Director Nicolas Steiner on his stunning documentary Above and Below

On the UK debut of Above and Below at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, director Nicolas Steiner chats about his spellbinding feature documentary, and the process by which his student project has become a cinematic odyssey, captivating audiences worldwide.

Lalo climbing out of a manhole. Steiner: ‘It is symbolically, visually and content wise one of the key shots of the film’

What sparked the idea for you?

I was in San Francisco and I made this photo series about ghost towns. It became clear to me then that I really wanted to do something in the desert, as it seemed to be a really attractive place: devastating, rough, hot, dry, lonesome. I was really attracted to the place itself first, and then when I started to look into the life in the desert: the plants, the water, the human beings, thats when I started to research what kind of people are living in the desert.

I went to Las Vegas and I found it horrible. I was overwhelmed with everything that was going on, my senses were overwhelmed. Las Vegas is the most advanced stage of what humans can come up with, and yet it can be like hell. I was just walking around and I saw a guy in his pajamas carrying a chess board coming out of one of those tunnels and I thought ‘Wait a second, is this a show, like a Las Vegas show?’ and then I started to research the tunnels and I found a journalist who wrote about them. They reminded me of the film Dark Days. I didn’t know that life existed there.

Dave enjoying one of the sunsets. Steiner: ‘It’s his favourite thing to do. That’s when he can think the most about stuff’

And then Dave, I was just driving through the desert, looking for people and places, and found him accidentally and I knew he was going to be a part of the film. I mean, when you are in the middle of nowhere and a guy approaches you on a bicycle in the wilds of the desert, inviting you for a coffee in his bunker, you have to take the chance. As soon as I saw the drum set, I was done… I am a drummer myself and knew that this will be great.

And I already knew that the Mars people existed, as I saw a photo of them in a magazine. It reminded me of the photographs of Joel Sternfeld, whom I am really inspired by. He does wide landscape photographs but with something odd in the frame, like he once shot the Hoover Dam, and on the Hoover Dam there is a small baby caged up in a little thing and you are like ‘What?’ Some tourists just came out and put it there, so it’s a documentary photograph but it looks very staged. So when I saw the picture of the Mars astronaut for the first time, I was confused as I knew we were not on Mars yet, but it looked so real. And then you look closer and it looks a bit like a garbage can, so I was totally into that.

The Martians studying a print, possibly of a dinosaur. Steiner: ‘I like this image as it has something very archaic and human about it’

So pretty soon I got this whole picture of this travel that I wanted to do, almost looking into the future, like from Mars back to Earth and underneath its crust. It’s a documentary but it’s like sort of in 40 years or 100 years time. That was the idea. I like to put up a framework or concept when I make a film. And for this one it was cowboys, ghosts and aliens from Mars to Earth, and underneath its surface.

Was it hard to keep that frame in mind once you started to get to know the people? The characters are so strong, were you tempted to concentrate on just one set of characters and their story?

No. Of course this was a concept, it was pretty much for paper at first, to get funding, and also to develop my ideas. But it didn’t change. My Producer recently looked at the script I used for the funding and was surprised to see that this is what the film is now. Having a concept that you are attracted to is very important, even if you are not going to follow it all the way. But you need a really strong editor on your side. I don’t want to sound bad as I don’t want to say that a documentary just about homeless people in Las Vegas would be boring, but I was interested in different ideas.

They were all, in a way, homeless, but not all in poverty. That’s why I didn’t start the movie the way some of my teachers recommended me to, by showing Rick and Cindy smoking crystal meth. Its just at the end, very briefly, as it’s not really the topic.

So you went against your teachers’ advice?

I think that’s a normal process, to have that resistance and revolt and do your little punk thing, which is good. And I don’t know if my teachers played that role on purpose, but they didn’t like it and were going to give me a hard time, and then I got stronger and stronger in my vision, and now they like it.

But its not mathematics. I’m not studying maths where 2 and 2 is 4. What I’m doing, every teacher would tell me something different. My teachers would tell me its 5, 7, 8, its minus 3, and thats good, but I have my own calculation for that and that’s the beauty in it. But you have to have a good backbone too.

Director Nicolas Steiner (left) and editor Kaya Inan (right). Steiner: ‘We got completely surprised by a snow storm on our second day of filming in the “Mars landscape” in Utah. What was at first a disaster for shooting and for the concept, turned out to be great for the film’ 

What kind of conversations did you have with your protagonists when you were discussing their involvement in the film? They appeared to be very comfortable on camera, as if they felt they had ownership of the images, and I was wondering if you had talked about how they could use the filming process to portray a version of themselves?

I think it would be too much to explain to someone that they can use it as then they start to think too much about it and then it’s going to be even more weird, as, at the end of the day, it’s not reality as you have put up a camera, no matter how natural it feels. But I’m always open and honest. When I was walking through the tunnels looking for people, they would say ‘Who is there?’ and I always said ‘Hey its Nicolas, I’m a documentary film student from Europe’. So from very early on I make clear who I am and what the deal is and that’s how you find out that some people don’t want to talk to you and some are open to it.

Sound recordist Tobias Koch (left) and director Nicolas Steiner (right) on a research trip in the tunnels. Steiner: ‘I took my camera man and my sound guy into the tunnels without equipment at first, so they could get used to the place, the smells, the noises etc. This was the basic equipment I mostly took with me for the tunnels: long pants, good shoes, waterproofs, and backpack with water, food, cigarettes, and a couple of flashlights’

With Dave, I told him in July ‘Hey listen, I’m going to come back on the 15th October’, and I just made up that date on the spot and when we came back on that date, he was there. I always feel you need to have a little bit of luck but sometimes it’s important to provoke luck too.

It is a huge responsibility. You are dealing with real people and you decide how other people will look at them, and you can change their lives and portray them the way you want. But I think you can say that I was fascinated and amazed but also confused by them. All the emotions that a human can have, I got with them, which is really a great thing. And I hope that I can give them something back. After meeting Rick and Cindy last year, and seeing where they are now in their lives, I think you can say that I did. But it’s a rocky road. There were times when I swore to my friends that I would never do documentary again as you stumble across your own ethical and moral dilemmas.

Were there any ethical dilemmas that you found particularly difficult?

We did stay in the tunnel a lot, but it was like an on- and off thing. Some days we wouldn’t appear. We needed our space too, you need your six hours a day to be alone, to sleep or to reflect on what you are doing. So for me it was really important to have my own space, but thats where it gets tricky because on the one side you become closer, more and more like friends, but on the other side you are still the film maker so it became trickier when they started to go and rob stuff, like iPads. And I was driving them around as they told me they were going to medical appointments but I was actually more like a drug-deal driver. They put me in dangerous situations (that I didn’t really pick to be in) out of their necessity at that point. So I became part of their game somehow.

But on the other hand, it was just their daily hustle. The good part is that, for example, last year when I met them, they had gone through therapy and they apologised for that, and, you know, Im in Edinburgh in the film festival, giving an interview about the making of this film and without them I couldn’t have done it. So it’s a very tricky road that I’m happy to find out more about, as you find out more about yourself too.

Cindy talking about her dreams in the home she shares with Rick in the tunnel. Steiner: ‘ She is holding a “glitter-lamp”, some kind of micro fiber thing that she lights up with her own flashlight. Its a very warm, emotional scene and the first time in the film in which we hear the score’

Can you talk a bit about how you like to shoot? How long did you shoot for and what was your approach to the process?

I like to shoot in blocks. The shooting was two and a half months straight. I shot on average half an hour a day, which is not that much. Maybe it’s because when I started film school I shot a lot on 16mm so you hear the dollars rolling. Of course we lost many moments, but on the other hand, as soon as we started shooting, the energy was really high. I like that way of working.

How did you decide when to pick up the camera? How do you know?

There’s no rule. Its all about getting a feeling for the situation. If there is some talent involved in documentary film making, I think it’s that: To sense those things. Maybe not on the first day, but after you know people for a while or when you know rooms or places, you can sense things. In Las Vegas, you can sense that at some point, four times a year, there will be rain, though when it happens, it’s still a shock. During the flood, I wasn’t there while they were shooting. I was bringing stuff out, the sound guy was carrying stuff in one hand, trying to get sound with the other, we only have about five minutes of raw footage as we were so shocked. You leave the film-maker zone and you are just a human being. But it’s a very important scene as we talk about it during the whole film, so it was important to get it.

And with Lalo, you can sense that when you go with him into the tunnel, something might happen. I was always amazed by the acoustics in the tunnel and I thought ‘Wait a minute. This lovely dangerous gangster guy, something is hiding there. I’m sure he can scream or clap or something’. So I would go with him into the tunnel and he would tell me stories from the tunnel and then at some point I just started to clap. I was clapping and screaming and at some point I just went ‘Woo woo’, and I said ‘Lalo isn’t this crazy? These crazy acoustics I really like them’ as I am a musician myself, and that’s when he started singing, and thats what I mean. You sense there is something there but you can’t define it yet and then you get the biggest present ever. We stood there and we almost dropped the camera. You talk to this guy who killed a man, who is the nicest guy ever but has his own way of life and you don’t want to change him, and then he suddenly sings a Shania Twain Hallelujah song in the middle of a tunnel. Nobody could write something like this. Nobody could buy that on a fiction level. I think that’s the beauty of documentary sometimes.

Rick at home in the tunnel. Steiner: ‘He is holding a shaving mirror in his hand and is looking for something. Since he is behind a plastic wall, it is almost like one of those shadow plays’

Is that what you mean when you say you provoke situations?

Yeah, and sometimes they don’t work, of course. I expected at first he was going to start screaming, or saying something, but he told me earlier he played an instrument so I knew he might hide a musical mind.

The music seems integral to the film. At what stage did you bring the music in? 

It comes in very early. The problem is you can barely finance that. In this case we could do it as it was a student production, but if I was to do a new movie now and if I was to pay my composers from the earliest moment I start work with them, it would be a million dollar film.

In this case, I went on research and I brought back a lot of images, photographs that I took my time over, and based on these images and on the instruments I was thinking of, they started to compose and really went crazy. It’s based in the desert so they played around with the desert guitar and then I told them about being in the tunnel and the wind there, and then I heard sound tubes that I played with as a kid, and we had the idea that we should bring the sound tubes to Dave as he is such a playful guy. So that’s how it works. Before I went into shooting, I already had about ten tracks made by them, that are just sketches but I used them for some shots. For example for the one that goes through all the worlds when Cindy is reading her poem, I gave the cameraman an iPod with that track on so he could pace it, so it would be easier to stick it together in the edit. So yes, you can’t just do it in the edit, If you want to go crazy like that you have to think about it in advance a bit.

It looked like it had been thought out.

You liked it, or . . .?

Yes it fitted so perfectly together you got the sense that the shots and the music had been created in response to each other.

In September we are bringing out the vinyl record and I’m really looking forward to that. We are just pressing it now. We won a prize in Germany for best score, so with the money, we made the vinyl records. The composers are called Paradox Paradise. They are really talented.

April holding the Mars flag on top of a hill. Steiner: ‘It was one of the most epic moments of shooting, since it was somehow so surreal but true. Pretending and thinking that we are already on Mars. And you can see a comet or a rocket (in reality a plane) in the background. I really like how the cinematographer captured the image, since the sun is exactly behind April’s helmet, which lets her helmet shine up, almost like a natural enlightenment’

There is an interesting balance between observational and choreographed elements. Can you say something about those choices?

The ping pong scene for example is choreographed, otherwise it would not be possible to shoot it.

And were any of them playing ping pong or did that all come from you?

I was on research in the Mars station and I saw they had a ping pong table inside, so I got the idea from there. But to put it outside so they could play in the suits, that was, my idea. And then Dave plays with everything as he is bored so any ball he would get he would just play around with. And the concept is that everything ends up in the tunnel so its quite an easy connection to make. I like to be as creative as possible. I like to go wild and crazy and then take it down, as sometimes it’s too much.

Director Nicolas Steiner (left), protagonist Dave Reesey (centre) and editor Kaya Inan (right). Steiner: ‘I was explaining to Dave what I was trying to do. He understood and was very up for it and we “fist bumped” it. On the left you can also see a simple ABC crane, that we used for 4-5 shots in the film. In this case it was to get a shot of Dave swimming through the image from left to right’

What about simpler things? There was a shot of Rick and Cindy and it was in an observational sequence and it might have been purely observational, it was just so beautifully timed that it felt somehow composed. You knew where they would be at the right moment to make the shot work. They were climbing down into the tunnel, and the camera goes past the railings . . .

Thats the talent of my cameraman. I told him ‘I think we should do a traveling shot at some point as I would like to have ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Danger of Floods’ signs, just to give a hint of the danger’, so we were always really patient waiting for a moment like that and when it happens, you immediately know. In that shot I am just directly behind the cameraman, guiding him.

He’s walking?

Yes, he’s walking, steadily. Thats one of the reasons why we wanted to shoot on the Alexa with prime lenses, because its heavier. That makes it difficult for a cameraman but because it’s heavier it’s more steady, and he’s really good at that. So what would happen is he would travel and I would go behind him and whisper in his ears whats coming, and so I would decide when to stop and then he would find his own image. Its a collaboration of two people that trust each other quite a lot. We lived together for four years in the same flat so we know a lot about each other. All the good and the bad things.

Director of photography Markus Nestroy (left) and director Nicolas Steiner (right) on “Mars”. Steiner: ‘This is actually one of the rare shots made with a tripod, so it was more of a “set up” shot. We were probably catching some Martians from far away’

But thats funnily enough a complete hardcore classical observational documentary scene. It’s just timed right. Its one of my favorite shots. It really shows the true love of those two. Its very playful. You almost think it’s too much. But that’s the thing, I think if you start to stage that, it’s not going to work as well as it would feel so awkward. It’s like the Hallelujah, it’s the nicest present of documentary film making

But the crane shots with the bottles and dead fish must have been planned out in advance. Can you talk about your choice of when to use them?

There’s only four crane shots in two hours, so you have to be really careful as they are so effective. You can easily overdo it, but I always felt the content was right. The content defined when we should use them. Those are just necessary tools that you need and we have to fight for them. My film school producer was used to TV documentary, so said we would have a crew of three for the shoot. I said I needed at least five and a crane, and I wanted to shoot on an Alexa. We needed the Alexa as it was going to be dark, just candle light. I was actually looking at a small helicopter instead of the crane, but it was too expensive.

Were you worried about a large crew taking away the intimacy between you and your protagonists?

Sometimes we were just two, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter how many you take, it’s who you take with you. All the protagonists met the two extra guys who did a lot of the cooking and driving us around, but they became best buddies. Its about who you bring.

Director Nicolas Steiner (left), editor Kaya Inan pulling the cart and director of photography Markus Nestroy pushing the cart on route to shoot scenes at the wind turbines outside of Palm Springs. Steiner: ‘It was a super rough and windy day, which I always like. I like it when the natural elements strike back. The yellow van is a little wagon we always used for the camera equipment’

The film seems to be playful yet structured. There is a tension between feeling free and being in control. Can you talk about that?

Well that’s good if you felt that. My main target is about senses and feelings, but it’s nice that you say it still felt structured and it’s not just nice scene after nice scene. We didn’t want at the end for the audience to feel it’s too open, even though almost anything can happen. I think it’s perfect if you had the feeling that it’s structured.

There was a lot of research in the early stages and then the editing was a long long process. Thats where I learned the most. There was a lot of pressure. You have to be very careful as you drive yourself crazy. It was tough, the final two months, the final composing, was really intense. We pushed each other’s limits. There were tears and arguments and so many sleepless nights, but it’s important. I feel that in every movie that you really enjoy, you feel that it was done with passion. The energy on set with the heroes, with the crew – you sense that when you watch a film. I really hope that the passion we had for it – for the topic and for the people and the spaces, and also the respect and belief that we had that we could even do a project like that, the luck, but also the hard physical work and the danger – that all these emotions come across in the film.

The crew shooting a scene with Dave. Steiner: ‘From left to right: Kaya Inan (editor) and in this case, life saver. He is carrying a plastic bottle and a rope that Dave (the protagonist) would hang on to after the shot so that we could drag him out of the current in the canal; Bertin Molz (boom operator / sound person); Markus Nestroy (director of photography); Dave Reesey (protagonist); and myself. This is one of my favorite images of shooting “Above and Below”. I like it so much because of the colours and the set up of us as a crew, but also its a nice memoir of the whole crew in one image and Laura Killian (production manager) taking it. My editor gave me a big print of it for my birthday, so it’s hanging in my bedroom’ 

And what’s next?

I would love to have a break but then, fortunately, the film is doing well so I’m doing a little festival world travel. But I’m also doing projects. There’s a fiction project and a documentary. I think I’ll do one or two more documentaries before I do fiction, but it depends what gets funded first. But I think it wont be my last film. We will see. I’m very slow though. If I have an average middle European man’s life, then I won’t do more than a dozen films I guess. I need at least three years, that’s what I did just now and for those three years I was working really hard just on this film. Thats my rhythm.

Im really proud of it though, what I achieved with my friends. Thats something nobody can take away from us: the experience. The movie will make probably no money. It’s a two hour documentary that’s “topic-less” at a first sight. It’s somehow unsellable. I think I can only go through all the money troubles with the memories from the shoot. With those, you forget everything that’s painful.

Above and Below will be playing in film festivals worldwide and is set for cinema distribution in the UK in 2016, which as Steiner points out doesn’t mean it will make any money, but at least it can be seen. And if you get the chance to see it, do.

 

Behind the scenes photographs: copyright Laura Killian

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