American filmmaker/screenwriter Rob Nilsson became a director in the mid-'70s after receiving an English degree from Harvard, performing a stint in the Peace Corps, and working as a poet and artist. He made his feature-film debut with the highly acclaimed Northern Lights (1979), a docudrama he co-directed with John Hanson, which was based on a trio of three early documentaries chronicling the struggles of turn-of-the-century Norwegian immigrant farmers trying to eke out a living in Dakota that he made with his liberal film cooperative, Cine Manifest, an organization he founded. Northern Lights earned Nilsson and Hanson a Best First Film Award at Cannes that year. Though the film gave him an auspicious start, Nilsson found most producers unwilling to back his other projects and so, to continue making films, he developed "direct action cinema," a technique whereby actors improvised their lines according to a simple outline. Cinematographers and sound operators adopted a similar technique to follow the actors around. The resulting footage was then edited on much cheaper videotape and then transferred to film. Nilsson's first direct action film, Signal 7, a film examining the daily lives of San Francisco taxi drivers, was a success as was a subsequent direct action feature, Heat and Sunlight, which won the Grand Prize at the U.S. Film Festival in 1988.