Exclusive interview with Dusty Nelson

There was a time when movies weren’t just made in Pittsburgh but actually came from Pittsburgh. Dusty Nelson is one of the people that made one of the best ones, Effects. The rest of the world may have taken forty years or so to figure that out, but now it’s recognized as the work of art that it is.

Starting his filmmaking career at Carnegie Mellon University, Dusty has worked as a director, writer and cinematographer on numerous commercials, documentaries, TV series and feature films like Tales from the DarksideSakura KillersWhite PhantomNecromancer and Inferno.

His company The Image Works, along with Pat Buba and John Harrison, is a major part of the history of not just Pittsburgh film, but also its marketing and advertising.

He’s also someone kind enough to sit down for several conversations with me. I’m elated to share the results here.

Thanks to Tony Buba for his help in setting up this opportunity.

B&S About Movies: When you were first starting out, what were some of the filmmakers or films that influenced you?

Dusty Nelson: I had started watching a lot of the French New Wave, like Godard and Truffaut. They were making black and white movies in France that weren’t Hollywood movies at all but instead they were doing these kinds of artsy existential movies starring actors who became big names but back then, you didn’t know who they were.

B&S: They were the first generation that experienced film before making it, often even being critics before directing.

Nelson: They were analyzing what does and doesn’t work in film. These films were not what filmmaking was. Filmmaking was Hollywood.

B&S: It’s why I gravitate so often to Eurohorror and shot on video. I want to be surprised and not see the formula coming.

Nelson: Did you know that’s exactly where I was coming from with Effects? And I kept thinking, “How do I tell a story in a different way and have it still be a story?”

Well, that was fine. Except the people that are selling movies to drive-ins really didn’t want a story. They just wanted to know if every five or six minutes, “Could you kill someone, please?” (laughs)

It was an interesting realization that we were literally trying to tell a story here. You have this twisted character Lacey who was making not just one movie, but two movies, except nobody else knew that he was hiding cameras and making his own film.

B&S: Even though you made Effects back in the late 70s, there are a lot of themes that are relevant today. After #Me Too, people know a bit more, but sets weren’t always safe places for people, especially women. A lot of that comes out in the film. Actors make themselves vulnerable and Lacey is taking advantage of that. Was that intentional?

Nelson: I was thinking that that’s just the way the world is. And, of course, there were these men taking advantage of females. That’s the way the world still is. And that’s certainly the way it was then and that’s certainly the way it was in Hollywood.

B&S: You spent all this time and energy creating a film that was different and then you meet people who make it into commerce. Like you said, they only care how many murders are in the movie.

Nelson: I used to be sad about that. But as time went on, I thought, “I might be making a movie, but these people are just selling shoes or whatever.” It’s just a product, you know, and they put out a certain amount of money and want to make their money back. If that’s all you know, it’s that simple. You have to pay the rent.

B&S: Still, it doesn’t feel like any other horror movie made in 1979. You were right in the middle of the slasher boom. Who were you looking at when you made it?

Nelson: The directors that I was paying attention to were Truffaut, Antonioni and Fellini. I don’t know how they actually affect it. I never said to myself, “Oh here’s a shot that I want to use.”

Those were the people who had influenced me, but mostly what I was trying to do is just tell the story and to make sure that we did it in a way where everything is just seamless. I wanted to make something simple that told a story.

B&S: At the time, the person in the U.S. making thrillers instead of slashers was De Palma, but he was indulging in split screens and so many camera moves that get away from simplicity. By comparison, Effects has an almost documentary feel.

Nelson: The whole last scene, when they drive out to the woods in the truck, from that point on until the end of the film, everything is shot handheld. Not every shot, but almost every shot in the woods is. That’s because that’s the only way we could afford to do it was literally just running through the woods and grabbing shots. But, again, it wasn’t like I was trying to say anything by doing that. I was just trying to create something visually interesting and continue to tell the story.

B&S: I don’t mean this as an insult, but it’s a movie that’s too arty to be a slasher and too much of a slasher to be an art film.

Nelson: The kill in the middle, in black and white, that was certainly slasher-esque and that was deliberate. Then they have a discussion afterward, where they discuss the merits of it and ask, “How could you kill someone on camera?” Then the other guy says, “Would you know if it was special effects?”

You actually don’t know! And like I said to you, I’ve had people tell me that they don’t believe that the black and white movie within the movie isn’t a real murder!

B&S: As someone who has watched hundreds of slashers, Effects was the first movie that made me consider, “Am I actually enjoying watching people die?” and “What if these deaths were real? They look real enough.”

Nelson: At the end, Lacey could have been caught and arrested.

But he wasn’t. He got away with it.

My whole thing was that special effects are so sophisticated. And we’re so used to seeing people being killed and abused that we just accept it.

What would happen if it was real? How wouldn’t we know the difference?

B&S: To raise that point to the audience, you had the best special effects person in the world working on the film in Tom Savini.

Nelson: We had a great time creating stuff with Tom. We grew up in films together so there was a kinship there. That was just great.

B&S: Snuff films have always been this legend and you have movies with real death in them like Twilight Zone: The Movie and I have no interest in watching that scene.

Nelson:  I have no desire to. You know, a lot of the stuff I’ve done, a lot of the TV commercials we did a lot of car stuff that was extraordinarily dangerous. I never wanted to be shooting footage when someone was hurt or killed, much less using it afterward to sell something.

B&S: Today, we see death in a different way. In the 80s, to see it, you needed to know someone to see the Bud Dwyer tape or caught it live. The internet lets us see death whenever we want but in 15-second clips with no context.

Nelson: You have to realize that Effects was forty years ago. When we made it, we were dealing with ideas that nobody was dealing with at the time. The whole notion of hidden cameras is something that people take for granted now. But that wasn’t true then. People born today are used to being under constant surveillance.

B&S: Everyone put in so much effort and time into the film, which played a few theaters and the pre-Sundance USA Film Festival. And then the movie disappeared. Was it an emotional time?

Nelson: (laughs) Well, let’s see. Within three months, I was divorced. It was very emotional because I knew that we had something that was well done.

But I also knew that it was not marketable and that was just really hard.

That was hard to take from a personal point of view. And also, certainly, from all the people who had worked on it. I wanted everybody to be part of something that was successful.

And there was just no way that it was going to be successful.

That was a really rude awakening. I didn’t know until we started dealing with distributors and heard what they had to say about it. It was kind of obvious.

But you know, when I was doing it, all I was trying to do was craft. I was just thinking about the craft.

I couldn’t have done Effects without Pat Buba and John Harrison.

Like I said, it was just a rude awakening. People were saying, “This is really well done, but we can’t sell it.” That was really hard to take. I thought to myself, “Okay, well, now what? You obviously kind of know what you’re doing, but it’s not commercial.” (laughs)

B&S: What happened next?

Nelson: Not long after that, I moved to LA thinking, “Okay, I’ll just go sell out. Because I know the craft.  I know how to do it.”

And you know, that was kind of difficult but I fell into doing advertising and commercials. I would go on the road for three weeks and work like crazy and make a ton of money. Then, I’d come home and realize that all I cared about was the conversation that I just had about investing my money.

Finally, one day I just looked in the mirror and said, “My God, I got married, had a child and this is not the place I want to raise my son. What the hell am I doing? This isn’t why I got into this.”

So we moved to Santa Cruz, up into the mountains, up into the redwoods. And it was incredible. It was absolutely beautiful and it was a great place for my son to grow up, but my so-called career kind of went south. (laughs)

The next thing I knew it was kind of like all I could do to make a little industrial here and there to try to pay the rent.

B&S: It’s hard to give up on the advertising life and the rush of it.

Nelson: Every job, here’s a first class airplane ticket. You’re gonna go here and stay in this great hotel and we’re gonna pay you a ton of money and you’re gonna go do this. And then you’ve done and you’ve got all this money in the bank. To get by, I lost myself in the craft, shooting in particular. I had a lot of fun with that. I loved the crews I got to work with and I loved the equipment I got to use. So that’s what I used to do. Just concentrate on my craft.

B&S: You did some films in that period, right?

Nelson: I did a movie in Taiwan called White Phantom. It was really terrific. This was before I was doing the advertising stuff. I didn’t get paid much money but it was really amazing to go to Taiwan and work with these karate people on this thing. It was just fabulous.

Then I got this chance to do some stuff with cars for Honda. I made more money on one spot than I did making White Phantom and the movie that came before it, Sakura Warriors. (laughs)

B&S: You did another movie around the same time that I really like called Necromancer.

Nelson: (laughs) I totally forgot about that. It was really fun. It may have been completely formulaic but the crew was fabulous. That was really fun to work on because you have all of these incredibly talented people that are not working at Warner Brothers or whatever, but they’re good. There are just too many people who are really good out there but not everybody can work on the really big stuff.

It was an interesting job because I was already editing it and it didn’t work. They fired the director and came to me and said, “Here’s the deal. We’ll pay you the same amount of money to write these scenes and direct them as we’re paying you to edit it. Do you want to do it?”

And I said, “Sure, man, my rent is due. I’ll do whatever.”

These guys were basically distributors who were trying to get into production. And they were grabbing what they could and they had very little money. But they had this little studio space, this little sort of office studio space in Hollywood. And it was you know, again, you’re out there just finding trying to find a gig. I was lucky enough to walk in there and I showed him Effects and they really liked it.

We literally would look at it and then the producers and the executive producers would say, “We need something. Tie in this and this. Go write it.” I would go write and two days later, we would shoot it. You know, it was crazy. It was completely crazy.

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