By: Gordon K. Smith
Although he has made narrative features, writer/producer/director Roger Nygard has a special knack for investigating the world of belief systems and how they rule human behavior. His earlier documentaries TREKKIES (1997), TREKKIES 2 (2004) and SIX DAYS IN ROSWELL (1998) showed us folks obsessed to varying degrees with TV and movie aliens and the supposedly real ones who crash-landed in rural New Mexico in 1947. Nygard has returned to that territory with a new film that travels around the world in search of truths about God, love, the afterlife, and THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE.
Weighing in on this are everyone from confrontational evangelists to Vatican officials to eastern mystics, eggheads and Christian wrestlers in Georgia who perform a Passion Play complete with body slams. NATURE is also about Nygard’s own journey, literal and spiritual, in search of answers in an increasingly polarized world. A most affable tour guide through spiritual diversity, Nygard met with us at the Angelika Theater in Dallas while the film screened on the floor above us.
Knowshi: There’s two films here, one about “the nature of existence”, and one about you making this film.
Nygard: It didn’t start off that way. I took on a partner about a year and a half into the process (co-producer Paul Tarantino), and he suggested, after I was struggling with how to tell the story, maybe you should put yourself in the film. I bought a second camera, and he came along, filming me doing the filming…my composer, Billy Sullivan, did some camera work also. We took turns. Another producer, Laurel Barrett, who’s Dallas- based, she went with me to India and Italy.
Nygard started his quest with massive e-mail inquiries to scientists, clergy, celebrities, and religious leaders around the world.
Nygard: …a high percentage replied, but some emails, I got no response. I put a call into Oxford to the office of (British scientist and religion critic) Richard Dawkins. ‘I’m looking for Richard Dawkins’. ‘This is he’. Wow! And he set up an appointment. Sometimes it was that lucky.
Knowshi: How about Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist?
Nygard: There is a deleted scene on the website about my visit to Stephen Hawking. And the reason I took it out of the film, even though I really liked it, is that it was similar to the Pope (who ultimately refused audience with the filmmaker). I got there, and he said no. He just sent down his assistant who said, ‘he decided not to do the interview. He’s just tired of the God question.’ He must get that a lot. Stephen! Tell us about God! (laughs).
Knowshi: He’s the go-to God guy.
Nygard. Right…I have a process I call the three R’s: Research — books, stuff on the Internet. Before I went to China, I researched who the leading expert was on Confucianism. Then during interviews, more often than not, people would say, ‘you need to interview so and so’ — and so referrals, and then just random chance, knocking on doors.
Knowshi: Which one led you to Irvin Kershner (film director most famous for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)?
Nygard: Irvin Kershner was a referral. One of my five producers is Mohit Ranchandani. He produces horror films in Hollywood and he knew Irvin. And he knew Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (the Holy Man in the Indian segment).
Knowshi: That’s a real dichotomy of people.
Nygard: (Kershner) was one of the best. The older the better, they’ll tell you just how they feel, because they don’t care anymore what people think.
Knowshi: How about the Billy Graham camp?
Nygard: I tried the high profile televangelists. Since they have their own platform, this didn’t offer them much. They’ve got a camera already.
Knowshi: Do you think actors or other celebs just didn’t want to get nailed down to a religious opinion on camera?
Nygard: Some won’t, others perfectly happy to. If you’ve got an image to protect, and that’s how you make your living, I can understand that…if Tiger Woods had just said, ‘Hey, so what?’, he’d have gotten a lot more respect than doing the fake apology tour. But he has an image to protect, so he did the tour. Same with a belief system.
At that point we were joined by the Dalllas co-producer, Laurel Barrett.
Nygard: Laurel and I met at the (Dallas) USA Film Festival in 1991. She was working at the fest, I was screening my first movie, we’ve been friends ever since. Once she heard this topic she said, ‘I want to get involved. I’m coming with you to Italy and India’.
Barrett I had some things going on in my life and I woke up one morning and said ‘I have to go. I have to get back to these spiritual grounds’…we just got out a map and started looking a interesting places.
Knowshi: Is that how you connected with the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas?
Nygard: I think the first person who told me was Ann Alexander, when I came back here for the film festival (in 2007, as a judge). I always bring my camera to utilize existing travel opportunities…and I said, ‘so what do you have in Dallas that is unique and interesting, that would work in this what’s-the-point-of-everything documentary. They said, well, we got the biggest gay church in the world. I said, ‘Stop right there’. Knocked on the door, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ Reverend Jo Hudson answered, and let us film two services.
Knowshi: One of the few actual sermons seen in the film. Did a lot of churches refuse to let you shoot actual services?
Nygard: Not a lot told such an interesting story. I happened to film on the day she told her deepest, most painful story, about being kicked out of the seminary because she was gay…that’s cinematic, when someone is spilling their guts like that, so it’s partly just luck.
Knowshi: On the other end of that spectrum is Brother Jed Smock. I thought I’d heard every theory possible about the “causes” of homosexuality until he brought up masturbation.
Nygard: He’s very entertaining, he knows how to get attention, and he’s been doing it for 35 years. I had seen him during my senior year in college (1984, University of Minnesota). I shot a little mini-doc of him at the time, and used it in my film now.
Knowshi: We see him now preaching at the University of Florida. He gets around.
Nygard: I couldn’t believe he’s still doing it 30 years later. He goes all over the country on college campuses.
Knowshi: Does he ever get thrown off?
Nygard: They can’t if it’s a public campus. Private schools can. He knows his law.
Knowshi: On your website you’re posing with him. Grudging admiration?
Nygard: You wouldn’t think he’d be a person you’d be interested in hanging out with because he’s off-putting to most people. But that’s his stage persona, offstage we sit around and have a conversation. He has beliefs that differ from mine to a great degree, but the whole point of the film, and he’s no exception, was to meet people whom I didn’t understand why they think that way. Once I got to know people, I was no longer so angry or afraid of them. So I made friends with Brother Jed, with Muslims in Mumbai, and with witches in Serbia*, which didn’t make the cut…to love someone you give them your full attention. I didn’t go to tell them “you’re wrong”, I went to listen and learn about them…I started out very angry at people.
How could people fly planes into buildings, or blow up abortion clinics because of something they believe so strongly, whereas I’m over here and believe the opposite.4 We can’t both be right, so who’s right? How do we find truth? And if your litmus test is whose belief is the strongest, they win! I can’t believe anything strong enough to drive my car into something and blow it up. I can barely commit to buying a new car…so going from anger, to getting to know people, becoming much less afraid of who they are, what they believe, and arriving at a place of peace and acceptance of others. Mark Twain said the way to overcome bigotry is to travel. And they learn about you, too.
Knowshi: It’s said in the movie that you were born Episcopalian. Is there any one word that describes your belief system now?
Nygard: Uh, ‘Open to any good argument’.
|*Nygard shot 450 hours of footage and 170 interviews over a four year period, and plans to produce a seven-disc DVD companion set to the film, which will be available for rental and will feature many choice unused bits, including the Serbian witches.|