Nathan Adloff is more than just a pretty face [and you know what I mean if you’ve seen his latest feature film, BLACKMAIL BOYS]. He’s an actor, director, and all-around creative type making it happen in Chicago.
Photography by Alicia Chester, BLACKMAIL BOYS film stills courtesy of Hands Up Productions, BAD SIDES film stills courtesy of Torn Up Productions
What got you started in filmmaking? Who are your influences?
I’ve always known that I wanted to make movies. I would spend entire weekends at the movie theater when I was young. I even worked at a few throughout high school. I began studying film in college and was always working on some sort of short film or at the campus television station. After college, I immediately moved up to Chicago and started working on as many productions as I possibly could. It started out just doing background work, but as I began meeting more people, I took on newer and more exciting roles. I finally started making my own short films and was even starting to act in other people’s movies. Things kept moving along and I was making more of my own stuff. I also began volunteering at Sundance so I could see all of the new films before they were released. I did that for six straight years!
Growing up, Steven Spielberg was my hero. I think I’ve seen JURASSIC PARK about 50 times by now. I was (and still am!) super infatuated with THE GOONIES too. When I was young, movies were these magical things that I thought I could go visit one day… like Sesame Street! I knew I had to be a part of that.
I also find myself influenced by directors like Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz. Also, fellow filmmaker friends that I’ve had the pleasure of working on projects with, such as Joe Swanberg and Frank V. Ross. Lastly, my friend Lynn Shelton is a true inspiration to me. She’s paved a path to great success for herself and is a true filmmaker that I can only aspire to be like.
Do you a have a filmmaking “point of view?”
I like to keep things comfortable. I like to surround myself with people who don’t have those typical big egos you come across when working on some projects. Making films feels like the furthest thing away from a job to me, but to some people it is just a job and I prefer to distance myself away from those types as much as possible. I’m also very laid back and a total goofball, so I like to recruit similar types. The stress level doesn’t have to be high and I think that some people just bring that with them and I feel it is completely unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I work hard and go a little bonkers if things fall behind schedule during a shoot, but getting worked up over it just doesn’t result in anything positive. I’ve been lucky enough to have found many talented people who share the same outlook on making movies and there’s just nothing like it.
What kind of stories grab you?
What typically draws me into a film or tv show is dark humor and controversial subjects. Christopher Guest mixed with Todd Solondz would be the best way I could describe what I enjoy the most. Dark humor mixed with really serious and controversial topics really do it for me. I’m also a sucker for an unexpected and sad endings. You know, the ones that make you feel like poo afterwards! A perfect example is Lars von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK. It’s probably the most devastating film I’ve ever seen, but it’s just so damn good! Those are the kinds of stories that I get the most emotional response from.
What’s it like working behind the lens as a director? In front of the lens as an actor? Which do you prefer?
As a Director, I enjoy working with actors and being open to ideas that they have. I always encourage the actors I’m working with to use the script as a foundation or some kind of “worst case scenario” plan, and allow them to improvise new dialogue that might be better or feel more true to their character. I also enjoy being asked to do that as an actor. The filmmakers I work with mostly do the same thing. I’ve never had an acting lesson in my life but I find it so challenging and superbly rewarding to get to improvise a scene. When I do, I constantly surprise myself and it always makes me look forward to my next project. I know it’s a typical answer, but I honestly have to say I enjoy them both equally!
Tell me about “Blackmail Boys.”
BLACKMAIL BOYS is a film that premiered earlier this year that I starred in. I play an art student named Sam, living a lonely life a Chicago all by himself. Sam moved to Chicago from Memphis after being disowned by his family for coming out of the closet. He has a long-distance boyfriend named Aaron, who visits the big city of Chicago from Memphis for the first time.
Because Sam has no financial support from his family, he supports himself in an interesting way — through prostitution. He explains that it is not only easy money, but sometimes non-sexual, like when his clients pay him to hang out and talk. When Aaron arrives for his visit, Sam’s most high-paying client comes over. Aaron spies in on them and discovers that the client is a right-wing, totally anti-gay, evangelical Christian everything type of author person. And what do Sam and Aaron do to him? Blackmail him for lots of money of course! It’s a mix of genres and is a sexually hyper-graphic film with a tender side to it. It’s absolutely a love story!
How did you get involved in the film?
The Directors (Bernard and Richard Shumanski) had initially contacted my friend Joe Swanberg (a fellow filmmaker here in Chicago whom I mentioned earlier). They are huge fans of Joe’s work and really wanted him to act in the film. The Shumanski brothers are from South Africa, so much of the pre-production was done by Joe and some other folks here in Chicago prior to their arrival just before shooting. Joe asked me if I would act in it. I have worked with Joe before on projects with similar content, so I kind of knew what to expect. So after everything was in place, we shot the film over about six days earlier this year. Let me tell you, it was crazy.
What was it like performing such intimate scenes in front of a crew? And then watching them in the audience later?
Well, I also act in a web series called YOUNG AMERICAN BODIES for the Independent Film Channel. Some of the scenes I’ve been in in that show are similar in nature to those in BLACKMAIL BOYS, but not in this capacity. It was definitely awkward for a little while, but then just turned into acting… like in any other type of scene. As far as watching it with an audience, it was a lot less weird than I had expected it to be. We premiered it at the SHOUT Birmingham Film Festival (a branch of the Sidewalk Film Festival) in September, where it was really well-received. We won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature and the Audience Choice award at that festival. We’ve since screened it in the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and Indie Memphis, where we won a Special Jury Prize “it’s combination of genre mix and playful indie spirit”. The Q&A’s after the screenings are the most fun. Bernard Shumanski traveled all the way from South Africa to attend the premiere in Birmingham and he is just a sight to see. He’s super passionate about about his films and truly believes BLACKMAIL BOYS is going to be the next big franchise like TWILIGHT. He likes to call us “the gay Hardy Boys”.
Do you identify with your character?
Not a whole lot. Sam is very naive and really puts himself in danger. I did try to add pieces of my personality to the character, though. I think (hope) this made my portrayal come off more naturally. Sam is basically me with a lot of naiveté and prostitution added… : )
What challenges did this role present?
It was challenging to make a feature-length film in only six days! It was a really tight schedule and Bernard was a slave driver. BLACKMAIL BOYS was definitely a family affair for the Shumanski’s. If you watch the end credits, I think there are at least five of them that were involved in various aspects of making the film. I would come to set almost every day prepared for all of my lines from the script, to find out that those scenes have been completely cut from the movie! I also hadn’t met my co-star prior to shooting. We had a couple of Skype video chats together with the Shumanski’s in South Africa to discuss everything before the shoot. Insanity.
What do you want the viewers to be left with after watching the film?
The big message here is that prostitution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Haha, just kidding. Well, it’s probably different for everyone, but I feel that it’s a love story and about learning from your mistakes. These boys are extremely naive, so it’s about growing up and being sky-rocketed from being young and relying on parents to living on their own and trying to pay for school and a place to live. Also, when things get REALLY bad, things will always get better.
Where can folks watch it?
The film just got bought and will be distributed early next year!
Tell me about “Bad Sides.”
BAD SIDES is a completely different kind of project! It is a new mockumentary comedy series that I co-created with Danny Rhodes and Justin D.M. Palmer. I also directed and acted in the pilot episode. The story centers around Marcuss (Rhodes), a spoiled trust fund wannabe amateur filmmaker and Marcuss’s adoring sycophant friend Allison (played by Sadieh Rafai) during their ongoing quest to cast his film. Dissatisfied with the available talent pool in Chicago, their new intern Nick (me) quickly discovers that the problem might have less to do with the talent of the actors, and more to do with the crazy people running the auditions.
We shoot it here in Chicago, with a story that takes place in Chicago, starring Chicago’s very best talent, each episode of BAD SIDES features a cameo guest star spot that serves as the thematic focus of that week’s episode. We were so fortunate to have Natalie West (“Crystal” from TV’s ROSEANNE) guest star in our pilot. She plays a fictionalized version of herself and was amazing! I hurt for two days straight after shooting it because I was laughing so hard the entire time.
Your trailer for BAD SIDES (available to view below) makes me want to watch the whole thing. Is the first episode finished? Where will folks be able to see it?
Yes, we have finished the pilot! We just had our world premiere screening, where we had live stand-up, live music, food and drinks, along with showing the episode to a very filled bar on the north side of Chicago. Since this event happened less than a week ago (November 21st), we are just starting to get the pilot episode into as many people’s hands that may be interested in buying it as possible. Our dream is to sell the show to a major network and are feeling that out as we go. At this point in time, we are already geared up to shoot the second episode in just a couple of weeks. The plan is to have screening parties/fundraiser events like we did last night for each episode, so people can really get involved with the show experience. We are really trying to avoid just making the episodes and putting them up on youtube by having these exclusive events you can to come to and see the show.
Describe the various roles you play in the creation of this episodic series.
The idea of creating a show based on the audition process of an independent movie came to me when I was doing just that. My co-creator, Danny Rhodes, and I were auditioning actors for a few roles in a feature film that I directed earlier this year. We saw some… interesting people during this process. It just clicked that we had to make an episodic series about it and soon became an obsession. Shortly after, we brought on our head writer, Justin D.M. Palmer, to help us come up with all the characters and story arc of the first season. The three of us get together often to brainstorm ideas for the stories, jokes and actors to use. Justin then works his magic and puts it all into script form.
How has your craft evolved over time?
I think I’ve honed in more on what works and what doesn’t with little-to-no budget. I’ve made short films with everything borrowed, no script and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the end result. Each film project is a huge learning experience and I feel like I’m getting a lot better at it and that really excites me and motivates me to keep coming up with new projects. I feel like I’ve grown a much stronger backbone.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to the young(er) Nathan who first dreamed of making movies?
Do more! Do more! Do more! Yeah, do more much earlier in life, little Nathan. Don’t get discouraged. Keep making movies that nobody will see. Eventually they will want to see them! I’d also give myself a camcorder when I was little, and tell myself to start playing. I don’t know how many director interviews I’ve seen and read where they say things like “Yeah, I just picked up the family camcorder one day and began making little short movies with my sister.” I feel like every little budding filmmaker needs their instincts nurtured early on in life.
We have a six episode arc written for our first season of BAD SIDES. We will keep making episodes and eventually find a home for the series. I am also directing a feature next May, which I co-wrote with Justin. It’s called NATE & MARGARET and is based on true stories from some of my experiences in college as well as multiple other true stories making up Margaret. Natalie West is going to star as Margaret, Ashley Fink from GLEE is going to be playing Darla (Nate’s best friend) and we are still casting for the role of Nate! We are really excited to partner with Ash Christian, of Cranium Entertainment out of New York City, who will be producing the movie.
Click to watch the BAD SIDES pilot trailer below.