Exclusive: Q&A with Visual Artist Turned Filmmaker Laurel Nakadate

Still from Stay the Same Never Change
Still from Stay the Same Never Change

Laurel Nakadate is an American filmmaker, video artist, and photographer based in New York City; she was born in 1975 in Austin, Texas, and spent her childhood in Ames, Iowa. In 2005, Nakadate’s Love Hotel and Other Stories received critical acclaim and Jerry Saltz dubbed her a standout at a P.S.1 group show that same year. She has since been exhibited at the Mary Boone Gallery and the Asia Society in New York, the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Stay the Same Never Change — a nonlinear yarn about young women set in the heartland — is her first feature film. It plays Rooftop Films Summer Series this Saturday night at 8 p.m.

Flavorpill: Tell us about your film.

Laurel Nakadate: Stay The Same Never Change takes place in Kansas City and stars mostly amateur actors. Though the story is scripted, the movie was shot in the actors’ real homes, so that the end result is a mix of both visual fact and narrative fiction. It’s a story about people and the lives they’re living while still wanting more. Whether it’s a family man looking for beauty, or a young woman obsessed with polar bears and Oprah, the characters reveal quiet lives full of sadness and desire. The film’s soundtrack features original music composed by Owen Ashworth and performed by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.

FP: In your video art and photography, you’ve often cast yourself as a subject. In what ways did not appearing in this film impact your creative process?

LN: Because I wrote, shot, directed and edited this film, I thought it would be better not to be in it. Psychologically, I needed to step away from that role anyway. I’ve been physically in my work for so many years now that I wanted to take a break from looking at myself, and I was really excited to look at other people. Also, shooting and directing is very intense and requires an enormous amount of focus. I knew that I would be sacrificing a lot if I tried to be in STSNC. Though, now I’ve been criticized for not being in it. I just finished shooting another feature and I have a tiny role, nothing big, just something to pacify those people who want me to show up.

Still from Love Hotel and Other Stories
Still from Love Hotel and Other Stories

FP: You work almost exclusively with non-actors. How did you cast this film?

LN: There is one professional actor in STSNC. His name is Matthew Faber and you may know from Welcome to the Dollhouse. He’s a friend of mine and I really wanted him involved. He generously agreed to come out to Kansas City to shoot. But, yes — I work almost exclusively with non-actors. I cast the film in a number of ways: MySpace, word of mouth, Craigslist, grabbing girls off the street. The audition was really more of an interview. I didn’t have them act for me; I just asked them about their lives.

FP: Womens’ bodies feature prominently in your film, yet the film is in no way exploitative. Why feature women both suggestively and with such empathy?

LN: There is a beautiful place between beauty and failure that I am always trying to explore. I’m drawn to the beautiful, flawed thing that does its best to keep going. I think that youth and specifically, the girls’ bodies in this film are described in a way that allow them to be both admired and a source of embarrassment. I’m interested in the way that young girls have all this beauty and it’s almost too much for them to handle at times. So, they dress in tiny shorts and wear orange bikinis around strangers — because they’re trying to figure out how to grow up. It’s not always graceful. I think most people can relate to this idea. I really feel for these girls, and I admire their youthful beauty, I understand.

Still from Stay the Same Never Change
Still from Stay the Same Never Change

FP: This film and many of your video projects focus on the dynamic between single, lonely men and young girls. What draws you to probe these relationships, and how do you navigate the line between voyeurism and exploitation?

LN: I’m interested in lonely people and the ways in which they navigate lives that they might not be content with. I believe loneliness has a weight — a profound heaviness that all humans have felt. I’ve been interested in exploring the ways two disparate people can end up in a space and try to interact. Physically, the image of the young girl and the older man doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t both want things and desire things and need things. I’m interested in the anxieties and desires that these characters share. I’ve always been curious about the ways two people can save each other from loneliness and the ways two figures can transform a room.

Humans like to look. I think that voyeurism and exploitation are often used in the same sentence. But, in my opinion, voyeurism is a beautiful and delightful thing. There is nothing more intimate than really looking at someone. Spending the time to really look is brave, and rare and lovely. As far as exploitation, I don’t believe that I’ve exploited anyone. Everyone in my short videos has agreed to be part of them. They’re all adults with the right to choose to be involved. I never force anyone to be on camera. That said, I’ve taken my fair share of criticism around the topic. I think I’ll leave it at that.

FP: Elaborating on the last question, in STSNC some of the men are shown with black bars covering their eyes. Are you suggesting anonymity, guilt, or something else entirely?

LN: The black bars serve a number of purposes. One was to eliminate faces we didn’t have releases for. I made this film on a very small budget, thanks to a grant from Grand Arts in Kansas City. So, I had to steal a lot of locations. We couldn’t always get a closed set. The other purpose of the bars was to hide the identity of some characters; I wanted to talk about what it means to be near someone you never really see. I liked the idea that there are people in our lives who don’t really factor in and though we interact with them physically, they don’t really affect us or move us emotionally. I thought by covering the men’s eyes, I could talk about a loss of intimacy and an awkwardness. Their bodies are there, but we can’t really meet them.

Still from Exorcism in January
Still from Exorcism in January

FP: The cowboy boots evoke a specifically American context. Is there an element of solitude and loneliness that you believe is quintessentially American?

LN: I like that idea! I’m not totally sure it’s true, but I’d like to think about it for a bit. I did use the cowboy boots to really make the character an American girl. And I also love that boots make us thing of the west and open spaces and a person who works for a living. I loved that I put them on a blonde teen in the Midwest who stomped around in them in booty shorts. I liked the mix of pathetic teen wear with dependable and tough footwear.

FP: Why did you set this film in the Midwest? Could these events and characters in appear with a NYC backdrop?

LN: No. This film is very specifically Midwestern. I grew up in Iowa, four hours from where I shot this film in Kansas City. It was important to me that the characters were true to the Midwest. I think that the feelings of isolation that these girls feel is universal, but physically the movie depends so much on a sense of place and space and landscape.

FP: Perhaps drawing from your work as a photographer, could you comment on your use of color in the film?

LN: I think a lot about color. Color can fuel a scene and break hearts. Probably because I come from a photo background, I’m always thinking about how color can change everything. Julie’s red lips in the last scene mean everything to that shot.

Nakdate also has an exhibit of photographs and videos at New York’s Leslie Tonkonow Artworks and Projects through tomorrow.

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