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02.25.09

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Phaedra

FIlmmaker Roger Nygard gets some hands-on lessons in spirituality for his documentary 'The Nature of Existence.'

Just Asking

Director Roger Nygard doesn't settle for easy answers. He can make interviewees and audiences laugh and squirm, and in his latest Cinequest entry, 'The Nature of Existence,' he asks the toughest questions on Earth.

By Steve Palopoli


FOR HIS 1997 film Trekkies, Roger Nygard found a nerd who claimed to outrank a teddy bear. For his newest documentary, The Nature of Existence, the closing film at this year's Cinequest, he set out to find the answers to questions like "Why are we here?" "Is there an afterlife?" and "What is the way to true happiness?" It might seem like a stretch, but to Nygard his latest endeavor is just one more sociological study on the fringe. For this film, however, he traveled around the world to poke and prod at the beliefs of people from every religion and school of thought he could think of, an undertaking that took four years to complete. Not bad for a guy who started his career with a $1,000 directing gig on the low-budget '80s TV horror show Monsters. Nygard spoke to Metro about his new film, the wrath of Trekkers and his secret life with Larry David from his home in Los Angeles.

METRO: How did you break into television and start working up to the big-budget shows like The Office that help to finance your films now?

ROGER NYGARD:  You just have to go and make a film, so I made a short film on my own. I originally moved out to L.A. to go to grad school. I applied and got into USC, but I realized it was going to cost $35,000 a year and there was no guarantee that I get to direct anything. I was already working so I decided to take my grad school money and make a short film on evenings and weekends. And what got me the job on Monsters was the short film, Warped. It was kind of a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane–esque sort of short about three crazy old ladies in a house in the middle of the country trying to kill each other.

What do you think of it now?

Oh, I can't look at any of my old stuff without thinking I gotta recut it. Everything. But it obviously had its moments because it got me work.

Speaking of cutting, you do a lot of editing for Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Yeah, I'm working on it again right now, on season seven. I love working with Larry David. It's rare that I edit for other people since I started editing my own stuff. But occasionally I do, and on a show like this it's a blast. It all revolves around Larry in every scene finding what's funny with whoever he's improving with. So in the editing room, I get a lot of footage. Sometimes an hour of footage for a three-minute scene, and I have to sort through it. There's another editor Steve Rash. Between the two of us we split up all the episodes, and you have to sort through it and find a path from A to B to C and sometimes you start with E. Whatever someone improvised at the end of the scene you use to start the scene and you build it in the editing room, and one of the secrets to the show is, if you watch carefully you'll notice there's a lot of lines delivered on the back of Larry's head or on people's backs in order to set up plot points that might not have been hit strongly enough while they were shooting, so we do it in post. If people don't understand what's happening they're not going to laugh when you get to the punch line. So we spent a lot of time solidifying all the setups.

Trekkies was your breakthrough film. When you were first came up with the project did you have any idea how big it was going to be?

You never know what's going to happen, I had no idea. All I knew was Denise Cosby pitched me the idea because I worked with her in my first feature. The first thing I thought was that no one's done this yet. It seemed so obvious, I mean, of course I know a lot of Star Trek fans, and I think they're really interesting and entertaining. So all I knew was that it was going to make us entertained, and I figured "Well, there's a core audience that if we don't insult them they'll probably be interested in seeing it." It's the crossover that makes it become more than that.

And it did cross over, with a little bit of controversy. How did you deal with the Trek fans who thought they were being mocked?

Well, we made a sequel, and the sequel in a large part was to address that. Because we didn't intend to offend anyone. But once Trekkies was done, I would say 10 percent of the Star Trek fans were unhappy with it, and their No. 1 complaint was that we didn't show enough quote "normal" Star Trek fans. I would always respond by saying I don't know what normal means, I mean, explain it to me so I can understand who is and isn't normal. So in the sequel we asked the Star Trek fans to define normal for us. And it always was "The amount of fandom I show is the correct amount, any more than that is extreme." They all knew where to draw the line and anyone that went further than them were freaks.

Suckers was another film in which you threw yourself into a very specific, offbeat world—used car dealers.

Well, I've been accused of being a closet anthropologist. Because I like to profile subcultures, whether it's the Star Trek fans or car dealers or, in the new film, peoples' supernatural or spiritual or religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs, the different subcultures. I am fascinated by people, by society, by sociology and psychology and why and how people interact with each other.

As far as documentary topics go, it doesn't get much more ambitious than The Nature of Existence.

Oh yeah, we solved all the mysteries of the universe.

What's the point of trying to figure them out in a documentary anyway?

Well, part of it is when you ask people to answer impossible questions it's hilarious to watch them try, especially when they do it with such definitive understanding of their point of view, which is followed by somebody else equally definitive with a contrary point of view. The larger the gap, the more room there is to find humor in humanity and the way human beings are. Another way to put it would be the greater the gap between our expectations or our ideals, and reality, the greater the opportunity for humor. And you're gonna ask one question, the question we should all ask but usually wait until we're forced to by illness or impending death, it's what's the point? Why am I here? And we should be talking about that, I think, so that's the kind serious message underneath it.

The humor you were talking about, that shows up so much in your films, can be an uncomfortable humor. How do you deal with that in interviews, when you realize someone might later feel like they made a fool of themselves?

When I'm in the middle of an interview with somebody, a lot of times I don't even notice what's going to be funny until I take a step back and look at the footage later. And then it starts to make itself apparent. My best example is from Trekkies, when Gabriel the 14-year-old is doing an interview next to his dad and the phone rings and he picks up the phone and says, "Peter, this is the worst time you could have called, go away!" and he slams the phone down. At the time, that was just a minor annoyance to the interview, but later when we looked at the footage it was like, "Wow, this is one of the funniest things I've seen in my life." So you don't always know until you take a step outside the world you immerse yourself in. And then, second, I really don't want anyone in the film to feel badly about their participation, so I do try to create a product where they will feel like we are laughing with them when we do laugh. The way to avoid that, really, is the cheap jokes are making fun of people that are not mentally all there, and I try to avoid that by really focusing on people who are able to speak well for themselves that might say something funny or humorous that we can all enjoy later.

How hard was it to raise money for the film? How interested were people in the idea?

I've not met anyone yet who isn't interested in the subject of why do we exist; everybody's got an opinion on it and everybody gets a look in their eye, talking about the concept. But it's all self-financed, it's one of the reasons it took me four years to make the film. I would work for a while, like I would direct a few episodes of The Bernie Mac Show, then I would grab my camera and go on the road, then come back, then I would direct an episode of The Office, then go on the road and come back edit a Curb, go on the road and come back until I finally finished the movie. I hit five continents and traveled across India, China and the U.S. and Europe to go to the source on all the major schools of thought on the planet. And talked to people and asked them the toughest questions I could think of, I just made a list of the absolute most difficult questions.

How did you break this immense topic down during interviews?

I had a list of 85 questions, which I asked everybody. So interviews would take between two and five hours, and I boiled that down. Some of the questions really blossomed and some were less interesting, and, like, the religion questions have sort of already been done to death, like, is religion good, is it bad, you know, we've all heard about the crusades and suicide bombers, blah blah blah. So that became far less of a focus in this film; this film is much more about a philosophical approach, an existential approach to why are we here, what should we be doing while we're here and how can we find our best happiness. And it's hilarious watching people struggle to answer these difficult questions, and touching, and thought-provoking and challenging, and it may make people really angry. This film definitely screws with people's minds. I mean it screwed with my mind just diving into these questions so deeply. Because we have these preconceived notions we've been taught since childhood and it's troubling sometimes to challenge them. What happened so far in screenings is that people come out either really angry or crying from laughter or shocked or somehow challenged and then they want to talk about it. People stick around after the screenings and they want to talk as long as you'll stay and talk about these things.  It gets people's brains moving.

 THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE plays Sunday (March 8) at 7:30pm at the California Theatre. A party follows at E&O Tradiing Company. $12 screening only/$40 screening and party.

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