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The word that director Jonathan Nossiter has gotten from the initial Washington screening is that almost no one likes his first feature, Sunday. In particular, that no one from the Washington Postthe longtime employer of his late father, foreign correspondent Bernard Nossiterlikes it at all. “I guess there’s no question of nepotism,” he jokes.
Although he’s disappointed, Nossiter is not too surprised. The film was generally well received in New York, but it was panned in the New York Times. The tale of two lost, lonely middle-aged people who meetand bare both their broken souls and their slack bodiesSunday is as grimy and unlovely as the section of Queens in which it was shot. The director thinks it challenges the “safe middlebrow suburban point of view” of mainstream newspapers. “The film has many faults,” he concedes, “but it’s not safe and suburban.”
Ironically, Nossiter is speaking by phone from an upscale suburban area code west of New York City. He’s at the home of his Sunday co-writer James Lasdun to work on a script for his next film. It was a Lasdun story that inspired the film, although Nossiter says that little of the original remains in the finished product.
“I met James at a party,” he recalls, “and then went out and bought his short stories. I was very struck by one of them. There was a plot twist that formed the emotional/psychological [framework] for a film: What happens when two people meet who are in a state of some distress, who have a desperate urge to make a connection, to exchange some tenderness? That was in James’ story. And the case of mistaken identity was very much there. We sat down, and I said, ‘Do you want to do something from scratch, using this and completely abandoning the story?’ And he seemed delighted to do it.”
Nossiter admits, however, that his film is not exactly about a case of mistaken identity. When unemployed British actress Madeleine (Lisa Harrow) meets downsized, homeless ex-executive Oliver (David Suchet) on the street, she calls him Matthew, but it’s not entirely clear that she ever actually believes he is Matthew. “It’s a case of ambiguous identity,” agrees the director. “That’s a good distinction. Both filmmakers and journalists have relied on that catch phrase, but it’s misleading. If there is interest and pleasure in the film…then it’s precisely because there is a series of shifting doubts about exactly who [the characters] are, what they think of each other, and what they’re looking to feel and to get out of each other.”
This ambiguity, Nossiter says, was not part of the original idea. “The writing of it started maybe as a case of unequivocal mistaken identity. But then part of the pleasure in actually making the film was in letting the material surprise us. And I think that’s only possible in a film, where you’ve got more than one person who’s actually creating something. Just simply with me and James, we would surprise each other as we were writing.
“It’s a bit like a jazz score in a way; stuff kept shifting. And then when the actors came into the mix for rehearsal, they brought their own assumptions. We would tussle and argue, and new things would come out of that. The shooting revealed things that were beyond the limits of my imagination and my intentions. And then in the editing, we were constantly surprised by what would come up. Ambiguities would emerge that we hadn’t planned. Which suggested that the film did have an inner life.
“It felt,” he concludes, “like we were working on an interesting sort of quicksand.”
Despite his enthusiasm for surprises, Nossiter says he “did plan shots pretty thoroughly. The locations were places I’d taken pictures in for eight or nine years. The shelter that we shot in was a place that James worked in for three years. I worked in it also, and shot video in it for about a year and a half. I had a pretty worked-out series of shots, but they were designed in a way to allow spontaneous things to happen. There are a lot of Queens residents who appear in the film, who bring a spontaneous documentary quality. Which I like very much, the collision of real life and fiction.”
The film opens and closes in the homeless shelter, and the people seen there “are a mix of some pretty established actors like Jared Harris, lesser-known actors, some people who technically are actors but who have been homeless themselves, and some actual homeless people. I think the actors were very excited to be forced to confront a level of reality that you don’t do in some kinds of films.”
To protect their privacy, Nossiter prefers not to identify which of his players were actually homeless, but he does acknowledge that the film’s most flamboyant supporting character, a Chinese man who sings opera in the subway is “sort of semi-homeless. He’s someone I’ve known for years in my local subway station. That’s what he does to try and get by. He actually is a trained opera singer.”
Nossiter previously made documentaries, notably Resident Alien with Quentin Crisp, but he wanted to move beyond that with Sunday. “There is a documentary feel to certain parts of it. There’s also a sort of fantastical, surreal quality to other parts. There are elements that are gritty; it’s a part of New York that’s not the most glamorous, that’s for sure. But my background is also as a painter. I think there’s a care that’s gone into the composition and the lighting that works sort of as a counterpoint to the shooting in real places with real people. It’s a mixture. You’ve got two incredibly trained Shakespearean actors, right up against people living their lives in Queens.
“I’m a huge fan of George Bellows,” he continues. “I actually went to the National Gallery in Washington to look at his paintings of New York street life at the turn of the century. What I saw in some of Bellows’ paintings is an exciting mixture of something very real, very palpable, very tough, but quite beautiful and lyrical. That’s something I would aspire to.”
In one scene in the shelter, a radio chatters about Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign. Nossiter laughs at the mention of it. “The film is not a piece of agitprop,” he says. “I’m not interested in films that are absolutely, overtly political. I think they tend not to accomplish their [goals]. But James and I both feel that there is a political point of view in the film. We tried to allow it emerge a little more obliquely. It’s not a film about homelessness. But there are circumstances in the film that, hopefully, can push someone to think about what the relationship is between being middle-class and underclass, how fragile the distinction is. And what some of the forces are in American life that created that fragility.”
Although it’s set in Queens, both of Sunday’s principal players are British. “Madeleine was obviously intended as an English person. You got a sense of an exile,” says Nossiter. “And David Suchet just seemed like the best person for the part. I knew he was such a great actor that he could pull off being an ordinary American. It would have been easier in a way to have cast an American, but he’s got certain qualities that I thought were necessary. He has a kind of American gutsiness, which I admire a lot, the willingness to rip his heart out. But what he has because of his Royal Shakespeare Company technique is an ability to control it, so it doesn’t become sentimental. I think it would have completely disrupted the balance of the film if the actor had indulged himself in his own emotions.”
The film’s other British sensibility is Lasdun’s; he was born and raised in London, although he now lives in the U.S. Madeleine’s commentary on Queens, for example, “actually came out of an observation that James made. I took him to Queens early in the writing process. I wanted him to get a sense of this place that I found remarkable. He looked around and said, ‘The whole thing seems really makeshift. It feels like it was just doodled into existence.’ Which are lines that found their way into Madeleine’s mouth. It seemed like the right sort of cheek to me.
“One of the things that’s interesting to me about Queens is its provisional nature,” the filmmaker explains. “If the story is to some extent about the provisional nature of the American dream, this felt like the right landscape. It doesn’t have the iconic nature of Manhattan, or the physical solidity of Brooklyn, or the sense of decay that the Bronx has. It does have this very elusive quality. It’s slippery. And that felt exactly like the nature of the story.”
Nossiter rejects the notion that Sunday is a conscious rebuke to a safer, glossier style of American filmmaking. “I think you just make the films you feel engaged to make,” he says. “Anyone making a film is out of his mind. It’s not a rational thing to do. I think the only way films ever get done is by people being completely obsessed with getting a story on the screen. At least that’s my sense of why most people make films.”
Naturally, Nossiter is irrational enough to be planning another movie. Titled Signs & Wonders, it’s set in Greece. Or, as he puts it, “in Athens, actually. The Queens of Europe.”