Terence Nance Finally Defines Beauty With ‘Oversimplification’
When the trailer for Terence Nance's debut feature film, An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty, came out a few weeks ago, confused hip-hop blogs across the net quickly spread the word about a project they didn't know much about, save for its executive producers—hip-hop icons Jay-Z and dream hampton. While the sites didn't do much to research the film's origins or subject matter, Nance knows that the film's big-deal cosigns are a big part of why it's of interest to anyone outside of an art-house theater. Another reason—it's great.
Oversimplification is a perfectly titled experimental journey that follows the narrative of an infatuation/non-relationship, set against a dazzling Brooklyn backdrop. It's romantic, it's dark, it's funny, and it's honest. Oversimplified, it's beautiful. After celebrating its limited release in New York (it'll see a wider release on May 17th - more info here), Nance—who wrote, directed, produced, edited and scored the film—came by the XXL offices to discuss modern masculinity, living in Brooklyn, and how he got Jay to watch his movie.—Additional reporting by Abrea Armstrong.
XXL: So the film took six years to put out, but it’s finally out. How does it feel?
It’s a long process, because we’re releasing it one city at a time, starting with New York, then LA, then the rest of the cities. It’s weird because it goes against your expectations, for someone who hasn't done this before. It’s a sustained effort over a long period of time.
Are you sick of the movie yet?
I wouldn't say that publicly. [laughs] I think with the nature of filmmaking or with making any art, by the time it's released you're mentally and emotionally onto whatever else you're working on. For the audience it's something new and fresh, so you have to get with them in that energy space, even when you're not. But for anything you make, there's always that distance you have to travel from where you are now to where you were when you actually made the thing because you've thought about it a million times by the time it comes out, even before making it.
When you sit in on a screening and watch the film do you ever feel like, "What the fuck is this thing that I've made?"
I have that moment all the time, even when I'm not watching it with the audience. We've played over 45 festivals by now so I've seen it in different countries, but humor is so cultural, so the jokes play differently everywhere. Even in screenings in New York, sometimes people fall in the aisles laughing and sometimes nobody laughs. It's a very strange thing.
Your film's won awards at festivals for Best Experimental Film. What makes it experimental?
I don't think it's experimental, actually. People just say that. I think it's one of those words that, when people use it, I think they mean something else. To me, the idea of an "experimental" film is one where you start it and you don't know what the result will be. But I had a script. I'd made a short film, called Exercising Rejection, that I'd constructed in a similar way, so I knew the final outcome in the scripting and pre-production process.
I guess people call it experimental because you're experimenting with the form - it's a narrative film but in a nontraditional narrative format.
I think a better word than experimental is "bizarre." I think I like the word bizarre better. What makes it bizarre is that it blurs the line between fact and fiction in the same way that reality blurs the line between fact and fiction—because your reality is only your own. So on some level, however we think about ourselves and articulate who we are and talk about ourselves is completely subjective. That's not who you really are, in the wider context of the universe. Hopefully the film plays with those ideas.
The film is obviously very personal and dissects your relationship with Namik, the other co-star, but I want to talk to you about how you wrote the film. One of the key lessons you learn as a writer is to be fair to the people you're writing about since they can't defend themselves in your story, so do you feel like you were fair in your storytelling?
Well, I'd never learned that principle directly, but it was something I was very sensitive to because I love the people I'm writing about. My approach to it was to just be as honest as possible and hopefully through that honesty—which incriminates me as much as it does them—find fairness. But at the end of the day, I showed the movie to everyone in it and they all supported it.
You've said in a previous interview that there's a masculine aspect to your storytelling, in the way that you remember interactions and relationships in an overly objective way. Does that bleed into your real life?
I was actually quoting a Dave Chappelle joke in that interview, where he talks about the different ways that men and women tell stories. Like, men just state facts, and that's it. Oversimplification. But women talk about what happened, how they were feeling before it happened, and how what happened made them feel… So I tried to infuse that stereotype into the film by writing all the facts, and then doing a voice over. But as far as real life, a lot of people around me are going through stuff and we're always talking about it, and I don't really see any difference in how men and women talk to each other about what they're going through. Maybe it's an age thing.
I think it's a modern thing, and it's the reason your film can be successful, because men have become more comfortable with sharing their emotions rather than just stating facts.
Well I think the idea of American masculinity has broadened, and I think that things like being able to cry or feeling like you have low self-esteem are more accepted now.
Do you think all men oversimplify beauty?
All people, maybe. I think the title of the film is an allusion to the idea that we tried to make a feature film that shows you what it’s like to be with her. Just in that act…
So the beauty is the relationship?
The beauty is her, and the feeling of being with her is this beautiful thing. Just in attempting to put that into an hour and a half, it will inherently edit and take things out, so it'll become a facsimile of what the relationship really was, which is on some level unknowable and incommunicable. So that's the oversimplification. But there's a lot of media that dicusses the bad shit in relationships, because it's easier to talk about.
And because you feel guilty for talking about the positive. Like, if you're in a great relationship and you're totally in love, and you see your friend who's single and depressed, you don't want to bash him over the head with your happiness.
There is a guilt. But what makes anything beautiful between two people is your inability to articulate it, and that's always specific to any given connection. That's why I still have trouble trying to describe what me and Namik had, and that's the nature of the movie. I'm trying to define whatever that relationship was—it was kind of great, it was kind of terrible.
Like all important relationships are.
So the film is executive produced by two people who are iconic in the hip-hop world—dream hampton and Jay-Z. How'd they get involved?
Well, dream was a supporter early on, even before the film premiered at Sundance. We have mutual friends and we were introduced, then she saw the film and loved it. One of our producers had decided that we needed a board of executive producers to help raise the profile of the film and get it into different cultural spaces. We weren't really in the hip-hop world, so dream was the first person we recruited. Then we sent DVDs to all these other people, hoping they would like it, and they did and wanted to support it. So we got Wyatt Cenac, then Jay-Z, who were all people who represented different spaces and could talk about the film to help raise its profile.
So every executive producer's involvement was after the fact?
Yeah, almost all of them came in when the film had been made and after it'd premiered at Sundance. I'm glad we did it, because going into the festival circuit, there’s 200 films there and everyone's elevated to this platform but it's like, "How are you going to raise the profile of your film even higher so that it gets picked up by a distributor?" Honestly, I don't think we could've sustained an awareness in the public eye for this long unless we attached names and people to the film who would help raise its profile.
Did you grow up listening to hip-hop?
I did, but my personal experience with hip-hop came from a place of cultural privilege, because my father is an audiophile. So I don't think my experience was like a lot of other people's, where it represented a sense of rebellion. For me, it was just within my normal, accepted life. I remember my dad gave me Goodie Mobb albums and Outkast albums, Roots albums and stuff like that… The Fugees. But the stuff I was hearing was also really adult compared to what I was dealing with in my life, so it's interesting to see now that guys in their early 20s are making music from a sincere and emotional space. Hip-hop now is much more relevant to what I was going through as a teenager. Like, if you look at Tyler [The Creator]'s song "IFHY," back then people wouldn't think, "Let me make a hip-hop song that makes me look like somebody who's been broken up with and is driven to desperation," because there just wasn't a precedent for that. But now it seems natural and nobody's questioning it or saying, "Oh, that's soft."
You'd be surprised.
There's definitely some sort of shrinking population of hip-hop culture that's rule-based, but that's going to die at some point because as you get older, you're just like, "Who cares?"
You mentioned that you live in Brooklyn, how do you feel about the new Brooklyn movement of rappers like Joey Bada$$ and Flatbush Zombies?
I think no matter how far anything gets in one direction, there will be a reaction in the other direction—I think that’s the nature of energy, on some level. And I think the genius of somebody like Joey Bada$$ and the whole Pro Era thing is really a reaction to the same energy, whether you like it or not, moving in the opposite direction from the corporate music infrastructure. But I think in Brooklyn specifically, I'm never surprised by the cultural output because there's such a constantly moving cultural environment that influences art and culture in a way that it can all come in and be synthesized in one person and come out of them through their own art.
Do you feel that way about yourself and your art?
Yeah, just being in the company of all the filmmakers I know in Brooklyn definitely helps. We actually have a collective of filmmakers who are at this emerging stage—on their first feature or slightly before—and it's very organized. And it's not that that can’t exist anywhere, but I think it happens here a lot. What makes New York special is that people have to come here at some point. Whether they stay is another thing, but for artists it has that "I need to be there" feel. Just being here and within that constant flow creates a certain cypher that will always keep people here moving rather than stagnating.