Describing the former, which co-stars Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett, Nelson admits, "It's a rough and controversial movie. Everything that happens in Othello happens in O except it is high-school students and the killings happen with guns." Indeed, while O was adapted with the Pearl, Miss., and Jonesboro, Ark. school shootings in mind, Nelson had just begun editing when the Columbine, Col. travesty took place. "[After] I showed it to Miramax, you could tell that they were thinking, 'What are we going to do now? Can America see this?'
"I'm a serious person, I'm a New York filmmaker. This is not an exploitative Hollywood teen movie," Nelson adds in his defense. "I stand by what the movie is: a [reflection] of a horrible epidemic of violence in high schools. When Miramax does decide to release O which, to me, couldn't be soon enough it will hopefully have its appropriate impact."
The recently wrapped Grey Zone, meanwhile, is based in part on Nelson's play of the same name, and profiles the Auschwitz death camp Sonderkomando groups of imprisoned Jews who aided in the extermination of their own, in exchange for a few extra months of life.
"It is the story, based on historical fact, of one of those units that attempted a rebellion," the filmmaker says. "In a strange way, it will be an easier sell than O because it has a very specific audience in mind." The Grey Zone, co-starring Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino, David Arquette and Natasha Lyonne, currently is seeking a distributor.
With the heavy material of those two films behind him, Nelson likely looks forward to viewing his lighthearted acting turn in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (opening Friday). Just how determined was director Joel Coen to sign Nelson for their latest project? Nelson recalls, "Joel said, 'We know you've got to edit [O], but bring your edit onto the set, and when you're not acting you can go edit. And we'll pay for it. Just please do the movie.' So I did it!"