Filmmaker Amy Nicholson shares her thoughts on filming in a close-knit community, seeing the world through new eyes, muskrat dishes and “real men” as beauty experts.
What led you to make MUSKRAT LOVELY?
My dad lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and he knew about the Outdoor Show and had invited me to go a couple of times. Of course, when he told me the show hosted the World Championship of muskrat skinning, I thought he was kidding. But finally, a friend and I decided to go. Having never attended a skinning competition, we had no idea what to expect. When we found out that there was also a pageant and that the following year would be the 50th anniversary, I decided it had to be filmed.
How did you approach a close-knit community like Golden Hill to make a movie about their lives? How did you gain the trust of your subjects, especially in intimate or revealing moments?
The first thing I did was go and meet people in person. That’s something that I love to do. I met Buddy Oberender who ran the show, and he sent me to Cindy Paul, who directed the pageant that year. I did not want to leave her house. The great thing about a small community is that everyone knows everyone. Cindy gave me some great contacts that lead to more trips to Maryland. I spent a lot of time traveling up and down the [New] Jersey Turnpike. By the time I went down to film with the crew, a lot of people already knew me.
As far as filming goes, I try to be really up front about what we’re talking about and why it has a place in the film. Sometimes people will tell you things when you’re just chatting that they don’t want to repeat on camera. I try to respect that. When it comes to asking people to do something on camera, I have the same policy. I asked all the girls to let us film them doing a glamour scene, and we filmed what they wanted. Of course, I always have suggestions, and I can be pretty convincing when I need to be, like with the guys reading the pageant tips.
The beauty contestant tips that begin the film are playfully juxtaposed to the local men who read them. How did you come up with that idea, and was it hard to find willing men?
As I put together the outline of the film, I thought a lot about the contrast of a pageant in this place where “men are men.” And I wanted to include more men in the film. Somewhere in my research I read some pageant books and they had all these very serious tips, which taken out of context are pretty funny. I asked Buddy how I could get men to read for me. He told us to show up at this local market at the crack of dawn where they would all be hanging out drinking coffee. I convinced them by keeping it a secret from everyone else in the film. When they all saw the completed film for the first time, it was a big hit.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making MUSKRAT LOVELY?
Shooting on actual [Super-16mm] film was a challenge. It put a lot of pressure on me to really figure out a lot of stuff ahead of time, and it was a lot of extra work for the crew (all two of them). I was also worried about the weather, since it was the middle of February. If it had snowed at all, none of the scenes in the beginning and end montages would have matched. And it’s hard to get people to stand outside when it’s miserable.
But, I also got lucky. My crew was amazing and did so much without any extra help, and the weather held out. It also didn’t hurt that the folks at Kodak were so nice.
Sometimes great footage has to hit the cutting room floor. Were there any scenes you wished you could have kept in the film?
I had a few heartbreakers. There were scenes we had to cut because, although they were great, they slowed down the story. I got upset mostly because I didn’t want to leave anyone out of the film after they made time for us. There was the woman who painted the Miss Outdoor sash (who also had a business painting Santas on every conceivable surface, including sea shells and gourds), the high school guidance counselor (she discussed the positive impact of pageants) and the woman who ran the kitchen at the show (“muskrat on Saturday only”). Those were three that I wish we hadn’t had to cut.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that what happens to people who watch the film is what happens to me when I go somewhere where I suddenly find myself outside of my own little world. Usually what seems ridiculous or insane at first doesn’t seem that way after you get to know it. I also hope they have a laugh and come away with some knowledge of a really beautiful and interesting part of the country.
Did you sample any muskrat dishes while staying in Dorchester County?
I did not sample the muskrat, but the crew and I didn’t starve either. It’s pretty amazing when you show up to film someone and they ask you to stay for lunch. Cindy even baked us a cake one day!
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on the people and what they have been doing since then?
Filming took place over a two and a half week period in February 2004. I’ve been back for The Outdoor Show and the Paul’s famous 4th of July party the last two years. Tiffany Brittingham (who skinned a muskrat for her talent) won Miss Outdoors for 2005. She and the other girls have all gone on to college, which I think is wonderful.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The thing that keeps me going is when I go to a screening and people are entertained and moved by something I made. Or when someone I filmed, who helped me, sends a nice thank-you note. Or when I get to call Jerry, Felix and John (the guys who really made the film) and tell them our little project is going to be on Independent Lens.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I consider public television to be pure. So having MUSKRAT LOVELY accepted for Independent Lens is one of the nicest “stamp of approval” moments I’ve ever had.
What are your three favorite films?
My favorite film in the whole world is a short by Elliott Erwitt called Beauty Knows No Pain. It’s a documentary about the 1971 try-outs for the Kilgore College Rangerettes. It’s brilliant. I’ve watched it a million times.
It's impossible to pick just three. Next on the list would be two more documentaries. Vernon, Florida by Errol Morris is a level of genius I can only dream of, same with Grey Gardens by the Maysles. My favorite fiction films are About Schmidt, Polyester, Napoleon Dynamite and Dog Day Afternoon.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
My most inspirational food is Orbit Bubblemint gum. I have been found late at night hunkered in front of the computer surrounded by wrappers.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
If you’re making a documentary, I would say that there are two important things to consider. First, remember that the people who you film (and everyone that you hire or ask a favor of) are helping you out. Be respectful of their time, send a card or a present when you’re finished, and try hard to stay in touch with them. Let them know what’s happening with the film. Second, don’t make the film if you’re the least bit wishy-washy about the subject matter. It’s a few years of your life, and a ton of hard labor and unless you love it, it will be really hard to stick with it.
What sparks your creativity?
It’s a hodge podge: films from the '70s (I love the way film looked back then), photography books, Saturday Night Live skits (any kind of comedy), friends who are doing great things, road trips and little funny, ironic things I see every day in New York.
Is there anything people ask you most often about MUSKRAT LOVELY?
I usually get asked if the people in the film have seen it. My answer is always “of course” and I think it surprises some people. I worked really hard to strike a balance between what one type of audience would find entertaining or humorous and what would flatter the subject matter. The people in the film live genuinely interesting lives in this amazing place, but they also have a great sense of humor. I hope that this comes through.
Read the filmmaker bio >>
Get muskrat recipes and skinning tips >>
Read a synopsis of the film >>