Video Essay: The Essence of Agony

Nathan Silver, who has cast his mother Cindy in nearly all his films, tries to make sense of their complex and often fraught working relationship.

It’s all Fassbinder’s fault. The fact that he cast his mother in his movies made me want to cast my own. When I first started making movies, I would cast her in bit parts. She was an ESL teacher by trade, not an actor, and she definitely had no desire to be one. I always wanted her to write a novel. When I was a pretentious adolescent schmuck of a writer, we used to meet with a Harvard professor to discuss Yiddish literature. My mother’s insights into the texts frustrated me to no end. Her understanding of how stories work put me in my place. I was no genius, but maybe she was. I hassled her to write, but to no avail.

After a disastrous scripted first feature film, I decided to make an improvised affair with those closest to me. This turned into Exit Elena. Naturally I cast my mother in one of the lead roles. We allowed her to riff the whole time, and here, my mother the storyteller could show herself. It’s no novel, but I think it scratched that itch that I could sense years back during those Yiddish literature meet-ups. I’m not sure that films are healthy, but then again, families certainly aren’t healthy either. I’m happy to involve my family in my movies. It allows me to see my mother and we can fight our love out. The interview I conducted with her following a particularly fraught Thanksgiving goes into why we work together even if we’re such a volatile pair on set.

Nathan Silver graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2005. Since then, the filmmaker has written and directed five short films and eight feature films.  His films have played festivals and venues around the world, including New York Film Festival, Tribeca, Locarno, Rotterdam, Viennale, Deauville, Melbourne, AFI, MoMA and the Cineteca Nacional Mexico. (Portrait by Cait MacIntosh.)