What inspired you to make this film?
ROGER: In short, there was a day, at about the age of seven, when I realized that I would die some day. You can imagine my shock, after taking life for granted until that point. A voracious reader, I discovered the medical descriptions in the family encyclopedia. As I chanced to read the symptoms of tuberculosis, the little hypochondriac in me began to realize I had the telltale signs. I thought, I often “get tired easily, feel slightly feverish or cough frequently.”
The realization hit me like a mack truck, “I’m dying!” It turned out I wasn’t dying, and I soon moved on to other concerns, like watching Land of the Giants on TV. Or rather, I pushed thoughts of mortality beneath my conscious awareness. Twenty-five years later, when the events of 9-11 forced the whole country (including me) to consider their own mortality--for about a week--I was unable to stop myself from badgering friends with questions: Why do we exist? What is our purpose here? If there’s an afterlife, where exactly is it located? What created the Universe? With billions of stars in billions of galaxies to be mindful of, why would a god get so apoplectic if you masturbate? I wrote the questions down, plus eighty other tough questions, picked up my camera and went on the road to get some answers.
Once you got the idea, how did you go about planning the execution?
ROGER: My plan was to travel to the source of all the world’s major belief systems, find the experts, and interrogate them until I had The Answer. In addition to the USA, I visited Israel, Italy, England, China, and India. I had to travel light and cheap, by myself or sometimes with one other person to shoot B camera. Part of the reason I kept it simple was to avoid official attention. In some countries if you apply for a filmmaker’s visa or press visa it is more expensive and of shorter duration, and they require that you hire a minder to be with you the whole time—to keep you from filming something the government might not want you to film. Mainly they do that because they want to know if 60 Minutes or Warner Bros. is there. So I traveled as a tourist.
Can you talk about how you funded the film?
ROGER: I flirted with a few investors on this project, but decided to self-finance. Investors can be skittish in general, but try telling them you’re making a documentary about the most esoteric concept there is: existentialism. Plus, I didn’t want to give up the ownership of the project. I launched forward, and in-between directing and editing television shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, I saved up some money and went on the road every few months. That’s one reason it took me four years to finish shooting and editing.
Did you edit as you shot .... or wait until you had all the pieces?
ROGER: I began editing after the first shoot and edited continuously throughout the process. Even though the film is done, I’m still editing bonus materials for the DVD. You can see excerpts and some of the outlandish outtakes on our website: www.TheNatureOfExistence.com
How long did it take to edit and how did it change and evolve during the editing process?
ROGER: Over the four-year process, I would finish a segment and put it on the shelf, then work on another segment and put it aside. Eventually, as the story started to take shape I began to tie the segments together. It wasn’t until the second year that I came to terms with the idea that I had to put myself in the movie, because it’s my journey. You learn what I learn as I learn it. It’s the first time I’ve subjected myself to my own directing. What a tyrant! I‘ll admit I now have a much greater appreciation for actors. I mean, it’s damn hard to remember lines while hitting marks and trying to be natural. It was a great learning experience.
What did your gear package consist of ... and what were the plusses and minuses of that package?
ROGER: I began shooting in October of 2005 with one of the cameras I had used on Trekkies 2, a Sony PD150. But that camera was stolen in Italy. Somebody picked up my pelican suitcase and walked off while I was distracted at the Rome train station. The lesson I learned was to put the camera in a backpack that didn’t advertise itself as “expensive camera suitcase.” And whenever the airlines made me check the backpack, I took the camera out and carried it by hand.
I replaced the PD150 with a Panasonic DVX100A digital video camera, two wireless mics (sennheiser ew 100, with Tram mic upgrades), and a tripod. I had no room to carry lights. The key to getting beautiful footage on the road is sunlight. Natural light makes people look the best. If indoors, I would sit them near a nice big window and let the ambient light key the subject from the side. Occasionally I had to make an exception. Magus Peter Gilmore, the head of the Satanists, preferred not to come outside into the sun for his interview, so it’s one of the few interviews where I brought lights.
If you light video like film, it will feel cinematic. Some countries are more conducive to getting beautiful images. It's hard to get an ugly shot in India--practically the whole country is a religious site--at dawn in Varanasi every direction you point the lens there is a tableau awaiting your composition. In China in November the lighting is similar to what the impressionists in Europe painted with, all day long your images have that gorgeous, warm, golden-hour quality. All because the people there are still burning coal to heat their homes, as they did in Europe in the 1800s.
How is the finished film different from your original inspiration?
ROGER: My original inspiration was so far reaching and impossible to achieve—how do you make a documentary on the nature of all that is??? But that was part of the attraction, the impossibility of the challenge. Eventually, as I collected footage and kept shaping it the project evolved into its final form. So the film is quite different from my first inspiration, but also it accomplishes everything I set out to accomplish. Every mystery of the Universe is revealed. I should warn you not to see the film though, because it will mess with your mind.
What did you learn along the way that you'll take to future projects?
ROGER: I learned that I’m incorrigible. With the paint still drying on The Nature of Existence, I have already started shooting my next documentary. My new film is another concept documentary. My proposal is written and the first footage is in the hopper. It’s almost like a cry for help, “Somebody stop me before I document again!”
More information at: www.TheNatureOfExistence.com