IFFR 2015: Director Nicolas Steiner’s Above and Below

For his second feature film, director Nicolas Steiner set out to discover people hidden from the world. Those who have chosen a life away from the cities and communities – and the luxuries therein – that most ordinary folk take for granted. Above and Below documents the lives of Cindy, Rick, and Lalo who live in the flood tunnels below Las Vegas, David, who lives in a reclaimed military bunker in the Californian desert, and April, a geologist living out a red planet expedition simulation for the Mars-Society. Though each protagonist seems to be wilfully rejecting a normal life, for Steiner, they represent the will to survive that is natural to all of us, and created their own kind of ‘normal’ by which to do this; ‘’It’s amazing how fast a human being attaches to its surroundings and what the formula of three walls and a ceiling can be.’’

What’s striking about Above and Below is how successfully it makes seemingly ignored lives cinematically epic, whilst retaining an intimacy with the protagonists. Shooting wide and employing strategic use of a crane, Steiner and DoP Markus Nestroy convey the scale of the desert, the Mars-like terrain and the Las Vegas skyline, in such a way that the individuals who inhabit these mostly forgotten lands, appear heroic in their choice to live apart from the mainstream. For Steiner, this wide scope was essential to the concept of Above and Below, allowing him to visualise the connections between his star-gazing and tunnel dwelling protagonists. For the most part however, a looser, more spontaneous approach was needed, in order to remain discrete; ‘’we didn’t want to attract too much attention from the “outside” world, because especially in the underground of Las Vegas we were shooting illegally. We were constantly trespassing.’’

Building an intimacy with his subjects was also vital to achieving Steiner’s vision for the film. Before shooting he spent months with each protagonist without the film’s crew, which allowed the director to gain their trust, and whilst filming, this effort to respect their lives remained important; ‘’[During the] shooting period (which was over 2.5 months), we didn’t shoot that much daily, instead we spent a lot of time with them as well. Often times we went down into the tunnels for example, without any equipment. It was more “to hang out” and helping them: driving around, organizing stuff, collecting bottles, trying to help fix Dave’s RV etc. We did what we could to be part of the whole life system within.’’

Such respect and empathy for the subject is what makes Above and Below so effective, allowing for moments in which the protagonists reveal the difficulties that have come from their life choices. For Steiner, this closeness dismantled what he had imagined such hidden lives to involve; ‘’the true story is sometimes so much harder than anything that you could possibly even think of.’’

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 26 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.