Tuesday, June 9, 2015

LARS & THE REEL: The Austin Film Society's Lars Nilsen

“Don’t Savlov me,” says Lars Nilsen, referring to Austin Chronicle movie critic Marc Savlov. “Savlov is the worst. Oh, I like that little man, but I’ve talked to Savlov many times, and what I say just becomes written in Savlovese. I end up talking like Dizzy Gillespie. I don’t know where the hell he gets the stuff that he rewrites ~ stuff that I would never say, stuff that would be something that’s exactly what Marc would say ~ those words, coming out of my mouth. No real harm done, but aaaargh.

Illustration by Tim Doyle

Lars Nilsen is sitting in Ken’s Donuts on Guadalupe and devouring a thick, sugar-coated toroid of fried dough.

Nilsen, whose brown hair used to intrude like an aggressive nimbus but is lately more tidily shorn, is the programming director at the Austin Film Society ~ and former film programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. His previous employment comes a-haunting as I activate my phone’s audio-recorder app and, as if prompted, Nilsen’s own phone rings for the second time in five minutes. 

“Okay, Brenner, sorry,” Nilsen tells me, grabbing the device. “I’m gonna see what this is, get it out of the way, lemme just ~” He taps the phone to answer.

“Hello?” says Nilsen, brushing a crumb of dough off his Museum of Jurassic Technology T-shirt.  “Hey there, what’s happenin’? I’m in the middle of an interview right now ~ is this something you might be able to send me an email about? … No, I’m at Austin Film Society now, so I’m too classy for you … Yeah, you should certainly send an email to Tommy-dot-Swenson at Drafthouse-dot-com … Swenson. … Wait, no, you know what? Send it to Programming at Drafthouse-dot-com. … Yup … Yeah, I don’t work there anymore, but they’re still my buddies. … Okay, talk to you later, ’bye.”

He ends the call, stashes his phone. “Sorry about that.”

“No worries,” I say around a mouthful of chocolate pastry. 

Nilsen takes another bite of his doughnut. “Mmmmm, yeah,” he says, nodding, goofing deadpan. “You can really taste the sugar, I find.” 

We’re sitting in Ken’s Donuts due to Nilsen’s insistence. It’s near where he used to live back in the day, back when he was working at Kinko’s and driving a cab and all of that. Back when the tall and lanky transplant from North Carolina first started obsessing about movies. He hasn’t been in Ken’s Donuts for years, but he’s made it the required venue for this interview.

“I first chose to come here on a weird hunch,” says Nilsen. “One of those lapses of taste or judgment. And it was just a perfect kind of experience. I’ve lived here ten years and I never haunted the spot, but, sitting here right now, I was thinking how this place hasn’t changed at all ~ except they now have two ATMs instead of just one, thank God. And it’s owned by Indians now. And it’s just a shitty doughnut shop; it’s not very good. But it abides.”

Nilsen abides, too. He’s been abiding in Austin since 1994, eventually running the Alamo’s Weird Wednesdays series, providing pre-show compilations of bizarre yet thematic footage for the venue’s main features, generally helping Alamo founder Tim League turn the weird and awesome cinematic part of his business into the best weird and awesome cinematic part of anybody’s business. And now, as we’ve mentioned, Nilsen’s moved over to programming for the Austin Film Society, which is a sort of come-full-circle situation, considering the man’s personal history and inspirations, and he’s already expanded that Society’s offerings with ~ 

Hold on, though. You don’t need a synopsis here, do you? A prefatory glut of exposition, some voice-over narration to help you deal with, I don’t know, an origami unicorn later on? Instead, let’s allow the man to give you the details in his own words. Let’s … what do they say in the industry? “Roll sound,” do they say? Okay, then:

Nilsen: I grew up in a city ~ well, not a city, more of a small town. It was, and probably still is, about the same population: A city of 60,000 people, called Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. I was an only child. Probably not surprising. I recommend it ~ I recommend it for others. People who are unlucky enough to have siblings ~ it’s not too late!

Brenner: [laughs] Yeah, my daughter’s an only child. My wife’s an only child. It’s a good thing.

Nilsen: I think I have a lot of working confidence in this life, and so much of it is because I’m an only child. Not having any brothers and sisters means I was never setting my bar to an older brother or something like that. I was setting my bar to people in books I read, or to people who were real grown-ups. I find that a lot of my ~ my girlfriend is an only child, a lot of people I know are only children.

Brenner: What were your parents like?

Nilsen: My mom had a great sense of humor. Has a great sense of humor. And she read a lot. My parents divorced when I was really young, and I had a stepfather. I didn’t know my real father. I have a vague memory of meeting him when I was very young, but he just wasn’t in my life: He wasn’t sending checks, he wasn’t sending letters or cards or anything like that, he just wasn’t in my life. But my mom was very smart, and she just read endlessly, was always reading, and our house was full of books. We particularly loved reading books about the movies ~ and loved movies ~ and we had cable, such as it was at the time, in the Eighties ~ and we had a lot of the superstations, WOR and WGN and TBS, if these letters even mean anything to you, and they showed a lot of movies on these stations. We had HBO and all that stuff, too, but it was mainly these stations that showed all the old black-and-white movies. There’d be a lot of movies, and my mom ~ and, to a lesser extent, my stepfather ~ they’d be watching, and they’d say “Oh, there’s Franklin Pangborn,” they’d point out the bit players in all the movies. So I got to know who everybody was. And we had these books, Whatever Became Of …? And they bought Hollywood Babylon as soon as it came out. And if a bio of, like, Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor came out, they bought it ~ in hardback. Even though we were very poor, we had books. And that was one thing that I was never refused. I couldn’t have had toys, probably, I couldn’t have had most things, but my parents never refused me a book that I wanted. If I wanted a book, we’d get it at the library or, if it was at the bookstore, we’d just buy it. And I didn’t know, at that time, that it was a hardship? But it was a hardship, you know? To have the books that we needed. But not only was there never a thought that I wouldn’t get those books, there was never strain exhibited. It was always “Yes, of course you can have this book!” How much would this be? Fifty dollars in 1981 dollars? “Fine, sure, we’ll do it.”

Brenner: So, a wealth of books ~ but your family was poor?

Nilsen: We were poor and we lived on the bad side of town. Rocky Mountain’s a weird city, because it’s poor and very rich at the same time. Hardee’s is based there.

Brenner: The hamburger chain? Where ~ how does it go? “Where The Burgers Are Charcoal-Broiled”?

Nilsen: Yeah, it was founded there and based there. And it seemed like so many people I knew, their parents were executives at Hardee’s, or they were lawyers who worked for Hardee’s. Hardee’s was, it was kind of like a one-shop town. But then I was on the poor side of town. And there were the good schools and the bad schools, and I went to the bad schools. Although, at a certain point, they came up with this thing called Gifted & Talented, where they took those of us who were smart kids or readers or amazing geniuses ~ or prodigies like me ~ and put them in special classes. So that was pretty cool for a little while. And in sixth grade, they crammed the rich kids and the poor kids together, which is a great kind of culture shock, because I hadn’t realized that these kids were that rich. I mean, they probably weren’t, not riiiiiiiiiich, but they seemed like billionaires to me.

Brenner: And that childhood, then, is that where your love of movies started? With the superstations and all?

Nilsen: I didn’t have a love of movies like what you see now. I liked reading about movies, and I liked movies, but I always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. From the time I was 12 or so, I wanted to be a writer, it was kind of like my destiny. And I never got that big into movies until many years later, until I was probably 21 or 22, and I was living in New York and San Francisco and places like that, where there were real movie theatres. That’s when I became a big movie fan ~ and I was a little bit of a nut. So, those things, and moving here to Austin and having this Vulcan Video just around the corner, and Austin Film Society’s movies at Hogg Auditorium on campus, that’s really when I became a big movie fan ~ around ’94 or so. 

Brenner: You moved to Austin in ’94?

Nilsen: Yeah. I saw Slacker when I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I really loved the film, what the movie’s about. And, secondarily, in Slacker you’d see people in their little shitty apartments ~ they’re presumably cheap apartments ~ and you see people cutting across parking lots and all that kind of stuff. You got to see people going to the supermarket. You got to see Austin, and it was so much more beautiful than the places that I was accustomed to in Chapel Hill. And, years later, after kind of washing out after living in San Francisco and New York, after realizing I didn’t want to just, like, perch on the third or fourth floor of some shitty neighborhood forever, I thought back to those great apartments that I saw in Slacker ~ and the energy and the sense of humor that Austin seemed to have. And so I moved here. So you can see how it’s kind of come full circle in a way, right?

Brenner: Sure, with Richard Linklater starting the film society that you’re programming for now ~ it’s a kind of movielike thing right there. And what’d you do when you first got here?

Nilsen: I stayed at the Ace Motel ~ which is still around, on Manor Road. And I went to every bookstore that existed, trying to find a job, but none were hiring, so I went back to a bad habit of mine: working for Kinko’s. I used to do that back in those days ~ I think I’ve worked at six separate Kinko’s in my life ~ but it was just something I could always go and do, just pick it up. So I worked at Kinko’s for the first three years that I lived in Austin. And I drove a cab for five years. I’d never driven a cab in other cities ~ wouldn’t even have considered it. But Austin’s a pretty safe place, and it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. [Nilsen frowns.] This is dreadfully dull.

Brenner: Okay, tell me something more exciting. How’d you get hooked up with the Alamo Drafthouse?

Nilsen: Okay. [Slurps coffee.] When I was working for Kinko’s and driving a cab, I was in that life but I was not of it, you know? It wasn’t all I did. During the whole of that time I was obsessed with movies. I was going crazy at Vulcan and I Luv Video, and at every Hollywood Video in town where they had old VHS stock. I’d go through and find all these movies and learn all the alternate titles. And I was reading the Psychotronic video guides. And a book came out called Immoral Tales by Pete Tombs that blew my mind, just destroyed me, got me into European sex and horror films. I just went crazy, went over the moon with this stuff. And then Mondo Macabro ~ also by Pete Tombs ~ came out maybe a year later, and I freaked out about weird movies from around the world. 

I was writing about these things in my notebook; I was making videotapes for people. I’d go and rent these movies and I’d dub them from VCR to VCR. My house filled with videotapes, and I’d get a 160-minute tape and I’d record four movies on it in EP mode, and I’d give these as gifts to my friends ~ with extensive program notes about them, about what I loved about them. In the meantime, I was keeping a movie journal where I’d rank them, like a movie would get a score based on the personnel in the film and how high were the aims that it set and did it achieve those aims? All that stuff. I filled up graph-paper notebooks with this stuff, sitting in coffeeshops and just writing about movies, out of my mind with it all. I went crazy like this sort of pretend-movie-scholar for a few years. And I’d make cassette-tape recordings of scenes from my favorite movies, audio compilation tapes of scenes from movies that I loved, and music from those movies, and I’d sit out at the airport, waiting for a fare in my cab, and I’d listen to these tapes. I never went to college, and that was sort of like my film school, in a way.

So, anyway, at a certain point, I’m working at Kinko’s at Medical Arts ~ it’s not there anymore ~ and I worked the latenight shift. And one night I looked over at one of the self-service counters and there were film books that I recognized, that I knew I probably wanted, and a Superfly soundtrack that I knew I probably wanted, and other film memorabilia ~ like lobby cards and such ~ and they were just sitting there. So I walked over and I said, “Well, somebody left this, and I feel really bad for them, but I’m gonna take all this stuff and put it in the lost & found. And when it’s time for me to go home at eight o’clock, I’m gonna take it home with me.” 

So I put it in the lost & found, like, Okay, just wait here for me, I will not forget you. And then some guy with a buzz cut came up to the counter a few minutes later and was like, “What happened to all my stuff? I had it sitting right here. Did somebody come and take it?” And I was like, I can’t lie, and I said “Ah, here you go ~ I thought somebody had left it.” And he was like, “I’m a Mac guy and I can’t figure out how to use these PCs, and I’m trying to print something out.” And he was trying to print out the first iteration of the Alamo guide. He was working on it, and I went to give him whatever help I could, and I looked at the calendar he was working on, and I was like, “Holy shit, you’re playing that? You’re playing that?” and just freaking out about the offerings. So we struck up a conversation, and I was probably talking a mile a minute, like “Oh! That part of the movie is fantastic, where there’s that really great Curtis Mayfield score and it comes in and just changes the whole character of the movie, it adds this, like, this moral element, and ~” I was really talking shit like that, to some guy I had just met, who just wanted to figure out why the printer wasn’t registering in the dialogue or something. But we hit it off, and, maybe just to get rid of me, he gave me his card ~ Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas ~ and he said, “We’re opening up this new place.” And that’s how I first met Tim. 

I think he wrote “Admit One” on the back of his business card, as a free pass. And I started going to that theatre regularly once it opened. And I continued to talk a mile a minute with Tim. And I’d already been making videotapes for my friends, and I started making videotapes of little bits that were themed towards the movies that Tim was playing. And I’d bring them in and be like, “Hey, you’re gonna play Gator Bait, you should play this beforehand.” And he’d put it on, and that’d be the pre-show. Prior to that, the pre-shows had just been from Tim’s weird VHS collection of, like, Angela Lansbury’s Dancing Grannies or OJ Simpson Goes Fishing or whatever, so if you got there thirty minutes early, you could watch thirty minutes of Angela Lansbury’s workout video. So I started making these themed tapes, and recommending movies, and after a while Tim was like, “Hey, I’m starting this series called Weird Wednesdays with all these prints that I bought. Look through this list of films.” And Tim was introducing all of these, and he wasn’t necessarily doing a great job of introducing them? So he asked me for help, to come in and kind of host the films and give him recommendations about which things to play. So that’s how I became a film programmer. And then Tim brought me on to do the pre-shows in 2003.

Brenner: And the pre-shows you made for the other features, those weren’t always as specific as the Weird Wednesday ones, were they?

Nilsen: No, but I wouldn’t even make themed pre-shows for every Weird Wednesday. Generally ~ and I still do this, even though now I don’t get paid for it, because so many of my files are still living on the Alamo servers ~ but I make pre-show collections with the assumption that people are stoned when they’re watching those movies. So I want to thrill those people and freak them out a little bit. I think of Weird Wednesdays as a series for people who are high on marijuana. And the pre-shows for those films are … for people who are high on marijuana.

Brenner: And what about the general pre-shows? Are those a bit less, ah ~

Nilsen: They’re for people who are high on marijuana.

Brenner: So, everything is ~

Nilsen: ~ for people who are high on marijuana. Absolutely.

Brenner: And it’s made by someone who’s high on marijuana?

Nilsen: Actually, I smoke very little pot these days. But I think it’s a helpful and valuable thing ~ especially for creative people.

Brenner: Okay, and what you’re doing ~ what you were doing, programming for the Alamo, and now programming for the AFS, it’s what you were already doing for years, anyway, without being paid. So now that it’s been your actual job for a while, is it threatening ~ is it starting to threaten ~ to become a grind for you?

Nilsen: As you get a little bit older ~ well, I shouldn’t make this universal. It happened for me that, as I grew older, and I had jobs that I cared about a lot, the line between when-I’m-living-my-life and when-I’m-at-work just evaporated a little bit. Like, am I at work right now? Am I? Maybe I am. Because I’m talking to Brenner, and Brenner works at the Chronicle, and I like Brenner, and he’s just doing his thing. But maybe people will read this and then be more inclined to go to an AFS show. So, I don’t know, maybe I am working right now, you know? I feel like I’m just sitting and talking with a friend. But I’m often just sitting and talking with a friend, and I’m like, “Am I at work?” And if I’m at home and I’m watching a movie, I might be thinking, “Oh, this Barbara Stanwyck movie is incredible, we should totally show this movie.” So am I then at work? I think I am, kind of. So it’s really hard to say. 

If you find a really fulfilling job, it’s just impossible to say “Am I at work now or not?” And it’s not a grind. There are grindy things about my job ~ there were a lot of grindy things about my Alamo job, towards the end ~ and there are still grindy things about my AFS job: It’s the nature of work. But I feel like I have such a facility with the non-grindy parts of my job that they almost seem to happen without me exerting any sort of will. I go in and I program without a feeling of exertion or a feeling that I’m doing any work. 

I’d worked at the Alamo for a long time ~ and it’s a great job, and it’s great people ~ but I was just tired of it. In the same way that probably Hugh Hefner goes to work and is like, “Ah, I hate this job,” you know? You do a thing for a long time, you just become a little tired of the usual grind. And if you’re like me, you want some new challenges, and the challenges that were arising at the Alamo weren’t necessarily challenges that I was excited about. Like the challenge of opening a theatre in a suburb where it’s mostly families with kids, and they mainly like newer movies, and things like that. It’s not a challenge I relish. 

So I started looking around, almost subconsciously, for other things that I could do. And my friend Holly moved to town from New York to work for AFS. And I’d just mentioned to my colleague Zack Carlson that I was thinking about quitting, and he said, “You should talk to Holly.” And I went to Holly and I was like, “Yeah, I’m thinking about quitting; I might just go drive a cab again.” And Holly said, “Well, let me go talk to Rebecca Campbell, maybe we’ve got something at AFS.” 

And now I’m programming movies for AFS’s arthouse series, and I’m very happy with it. And I’ve promiscuously started several new series, like History of Television and Auteur Obscure and Race Films, and I’m probably gonna start some more. I get to exercise mental muscles that I don’t normally get a chance to exercise.