Field Notes: An interview with filmmaker, Nathan Sage

When it comes to filming a scene, it's not just about visuals, it's about setting a tone. The films of Nathan Sage do just that. Sage's short films are interwoven visual and sonic tapestries of texture, sound and mood, creating an immersive world that sticks with you.

Often using the subject of food and culture in his work for culinary magazine Life & Thyme, Nathan Sage vividly captures and redefines the role of character in his films. The entire landscape that he shoots becomes a developing story while using music as a driving force. Sage's pieces set a strong and indelible aesthetic. 

In our conversation with Nathan, he opened up about his filmmaking process and the importance of having music help guide his visuals.

M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

NS: When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s film “Minority Report.” The visions of the pre-cogs were so dream-like, scrubbing forward and back through the fabric of time, with such beauty and grit all mixed into one gripping scene. The image seemed to ripple with light at times, as if we were viewing the world through a river. Think about it—no other medium of storytelling can do that—not a novel, not a still photo—only a motion picture can do that.

M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?

NS: Getting the shot. Because that’s the thing we pull our hair out over, as filmmakers. We labor over what to tell, or *not* tell, the person in front of the camera (it’s so easy to jinx things), searching for just an instant or two when everything falls into place.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' "voice"?

NS: I saw this behind-the-scenes video of David Fincher scouting a location for one of his films—he walks around the location looking through a point-and-shoot camera, and then he gets down, way down, holding the camera just a foot or so above the ground. And it occurred to me that just that sensibility, about where to put the camera, is so indicative of voice. Fincher’s films are marked by this propensity to get down and see the undersides of things—the underworld of crime in a city, the backroom deals that made Facebook, the hidden stroke of wickedness in a marriage. And for Fincher, that’s his voice.

M: How did Life & Thyme come about?

NS: It started with a few friends around a table. My friend Antonio Diaz founded Life & Thyme, and I remember one night in particular he invited everyone over to his apartment and fed us a homemade dinner of pozole, and we sat around telling stories. In a way, that has been the spirit of Life & Thyme all along—food has just served as the perfect fabric to tie us together, the perfect subject to tell stories about. 

M: How do you feel food and culture intersect?

NS: I think the two are inseparable, and they are so indicative of a sense of time and place. If you go to the noodle bar at the Grand Central Market here in LA at lunchtime, you’ll find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with cops and teachers and construction workers, many of them Spanish-speaking, dousing their won ton soup liberally with Tapatio hot sauce and limes. LA is this big brilliant cauldron, where so many cultures brush shoulder to shoulder, experiencing each other’s sense of viewpoint and taste. I love that.

M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming?

NS: Yes. I have the image I see in my mind, and then I have the image I see through the lens. So much of what I do is in trying to reconcile the two—make the image on the screen look more like the image in my mind. Sometimes, though, it goes the other way.

M: Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?

NS: My first film with Antonio was on Handsome Coffee, a local roaster in LA at the time. We marched into Handsome planning to capture a stylized, close-up view of a pour-over method of brewing coffee, but were immediately disabused of that notion—it wasn’t going to work, because that just wasn’t how they made coffee there. So, in our scrambling to find a plan B, we ended up focusing more on the people behind it—we honed in on the story of Tyler Wells, and his own personal journey. That film blew up in a way none of us could have expected, and forced us to re-think our approach to food (in a good way). 

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

NS: I think music is the thing that sticks the film in your soul. It’s the thing I find myself whistling long after I’ve left the theater, or listening to as I walk down the street. It allows you to really enter the world of the story like nothing else does. I often find myself making music the first thing I seek out for a film, even before I’ve figured out quite what a film will look like.

M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?

NS: I tend to do many cuts of a short film, usually changing just a few little things slightly from cut to cut. And I have to sit on the cut for a while and watch it again and again, because often an edit that I liked on Monday will drive me up the wall by Wednesday. I find deadlines have as good a way as any to tell you when it’s time to close the door.

M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?

NS: Well, I’ll tell you this—it can really ruin your mojo to cut a film to music you can’t use in the end. Perhaps that’s one way to truly gain an appreciation for the effect of good music—it’s unique, textured, irreplaceable.

M: What's coming up?

NS: I’m working on a short film for Life & Thyme in partnership with Verve Coffee that crosses the line from documentary to cinema. So much of what we’ve done before has merely utilized a cinema lighting style and aesthetic, but in order to really capture a feeling, I find myself wanting to go further and further in the direction of the movies I love. So “Prelude” is a short film about coffee, but it’s really a short film about a city waking up.