nick white, nadia’s songs (2019)
Adam: Welcome to Insomniac headquarters. Could you tell us who you are, what your film is, and what the fans can expect?
Nick: I'm Nick White. My film's called Nadia's Songs. I keep having trouble classifying it. Someone told me it's an essay film. And I feel like that's a solid description because it feels...it's not quite a documentary...I'll say it's an essay film. That sounds classy.
So it's an essay film about...see this is hard. I'm terrible at elevator pitches. It's basically a true story about when I was in high school, and I used to buy a lot of things secondhand because there wasn't a lot of stores in my hometown. I just found all these CDs at a music shop that all had someone's name on them, like they all used to belong to the same person. And I decided to buy all of them...just based on the person's name. And I liked all the music.
Over the years, I started wondering who this person was because, for me at least, music's such a big part of my identity, that, you know, you can look at what I listened to and figure out a lot about me. So I would try and look at all this music that used to belong to this person who I only knew as Nadia, and I would just try to imagine what kind of person she was based on that. So the film is sort of me trying to figure out who she is, but also learning about myself along the way. I guess. Sorry, is that too long?
Adam: No, that's great. You can talk for as long as you want.
Seb: I think "essay" film kind of undersells the emotion of the movie. Well, maybe it is an essay film, but that term makes you expect something more academic and less personal.
Nick: Yeah, yeah, that's true. That makes sense.
Seb: That wasn't criticism. It was just for the fans!
Nick: That's totally fine! Because like I said, I don't really know what to call it. It's technically a documentary, I guess, because it's a true story. But it feels too stylistically weird to me to call it a documentary because I don't interview anyone in the film. There isn't anyone on camera in it. The film is just all still shots of inanimate objects. Nothing moves. Actually you see my hands at the end. The last shot has the only movement. And the entire film...is not even a film. I guess it's like a montage…[Adam laughs] Because I showed it to one of my friends. And they were like, "Yeah, it's just still images. Why did you shoot it on film?" And I was like, "I don't know..." [Laughing] I spent all this money shooting it on film for what could just be a still image. Anyway...
Adam: What was the decision to shoot it in the way that you did? With it being still images of inanimate objects?
Nick: I think it had to do with the fact that in my mind, all I had to try and figure out about the story of this other person was these objects. So, I wanted to try and present that same sort of thing to the audience where you don't have much to base off of. I find that at least for me, if I just stare at an inanimate object long enough, I begin to personify it, I begin to find details about it, and figure out a narrative to surround it. And I've always been fascinated with inanimate objects in general, which I think stems from being a kid - especially a shy kid.
I didn't have a lot of friends. So, I played with toys a lot. And it's fascinating when you're a kid, you can put so much life into a toy and really have it feel like a real thing to you...so much of your heart and soul goes into that. But when you grow up, you lose that ability. I think it's fascinating how, for a time in your life, you can think of an inanimate object as like a living breathing thing with its own history. So, I think I'm always trying to sort of recapture that in a weird way.
Someone I know also sent me an essay after they saw the film. I forget who wrote it. But it was about how: if you can objectify people, you can personify objects, which seemed like a stretch to me but it sounds smart, so...good enough for me. I've always said my dream film to make would just be buildings. Buildings are fascinating to look at. They're so...dramatic to me, even though they're just bricks. Sorry, did that makes sense?
Adam: Yeah, that definitely makes sense.
Seb: I think a lesser movie would have tried to show Nadia in some way, but I like that your film, as you said, only gives you the pieces that you had yourself. It's interesting. I think what we do with toys as kids, we do as adults and teens with art and music, where we personify it. And your film has yet another layer, where you personify a music fan.
Nick: Yeah, no matter how much I speculate, I really have no idea who this other person is because I'm really just basing it off of...nothing. It is just me personifying music. Which I don't think is a thing you can do. I think I'm putting faith into it, and through doing that I'm just projecting my own feelings onto this person...trying to figure out who she is. So that was an interesting experience. I guess just focusing on CDs is the one thing I did have. And I had her name. I also had her signature. So, I always wanted to have the name really prominent in all the shots, because I thought that "whoever this person is...her contribution is that signature."
Seb: Do you think our relationship with art is always kind of a projection, where we're always putting our own stuff into music or films in order to hopefully understand ourselves better?
Nick: I think there's a give and take relationship to it. There is a certain power in watching a film or listening to music or reading a book that you really connect with because sometimes they can hit those very specific details that resonate with you. But again, most of the time, you're never going to know who the artist is. I mean, if you're lucky, you might get to meet them, talk to them or something. But there's always an element of mystery. You're never really going to know what they're really like. Then there's also a kind of performative element...even if someone is choosing to write down their experience, that's just part of their life that they're choosing to share with you. It's really just one detail. And there's probably more interesting stuff that they're not comfortable sharing with you. That's probably the stuff you would really resonate with.
Adam: I’m interested in your film’s idea of defining ourselves through the art that we enjoy. I definitely had that experience growing up...had trouble defining who I was. I latched onto the things that I really liked, and then thought, "Oh, that's a shorthand to describe who I am and it also gives me comfort."
Nick: When you're a little kid...I don't know if you really have interests. When I was a kid, my friends were my mom's friends' kids. And you didn't need a connection to have fun with each other. But once you start growing up a little bit, and becoming a preteen you start to feel like you want to connect with people who have similar interests with you. And especially for me, because I grew up in a small town, it was so much harder to find anyone who was into the same things I was into.
I still don't really know anyone in my hometown who's interested in film at all. But music was one of the easier things and I remember my first day of high school, or my first week or something wearing like a t-shirt for the band The Who, and some guy said, "Oh, you like The Who? I like The Who." And suddenly you realize that you can connect with people over those kinds of things.
It became something that I actively tried to do. I would start to wear shirts of like the things that I liked so that people could look at me and identify, "Oh, he likes that. I like that too. Maybe I should talk to him about that." It became a real tool for me to socialize with people, because I always had a lot of trouble making friends when I was younger. I had a lot of anxiety. I was shy in general. I think I've gotten better at knowing who I am as I've gotten older, especially when I went to university. But it's still such an easy way to connect with people, you know, if you have just one shared interest of pop culture or something. That can set off a whole relationship with someone.
Seb: I watched Baby Driver again recently. I feel like that movie is kind of the double edged sword of "super fandom.” It can be a beautiful connective thing...but it can also insulate you from real life if you define yourself so much by the things you like. That's one of the beautiful things in your film - you find a balance.
Nick: That's sort of what I meant before - that as I've gotten older I'm trying to get out of that. Because there was a point when I was a teenager when I really didn't know who I was as a person. So I was purely defining myself by the things that I loved. But then, after that certain point, it just started to feel like there was something, I don't know, unsatisfying about it for me. Because I wasn't really understanding the heart of the issues within myself and understanding who I was. So I had to try and, I guess, connect with myself on a deeper level and stop trying to think of just things I was obsessed with.
Adam: I love the way that you approach that in the film, because even in describing this time in your life, you don't look back and think, "Oh, I was so naive for defining myself through those things." You have a lot of heart and understanding for why we need to have those kinds of things to define ourselves.
Nick: Yeah. I think you still need that art in your life, because art helps you feel things. And for a lot of people, it can help you feel things you wouldn't otherwise be feeling, you know, like music became such an important source of happiness in my life and was it bad that I was so obsessed with it? Was it bad that I let it define my life at that time? Maybe! It was probably unhealthy on some level, but at the same time, it was just what made me the happiest in those times. And I didn't really have anything else. I don't really regret doing that. And I still love all of that stuff that I loved when I was that age, too. I still listen to all those bands that I got into. That was a time when I got really into movies as well, and saw a lot of things that opened my horizons about what movies could be. Yeah, I don't regret it.
Seb: I think a lot about online fandom. About how that can go down so badly. Do you think we as a culture could have a better understanding of why we need to be super fans - or we need to be obsessives?
Nick: That's actually what my master's thesis is about: the toxicity of online fan culture. So, yeah, I definitely think people have got...I mean, there's no nice way to say this… people just become the worst versions of themselves.
I was just having a conversation the other day with one of my friends about the backlash to Game of Thrones. And I never really watched Game of Thrones, but I still feel horrible for these two guys who wrote the show. People are treating them like garbage for dedicating twelve years of their lives to making something that everyone had a great time watching for the most part. And I'm like, you know, cut them some slack! Think of them as people.
I think that's a big part of the problem with super fan culture. Fans don't look at artists and creators and think of them as human beings. "Oh, I don't like the way you did this. Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you come out with this faster? You rushed this!" So much goes on in every person's life that affects the things they're making. Nothing's ever going to be perfect. And maybe you hated the Game of Thrones ending. That's fine. You're allowed to not like it. But I think you have to respect that those guys were under a lot of pressure.
Adam: And the amount of hate that gets thrown out…it's like a personal attack.
Nick: They're just trying to entertain you! They have good intentions. I'm sorry that maybe they made a mistake. I don't know. I watched the finale and I thought it was fine. But then again, I watched Season 1 of Game of Thrones. And then Season 8. [Nick laughs].
I did it purely because my friend really wanted me to watch Season 8 with him. And I was like, "But I haven't seen the rest of it..." And he said, "If you watch it with me, I’ll write you a rap song that explains the seven seasons you missed. And I thought, "How can I not take that deal?"
Adam: [Laughing] Did he write it?
Nick: He did!
Adam: [Still laughing] Did it help to fill in the gaps? Do you understand what happened? I've never watched it either, so...
Nick: For the most part, I could totally figure out what was going on. Anyway, Game of Thrones is just one example. I mean, there are so many things that people absolutely hate. In my paper I'm writing right now I'm focusing on a video game series called Mass Effect...where fans petitioned to get the ending changed.
Adam: Oh, really!?
Nick: And the creators caved and changed it - which is interesting because I can't think of another example where creators have actually caved in.
Adam: Sonic! The new Sonic movie. It sets a terrible precedent! It makes me so sad. It's like, yeah, that Sonic design did look bad but...
Nick: Maybe. I mean, I feel like the problems with that movie goes beyond the design. I do like that some people are acknowledging the ridiculousness of it, though. Because like, did you see there was that petition by religious groups for Netflix to cancel Good Omens? But it's not on Netflix. It's on Amazon Prime! But Netflix put out a press release saying "We promise we will not make the show anymore." I thought that was really funny.
Seb: I think some of that fan stuff comes from...when you're so obsessive with something it's almost as if it's real? And then when something goes wrong for your favorite character, it's almost like they're mad at God. Like, they're not thinking about the creator as another human being. They're thinking, "Oh, the world has gone wrong. And I'm raging against the powerful people who made it happen."
Nick: And it becomes especially true with video games where you're literally creating the character, and you can make them in your own image, and you get to make the decisions they make, like, I get why people feel so connected to it. I don't understand why someone can watch Game of Thrones or something and think "I'm Tyrion! And I think Tyrion would do this", but then he does something else instead.
Adam: It goes back to what your film is about - some people need this to define themselves, especially certain characters. "Oh, that's me. That's a representation of me." And then when something doesn't go in the direction they thought it would, they feel powerless in terms of what this representation of themselves will do. Of course hatred is going to come out when the creator chooses to do something for the character that isn't what the fan would've wanted for themselves.
Nick: And they just get more excuses. I feel like fans always get mad about film or TV adaptations of like, books or comics or whatever. Because then they can always just say, "Oh, the book was better. Yeah, George RR Martin wouldn't have done that." Until it's convenient to hate on George RR Martin, because they're like, these show runners - they know how to finish the show versus the book! They just want to blame someone. Even though realistically, they should just blame themselves on their own expectations.
Seb: It feels like no one's happy these days, like when there's a big hyped up thing. Almost always no one seems to like it.
Nick: What's fun about hating and being bad and unhappy? Like, I wish I could see the good in things always.
Adam: I think it's really easy to just tear stuff down. But when you're making anything, it's so hard. It's almost a miracle when a film is good, considering how many steps it has to go through to get to that point. Seb and I talk about this a lot. We would prefer to just find what's good about stuff and to celebrate that rather than to always be like, "Yeah, it was pretty good, but it had this flaw or that flaw." Why pick apart the flaws when we can celebrate the successes?
Nick: Oh, yeah, I'm so impressed and have so much respect for anyone who can just make a film. Just the fact that you wrote this thing, found funding for it, assembled the crew, spent long days making it, got it distributed and have it playing in the theater. I'm like, "Oh my God, that's a miracle." That's incredible. Yeah, you made it happen - even if I don't like the finished product. That's totally fine. I'm just saying I'm impressed.
But I feel like that also comes down to my feelings about filmmaking. I rarely care about the finished product of anything I make. I just love the process of making things. I just like to always have something to be working on. And then it's sad for me when I finished making something because I don't get to mess around with it anymore. Even this film...I initially shot it in February of 2018. So that was like a year and a half ago. And it's a five minute film, but I keep tweaking it a little bit just because I like to keep working on it. I still might change the sound a little bit, too.
So yeah, I just like to keep working on things. And I have trouble actually picking a deadline. That's why University was great. "This is when it's due." And I'm like, "That's when the film has to be done! That day! That's when it's screening!"
Adam: When we sent you the email that we wanted to play your film in the festival - you were like, "Okay, that's great. Can I do some more audio tweaks and stuff?"
Nick: Yeah! [Laughing] Well...because I knew it was playing in The Royal. I love The Royal. It's a fantastic theater! I love the programming...but not the best sound though.
I'm constantly tweaking the sound [of Nadia's Songs], but no matter what it still sounds different in every room. And then I feel like I need to change it. I'm so impressed by professional sound mixers.
Adam: I've heard from professional sound mixers that they try their sound on like 10 different devices, just because it's so different every time.
Nick: Yeah, every time I do a rough mix, I listen on my computer monitors, which are supposedly properly calibrated. And then I watch it on my TV, my phone and my laptop. And when I used to be in school, I would go to one of the mixing rooms and listen to it. And then I'd watch it at one of the screening rooms...just as many places as possible. Considering where it's ultimately going to end up is a big thing, too. Like I've heard about music producers testing their songs in car stereos.
Adam: I even heard...I think it was Mike Dean…he said he even listens on the shittiest $5 headphones, and then does some mixing on that because he's like, "That's how a lot of people are going to listen to this. So it should sound good on those as well." On that topic, what are you listening to these days?
Nick: I mean, I'm kind of always listening to everything. But I definitely go through phases where I'm very into one artist. This week I'm really into Randy Newman. Probably because I just saw Toy Story 4. Randy Newman's amazing. He didn't put out a bad album in the 70's. His Disney career is kind of incredible, too. But his pre-Disney career is really incredible as well. Honestly, like one of the funniest songwriters I've ever heard, like, he just did really biting satirical stuff in the 70's that's just hysterical. I highly recommend. He had an album called Good Old Boys. The whole album's a parody of the South, and Southern attitudes on like conservatism and racism. He's an incredible songwriter.
What else is there...? See, I don't feel cool, because I don't have any new bands.
Adam: That was pretty cool.
[Seb nods in agreement]
Nick: I used to be more up to date on new bands when I was a teenager.
Adam: I've gotten overwhelmed. So much comes out all the time.
Nick: Yeah, I just can't deal with it. Oh, on Canada Day I listened to a bunch of Rush albums. I love Rush. Which, again, I feel like I lose a lot of my street cred by saying I love Rush. Such a nerdy white guy thing to say. I went to a Phish concert recently, and that was the weirdest place I've ever been. I didn't know anything about Phish other than them having a weird reputation as a live band. You just gotta go see them to get it. And they have really super hardcore fans that follow them everywhere.
Seb: What was the median age at the Phish concert?
Nick: I feel like most people were in their early 40's. People who were probably in college in the 90's. I didn't really like them. Like, I'm glad I went. It was an interesting experience. I like people watching. Fans are all very friendly people. Definitely odd but...it was it was an interesting time.
Also, I just want to say I'm like fascinated that you guys say that you connect with the film.
Nick: Because anytime I make a film that's really personal like this, it's about my own life. I always get the fear that no one will ever really care because it's so specific to my life...why would anyone care about it? But, I think I've slowly learned over time that the more specific you get...the more universal it ends up becoming, strangely enough, because when you talk about specific experiences, the emotions become real. And I feel like that's really what people connect with. And even if they don't know the specific circumstances that I was in, they get the feeling I had being there. So thank you for validating that theory.
Adam: Yeah! I was gonna say the same thing about specificity. I feel like that's the trap a lot of people get in: "I want to make something that connects with people." So you make it super general. But by talking about something with such a hyper specific experience like yours...even if I don't have the same experience of finding CDs with someone else's name on it, I can definitely connect to the overarching themes that are there, and your willingness to share such a personal experience opens those gates more clearly.
Nick: Yeah. The first time I ever made a film about myself I was terrified doing it. But then seeing how much people connected with it afterwards made me feel like, maybe it is something that's worth doing. Because, you know, I don't think I have many good life experiences to share. I'm a white guy. How fucking hard is my life? But...I don't know. Anytime someone tells they see my film and they think "I get it. I get it." That means something to me. Makes me feel like I should keep doing it.
Adam: We definitely hope that you keep doing it. Thank you so much, Nick. This was a great talk. So glad that we got to meet you. And we'll see you at the festival. :D
Nick: Yeah! :D
Seb: Awesome :)
Born and raised in Orangeville, Ontario, Canada, Nick White began making short films in his teenage years before moving to Toronto and attending York University’s film production program. His projects have straddled various styles including essay films, documentaries, science fiction, and experimental. He works as an editor and sound designer on projects for others when not directing his own films.
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