Terence Nance’s debut feature, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, is a poetic, kinetic, and self-reflexive rumination on unrequited love. The film, which opens next Friday, muses over—and over and over—Nance’s real-life relationship with the enigmatic Namik (played by Namik Winter). She’s the one that got away, or, perhaps, the one he never quite had. As if matters of the heart proved too complex to tackle in one medium, Oversimplification bursts with animation of almost every kind, from sketches to moving collages to wooden figurines and Claymation. Its nucleus is a short Nance made back in 2006 as a first-year film student, entitled How Would You Feel?, whose titular question echoes throughout the feature as a kind of shamanic repetition.
The anxieties the filmmaker displays on screen as the barely fictionalized version of himself dissipate completely in person. Ultra-chill and self-aware in an interview with FILM COMMENT, Nance offered poignant thoughts on art and love that only deepen the appeal of this sensuous and sensitive feature.
Despite being so personal and subjective, your film captures a universal human experience that at times hits almost too close to home. Was this your intention?
It was definitely my intention. Initially, the short film How Would You Feel? was phrased in the second person, to speak to the poetry of the banal and make my experience directly ubiquitous. I wanted the audience to experience the film in a participatory way as opposed to a voyeuristic way, which is the way I feel people experience most movies: “That’s a world I don’t know, and I’m a voyeur looking onto it.” This movie very directly tells the audience: “This is you, and this is what you are.”
The film briefly addresses the distinction between being alone and feeling lonely. Do you think that loneliness is a byproduct of living in New York?
I couldn’t have [made the film without the city], but it isn’t as much about loneliness as it is about the corruptibility of connection. That may be something that’s very New York, but I don’t know. At the time, I had nights where I was alone, but if I’m completely honest with myself, I wasn’t alone, really, I wasn’t lonely. I just wanted something of Namik that wasn’t possible. The film is about how our relationship, and other relationships, can come at a point and exist in an environment that can’t nurture them.
The relationship between you and Namik is predicated on looks or glances rather than words. Do you think there is validity in looking as a form of mutual communication?
Oh, no. I don’t think that ever works, but I think that it’s useful for interesting movies. We act within the confines of our capabilities, and a look or a letter was within my capabilities at the time. Some people can use words better than others. That wasn’t really my skill set, so I didn’t act in that way. But I think that’s why the world is beautiful, because everybody communicates differently and everybody approaches interaction differently.
Your film beautifully mimics the subconscious musings of a mind (and heart) as it somewhat masochistically sifts through the pieces of a relationship. Did your filmmaking and editing flow in a stream-of-consciousness way, or did you have a master plan in mind to achieve this effect?
It’s very difficult for me to map how it came out the way that it did and what decisions created what results, because it happened over such a long period of time. I was working in a stream-of-consciousness way. It was definitely improvisational: “What should I do here, what should I do there,” not considering a master plan, or script, or outline, or anything. But at the same time, at certain stages I had master concepts—at least I thought I did—but what the film ended up being has nothing to do with them.
How did you keep from going crazy in the editing room?
Weirdly, it was always very organized. And it even feels very organized to me, watching it now. It’s very meticulously crafted; I wanted to make something complex that reflected a complex relationship. I wasn’t pursuing chaos later, it was there, inherent. The organization is chaos, in a weird way.
The use of mixed media and voiceover gives the film the feel of a journal that has come to life. Did you derive your images from a journal you were keeping at the time, or was the animation added after the fact?
I don’t [keep a journal] in the traditional sense. I mean, I’ve kept journals at times in my life, but I hadn’t kept one for a while when I started the movie. I write impulsively—I’ll write a song, or a long idea, or some prose, but I don’t write about my life. I do draw in a book, and at the time I was drawing more regularly. A lot of those drawings did translate into some of the images that you see on screen.
What was the impetus behind the specific animation mediums, the wooden figures for example?
I wanted the animation to be a hodgepodge of different styles to give specificity to the experiences and emotions that each section is articulating. So for instance, the piece where the hand is bleeding is drawn in this kind of messy, children’s-storybook way because to me it’s articulating a very infantile emotional experience. As for the wooden puppets, they depict something that really happened, or that at least emotionally feel like they really happened, so I wanted to get close to how a body, a real physical thing, would experience it. Overall, choosing images and styles was kind of spontaneous.
You mentioned in a Q&A after a screening in New Directors / New Films last year that the animation process was a sweatshop for you and a factory for everyone else. Can you describe the animation process a little further?
I did most of the concept art myself, and I had some interns and there were animators working in different parts of the world on different pieces and sections. I say it was a sweatshop because I was working all day, every day, especially on the compositing and editing of the animation and the concept art and the layout frames. But, you know, because of the no-money/no-budget situation, the extent to which I could get another animator to work was like once a week, or I would hear from them once a month. So I had to be there all the time to put everything together and keep the whole system working. It was super intense. Next time I’ll do it with some money hopefully.
You’ve specifically cited Jørgen Leth’s The Perfect Human and the blues more generally as artistic influences. Are there any other artists or art forms that have significantly influenced your work?
A lot of novelists. Toni Morrison, definitely, Louise Erdrich. Just the way they articulate love, the melodrama of love, in the novel form, and the esoteric elements of it. It’s something in that spirit which influenced me to go all out with the flowery-ness of some parts of the film.
I was also really influenced by Roald Dahl and the way he tells stories, and also Charlie Kaufman. His movies have a continuity of tone in the voice telling the story, they’re all kind of autobiographical and from this anxiety-ridden but emotional place—an American place, you know what I mean? Just digesting those movies and loving those movies, like Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and listening to the way they turn phrases to be funny.
I saw 8 1/2 at some point while I was making the film. I can’t claim reference to it after the fact. It must have been in the ether. If [Marcello Mastroianni] was in my movie, it would have been almost the same thing. He’s making a movie within a movie about his relationships. And August Wilson, he’s a big influence on me and how he uses the blues.
What do you do when not making films?
I play basketball. I don’t really do anything else. I kind of eat, live, and breathe music and film.