June 20th, 2010 | Interviews

Laurel Nakadate is a New York photographer and filmmaker known in the art world for a series of brave video pieces where she goes home with strange, older men, and documents their encounters together. Whether dancing to Britney Spears, playacting scenes of kidnapping, or engaging in mutual striptease, Nakadate’s work explores the landscape of loneliness and desire, with empathy and a dash of subversive humor. Her second feature The Wolf Knife is a striking, unconventional road movie about teenage friends June and Chrissy who flee the boredom of suburban Florida to find Chrissy’s dad in Tennessee. Their journey takes them off the beaten track and into the dark places that Nakadate has long enjoyed exploring. This interview by Matt Cornell.

There’s a thread in a lot of your video work where you go home with lonely, older men and engage them in these unusual scenarios. I’m wondering how much you plan ahead of time and how much you create collaboratively.
Laurel Nakadate: I would plan a general scenario like ‘We’re gonna have a birthday party or a dance party’ or ‘we’re gonna talk about our fears or listen to each others’ heartbeats.’ I’d come up with that much, but what I found really amazing and liberating was allowing the men to really lead it. I think the great thing about documentary is that the world is amazing and it will give you great things if you let it. And I think that showing up with an idea, but then letting it evolve and progress and change in the moment is the amazing thing. It’s not so different from how I’m shooting the films as well. But it was a collaboration, and what they brought to it was integral and amazing and generous. I think had I gone in with a very, very clear direction of what had to happen minute by minute, it wouldn’t have been as good.
How did you find the men for this video work?
Laurel Nakadate: I found the men through chance encounters, so I’d meet them every possible way you could meet a person. Walking down a street, in a parking lot, friend of a friend. I met one guy in my apartment building. I met a guy in the Home Depot parking lot. It was important that I met them organically in that way. This was before Craigslist, before chat sites.
There’s been a lot of talk about the pathos that you get from going into those mens’ spaces and seeing how they live and interact with you. I’m curious about your own performance. There seems to be a way that you’re walking the line between slapstick and sexiness. I was wondering if you could talk about your performance in those shorts.
Laurel Nakadate: I’ve always been to drawn to this sort of pathetic sexy thing, this really sad sexy performance because it leads you down a path where you think you’re going to see something maybe beautiful or thrilling. But then suddenly you realize you’re sinking in the mud. I think there’s something great for the audience to not really know which way it’s headed, or not to really know if you’re supposed to be turned on or repulsed. I think the character that I use in these performances is a girl who knows what she’s doing but is still willing to get really, really dirty and messed up in the whole narrative and the whole complicated scenario. I think in ‘Oops’ and the ‘Happy Birthday’ pieces, I was this young girl in this sort of strange environment and exploring this new world. But then, ten years later, going in, I know what I’m doing. I know that if I dress a certain way or say a certain thing, or I act like I don’t know how it’s going to end, the videos will go a certain way. Part of it is thrilling for me to get in over my head, and to not really know which way is up, and to not know how I’m going to find my way out of the rabbit hole. I think complication is interesting, and the complication of this character being someone who the audience struggles to like or struggles to fully accept or maybe can’t quite categorize. That’s a good place.
I’m curious about your switch from being in front of the camera to behind it. The one short I wanted to ask you about is ‘Good Morning Sunshine.’ These are one-take, seemingly improvised scenes where you go into the bedroom of a teenage girl and you start flirting with her, and getting her to take off her clothes. I was struck by your performing the role of the creepy voyeur, maybe even a male role. It seems like it’s the connective tissue between your older work and your features.
Laurel Nakadate: Absolutely. I definitely see it that way. In fact, that video is actually how I found Christina, the girl in The Wolf Knife. She’s one of the girls that I talk out of her clothing. I definitely see that as the connective tissue. I’m at a point where I do want to make short videos that I’m in, but I’m really tired of using this character of this knowing, but innocent and confused young girl, and I’m more interested in directing actors through these narratives. I cast that through an open casting call in Syracuse. Those were shot in one take and all I said to the girls was ‘I’m gonna wake you up and ask you to take your clothes off.’ And the girls who were brave enough to do this with me came through, and the girls who ended up in the final cut were really strong. But it was definitely a strange and challenging video to shoot for me on a number of levels, and I’m sure for the girls as well. It definitely asked the audience to go to a place that they may not want to go.
Tell me about the genesis of The Wolf Knife. How did you come up with the story and the setting?
Laurel Nakadate: I knew that I wanted to write a story about teenage girls who wrestled with desire in their relationship, and the desire to be independent people, and the desire to grow up. I knew that landscape was really important. I wanted to shoot something down in Florida where heat was really important and where the color palette was really important. I’ve always thought of Florida as where the wild things are, because the trees and the landscape are these really terrifying and strange beasts, yet people go the strip mall and buy outlet clothing and act like it’s no big deal that there are these palm trees all around them and the ocean is licking and coming in. I was very inspired by that landscape and by the faces of the girls at the open casting call. Julie, who plays June in the movie was in Stay the Same Never Change (Nakadate’s first feature) and so I’ve known her for 3 ½ years, and her face sort of haunts me. I knew that I needed to write something else for her to be in. When I was in Syracuse and I met Christina, it just added up that I needed to write a story for them and I needed to talk about teenage relationships, and the complications that girls go through dealing with their best friend—their BFF.
There’s some really interesting absurd comedy mixed in with the emotional texture of the film.
Laurel Nakadate: The slapstick quality of my early video work was something that I really wanted to bring in to the feature. It’s a strange combination, because The Wolf Knife really is earnest and sensitive at times, but then it’s also this strange, slapstick kind of thing. In some ways, it isn’t so different from early work, but in some ways, it’s a huge departure.
It’s also a road movie, but we never see them moving at all. We see a lot of kitschy roadside tourist attractions and then a lot of closely observed behavior. It seems to be a love story, or about the ambiguity of their friendship. Is this something that you wrote out or something that was developed on the spot?
Laurel Nakadate: The way that it worked is that I wrote all the scenes before we got down there, and because we didn’t have a budget to secure any locations, I just knew each day, we need a hotel room, we need a parking lot or the back of a car, and we would just find ways to get ourselves into those locations. Every morning, we would wake up and it would be a ‘choose your own adventure’ situation. Sometimes I would take dialogue from one scene and flip it, to make it work in another location. It was a narrative that was very planned, but formally we had to find locations and adapt the script to what we could find. I find that thrilling. I love working in that way, not knowing what the day is going to bring, and having to make it work.
There are still predatory older men in this movie, but they don’t seem to be central to the story. The threat doesn’t seem to be an issue until late in the film when Chrissy finally reconnects with her teacher, which is a disturbing scene. It seems like this is more about the girls’ friendship than it is about those other preoccupations.
Laurel Nakadate: I think in The Wolf Knife, the men lurk in the shadows, but they don’t really come out until the scene you mentioned. It was really important to me that the movie was about their relationship and their friendship, because unless the audience gets to know the girls, they’re not going to care what happens at the end. When I set out to tell this story, what haunted me were the girls’ faces. They didn’t even meet until the first day of shooting. I was just hoping everything would come together. All of the actors in the film, I didn’t meet them or find them until we were on location.
Let me ask you a little about the style of The Wolf Knife. I felt a little creepy watching it. I felt voyeuristic. I’m curious if that was intentional.
Laurel Nakadate: Absolutely.
I felt like one of the guys in your videos.
Laurel Nakadate: A couple of people have said that to me!
It’s so beautifully shot and the colors are so expressive. It’s a gorgeous film to just look at, but it seems that there’s an intentionally voyeuristic quality.
Laurel Nakadate: I think one of the things you can do as a cinematographer and director is create a world the audience doesn’t necessarily feel they’re supposed to be walking around in. I’m always drawn to places where I’m delighted to be, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to stay. I love the idea that an audience can come and sit down and watch a film and feel like maybe they were invited. I don’t know if it’s something that everybody wants to be involved in, but I personally like the feeling of discomfort, and I like the feeling of uncertainty. I knowingly shot this film with an approach that would cause the audience to perhaps struggle with their feelings. So much about these girls is the period of life that they’re in and the discomfort they feel, the discomfort they project onto one another, the way the move around in the adult world with their little adolescent bodies, but don’t quite know how to say all the right words. So maybe the audience shows up and doesn’t quite know how to view it, or where it sits with them.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Laurel Nakadate: The Apartment is my favorite movie. Billy Wilder. Because I love that there can be joy found in rooms and that love can exist in a space that can then break your heart. I actually think about The Apartment a lot, because of all the videos that I shot with the men. Rooms and space can be so important and whole relationships can be formed around the magic of that. Anything can happen in a room with two people. It haunts me.