Director Amy Nicholson on mirth and morbidity
For director Amy Nicholson, a story’s humor brings it to life, even--or perhaps especially-- when it concerns death. Her most recent film, a short called Pickle (2016), is named for a fish who couldn’t swim, who lived his short life propped up in a sponge. The director’s father and his wife live on a farm on the Chesapeake Bay, and for more than twenty years, they’ve rescued a menagerie of ailing and broken animals. Sitting in their (miraculously) pristine home, the couple recounts stories of dozens of creatures they’ve housed, and the infrastructure they’ve engineered to care for their many disorders. Mirthful and morbid at the same time, tales of an opossum supported by a rolling prosthetic, an obese chicken, and a cat who has his own condominium, paint the lives of an eccentric, animal-loving duo. As taps plays at a goose’s burial, death has never felt more droll.
Nicholson has such a flare for finding stories and people who are so dedicated to their own idiosyncratic identities, you'll wish you could sit down with them over potluck caserole.
Her first documentary, Beauty School (2002), observed students at a New York City historic animal grooming institution. Next was Muskrat Lovely (2005), about the town of Golden Hill, Maryland, as it celebrates the 50th National Outdoor Show. The event mixes a high school beauty pageant with a fierce muskrat skinning competition. It’s grisly and glamorous, ironic and compassionate, and the sense of absurd contrast soon reveals a regional sense of belonging. Nicholson’s third film--and her most political--is a feature called Zipper (2012), which concerns the sinister zoning politics that sabotaged Coney Island, in the backdrop of New York City’s rapid gentrification.
Amy and I spoke on the phone about her four films, the origins of her production company Myrtle and Olive, her love of Errol Morris, and how she finds kind comedy in all of her work.
DM: How did you became a filmmaker?
AN: I actually worked and still do in advertising. I had done a lot of—before reality TV—I had done a lot of real people campaigns. I climbed my way up the ladder and I was a creative director at a company, and it was all fine and well and good, except that I was miserable. And around September 11, I lost my job. A lot of people did. Nobody was going to advertise in that environment. And a friend of mine said “you should make a film! Take some time off and take some classes.” So I did. I was freelancing and I took the summer off and I went to NYU film school. I basically did two semesters of the film classes in one summer, which was insane.
DM: Sounds intense!
AN: But at the end, I had a ten minute film that I had shot on 60 mm. That was Beauty School. And I thought this’ll be funny I’ll just send this off to festivals. And it started getting in. And I was like “ohhhhh... this is fun.” I went everywhere with Beauty School and had a great time, and then I never really thought about making another one. I don’t know what I was thinking. But then I started interning for a small documentary and film company—Center for New American Media. Those guys are great. They had made a lot of films, and they were really seasoned. They were so much fun. I worked on a film about women and sex.
And then in 2005, my dad called me up and said “you have to come down for the world championship muskrat skinning competition.” And I was like, “Dad, there’s no such thing.” And he was like “oh yes, it’s real.” So I called my best friend and we went on a weekend roadtrip. And we were sitting in the audience, and we realized there had been beauty pageant there the night before. Which was wild, because we were sitting there watching people skin animals for time. And they were all dead serious. There was a guy whose neck was the size of my thigh. And I said, “somebody should make a documentary about this.” And my friend said, “you should make a documentary about this. Come back next year and make a documentary.” And so I did. And that was Muskrat Lovely. When Muskrat Lovely went around, I was hooked.
DM: And after Muskrat Lovely, you made Zipper.
AN: Yes. Zipper was a really hard film to make about politics. I almost ended up in the hospital. You work and work and work, it was crazy. it was really expensive, and I couldn’t get funding. And I couldn’t figure out why. Now it’s really obvious in New York that zoning really causes gentrification, but at the time, it was less popular to talk about. And, it’s kind of like documentaries are already broccoli nobody wants to eat. So everybody was like, “oh really, zoning?” So I thought, “well, this is about Coney Island, so that’ll get people to watch it.”
DM: Did you approach Zipper knowing it had all this nefarious zoning stuff or you uncovered it as you went along?
AN: I started off wanting to make a film about Coney Island. And I did think it was sad these guys were leaving—these kind of grizzled carnies--so I kind of felt like I had to explain what happened, even though in the end, it didn’t really matter. The city was going to do what it wanted. Understanding it all doesn’t really change the outcome. I thought that was kind of a good metaphor for having all these hearings and the public comes, and they record people's’ statements, but then they just do what they want in the end. It’s all politics.
The film did really well, but it was really hard. And after it, seriously, I was like fuck this. I told a good friend of mine, “I'm never making another film again.” And he said, “you must keep going. Your voices must keep going.” He was so sweet and so encouraging. And he said, "just make a short. Something that you know you’ll have fun with, and see how that goes.” So I said, I’m just going to make something dumb and stupid and funny that I want to do, just to cleanse my pallet. And I didn’t really care what happened to it, and of course it went everywhere.
DM: And that’s Pickle.
DM: what was it like to make a film about your family and what was it like interviewing and representing your dad on film?
AN: It was good! It was tricky because there's familiarity there, and you can't use some of your usual tricks because those people known you. But it also had an advantage which is that I was really clear with my dad and his wife about what we were going to do. I actually went down a whole bunch of times beforehand and really talked to them about the film and all the different animals and I got the story so I knew what I would ask. And I've heard the stories a thousand times. I just wrote it all down so I would have in front of me. And then my dad really helped us-- like I said, “Dad we need a solemn place to bury the goose.” He's like "ok, I'll find a good spot." And then he showed us like three different locations and we picked one. It was hilarious. It was really really fun.
DM: Oh my God, the trumpet player in that scene.
AN: That's my husband. He plays trumpet for a living. And I made him drive all the way to Maryland to play taps at the goose burial. And then I used three seconds of him. He was so mad at me. But it was so much funnier.
DM: Have your dad and his wife ever rescued a muskrat as a pet?
AN: No they're too wild. The opossums are the closest they've gotten. They had three other opossums--Manny, Mo, and Jack--that they raised and released into the wild, because they were babies. That opossum [in the film] was literally half dead. It was going to take all the help he could get. All they did was feed him and shampoo him. He was pampered beyond belief.
DM: And he got that apparatus so he could get around.
AN: Yes! Hilarious. That opossum was blind. I called him the pelt because he literally like half of him was a pelt.
DM: I read a quote from you that you look for subjects with two sides-- a funny side and a serious side. How do you how do you strike that balance? And why is it important to you?
AN: I think it's important to me because that's kind of the way I look at life. Maybe it’s because I'm a middle child from a middle class family. I also know that the way I deal with things is to find what's funny in them. But that doesn't mean I don't take them seriously. So even though I will go and get my dad to tell a story in a funny way and I will present it in a funny way I still find it very endearing that he cares that much about an animal. And so I don't want people to forget that because I never forget it.
DM: Pickle really strikes the balance of really sincere but also hilarious.
AN Well that's what life is. It's very serious. There's a lot of shit that goes on. We're gonna die one day. Better make the most of it. But it's also kind of ridiculous at the same time.
DM: So much of life is so absurd, but finding that representational balance can be challenging.
AM: It's tricky because you have to be careful not to make fun. It's easy to be mean-- people do it all the time. But I don't think if you want people to see what you see you can just make fun. You can't just say look at this crazy kookie thing. That was my lesson I learned on Muskrat Lovely. When I went into it I kept asking the question “why do you have a beauty pageant and a muskrat skinning competition back to back? You don't think there's anything wrong with that?” And I kept asking and asking and no one could give me a proper explanation.
DM: From an outsider's perspective, they don’t seem to go together.
AN: Right. But after a while I just stopped asking the question because I started to think there's nothing wrong with that. This is just part of their life-- that is a tradition that they uphold, and it's part of their community. That was the big social event of the year. It was never about whether they were skinning muskrats or skinning raccoons or shucking oysters or even having a beauty pageant. It wasn't about that. It was about the community.
DM: Did it take a while to gain the trust of the community in Muskrat Lovely? Was there trepidation about a filmmaker showing up?
AN: They’re open to outsiders, but it doesn't hurt to say your dad lives down the road in the next county. That's just good filmmaking-- find a connection to people. If you find something that you have in common, it's a little more comfortable.
DM: Do you have any special ways that you make people forget about the camera?
AN: I think it's mostly comfort and familiarity but I crack a lot of jokes. I always tell people if you want to stop, we'll stop. If you fart we'll take it out. It happens! Because you know it's not life or death what we do.
DM: Three of your four documentaries center on some absurd relationship between humans and animals. Has your attitude toward animals changed since you made these films?
AN: Oh no, I always have the same attitude. I love animals. I think animals are probably a lot smarter than we are. We're the dummies.
DM: Your four documentaries are bookended with shorts. What brought you back to the form and where do you hope that the form is headed?
AN: Well first of all, there are a lot more opportunities for shorts now than when I made Beauty School [in 2002], because at that time you couldn’t put anything online. There was no streaming. There was no Vimeo. There was nothing. So your only hope was to get it placed in front of another film at a film festival or sell it on a DVD. And now that shorts have become almost a form of journalism or opinion or commentary there are so many more opportunities. I especially like the New York Times-- Op-Docs was what started it. So that has changed a lot but that's not the reason I made a short. I made a short because I really could not face making another feature. It's really a slog. And you will spend anywhere from a year to 20 doing a feature documentary. It's a long haul.
DM: What’s the backstory to your production company? Why is it called Myrtle and Olive?
AN: Olive and Myrtle were my great aunts. They were a widow and a spinster, and they were sisters. Myrtle never married-- she lived in New York City when no one was a single woman living in New York City. And they were just really interesting women and for the last 40 years of their lives they lived together. And they were really cool. And I just love them. So I just made them my company name.
DM: What’s your next documentary project?
AN: I have two things I'm researching. One will be a funny short and one isn’t necessarily funny-- I think it'll be more like Zipper where there's funny elements but it'll be more heartfelt and sweet and kind of serious. It will look at a certain socio economic part of a certain community.
DM: What are you favorite funny documentaries?
AN: Definitely Vernon, Florida by Errol Morris. And my all time favorite short film is called Beauty Knows No Pain, by Elliot Erwitt. It's 20 minutes long, and it’s on the Internet Archive. You must watch it. You will die. If I could ever achieve that level, I would die happy because it's so awesome.
DM: What's so awesome about it?
AN: It just documents the Kilgore College-- a small college in Texas-- flag troupe’s tryouts. It was done in 1973 and he just follows the tryouts for the flag troupe. It's an amazing study of belonging, and what was important back in those days for women. And the woman who runs the flag troupe who is just one of the best characters you will ever see on film. I can't explain it. You'll laugh, you'll cry. It's just awesome.
DM: How many times do you think you've seen it?
AN: Probably 30 or 40.
DM: How has it influenced your work?
AN: It showed me how you can be sensitive and show something real, but firmly with your tongue in your cheek.