Cheryl Nichols’ personal ‘Cortez’ inspired by ‘70s dramas
Filmmaker cut her teeth in Utah
January 20, 2017
In Cheryl Nichols' feature film "Cortez" a failing musician named Jesse finds himself without a tour and in a small town where he looks up an old flame, Anne.
The feature, which will continue its Slamdance run with a screening on Wednesday, Jan. 24, is a story about missed opportunities and long-kept secrets.
Nichols takes on the role of Anne in the film inspired by real-life experiences and Southwest dramas of the '70s. And her writing partner and partner in life, Arron Shiver, plays Jesse.
"I think we both have had experiences of trying something that didn't work and that had a lot to do with the script," Nichols said during a phone call from a cafe in Taos, N.M. "I lived in L.A. and nothing went as planned, and Arron lived in Taos for two years and was an actor, while raising his son."
The seeds of "Cortez" were planted long before Nichols and Shiver started dating.
"He called me and told me he wanted to write a play with me," Nichols said. "So, we rooted around to find something that we could do together."
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In January 2013, Shiver suggested the two write a movie script instead.
"We both knew we wanted to write something personal, so we sat with each other every day and talked," Nichols said. "Around February, the story started coming together, and it became clear that we were telling the same story."
Taking cues from Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Her Anymore" and John Cassavete's "Woman Under the Influence," both from 1974, Nichols and Shiver found their collective voice.
The trick, however, was to break away from those tried and true formulas and create an original film.
"Something I like to do is work with my beloved DP Kelly Moore, because he's a genius," Nichols said. "While the tale may be as old as time, we both see the camera as another actor. And that gives a new perspective, kind of like a spy on the scene."
That becomes evident in one of the film's standout segments involving a family at a dinner table.
"The scene literally makes me ill, even as a person who directed the film, because it is so personal," Nichols said. "Arron and I knew there was something missing in the film and he thought about it and wrote the scene in three hours."
They never changed a word.
"It may be because I approach filmmaking from an actor's perspective or because I'm a new filmmaker, or maybe because I don't know what the hell I'm doing," Nichols said with a laugh. "But I think the way you make something new is to make something super honest."
Nichols is excited to have her film at Slamdance, especially since she lived in Utah and attended the University of Utah.
"I've always considered myself an actor and filmmaker," she said. "I studied acting in the U's acting training program and went to school with the idea that I would start a theater company."
Before that, Nichols wrote plays and made some hand-held camera films that were never distributed.
She moved to Los Angeles in 2007, thinking she would make a splash in the industry.
"Unfortunately, that was six months before the [Writers Guild of America] strike," Nichols said. "It was the wrong time to plunk myself down there. So I just started writing while living in this little studio that was in spitting distance from the Chateau Marmont hotel. I wrote crap after crap after crap."
Nichols, however, began developing as a writer.
"It turned out that I had been germinating a lot of ideas," she said. "I had watched a lot of movies and read a lot plays and books. All of that stuff formed some kind of vision."
Then Nichols hit a wall.
"I had a, well, I think you could call it a mental breakdown a few years ago," she said with another laugh. "My managers had dumped me over emails and I was a total mess."
That's when Shiver called her up.
"Arron told me that I didn't have to be one thing my whole life and I made a switch in my life," Nichols said. "I made a short film and got into a couple of film schools (Columbia and AFI)."
Then the two received some money to make "Cortez."
"I had to make a decision to either go to film school or make 'Cortez,'" Nichols said. "I chose 'Cortez.'"
Cheryl Nichols' "Cortez" will continue its Slamdance run at 7:15 p.m., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Treasure Mountain Inn gallery, 255 Main St. Tickets are available by visiting http://www.slamdance.com.