Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you find this subject?

Eric Daniel Metzgar: I was looking for a job on, and at the bottom of the screen, there was a little blurb on Richard Ogust's situation. He was a writer living in New York, and right then he was in the middle of a media frenzy. He'd been on all the major networks and in all the papers and magazines because he had 1,200 turtles and tortoises in his loft in Manhattan. When the producer Nell and I read more about him, we felt that the two-minute bits about him on the news weren't really getting to the heart of the matter at all. They were turning him into a quirky sound bite, an oddity or someone to talk about at the water cooler the next day.

Richard's story felt like the kind of story that I selfishly needed to be a part of. I had just moved back to the city from upstate and I was really missing nature, so I just felt like I needed to be around this situation.

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I called Richard and he was very welcoming; a couple of days later I met him. The atmosphere of his loft was so overpowering that I immediately felt that this was something really important and really serious. So I just committed to doing whatever needed to happen to make the film, and as a result, we followed him around with cameras for the next two years.

POV: What was so compelling about Richard that you immediately committed to making a film about him and his quest?

Metzgar: To me, Richard Ogust is clearly a compelling human being. But I don't think that's enough for a film. I don't think that filmmakers should just go seeking these outgoing, extroverted, "compelling" characters. I think that Richard is the kind of human being that is worth observing because he has so much to say, not only verbally, but in his actions. He's very alive, and that may be the quality I'm most attracted to and fascinated by in the world. So I loved being around him all the time.

I felt like watching him and watching the turtles was not too different. I'm not comparing Richard to a turtle, but I'm saying that I learned a lot from observing Richard's life. The way that he looks at things is so unconventional. In his answers, he always digressed into territory that was more interesting than the questions I'd asked him. He always digressed into situations that were more meaningful than the situations I could have ever hoped to film.

I think the film is really about a man whose compassion is so enormous that it leads him into a strange phase of his life, where he's really struggling to figure out how to contain what he feels like he should do about this crisis that he's discovered.

POV: How did you establish a relationship with Richard?

Metzgar: I established trust both really quickly and then really slowly with Richard. When I first met him at his loft with all the turtles, I thought "This situation is really amazing." I could also tell that Richard was extremely bright and that he would see through any sort of pitch that I gave him. He said, "So what do you want to do?" And I gave him this very long-winded answer about what I thought his situation was about. Whether he was just being nice or he meant it, he said, "Okay. You get it." And then he went back to work and I just turned around and started filming the turtles.

When I left his loft that day, I told him to let me know if he ever needed help with the husbandry of these turtles. I didn't have a job then. A couple of days later he called me and said, "I'm letting go of one of my helpers. Do you want to work here?" I said, "Absolutely." I started working for Richard a couple of days later, and I worked for him for about three or four months, spending sixty or eighty hours a week with him, filming about ten percent of the time. We became really close, and the filming became secondary to being with him and being with the turtles.

POV: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

Metzgar: The biggest challenge in making the film was digesting the sadness of the situation on a regular basis. But at the same time, I think that's why the whole process was so meaningful for me, because as a filmmaker, you are choosing to process the material that you're capturing. In day-to-day life you can ignore all of the input that you receive; you don't have to deal with it or cope with it or look at it or figure out what it means. But with a documentary, all those ways to process are exactly what you're trying to do. You watch the footage over and over again, and you stare at people and things through the lens. At the end of the day, watching this footage, not ignoring all of this input that was coming, I was forced to process it. And I think that's how we learn, by forcing ourselves to process new information.

Most of what I processed during the filming of The Chances of the World Changing was really sad, but in understanding why it was sad I really understood why this film was ultimately more about strength than it was about gloom.

POV: What was your greatest satisfaction during the process of making this film?

Metzgar: I have two answers to that question. I really like the work of making a film: I really like shooting, I really like editing and I really like observing and directing. So that's very satisfying.

The other answer is concerning a specific moment that I remember really vividly. It happened early in the film. We had just picked up a shipment of confiscated turtles from JFK airport. The turtles had been rescued from the food markets in China, and the protocol for receiving a shipment of these turtles is to give them immediate veterinary care. One of the best vets in the world for turtles lives in Detroit, so we rented a huge cargo van and put the crates of turtles in the back, and we just started driving toward Detroit. We weren't going to stop, because these turtles hadn't eaten or drunk in weeks.

I was driving and it was about four in the morning. We were going through a mountain range and it was very quiet. I remember looking in the rearview mirror and seeing everyone asleep, Richard and the crew and a friend of Richard's. All I could hear was the sound of the turtles scratching in the crates. That was just this very serene, strange moment. I remember feeling very satisfied and excited that in this world with all its problems, I was doing this particular thing at the moment. I felt that I was in great company, and I didn't want to be anywhere else.

POV: What did you learn about turtle conservation during your work with Richard and through the process of making the film? What do you want people to know about it?

Metzgar: I realized that my understanding of extinction had been very intellectual. I had felt that conservation was being handled by online donations and articles in magazines. Before making the film, I thought that there were a few people out in Greenpeace boats doing the hands-on work, but traveling around, seeing all these turtlekeepers doing their work in basements and garages, I realized that it's not intellectual at all. Conservation is a get-your-hands-dirty, everyday, no-vacations kind of a lifestyle. That was really inspiring because at the end of making the film, I thought that if I really feel strongly enough about a certain species or a certain situation in the world, I can do something to change it. I can try to conserve a species. I can just think about any of these turtlekeepers — and they're such everyday people — and realize that I could make that kind of hands-on difference. There were a lot of times when I felt like making a film about these people was a kind of safe, reflective mission. The mission of the turtlekeepers was the prime mission; my mission was secondary, and I battled with that idea throughout filming.

POV: What would be your advice for a first-time filmmaker?

Metzgar: Actually, I would like to get advice from first-time filmmakers as much as give advice, because I think that first-time filmmakers have the luxury of having nothing at stake, so they can be very free and creative. They have nothing to lose; they don't have any expectations, and I hope to remain in that state as long as I'm making films or in anything else I'm doing.

To a first-time filmmaker I would say: Don't consider yourself a filmmaker, don't get too entrenched in the ideas and the conventions of filmmaking. Just think of it as yourself out there observing an experience with a camera. Do whatever you want, whatever feels right, follow your intuition in the shooting, editing, directing and interviewing. Push it into new territory.

So many films are so rote and so boring and so journalistic. I'm bored by so many documentaries. I think that given a camera and a mind, there are so many other styles and forms that have yet to be explored, but we're kind of stuck in this pattern right now because we watch TV and most things on TV are some form of documentary. Whether it's a reality show or History Channel, there's just b-roll, and then the person talking in front of a bunch of books behind them. We've seen that so much, but there are so many other ways to show things. So my advice to first-time filmmakers is to say: Just let yourself be as creative as you can be, and don't try to make a documentary. Go out and shoot and then edit it together, organize it according to how you feel, and you'll have a film.