Daniel Nearing breathes filmmaking. A storyteller at heart, he draws in the world around him, pulling inspiration from classic literature and modern life, and his films emerge as artful exhalations in black and white punctuated by technicolor bursts.
“Black and white lends itself well to exploring the emotions of isolation and longing,” Nearing said. “We switch to ‘ecstatic color’ in compositions that seem to rise above or otherwise illuminate a moment—a tentative first kiss between young lovers, the sun breaking through rain on the morning after a death.”
Nearing, a Full Professor in the Division of Communication-Visual and Performing Arts at Governors State University, founded and coordinates the MFA in Independent Film and Digital Imaging at GSU. He joined the faculty in 2006.
A native of Medicine Hat in Canada’s Alberta province, Nearing has created a second home for himself in Chicago. Currently at work on the final installment of a trilogy of feature films set in the city, he was recently named the Chicagoan of the Year in Film by the Chicago Tribune. That accolade followed his October nomination to the post of the first-ever Independent Film Initiative (IFI) Filmmaker in Residence at the Chicago Film Office.
I'm going against the grain of traditional storytelling and commerciality—following my heart—and it's immensely meaningful to know that even if my work never reaches a mass audience, there are people out there who feel it and get it.
Chicago Heights (later retitled The Last Soul On a Summer Night), his first feature in the trilogy, was named to Roger Ebert’s final Best Art Films list and has been screened at festivals and openings worldwide. Hogtown, the 2015 follow-up, was called “the most original film made in Chicago about Chicago to date" by Chicago Sun-Times critic Bill Stamets. Nearing is a 2015 Guggenheim fellow and spent four weeks at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in 2016, working on the third film in the trilogy.
GSU Newsroom: What do your recent awards and appointments mean for you as a filmmaker and for your students at GSU?
Dan Nearing: I don't talk with many of my students about these things, though some know about them. For me, the recognition means reassurance. I'm going against the grain of traditional storytelling and commerciality—following my heart—and it's immensely meaningful to know that even if my work never reaches a mass audience, there are people out there who feel it and get it.
Newsroom: Do you think storytelling is evolving more rapidly in the Information Age?
Nearing: We're seeing increased hybridization of genres, more latitude for experimentation, more opportunity to explore the personal in storytelling, and seemingly infinite outlets for distribution, but who can be sure this translates into evolution rather than its opposite?
Newsroom: How would you characterize the MFA in Independent Film and Digital Imaging at GSU?
Nearing: The MFA–IFDI is premised on “authorship,” the nurturing of contemporary filmmakers who are capable of writing, producing, directing, editing, and distributing their own work in digital media. We also work with artists in photography on the same basis, from conception to delivery. Governors State University is the only public institution in Illinois to offer this unique degree that hybridizes the paths of film and photography.
If I didn't teach, I'm not sure I'd ever stop navel-gazing, let alone have the will or discipline to articulate the intent of art or filmmaking
Newsroom: What was the inspiration to unite those two arts?
Nearing: The two disciplines share the common ground of the composition and similar digital tools for modification. If we can teach our filmmaking students to respect the discipline of composing a single beautiful frame, and then have them understand that filmmaking is about shooting and editing meaningful frames at a rate of 24 per second, we're going to generate some strong work, work done in the painstaking way that good films merit. If we can correspondingly bring our photographers to understand narrative structure, they'll gain a more refined sense of how to meaningfully populate and dress their compositions.
Newsroom: You’ve said before that you are equal parts filmmaker and teacher. How do you see one influencing the other?
Nearing: Working as a writer-director sends me inward. Teaching draws me out. The two are often intertwined or working in tandem. My films in some respects attempt to dance with the inexpressible. If I didn't teach, I'm not sure I'd ever stop navel-gazing, let alone have the will or discipline to articulate the intent of art or filmmaking. I also have my worldview expanded through the observations of our most remarkable, dedicated students at GSU. They have many brave stories to share and are forging unique paths. I'm learning from them and with them in every class.