In Conversation with Mark Nelson, Director of ‘A Place About 50 Miles West Of Nowhere’

Films, among so much more, encourage debate. They are a vehicle for expressing ideas, beliefs and spark something deep within us. These are the aspects which filmmaker Mark Nelson wanted to explore in his latest project ‘A Place About 50 Miles West Of Nowhere’. Mark has taken his background in photography, years of buddhist belief and learning and a close study of abstract expressionist and surrealist movements to create a piece of work which will have every audience member considering what it means to them. Mark, founder of The Imaginary Project, has a passion for stepping outside of the proverbial box and invites us to a new way of experiencing art, photography, music, film and the written word all of which are given their own platform in his film. 

‘A Place About 50 Miles West Of Nowhere’ is a symphony of images, narration and exploratory themes set in the uniquely vibrant and diverse city of New York which Mark has combined using his own unique approach to video editing. It is a truly moving piece of work in which Mark urges us to consider allegory, the overlapping flow and accord of images and a fabulously unique soundtrack and decide for ourselves what we want to get out of it. 

‘A Place About 50 Miles West of Nowhere’ is premiering at Fabrica Gallery Brighton on the 31st of March ahead of its selection for Brighton Rocks International Film Festival in June 2023.

Video Interview with Mark Nelson

The so-called ‘Place About 50 Miles West Of Nowhere’ may be found at the heart of abstraction. It is here that our hidden seeds of emotion await their turn to appear, bathed in darkness or light”

You are an artist, a photographer, and now a filmmaker. What made you want to get into the world of film?

It’s not unusual for photographers to go into the film industry or create films. I loved and I still love being a photographer because, unlike films, it’s instant. Sometimes I just don’t have the patience to stand around and wait for things to change or wait for actors or whatever the situation is. As a filmmaker, you have to have much more patience. A photographer is looking for something that is of the moment, it’s now, it’s in a split second, and that’s the best photography. It was a difficult transference of getting that style into making a film. You’re on location as a photographer would be but filming something rather than shooting in 250th of a second, so it’s the same approach but different.

Where did the inspiration come from for the film? 

I’m a Buddhist, so I look at ways of creating art that are reflective of what I’ve learnt as a Buddhist over the last 20 years. I try to express how I feel about certain things and how I can discover them through art. For example, there are deep teachings that go back two and a half thousand years which explain why we feel as we do and triggers which can totally change how we are feeling. A simple example for myself – our dog died recently, a little pug, and if I’m walking through the park and see a pug somehow I’m not okay and I don’t know why. So, it’s that sort of thing that I’m trying to stir within this film. 

Why is the film based in New York? Why was that an exploration for you?

It’s a very good question because you could actually almost do this in your back garden within the realms of abstraction and surrealism and it’s a new journey for me as I’ve never embraced those genres as a photographer. I have worked in New York on and off for 20 or 30 years and I know the city really well. I wanted to approach the idea of the film using the inspiration from the mid 1900s movement of the likes of Jackson Pollock’s abstraction, Salvador Dali’s surrealism and Mark Rothko. The film is very much inspired by their works, but also by the concurrent photographic movement from Europe which I studied a lot before we started shooting. I went to New York, not knowing what I was going to shoot, but having the confidence that I had done my homework and understanding my own style and work as a photographer and approaching making it a moving photograph.

It’s an interesting and diverse approach to filmmaking, how much footage did you have before putting the film all together?

I had 20 to 30 years worth of stills now of New York which I used to inspire myself but also the quality and the idea of how you can approach images. Just because you’ve got an image doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t move around, you can move an image around in the edit if you know what you’re doing. And there are a lot of things that I used, particularly perspective warp within Photoshop, although it has to be said that when shooting, everything was done in camera and not in post. Everything was filmed in the camera. I applied multiple gestures, movement and all of that sort of thing to create the abstract and create something that may actually move people when they see it.

How was the process of deciding what images and what structure you wanted to put into the film?

Well, you’re really listening to yourself. I never sat down and asked myself “what am I going to do with this structure here” I just turned up with a crew and explained what I wanted and what we were going to do. I used music at the same time, the soundtrack was done beforehand, so I listened to the soundtrack and thought about approaching a certain shot. There was no strategy at all, that’s what abstract expressionism is. 

The music is such an integral part of the film which you mentioned creating beforehand, how was this integrated?

The film was initially going to be made in the Mojave Desert and the soundtrack was half done, everything was booked but then COVID happened. So I thought, “okay, I’m at home with half a soundtrack and no footage other than the stills I’d already got.” I knuckled down and thought “I can do this, I can create the same vibe, the same feeling, the same message from New York.” I worked on the soundtrack and brought in a couple of other people to help me so we were all ready to go when the lockdown lifted. I already had the whole soundtrack and made notes as to what locations I might want to find to go with the music. Unusually for a film, we created the music first which is very much an odd thing to do but that’s often how I work, upside down. 

Tell us more about the images you captured and how you then worked with them to become the film we see today?

It’s very difficult to explain, as I mentioned everything is done in camera and on the spot. It came together through a lot of multiple exposure and letting your technical knowledge interface your camera. I have experience creating this desired effect so I was shooting, then checking the images and then moving around and trying different techniques. It can all be done experimentally but I intuitively knew what I was doing and used the look of the image, the speed of the camera, the lens, click and focus.

I wanted to talk about the narration as the words are so key and give your audience a bit more of an understanding of what they’re viewing. 

One of my influences was Laurie Anderson. Within a song of hers, Let X=X, she talks about a place somewhere 50 miles east of here and so those words gave me the title of the film. I was very influenced by the way she talks and the film certainly pays homage to her. I spent a lot of time on the script as I didn’t want to lose the audience. We’re already in deep water with the seeds of emotion and we can’t take people onto a journey which they just don’t understand. I worked a lot with the scriptwriter and he allowed me to just lighten it up sometimes or make it a bit more understandable. I want the audience to hang in there with me on this journey through the film as each person has a different way of understanding or trying to put their own feelings through this film and deciphering the intentions.

I’m like a guy driving a car and I’ve got a bunch of people with me in the car, looking out the windows at the vast abstractions all around and telling me what they’re seeing and how they’re feeling as I concentrate on keeping them on the road and not crashing. The film is taking people on a journey, it isn’t mine but everyones in the audience. It’s going to be really interesting when people’s minds go off in all directions as people have different triggers. The film addresses all sorts of ideas about America, how great it is, the land of brave and you can do anything, everything’s possible. But, as the film goes on, you’re starting to touch on climate change and racism. It wasn’t created or edited to address these specific subjects but done by way of an allegory, something you are seeing. So it really has quite a number of triggers for stirring the seeds of emotion that are buried in your heart or your soul.

I know that you’ve got some big screenings coming up. How have you felt showing people the film so far and what are you looking forward to in those screenings?

I think with artists, they effectively create to show somebody else what they’ve done. It’s in you as an artist to want to communicate your work. The good thing about art is with communication there’s also understanding. If people like your work, relate to it and if you have an affinity with your audience and gratitude to them coming to watch it’s a recipe for understanding. 

What do you hope for this film?

I would hope that people see it and get something out of it. An artist once said said “the best art has the whole world in it. You might wonder what they are talking about but if you look at the best art it has got the whole world in it. It’s got people, it’s got emotion, it’s got feelings – it’s got everything in it. This film is so dense and full of colour, detail, allegory, straight talking and a vast number of images which were put together so it’s up to the individual to decide what they’re going to get out of it. It’s not up to me.

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