Daniel Nearing and The Last Soul on a Summer Night
Writing high art on a low budget
by Paula Hendrickson
Daniel Nearing accomplished what many thought was impossible. He adapted Sherwood Anderson’s classic collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio, into a feature-length art film, garnering rave reviews and earning his film a spot among the late Roger Ebert’s list of 2010’s top art films.
Even more impressive: He did it on a micro-budget of just $1,000—which was spent on feeding the cast and crew. Originally titled Chicago Heights, the film was later retitled The Last Soul on a Summer Night.
Nearing—who created and coordinates the Independent Film & Digital Imaging MFA program at Governors State University, just outside Chicago in University Park, Illinois—has since written, directed and is in post-production on another micro-budget feature, Hogtown, and already has another feature script in the works.
Earlier in his career Nearing was a documentary filmmaker, and sees parallels between the two types of storytelling. “If you tell documentary stories well, you look for dramatic structure as you write, shoot and edit,” he says. “You also become conscious that there are indeed three phases of writing. Writing starts in the solitary experience of the screenwriter; we adapt and revise as needed on the set; we trust then that it will come to fruition somehow in the editing.” But it all starts on the page.
Nearing’s approach to scriptwriting doesn’t begin with a detailed outline plotting out the entire story. “I tend to write vignettes, little scenes that resonate somehow or contain quietly epiphanal moments that help me find my way into character. The vignettes aggregate into sequences. Plot is important, but secondary—all plot is a veneer to a large extent, regardless of genre, be it action film or art film.”
Not surprisingly, Nearing appreciates Sherwood Anderson’s notion that character is everything, and that people should think in circles, not in straight lines. “When I do research, I’m looking for idiosyncrasies or contradictions or ironies among facts that ground the narrative solidly in history, but also point to deeper truths.”
Patience is also important. Nearing began adapting Winesburg, Ohio more than a decade before finally making Chicago Heights. “My co-writer Rudy Thauberger and I went through a number of incarnations before its time came, and in retrospect I’m relieved that it didn’t come together until it did, and the way it did,” Nearing says. Thauberger was deeply involved in writing the early drafts, and consulted closely as Nearing developed what would be come the final script.
Hogtown had a long road as well. Nearing initially started writing that in 1995, as a novel he’d set in Toronto, but couldn’t find the right ending. “In September 2010, I was trying to figure out my next move—the film to follow Chicago Heights. I was in Toronto at the Toronto International Film Festival, standing on Yonge Street, when a tour bus went by and I heard a docent say over her loudspeaker, ‘They made a movie called Chicago in Toronto. Someday they’ll make a movie called Toronto in Chicago.’”
Those words struck a chord with Nearing, a Canadian who once lived in Toronto but has long called Chicago home. “Later that day I had the eureka thought that Hogtown could be transposed from Toronto to Chicago. I went through all the strands of the narrative and found all kinds of serendipities. For example, Ernest Hemingway is a character in both the Toronto and Chicago versions. He was working in Toronto in 1920, but tied very closely to his hometown of Oak Park. The project is much, much stronger as a result of the move, for all kinds of reasons.”
Having written scripts from both original stories and adaptations of existing works, including his own, Nearing says the creative path is similar. “The processes aren’t hugely different with respect to the decisions you make along the way and that little house of cards you come up with at the end,” he notes.
“[With adaptations] you do have the benefit of the narrative template, and in the case of Anderson’s work, the benefit of one of the most beautiful and highly-regarded books in the history of American literature. But then you face the challenge most screenwriters don’t have to face: you need to distill the essence of a work that may take days to read into a very sprightly couple of hours.”
His initial attempt to get Winesburg to fit into the conventional three-act structure fell flat. “That led to a decision to throw all that work out and go at it again, bridging the length of the book by consolidating characters and taking liberties with the story, all while wondering if Sherwood Anderson was rolling over in his grave.”
One thing Nearing doesn’t think about when writing scripts? Production budgets. “I think Lew Hunter has advised that you ‘spend all the imaginary money you want’ while writing. He’s right. I’m making soft-spoken, character-driven pieces that aren’t reliant on pyrotechnics, so things are going to be easier for me. There’s no sense of restriction.”
He set a vignette from Hogtown at Niagara Falls. With no location budget, it was suggested the scene be cut. But while on vacation near Niagara Falls, the director of photography shot some background footage; Nearing set up a green screen in his living room and filmed the actors there. “The scene turned out beautifully,” he adds.
Producing his own scripts hasn’t changed Nearing’s approach to screenwriting, but it did underscore the fluidity of filmmaking. “Don’t try to tell your film that it’s going to have to adhere to your script. When you are editing, let the footage tell you the story it wants to tell. If the writing is strong enough, the best aspects of the screenplay will still shine in the assembly.”
Instead of listening to people tell him why good films can’t be made on a micro-budget, Nearing follow his instincts. “Never tell yourself it can’t be done, and never let anyone tell you that you’re going to be limited by a micro-budget. I’ve learned the converse is true,” he says. “I doubt that you will ever have more liberty as an artist or more flexibility in the process of production than you have when all involved are making a labor of love.”
Often, budget limitations inspire the cast and crew to get even more creative. “I’m honestly not sure we could have made Hogtown with three million dollars on a union set, but we were able to make it with $10,000 and some incredibly dedicated and gifted volunteer cast and crew.”
Chicago Heights (aka The Last Soul on a Summer Night)
Honors & Awards:
Best Art Films of 2010 – Roger Ebert
In Competition – Flash Forward – Busan International Film Festival (Busan is the biggest festival in Asia)
Best Film in a Fine Arts Discipline – Berlin Black Film Festival
Official Selection – Black Harvest Film Festival, Gene Siskel Film Center
Official Selection – Ohio Independent Film Festival
Short Film Corner (as “Nobody Knows), Festival de Cannes
Honorable Mention, Narrative Category – Columbus International Film Festival
Official Selection – Iowa Indie