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Interview: Nate "N.D." Wilson talks Hisao Kurosawa, stories, and The Hound of Heaven

INTERVIEWS - FILM

A peek into the mind of the wildly inventive up-and-coming writer-director...

Interview: Nate "N.D." Wilson talks stories, working with the son of Akira Kurosawa, and directing his short film 'The Hound of Heaven'

Author/screenwriter/director Nate "N.D." Wilson has recently directed an 18-minute short film called The Hound of Heaven, based on the 19th century poem of the same name by Francis Thompson. It's uncharacteristically gritty for a Victorian faith poem, and that's one of the things that drew him to the idea of making a short film around it. Of course, "short film" is an insufficient way of describing it, since it's a stunning, surreal piece of work encompassing many different forms of storytelling, as Nate himself discusses later on.

The interview also covers, among other topics, what it was like working with Akira Kurosawa's son (who executive produced), Nate Wilson's influences and future projects, and the difference between writing one's own material versus adapting someone else's.

But before that, here's the trailer:

It's also available on Vimeo (password: finaltrailer):

The Hound of Heaven | Official Trailer from Dane Wilson on Vimeo.

Shadowlocked: How did the collaboration with [the rapper] Propaganda [aka Jason Petty] come about?

Nate Wilson: Oh, he was a blast. Man, I worked him hard. I worked him really hard. I only had him for a short amount of time, so long hours, gruelling hours, archaic language, very difficult, but he did amazingly well. He told me, “Man, this isn't even my language!” And I said, “That's the point.” I wanted somebody who is familiar with the rhythms of words and spoken word poetry – that's his medium – verbal rhythms; to really try to bring out the unseen aspects of the poetry.

If I had just a random British actor do it, with a very noble accent as he went through, it just wouldn't have worked, it would have just become noise. And so I think Propaganda's narration does wonders for the overall film.

The rapper / hip-hop artist Propaganda narrates Nate Wilson's stunningly shot 'The Hound of Heaven'

What was it like working with [executive producer Hisao Kurosawa,] the son of [legendary Seven Samurai director] Akira Kurosawa?

[Laughs] Stressful. He was very gracious, very kind. He could have walked away from us at any point if he didn't like how it was going. We were Skyping with him – because he lives in Tokyo, and we're in the North-West US – Skyping with him, showing him footage, showing him the rough cut, was very stressful. I was expecting him to destroy it. I was expecting him to destroy it, and one of our producers told us, “Man, he's so very unkind, to any kind of artform, he destroys everything”.

So I was expecting him to say, “This is horrible, I want out of the project, I don't want to work with you any more”, and instead he was really thrilled with it. And so, what it was like working with him was stressful and then thrilling. [Laughs] Because we're trying to achieve a standard that's incredibly high, and doing that for him sufficiently was quite gratifying.

Which films or stories more generally resonate with you particularly, either on a Christian level or more generally?

My favourite stuff is all in the Old Testament. [Laughs] So when I find movies, films that really echo different pieces of that, I enjoy it *a lot*.

So you have, on the real commercial side, I enjoy the film-making of a movie like Inception, but not the philosophy behind it. I really enjoyed the first Matrix, but not where it went. That kind of thing.

I love...there's a little independent film called Sweetland, which I really enjoyed. A British film, The Queen. Very slow-building, subtle film I really enjoy. I think that one's wonderful.

Some of Danny Boyle, you know, Slumdog Millionaire, on the commercial side, enjoy that immensely. I mean, Alfonso Cuaron is ama...I can't even say his name...but Children of Men especially.

Those are a few of the directors. Of course, Hitchcock, if you go back to...I don't think you can beat North By Northwest.

Can you tell us about your future projects?

I just wrapped a feature film this summer called The River Thief, very excited about it. It's in post-production now. And finished another draft of the screenplay for The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, just turned that in, and should have notes very soon to see if we're ready to finally take the final steps towards production.

And a couple of my own novels. So, working on 100 Cupboards, [and] Ashdown Burials. So, a lot. There's a lot to do; we'll see what happens next. I have no plans for a short film right now. Hound of Heaven was a great experience; and I came out of that and was able to do a feature; and I'm hoping to come out of that feature and do a bigger one. So, here we go. One, two, three, go.

So, your directorial style in The Hound of Heaven seems very kind of imaginative, and surreal, and non-linear. It lends itself to a story like this, and it also kind of ties in with your writing style in [the book] Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl. So, is this something that's going to carry over to your feature films, or is it just a case of whatever approach works for the particular story?

Yeah, I mean, the feature film that I just shot is realism. So there's very little, it's all very... I'm going to try to show the magic of the world, the starkness of the world, but I'm not infusing it with the surreal, I'm just shooting the real. So I'm trying to reveal it as a more magical place than people think, I'm trying to wake up a little bit of the numbness, but The Hound of Heaven needed to be surreal, it had to, and writing fantasy novels, or even Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, trying to break people's assumptions, needed to be a little bit surreal.

So I expect to do things like that always, but not *always*. So not every project, but there will always be projects where I am doing things like I did in The Hound of Heaven. For sure. I think there's no way... Especially, as soon as I'm doing my own fantasy novels, it's immediately there, it's all over the place, so magical realism I think will be everywhere.

A still from Nate Wilson's brilliantly surreal short film 'The Hound of Heaven'

This is quite an abstract question, but when the title comes up on screen [in The Hound of Heaven], it's followed by “a film”, and then it changes to “a poem”, and then “a play”.

“A dream”, also.

Oh, yeah. It seems to be an example of your work transcending traditional boundaries. So, what is it that unites these things? Is it “story”, or is it something else?

Because we were blending not just genre but medium, so I have Propaganda deliver a narration at the outset which is a direct imitation of a Shakespearean narration, where he comes out and addresses the audience, he mentions “the stage”, so it's very “play”, it is very “play”. But then we leave “play” very quickly, and we move into “her dream”, and we also, obviously, have “the poem” running through it.

So we start to reveal, especially at the mid-point of the film, [which] is where it becomes the most surreal, so as she goes deeper and deeper into the surrealism, if you will, then it's the moon swinging from the chain, we're in full-blown “dream”, and he's still delivering the lines of the poem. So we start with “stage play”, we move into “dream”, he's still reciting “the poem” the entire time, so “play”, “dream”, “poem”, and obviously it's “a film”.

So, I felt like, if we just had “a film”, it's not quite accurate. There's a lot more to it than that. In some ways we're filming a stage play, in some ways we're representing a dream, in some ways this is just a spoken word recitation, and we've shot a video for a very long poem, like a music video, but it's narrative. So it's...I mean, we were really walking all over the boundaries with this one. So I'm grateful people enjoy it and understand it [laughs], because there was a lot of risk in doing something like ignoring all the rules.

The rapper Propaganda looks skeptical as Nate Wilson directs him in the effects-heavy 18-minute short film adaptation of the poem 'The Hound of Heaven'

So I guess it's like a reflection of like the multi-faceted nature of life? A bit like Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, taking what we're familiar with, and then expanding it...

So if I said, “This is a play”, well, that's not quite entirely true. Well, it is; it's this, and it's this, and it's this. It's all of those things. So I tried to...the reason why we rolled that is to more truthfully represent to the audience what it is we're doing.

“Yes, we know we're breaking the rules. Yes, we know you're not supposed to make a short film with somebody reciting a Victorian poem the entire time.” That's not supposed to happen; especially not with these kind of effects, and everything else. So we're very aware that we...it's just sort of a wink at the audience, “Yes, we know. Come with us on this weird trip.”

Yeah, I guess it is what it is, and it works.

I really don't know of any other thing like it. So it's similar to a lot of things, but there's always...it's always heavily dissimilar to a lot of things as well.

So what's it like adapting somebody else's work as opposed to your own?

Well, honestly I'm far more comfortable adapting other people's stuff than my own. And actually, in some ways, because I can be a stickler. I can be a stickler to try to stay true as I possibly can to their vision, when I'm adapting their stuff. But when I'm adapting my stuff, I don't feel any loyalty at all to it. I feel complete and total authority to change whatever I want, whenever I want.

And so when I'm adapting C.S. Lewis or even trying to serve Francis Thompson, I felt like I could write an intro, like I could write an opening monologue for Propaganda, but I couldn't bring myself to edit the poem. No matter how many people told me, “Well, surely you're not going to do the whole poem”, it was like, “No, I'm gonna do the whole poem. I'm doing all of it.” Because I really wanted it to come through.

If I'm doing my own things, like I'm doing 100 Cupboards, I'm thinking, like, “Oh, wow, I can throw this part away, and do this other thing that I was going to have in the novel, and I needed to cut it for space, but now I can put it in. I can take things that ended up on the cutting room floor of my novel, and put them into the film.” And I feel completely at liberty to do that. And that's dangerous.

So adapting my own stuff, there's no rules for me, I have total authority to do whatever I want. Which is not easier. Whenever there's no boundaries, it's actually a little more difficult. When I'm adapting somebody else's [work], I run into a wall, you know, I run into the rules, and I respect them a lot more than I do when it's my own work.

So, how can people watch the film if they can't get to a film festival?

Well, we will release it. We will release it, available online, through iTunes, or however we do it. Eventually we'll get to everybody. So, as soon as I know, you'll know. And we'll bang the drum and make it available online for people. Maybe on DVD, I mean it's only 18 minutes, so we might...people might not want a Blu-ray or DVD, but we can at least make it available online. And we will.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview, more of which appears in the December 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now.

Stills via The Hound of Heaven official website: http://www.houndofheavenmovie.com/home

You can find more of Propaganda's work here: http://www.humblebeast.com/propaganda/


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