, who contributed both acting and music to the film. “So far I don’t have a good grasp on his ability to write and direct dialogue, and I think that will be important to the success of the remake. If John can get the current version of LITTLE out there for enough people to see, I think it will serve as a catalyst to make his talents known. I think LITTLE will serve John more as a profile of his abilities than a film it its own right. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t love it.”

Nilles sees it this way: “Best-case scenario, an interested party will see the potential in LITTLE and finance the feature-length remake. Worst case, nothing more happens and I walk away with the experience and confidence it takes to make my next feature-length film.”

In the meantime, there’s a paycheck to pick up—from the construction site where Nilles has been working as a carpenter. “I can see two paths,” he says, check in pocket, steering the truck back down the hill toward Hamilton. “Right now I’m not even a carpenter, I’m a laborer. I can see the path where I become a pretty darn good carpenter and end up building houses and maybe even become my own contractor. The other path I see is getting paid—it doesn’t matter what sum of money, as long as it’s enough to live on—for making films.”

“The one thing I don’t want to be known as is a carpenter who made a film. Because what I am is a filmmaker who happens to work as a carpenter right now. That’s the way I would like to be known.”

Director John D. Nilles will host two screenings of LITTLE on Friday, Sept. 17, at the International Wildlife Media Center (formerly the Roxy Theater) at 7:30 and 9 PM.


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