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Tim Blake Nelson in Watchmen.
Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

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Watchmen’s Tim Blake Nelson thinks filmmaking can survive COVID-19 — but theaters might not

The veteran actor talks quarantine entertainment, getting back to work, his all-ages strip-club visit, and Tiger King

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The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting some people to leave New York, but actor-director Tim Blake Nelson plans to stay put in the city. Last seen in HBO’s hit series Watchmen (recently back in the news for just how prescient and relevant it now seems, given its focus on racial tensions in America and police corruption and brutality), Nelson is currently visiting Arkansas to work on Ghosts of the Ozarks, one of the very few films currently resuming production. But as far as his permanent residence goes, he says, it only seems right to stay in New York “through thick and thin.”

In conversation, the actor talked us through how he’s been doing in lockdown. Nelson also spoke with Polygon via Zoom about how the Watchmen hand-washing PSA happened, what he likes about the YouTuber Filthy Frank, why he took Jean Smart to a strip club, and watching Tiger King “like every other schmuck.”

This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

a man and woman speak
Tim Blake Nelson in Watchmen.
Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

How is your quarantine going?

Tim Blake Nelson: I’m with my wife and my three sons, and feel very lucky that we’re all healthy. We’ve elected to remain in New York City. I’m happy we did that, because it feels right for us to be here, where the boys are being raised. Luckily, because we’ve remained out of the range of the virus, it has been a very uneventful quarantine, other than spending more time with one another than we normally would. I don’t mind that in the least.

So your routine hasn’t changed significantly?

Strangely, my routine is not altered at all, except that I do a lot more housework right now. The way we’ve divvied up responsibilities in our home, I do a majority of the cooking and I make sure the kitchen is always clean — and that’s not always easy with three boys. My wife deals with the laundry and our bedroom, and the boys’ rooms, when she can get in there. Other than that, I still wake up at the same time, get the boys up on alternating days with my wife. I’m in my office writing by about 8:30, and I write all day with a lunch break, usually with my oldest son who’s home from college and is studying remotely between here and Ohio, and then break to make dinner and either read or watch a movie with my wife or the boys at night. It’s not so different, other than that my wife and I usually go to restaurants now and again, the boys and I will go to a movie or museum, and we haven’t done any of that.

What are you writing during the day?

I’m working on a longer prose piece. I’ve been working on that since the beginning of last summer. It’s been very useful to have this time to write. I’m about to do a movie in Arkansas, which is going to be one of the first films to start shooting after the lockdowns.

How did you decide whether it was safe to go work on something now?

This is a peculiar project, in that it takes place in a walled-in town. The filmmakers have been building this town for about a year, so many of the sets were already built in terms of the structure. They were mainly detailing their work to begin shooting in May. They’ve been able to continue with that, while also now folding in protocols for COVID-19 that meet federal government standards, Arkansas government standards, and then go well beyond them. I feel in very good hands with these guys. They’ve taken real care. I trust them. They’re gonna have a dedicated COVID-19 ombudsman on set at all times. Just the nature of the story has it pretty much within a very discrete and quarantine-able location, so I’m quite comfortable with it. I probably will be safer there than in Manhattan.

In a previous interview, we spoke a little about your impression of how streaming services are changing the way films are made and viewed. How do you think the pandemic will affect film production?

I think the pandemic will have a dramatic impact on production in the near term, so much so that certain productions and types of productions simply won’t happen until there’s a vaccine. That’s quite obvious, because you can’t just go willy-nilly to any location you’d like. Productions have to be more oriented now toward single, controllable locations, or stage work. Otherwise, the liability concerns are just too great.

I don’t think we’ve seen even the beginning of what’s going to happen with lawsuits in every industry, and in the movie industry, in which we depend so much on social interaction throughout the day and exposure of the self in a physically and emotionally vulnerable way. That’s not just actors, or directors. It’s crew members, it’s everybody. I think there’s a real soft underbelly there, and I just don’t think productions are going to be eager to expose themselves to the vulnerabilities that can result from that until there’s a vaccine.

Then I think there’s going to be a residual fear that eventually will taper off. To contradict myself, I think probably in about three years, people will be acting as if the virus never even happened. It’ll be very much back to normal. I don’t buy into the notion that changes in how productions work will be permanent. I think you’ll see language and contracts that are different, like when there were suddenly lead-paint disclosures or riders. In real-estate contracts, you’ll see specific language associated with force majeure, and the virus, about viruses, just because of this. But other than that, I think, in three or four years, productions aren’t going to look and act that differently.

I am, however, a lot more concerned with the impact on theatrical distribution. I think movie theaters will see a permanent diminution in demand. People are now even more inured to seeing features in the home, and I think that trend is going to be hastened. I think theatrical distribution is going to take a permanent hit. That’s unfortunate, because I’m someone who absolutely, hands down prefers seeing movies in movie theaters, and I want to make movies for movie theaters, as a filmmaker. I’m quite frightened. I really despair over what I think is going to be a permanent negative impact on seeing movies in movie theaters.

Spike Lee recently said that the only thing that would get him back into a movie theater at this point would be a vaccine. Does the same go for you?

No. I’d go to a movie theater tomorrow, and sit six feet from somebody, and wear a mask, and watch a movie. I literally would go to a movie theater. I would go to Film Forum tonight if it were open, or Alamo Drafthouse, or IFC, or the Metrograph, or Lowes 13 on 67th Street. There’s no comparison to that great sound and 14-foot-high screen. I don’t care how great home theaters get.

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Stay safe out there.

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Also on the pandemic, the Watchmen hand-washing PSA was fun and informative. Did Damon Lindelof come up with the idea for that?

That was all Damon. In fact, it was so controlled by Damon that he rejected my first stab at contributing and made me redo it. Damon was not just the amanuensis, he was the showrunner and head writer.

What was wrong with your first take?

It was too funny. He felt that, at that point, it didn’t behoove people on television shows or who appear in front of cameras to seem to be making light of the situation.

Was any of the dialogue scripted?

No. We were just given certain parameters. I did something very outlandish. He didn’t think it was — he loved it, but it wasn’t gonna work for what he was after.

Jean Smart mentioned in a late-night interview that you took her to a strip club during the filming of Watchmen. What was the decision behind that particular outing?

Well, there’s a strip club in Atlanta called The Clermont Lounge, with no age limit on the strippers. So, there are 70-year-old women stripping along with a stripper in her 20s, and then a woman in her 50s, a woman in her 70s, a woman in her 40s, a woman in her 30s. It’s not a touristy place, it’s a dive. I’d heard about it and I really wanted to go, and so I told her about it and she said, “Absolutely.” And we went and it was fantastic. We turned down lap dances. It was funny, Jean said, “You know, he’s married, he does not want a lap dance!” And I said, “Yeah, that’s right, I don’t.”

But Jean, I have to say, was hit on by more than one patron, so it went beyond lap-dance opportunities with Jean. She was pursued by many a patron. We stayed for hours, it was great. It’s a really interesting place, and I didn’t feel like there was the contribution to exploitation and something amiss that one can feel at an establishment like that. It’s just a different situation there.

The first time we spoke, you mentioned the YouTuber Filthy Frank. What about him sticks out to you, or is funny enough that you’d want to bring him up in conversation?

Well, Filthy Frank is not my humor, but I delight in my sons’, all three of their responses to him, because he is so purely, unashamedly base that the baseness becomes a parody of itself. Filthy Frank, whoever he is, is clearly a smart, educated guy who’s pushing a boundary to elicit an ironic response in the people who watch him. I think the humor is so base and stupid that, to find it funny, you have to have a level of intelligence and sophistication. Otherwise, it’s simply horrible. But I don’t think that’s what’s up. I think there’s something else going on, which is commenting on itself going to such extremes. Watching my sons take that in and interpret it and delight in how outrageous it is, is really the fun of it for me. My middle son calls him Sir Francis of the Filth.

Now, we like Don Hertzfeldt around here a lot. Noah Malone is the guy I’ve really been liking a lot that Henry’s been showing me. He’s really interesting. The way he draws the figure and the face, and just the the odd stories he tells, really unpredictable, odd stories, I’ve really taken to. The sense of humor is so morbidly specific to this guy, you really feel like you’re getting someone’s take on the world, but in an articulate, careful way. So much of the stuff on the internet or on YouTube you end up watching just feels like, “If the platform weren’t so accessible, this wouldn’t see the light of day.” But this Noah Malone is a different story.

You said Filthy Frank isn’t your sense of humor — what is? How would you characterize your sense of humor?

Oh my God, I have no idea. I want to see somebody’s skewed take on the world, and when that’s funny to me, that’s my sense of humor.

That is the basis of a lot of Don Hertzfeldt’s work.

Yes. And there’s a real sadness to it. There’s just a heartbreak to it. I don’t need that in my sense of humor, but I appreciate its specificity when it’s there, just like I can laugh at Monty Python, which I don’t think has a lot of pathos. Their way in is through either extreme intelligence or extreme silliness or absurdity. It too is its own specific take on the world that you couldn’t find anywhere else but in a Monty Python skit.

Do you remember the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

Yes, last night, Colin Farrell’s performance in The Gentlemen. Before that, my boy Henry and I watched Daddy Longlegs. We had a great time with that, and just really laughed at the deepening predicament that Josh and Benny [Safdie] kept putting that father character into as the movie went on. It just got sadder and sadder, and funnier and funnier, especially when he gets put in jail. Have you interviewed those guys?

I haven’t. Did you see Uncut Gems?

Yeah, I loved it. I guess now that you bring it up, what most made me laugh is, I’m reading this book by I.J. Singer that was written in the ’30s called The Brothers Ashkenazi, and I’m laughing on every page of that. It’s about a Jewish family in Łódź in the late 19th and early 20th century, during industrialization, up until the First World War, and all the infighting between the different sects of Judaism, the different social strata of Judaism, but also the Germans and Poles and Russians in Łódź as it was building itself up during the Industrial Revolution.

It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and that is bringing me incredible joy. I lie on the sofa in the afternoons and read this book, and I’m just transported out of the world of New York City, COVID-19, back into this other time with all these arguments between Gentiles and Jews and Hasidim and secular Jews, and people who let the beard grow and people who shave, and atheists and modernists, and in this tangled community of Industrial Revolution Łódź, and it’s an incredible relief. That’s been great.

We also just got Criterion Channel, and that’s offered all sorts of delights. My son Henry and I have been watching ’70s environmental disaster movies and ecological disaster movies, which is a genre I really love, like The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man, Silent Running, Logan’s Run. We’ve been watching a lot of movies. I showed him Bad Boy Bubby. It’s hard to find, but we found it on Google. It’s an Australian cult movie, and it’s really out there. Particularly the first 20 minutes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And if you have demented friends, watch it with them. This is very out there. It takes place in the city of Adelaide, which I’m told by Australians is a very unique place in Australia, with its own sensibility. I’ve been told that this movie is quintessentially Adelaide.

In terms of watching ’70s disasters movies, was that prompted by the current climate? Or do you just enjoy the genre?

Henry and I have been talking about doing this, we’ve been talking about this genre for a while. We tend to watch movies in, I guess, aesthetic clumps. This is one I really wanted him to see because he’s really into lo-fi capture. He just ordered a Krasnogorsk-3 16mm camera from Russia. Those ’70s movies, even the ones with decent budgets, have a real grit to them, and they often aren’t too carefully lit, because that’s really not the point. And they’re very immersive in an affecting way. So we were going to watch them anyway. That said, they certainly resonate with what’s going on right now, and then what’s really funny is, given the fact that he’s ordered that camera, we watched an early Kieślowski film called Camera Buff, and it all centers around the Krasnogorsk 16mm camera, which was really fun.

What have you been listening to during quarantine? I notice you’re drinking from a Marc Maron mug.

Yeah. You get this when you do his show. I wasn’t gloating, my God. But I love Marc, I’m very sad for Marc right now. What am I listening to? My son Henry just put out an album called Whaling Town, and I listen to that a lot. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, because in succession I watched the Ken Burns documentary and No Direction Home, the Scorsese film, which are both on Netflix right now.

Then, also, the movie about Robbie Robertson and The Band, which had a lot of footage from the Dylan tour when they were his backup band, and then the Before the Flood tour, where they traveled together. So a lot of Dylan, and Leonard Cohen and Billy Bragg and Sun Kil Moon. A little Phil Elverum. Doc Watson. Whenever my sons are in the car, Death Grips. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and a little bit of Burning Spear. I always have to have some Winston Rodney in my ear.

Are you watching much TV?

I don’t tend to watch many television series. I have watched Hollywood just because it has so many people I know, and it’s just delightful to see Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello and Patti LuPone creating such incredible characters. And I’m a big admirer of Ryan Murphy, so I’ve watched that. But mostly on television, I watch more of the documentary stuff.

Any documentaries in particular? You mentioned that you watched the Ken Burns documentary on Bob Dylan.

Yeah, I watched the World War II in Color documentary. And as I said, No Direction Home was really affecting. Obviously Tiger King, like every other schmuck. But Tiger King had special significance for me because that’s my home state.

Did you binge it or watch it an episode at a time?

We watched an episode at a time. I can’t binge. I end up feeling badly about myself if I spend that much time. So I tend to watch for an hour, and usually while on my rowing machine.

What did you think of the show?

I mostly appreciated how it explored a certain type of character in my home state, which is underrepresented in the culture, which is the openly gay Southern white man. Just that combination of the rural or cowboy accent and the rural or cowboy look and feel, with a proud homosexuality. Even though the character is perhaps guilty of attempted murder and mistreats animals, I liked seeing that aspect of Southern culture treated in a way that had a strange sensitivity to it.

I felt that Joe Exotic, whenever he hangs himself in front of the camera, is doing it for stuff that doesn’t really have to do with being openly gay, so that aspect of him I felt was dealt with sensitively and positively in the movie, in a non-judgmental way. I loved seeing that. Again, I think it’s underrepresented, and that makes it difficult for people in that part of the country who are gay to come out in society, and more importantly, to their parents and their family, etc. In a strange way, I think that Tiger King normalized it through the self-depiction of this really outlandish character, which is ironic.

Thank you for speaking with me!

You bet. And don’t hold Bad Boy Bubby against me, all right? You’ll hate it or love it.

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