Rob Nilsson

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Rob Nilsson
Born (1939-10-29) October 29, 1939 (age 74)
Rhinelander, Wisconsin
Occupation film director; actor
Years active 1978–present
Awards Caméra d'Or, Cannes
1979 Northern Lights
Sundance Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic
1988 Heat and Sunlight

Rob Nilsson (born October 29, 1939) is an American independent film director, writer, and occasional actor. He has won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Nilsson was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and grew up there and in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California in 1957.[2] He graduated from Harvard in 1962 and began working in film.[3]

Film career[edit]

His first film, Northern Lights (1978), was co-written and co-directed with John Hanson, tells of the struggles of North Dakota farmers in 1915 organizing to resist the effects of bank foreclosures. The film was well-received, winning the Caméra d'Or (best first film) at the Cannes Film Festival.

That was followed by the landmark independent film, Signal 7. It was produced by Bay Area art house exhibitors Don Taylor and Ben Myron, and executive-produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Signal 7 pioneered the use of ENG video cameras and small portable U-matic cassette recorders for dramatic film production, and was shot over the course of four nights.[4] It was transferred to 35mm film for theatrical exhibition and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival.

His next film, On the Edge (1985) starred Bruce Dern and Pam Grier, and was his most "Hollywood" effort to date. Of it, Roger Ebert wrote "It would all be very predictable, I thought, but I was wrong. On the Edge may have a familiar formula, but it is an angry, original, unpredictable movie. And it's not about winning. It's about the reasons that athletes carry in their hearts after all strength and reason have fled."

He writes a column for Res Magazine.

Nilsson claimed to co-write and co-direct the feature film Security with film students at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was an artist-in-residence at the Pacific Film Archive. The film details the paranoia and insecurities of college students Post-9/11 and has been referred to as another example of Mumblecore. The film won the Audience Award at GreenCine's DIVX Film Festival, the first internationally juried film festival created for the internet. Many of the film students, such as Brett Simon, Debbie Heimowitz, and David Herrera, have gone on to successful careers in film.

In October 2007, he completed the final film in his nine part feature film series called 9@Night - about the lives of the homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin. The experiment was started several years ago, and features intertwined plot lines and characters. Each film takes a unique approach to story telling - with the complete package creating a virtual world that wraps itself around the viewer. By the end, viewers will miss their onscreen friends.

The 9@Night film series comes from Nilsson's time spent with the Tenderloin Group Players Ensemble, a group of homeless people who participated in improv acting workshops. Many of these individuals appear in his films as lead characters.

He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Silverlake Film Festival, in Hollywood, California. Attendees included Philip Seymour Hoffman and many independent cinema critics.

Nilsson is a pioneer in digital film making, being one of the first to use purely digital methods to create his pieces. Editor Chikara Motomura and producer Kevin Winterfield joined Nilsson in the late 90s to promote digital filmmaking as a way to decrease the budget requirements for producing independent films and to create an intimate aesthetic that pre-dates modern-day reality TV.

Taking Nilsson's Direct Action Cinema approach, which he developed earlier in his career, Nilsson, Motomura and Winterfield created an improvisational theater approach that allows creative storytelling about real people, in seminal struggles around the globe.

With the completion of the 9@Night Series, Nilsson turns his focus to the subject of love.


  1. ^ Rob Nilsson’s Biography (Citizen Cinema)
  2. ^ Tamalpais High School Alumni Directory 2002, Bernard C. Harris Publishing Company, Purchase, New York, 2002
  3. ^ "Rob Nilsson's film project ready for prime time", Beth Ashley, September 3, 2008, Marin Independent Journal, retrieved September 11, 2008
  4. ^ Pasquariello, Nicholas (June 1984). "Shooting a Feature on ¾ Videotape". American Cinematographer 65 (6). 

External links[edit]