An award-winning filmmaker from Belgrade (Yugoslavia), Nikolic lives in New York, and teaches film directing, production, and digital filmmaking in New York University and The New School University.
While in Yugoslavia, Nikolic worked as the director of the first independent TV network in former Yugoslavia. He has since worked as writer, director, producer and editor on short movies, feature films, documentaries, commercials and music videos.
His awards include the TV Sarajevo Award and Zeta Film Award for “best screenplay”, Eastman Kodak Award for his short film “Serendipity”, Telluride Indiefest Best film award for the feature film “Burn” (2001).
In this exclusive interview with BZFilm, Nikolic recalls his difficult working conditions in Yugoslavia, expresses his views on digital filmmaking, and explains how piracy can be used as a marketing tool for a new film.
You were the director of the first independent TV network in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. How did you get involved in television? How did you become the director of NTV STUDIO B?
It was a coincidence. Studio B was a very popular radio station, and they were planning on opening a TV station. A friend of mine, who worked with the radio station called me and asked if I wanted to direct a documentary for them – this was in 1990, before the TV station was broadcasting, I said yes – I was a young filmmaker then, I had done some shorts, got some awards for scripts, and so on, but that was how I started with them.
The documentary was about futurism and the 21st century; it was very successful, and they offered me to stay on as director for culture and arts programming. I worked with them until ’92, when I went to New York, and was still doing occasionally segments from NY during the next few years.
According to the news online, the TV station got taken over by authorities in 2010, which caused a lot of negative reaction, both inside the country and in the UN as well. How does STUDIO B function today?
I don’t know about that. I know that they were taken over in ’96 by the government, which caused a big stir – it was a big deal in the ’90s, as Yugoslavia was falling apart- it was really one of the very few independent voices, and the only independent TV station then – so there was a lot of pressure from the Milosevic regime.
I remember we used to get bomb threats every other day, and we would have to evacuate the station – only the live program crew would stay in the studio broadcasting – a couple of times I was the director for the live shows then; we knew that it was only a tactic for the police to come in and search the station for our tapes and stuff, and luckily nothing ever happened.
But, it would still make you nervous, sitting in the control room and wondering – what if there really was a bomb – so this was the environment at the time – huge street protests, clashes with police, etc.
Everybody was watching Studio B then, because that was the only place where you could see what was really going on. There was also the radio station B92 – a lot of the same tech people worked at both stations. Now, of course, things are very different – B92 has a TV station as well, there are many TV channels in the region, and Studio B doesn’t have that important role any more.
Where did you study, filmmaking wise, in the U.S.? How does it compare to how filmmaking is being taught in your country?
In Yugoslavia, I worked for 3 years as camera apprentice to one of the best DPs there, Rade Vladic, while studying literature, languages and writing scripts, shooting films.
Then I completed my Master’s degree in Film and Media Studies at The New School in NYC, which has the reputation of being the most progressive university in the United States. That is also where I teach now, but I have also taught at NYU, and some other universities in NY and Philadelphia.
In Yugoslavia (now Serbia, Croatia, etc.) – like in most other European countries, there is a central Film Academy, where they admit a few students each year on different tracks – directing, camera, editing, and so on.
The hardest part is to get admitted – hundreds, or even thousands of students apply – especially for directing and acting, and they admit only 4 or 5 students. On one hand, that makes sense, because there aren’t that many jobs in Film in a small country – but on the other hand, there is a lot of nepotism in the admissions process, and it certainly shuts out some talented kids.
It has gotten a bit better now, as there are some private schools that serve as alternatives, but I think it’s still a very conservative system. I think that film is a constantly evolving medium, but they have turned it almost into some dogma in most film academies. For example, I did a feature film – “Burn,” which we shot in 1996, on 35mm film and consumer-based mini DV, and I – along with some other filmmakers at that time – immediately saw this as the future.
So I went to several schools and said, you should have a course in digital filmmaking – the response was – “What are you talking about? That’s not film” and so on. The New School let me teach a class in digital filmmaking – I think it was ’98 or ’99, and I think it was the first class like that ever taught – now of course everybody is teaching it.
It is not about whether digital video is better than film, but it is ridiculous that some of the film snobs talk about the “death of celluloid film” only now in 2012, when this was evident a decade ago. I think, many film schools, which, in my view, should be on the cutting edge of what is happening now, teach their students something that is already past.
I think in Europe this is more prevalent than in the U.S., but it’s also present in the U.S. as well. Overall, though, the film education system in the U.S. is far more democratic – pretty much anybody can study filmmaking – and of course, many people do it for the wrong reasons – they see it as something sexy, but they don’t have much to say, they just copy what they see on TV.
That is fine however, they will give up and do something else – I think it’s a better system, it puts the burden on the student – here’s your chance, do it – rather than some panel of “experts” deciding who should be a filmmaker and who shouldn’t.
Let’s talk a little about the “Digital video production” courses that you teach at the university… In a nutshell, it explains how one can make a movie using a desktop computer. How would you explain “digital video production” in details?
Digital video production – or digital filmmaking – enables anyone to make a movie with a consumer digital camera and edit it on a computer. It is a phenomenal development, as it has taken the money aspect out the production equation – of course, this is generalizing a bit, but it’s quite true – this has never been possible – if you have this equipment, which costs a few thousand dollars, and is getting cheaper by the day – you can make a professional-looking film – so the course is a workshop that gives students the technical tools, as well as the basic understanding of film language, and how to apply that.
You are an award-winning independent filmmaker, and a teacher as well. How do you combine the two, in terms of teaching students, and at the same time making your own movies?
I think it’s essential for filmmaking teachers to be active in the field, or at least stay informed. In my opinion, it is a great combination, as I love the energy that students bring to filmmaking – it is pure passion, it’s not jaded, as you will often find in professionals in the film industry. In terms of my filmmaking, teaching allows me to focus on projects that I really care about, as opposed to having to take on gigs just to pay the rent – of course, I used to do that too. When you’re a freelancer, you never say “no” to a job.
So, my filmmaking informs my teaching, and vice-versa. I try to give everything I can to my students – a graduate student of mine recently got the student Oscar, and quoted me in his acceptance speech – it really made me more proud than any award I have gotten – just the thought that you made such an impact on someone is phenomenal – I think we all had teachers like that, but I never thought I would be one of them.
The film can stand on its own, but it’s also an open-ended experience, that invites the viewer to explore the film’s subjects further, so the narrative continues through what we most commonly call “transmedia” nowadays – a set of different media platforms, such as websites, social media, events, etc.
You can enter the story from any of these points, and they all build on each other. The premise of the film is centered around a futuristic conspiracy thriller, but the bigger idea really is to explore ways how we think and create our concepts of reality.
For example, how come I really like this show and you hate it, or why do I trust this politician, but not the other one, how does that inform my actions, etc. – ideally, it would make the viewer think about that further, and let him come to his own conclusions – it’s a complicated concept for a film, and, as expected, it has divided audiences 50-50.
People love it or hate it, but it has also enabled us to draw a much bigger audience for a very small, low-budget indie film with a very cerebral theme.
You once said that piracy should be considered as another element of film distribution strategy. Would you still recommend it today? Would it be something that your students should be using, with their first-made movies?
Well, we did this with Vodo.net, which uses bit-torrents, and we put parts of “Zenith” on Vodo – it was hugely successful in attracting attention – millions of downloads – but didn’t do much in terms of revenue however. We also released the film in traditional ways – limited theatrical, DVDs, streaming rentals, etc. These two markets don’t intersect much – whoever downloads pirated content, doesn’t pay for a film anyways – so we used that as one of the marketing tools, and actually did make some revenue from it as well, which otherwise we wouldn’t have.
I think piracy is just part of a much larger issue – it’s the changing media landscape and how it affects the media-makers and audiences; the studios are using everything they can to market their films- tens of millions of dollars are spent on it.
Everyone knows when the next “Transformers” are coming out– and even the studios have to fight harder, mostly what keeps them afloat are their franchises – but if you’re making a small independent film, you get lost in the noise, and audiences for small and foreign films continue to shrink.
In many ways, I find this similar to what happened to the music industry – eventually they had to change the model – the revenue doesn’t come from the recording and publishing of songs any more, but from concerts, and the songs serve to attract an audience to come to the concert – you can’t pirate the feeling of being at a live performance.
Of course, it’s a question of how this will play out in filmmaking, but I believe that filmmakers nowadays have to be more engaged in the producing and distribution process of their work as well, and to cultivate their audience.
Any new films you are currently working on? “Zenith” was the last film you made, and that was in 2010…
Yes, the new film’s title is “Allure”, and we call it a “situationist anarchist film” –it’s inspired by true stories, and focuses on five intersecting storylines of women in NYC, who have come from different countries and settings; each one struggles to overcome personal conflicts, but the stories are set against the larger backdrop of the current global political and economic turmoil, and the Occupy movements – we have just finished the shoot a few days ago, so you are the first one to publish this information. Thank you!
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