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SXSW '08 Interview: "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" Director Erik Nelson

by Erik Childress

The “Dreams With Sharp Teeth " Pitch: Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man -- who is actually 7 years old.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

ERIK NELSON: Nobody else seemed to be able to make a film on him, and I thought (and still feel) attention must be paid. Everybody was quick to proclaim Warren Zevon an American Icon -- after he died. Harlan should be alive to get the credit that is his rightful due. The rest came easy.

Harlan Ellison certainly has a personality that makes it easy for you to get on-camera interviews, but also the type that might lurch out and hit you with the camera if you ask the wrong question. Were there any moments where you were walking on eggshells over certain topics? Or any moments that didn't make it into the final cut you would like to share?

ERIK NELSON: One ALWAYS walks around eggshells around Harlan. I had read enough of Harlan's work to know what I was getting into from my first encounter on, so he knew from the beginning that I respected and was knowledgeable about the thing he cares about the most‹his work. As for the film, I just showed up with a camera. He didn't kick me out, although, I am sure he considered it many times. As for outtakes, they were many, most of the best ones are posted on the film web site.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up I want to be a..." what?

ERIK NELSON: Write Star Trek's as good as CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER, which I saw at the age of 12 the night it premiered. Life changing.

How did you get your real ³start² in filmmaking?

ERIK NELSON: Right out of college, I was a partner in a San Francisco outfit called "VideoWest," that pretty much defined music television in the early '80s‹at one time producing all of MTV's music news, independent rock and roll videos, as well as a cultural series for KQED, the local PBS affiliate. Not so coincidentally, there is footage in "Dreams" of Harlan, shot back in March of 1981, that I directed for a VideoWest documentary on television. It was shot by Wes Dorman, the same guy who shot the bulk of "Dreams." So one could safely say that this film is 27 years in the making!

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you¹re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

ERIK NELSON: Premiering my first feature, GRIZZLY MAN at Sundance, with Werner Herzog, and Richard Thompson by my side was pretty darn cool. I'm happy to say that Richard will be by my side on this, our second film together.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it¹s on “the festival circuit?”

ERIK NELSON: Now that we are going public, I am curious to see how the film plays to civilians. We feel it has the potential of being an unholy fusion of "The Aristocrats" meets "My Dinner With Andre" -- with the commercial potential of both. Doubt there are other films that can make that claim.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

ERIK NELSON: Nope. Made it to amuse myself, and so Harlan would feel that the precious time I consumed of him was well spent.

An early scene where Ellison angrily discusses his run-in with Warner Bros. over an interview he did for a Babylon 5 DVD, a show he worked on, seems like just the kind of rallying cry that the Writer's Strike needed amidst all their pro-guild videos. Did you ever consider lending that to them as both a favor (and maybe a little pre-promotion for yourself - wink.) Harlan may single-handedly start up the strike all over again. :)

ERIK NELSON: Uh, see here:

Over 114,000 hits, and counting!! Does THAT answer your question?

One of my favorite moments in the film comes when Harlan, seemingly by memory, recounts his teleplay for Star Trek's City on the Edge of Forever, widely contemplated as the best of the series. The way Ellison so beautifully describes each detail and each lovingly crafted bit of dialogue it's almost impossible to imagine it living and breathing so well in the actual episode. Did you consider showing the very clip from the episode in question and run into some ironic stance by Paramount in asking you to pay for the footage?

ERIK NELSON: No, Paramount would have let us license it. But, I felt the clip diluted the purity of Harlan's original vision, so, I elected to stick with that.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

ERIK NELSON: Dick Cheney.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

ERIK NELSON: 80 rough cuts makes perfect.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

ERIK NELSON: Harlan, in an essay he wrote in the mid-70's, introduced me to the work of Val Lewton, the auteur producer. Lewton's successful run of talent, taste and transcendence over the commercial obstacles he faced has always been a source of inspiration.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell ³This! I want something JUST like this only different?

ERIK NELSON: I don't watch movies in pre-production. Don't see enough of them once they have been PRODUCED, either.

If you could convince a classroom of school children to pick up a Harlan Ellison novel, which one would you choose, which grade would you begin with and what would you say to convince them to read it cover-to-cover?

ERIK NELSON: Harlan has only done ONE novel, Spider Kiss, which is most assuredly NOT kiddie friendly. I'd start them with THE GLASS TEAT, so they get inspired to kick in their TV sets.

What actor would you cast as your favorite cartoon character?

ERIK NELSON: Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

ERIK NELSON: Filming Harlan's BRILLIANT re-imagining of "I,ROBOT" , which exists as a published script, as a mini-series for HBO -- exactly the way Harlan wrote it. Anyone OUT there?

Finish this sentence: If I weren¹t a filmmaker, I¹d almost definitely be...

ERIK NELSON:....a producer.

Who¹s an actor you¹d kill to work with?

ERIK NELSON: I don't do actors. I am a happy documentarian.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”

Made what?

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

ERIK NELSON: Only the good ones. You know who you are.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

ERIK NELSON: Both, and neither.

This year's South by Southwest has certainly become one for the artists. Along with musical docs on Lou Reed, Joy Division and the Rolling Stones, writers are being propped up from Harlan Ellison and Hunter Thompson to Rex Reed through the doc treatment. For the 35th Anniversary of the festival in 2028, which writers of today would you like to see or do you believe we'll be seeing worthy documentaries about?

ERIK NELSON: John D. MacDonald, the greatest American writer of the 20th Century. (Sorry, Harlan).

What¹s your take on the whole ³a film by DIRECTOR² issue? Do you feel it¹s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film ­ or do you think it¹s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

ERIK NELSON: Both, and neither.

The unapologetically profane Ellison coined the term of "Bugfuck" according to an opening scrawl in your film. If you could coin such a bit of profanity and enter it into the English lexicon, what would it be?

ERIK NELSON: Focus Group.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

ERIK NELSON: If you have to ask, you can't afford one.


Erik Nelson's Dreams With Sharp Teeth will have its world premiere at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival on Saturday, March 8 at the Austin Convention Center (9:00 PM). It will screen again at Austin’s Paramount Theater on March 11 (9:45 PM) and again on Friday, March 14 (9:45 PM).

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originally posted: 02/29/08 06:56:48
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