Local filmmaker Justin Nathanson has been thinking about love as a concept lately. That’s a claim that most creative people can probably make at any given time, but this guy has an interesting way of expressing his emotions. For his wedding to Erin Glaze Nathanson last fall, the couple hosted a public reception-cum-benefit art show in the now-defunct Eye Level Art gallery. Now for Piccolo Spoleto, he’s crafted Charleston, a love letter.
“Being a lover of going out and photographing and videotaping Charleston, I have amassed this really fun, diverse bunch of clips of Charleston, so I just thought: How do I make this something more substantial and unique and do it in a way that would excite people?” he says. “And that’s how this was born.”
Piccolo audiences have been treated to Nathanson’s work in the past. Last year, he participated in the multimedia show You Are Safe, and in 2008, his documentary Bin Yah: There’s No Place Like Home received an impressive A- from City Paper critics. This time around, he admits it’s possible the Academy Award winner The Artist crept into his subconscious, because Charleston, a love letter, is a silent film. And not even silent in the same way as the 2012 Best Picture, which has a pre-recorded soundtrack. Charleston, a love letter doesn’t have a single recorded sound. Instead, the film’s music will be performed live during its two shows at the Hippodrome.
“I think of film as music — when I edit and make film, I’m hearing music in my head. Ultimately, I think music is probably the purest form of expression,” Nathanson explains. He didn’t have to look far for musical inspiration: He’d already been at work on a documentary about Entropy Ensemble, a Charleston instrumental quartet that plays interpretations of Radiohead songs. That documentary should take another two or three years, but in the meantime, the ensemble’s founder and pianist, Andrew Walker, has taken on the task of scoring Charleston, a love letter. Nathanson knew he wanted Walker to do it, and he knew he wanted Walker to do it live. There will be plenty of room for improvisation. “When you see the actions on screen, there’s all sorts of stuff going on, so I wanted to give musicians a chance to do something different and interpret actions with their musical instruments.”
When Nathanson spoke to the City Paper a few weeks ago, the project was still in the process of coming together, with the crew taking the last month before Spoleto to edit, write music, and rehearse. The filmmaker sighs when he says how many hours he’s had to edit down: Hundreds. He takes all the footage, cuts out the fat, and compartmentalizes similar bits into particular sequences. But that’s the fun of it. “I love editing,” Nathanson says. “It’s literally like you have a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and you’re putting all of the edges together, all of the colors of one kind of blue, and you’re not really sure how they’re going to go together in the end.”
The approach was to make Charleston, a love letter like one of those day-in-the-life books, where time is spent in some picturesque locale for a 24-hour period. You’ll see last-call crowds pouring out of bars early in the morning, the beach’s first surfers, and what’s happening in the marsh, continuing on through the day and into the night. Nathanson’s captured the obvious beauty of Charleston — and what happens when nobody’s looking.
While the Piccolo performances are confined to a single night at the Hippodrome, Nathanson sees a possible future for the project at film festivals or on a college tour, and on DVD and CD as well. He hopes his love letter will inspire its audience to look at Charleston differently. “The cream on top is that people get to come see this and come see how hard I’ve worked and come see this thing we’ve put together,” he says. “It’s so special.”