Squirrel species wars, of course, make for good drama. Greys and Reds battling for survival with assists from humans, determined to preserve the native breed. What’s not to love? But there is so much more. It is so easy to watch a film with a quirky subject and miss entirely the deeper implications and intentions of the filmmaker, which become so obvious upon reflection (or getting clued in by a savvier cinephile). Shorts programs are free at SILVERDOCS—don’t miss your own enlightenment. Berger is one of many filmmakers who count Werner Herzog as a major influence (no Squirrels committed suicide during the filming of NUTKIN’S LAST STAND), but he is the only one who discussed the film with the venerated filmmaker, garnering the directive, “You must film the squirrels at their eye level.” The best piece of advice Berger ever received.
NUTKIN’s LAST STAND’s Nicholas Berger:
Nicholas Berger was born in San Francisco and has lived in San Diego, New York and Berlin. As an undergraduate he attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island where he received a BA in philosophy. After graduating he spent two years working on documentaries for PBS and the History Channel and traveling in Europe. He then attended Stanford University’s Documentary Film program where he recently received an MFA. NUTKIN’S LAST STAND was his thesis film at Stanford.
What inspired this film? How did you find your subjects?
I have always been attracted to documentary subjects that have such strong characters, visual coherence and metaphorical structures that they feel scripted. These subjects attract me because I am more interested in making morality tales than informational pieces. If a documentary feels like a fiction film we read it more like a fairy tale and less like a journalistic document, and the issues addressed become more universal in scope…I hope.
NUTKIN’S LAST STAND provides a bit of information on the ecological issue of an invasive species but its real focus is on patriotism and morality. Like any good morality tale it reflects on the big questions: under what circumstances is it okay to kill one thing to save another? What does it mean to be native/alien? Why do we tolerate some kinds of violence and not others? What does it mean to be a patriot?
I was drawn to this story because it had these features and I found my characters by reading local papers in Northern England….
What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?
Many of the subjects were reluctant to be in my film because they weren’t sure what my intentions were. I think they were worried that I would either portray them as heartless squirrel killers or as ridiculously squirrel-obsessed nuts. They wanted a propaganda film for their cause. I think the film I made is fair but not all of the subjects loved it.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog. I like him as much for his approach to filmmaking as for his films. He throws himself at his projects with a kind of reckless abandon and passion that I find inspiring. I got a chance to talk to him during the filming of NUTKIN’S LAST STAND. I excitedly explained the whole project to him and, after a long pause he said, “You must film the squirrels at their eye level.” This is the best piece of advice I have ever received.
What is your all time favorite documentary?
That’s a very hard question. The one that comes to mind is THE BELOVS by Viktor Kosokovsky. It’s a 20-minute film about a peasant family in Russia that is incredibly beautiful and emotional and funny. Kosokovsky’s camera floats around the space as if choreographed and events unfold that have perfect narrative arcs as if scripted.
What other projects are in the pipeline?
I’m looking into doing a film about butterflies.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
I was inspired by transcendent moments in films I saw and wanted to make some more of these.
What are some of your creative influences?
I studied philosophy and folklore in college. As I said before, I’m drawn to stories that play out like morality tales. I especially like it when this happens in a humorous and unexpected way.
Did you go to film school?
Yes. I got an MFA from Stanford University’s program in documentary film. NUTKIN’S LAST STAND was my thesis film at Stanford.
What do you shoot on?
This project was shot on HDV. I have shot on 16mm film in the past and would love to go back to it if I could afford it.
What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?
It’s been fun to notice differences between audiences in different places. European audiences are not afraid to ask confrontational questions, challenging editorial decisions and asking about moral issues. One woman in Amsterdam asked me “What I thought about the white invaders.” I guess she thought that since I had made a film about invading squirrels I should also comment on invading peoples.
Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?
I love watching my film with an audience. It reminds me of how delighted I was when I first met the characters in my film.