TORONTO--When Norman Jewison founded the Canadian Film Centre in 1988, his goal was to find young Canadians who could take their existing skills and learn to make feature films that Canadians would pay money to see. Within a decade, filmmakers emerging from the centre were making independent films that were earning critical praise and festival awards. One of the first was Vincenzo Natali, who had gone to the centre after working as a storyboard artist at the Canadian animation company Nelvana. Cube, his first feature, made its debut at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival and won several international festival prizes and Genie nominations in five technical categories.
Natali returned to the Toronto festival in 2002 with his second feature, Cypher, and went back again last year with Nothing, which opens Friday (July 23) in Vancouver. The movie, which was written by Andrew Miller and Andrew Lowery, stars Cube's David Hewlett and Miller as two men who appear to be on the brink of disaster. A misunderstanding leads police and angry crowds to their door, but just as the throng descends on the house, things change. The world outside the house disappears, taking with it the people, the neighbourhood, and all the flora and fauna. All that is left on the horizon is nothingness. As the two men set out to look for signs of civilization, they lose their own civility.
In a Toronto hotel's interview room, Natali said that he came up with the concept and handed it over to the writers. "Originally, it was to be a movie written with the actors, but then Andrew Lowery liked the idea enough that he and Andrew Miller suggested they would take it, and they did a wonderful job. To me it was, visually, a very interesting concept to explore. I approached it very much like an animated movie, because there was so much effects work and also because we had such a low budget we had to previsualize and preconceptualize things in as much detail as possible."
Because the characters have to live inside a world that has no ground or sky, the actors had to spend much of the shooting schedule suspended from the ceiling on wires, with their environment, such as it was, added in postproduction. Natali said that Hewlett and Miller put up with the abuse because all three men, who have known each other since they were teenagers, realized that it could be their last opportunity to work together.
"We physically abused them in every conceivable way, but I think everyone relished the experience because, ultimately, we all knew that it was an extraordinary opportunity for us to work together. I grew up with David [Hewlett], making films when we were kids in high school, and I have known Andrew for almost as long. We have been collaborating for a long time. Given how difficult it is to finance a film, particularly an odd film like Nothing, we savoured every moment of it, as painful as it might have been at points, because it may never happen again."
Despite his concerns about finding the funding to make movies in Canada, Natali says he would like to make films more often than he has in the past. He says that although he has completed three features since leaving film school in 1994, he feels that he has learned enough about the industry to be even more prolific.
"It is so hard to sell a film these days, and you never know what the market is going to want, so you need to have a lot of different things at hand. I worked for years developing projects that fell apart at the last minute, and that is a reality you have to accept. One of my heroes is [Japanese director] Takashi Miike, who directs, on average, five films a year. What I take from that is it gives him an opportunity to grow as a director because he gets to practise his craft so much. In addition to that, he doesn't get caught up in what he is doing, so he is willing to take chances that other people are not willing to take. Nothing is that kind of film. It was a film we made knowing full well that we could fall flat on our face, and so it is an exciting film for that reason. If I ever fail, I want to fail spectacularly, and I think that if you are prolific it gives you a little more flexibility. I don't want to be a Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick, who made so few films in their careers."