Over the past few months I’ve been spending time on the set of Yellow, the new film and feature-length debut by Portland’s Nick Peterson, as part of an article I’m writing.
I’ve previously written about Nick a few times for Willamette Week over the years, when a collection of his short films played at the Northwest Film Center, or when certain ones were included in the Northwest and PDX film festivals. Each of Nick’s works was shot on 16mm film, and with such a majority of projects now being shot on video, his films stand out for their warmer, more flattering photographic hues. But it’s not just the equipment: Nick has a very astute eye for composition, not to mention the scripts.
Fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant, by the way, has taken an interest in Nick’s films after seeing Nick’s half-hour 2004 film Contingent while a judge at the BendFilm festival. I interviewed him briefly over email for one WW story on Nick, Van Sant told me:
"I really like his use of camera, actors, story, in what appears to be glimpses into young Northwest lives, lives that I only see from a distance, but he brings them in up close."
Most all of Nick’s films center around some sort of romantic relationship in flux. Often these are same-sex relationships, but regardless of that the tone of the film seems to take precedence. Nick is a real connoisseur of cinema, particularly masterful filmmakers of several decades past like Japan’s Yasujiru Ozu and Ernst Lubitsch; he also loves silent cinema. Characters in Nick’s films often communicate with their looks and gestures than by speaking. And in its own way, it feels almost deafening. As lovers collide with jealousy, confusion and anger, the unreleased tension builds like a pressure cooker.
Yellow marks a very intriguing departure, and not just because it’s feature-length. It’s also a musical.
I remember several months ago Nick telling me over lunch about this, and I was astonished—not just because it’s such a daunting challenge, or because few musicals these days really successfully capture the public’s imagination, but also in light of how quiet his films have traditionally been. But in an odd way, it makes sense. Musicals enable the characters to say in music what they wouldn’t say ordinarily. It’s an alternate means of communication. And that’s something Nick has always done through his characters’ wordless expressions.
One can’t talk about Yellow, however, without mentioning Eric Schopmeyer, who initially signed on as the writer and composer of all the musical numbers in the film, and later was additionally cast as the lead actor in the film. Eric has already done music for some of Nick’s previous efforts, and he also was part of the trio known as archipelago (along with talent local filmmaker Rob Tyler and Eric’s then-girlfriend, now wife, Ady Leverette, both of whom are good friends, BTW), which he did all the music for with Ady. Additionally, Eric teaches music at a local elementary school and has earned widespread acclaim for starting a marimba band with the kids; that ever-changing kids’ ensemble has now played all over the region and recorded two or three CDs. As if all that weren’t enough, until about a year ago Eric also fronted the local band Slackjaw. Yellow marks his first foray into acting.
I was particularly fascinated on my first visit to the Yellow set in October by how all the music was being recorded live. Nick's crew placed wireless microphones on the characters (augmented with a boom) while a small music ensemble played marimbas, stand-up bass, drums and viola in the other room. It was a little concert, and I've never heard of music for a film being recorded like that, at the same time the scenes are shot.
Hanging out on the set over the past few months—maybe five or six occasions—I’ve had a great time watching the creative process of a feature film unfold. For such a young filmmaker, and one making his first feature, Nick has an exceptionally impressive way of handling things onset. He knows exactly what he wants, and his instructions to the actors are very precise. Yet he’s also very good-natured, and the mood of the set has almost always been casual and fun. Which is very important, Nick reminds me, when the entire cast and crew are working for free.
I also have to mention that the Yellow set never would have been a well-functioning machine without the efforts of Nick’s girlfriend Mary, who has acted as a producer, costumer, make up artist, scheduler—pretty much everything. Every artist working in a collaborative medium has people he or she relies on and trusts and quietly places a tremendous amount of responsibility on, even if there isn’t an official credit that can properly honor that person’s contributions. And that is unequivocally Mary.
It’s not yet clear what kind of distribution Yellow will have. Gus’s interest could help, but technically the film and Nick are completely unknown to those at even the smallest studios and distributors. The film could very well play at some festivals, but it would be a real shame if that’s as far as it went. Granted, I haven’t actually seen Yellow yet, but I feel completely comfortable in assuming it will be worth seeing. Even if on some level the film is not completely successful artistically—and I doubt very much that would be the case—it’s bound to be a glorious failure, with great music and cinematography.
As it happens, I think it’s going to be great. Which is what inspired this post, a little viral marketing from the heart.