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Examining ‘The Nature of Existence’

21 Nov, 2010 By: John Latchem

Having explored what makes “Star Trek” fans tick in his documentary Trekkies and its sequel, director Roger Nygard set his sights on a bigger target.

In The Nature of Existence, Nygard asks theologians, authors, filmmakers, scholars, scientists and even random people, via more than 170 interviews in all, to answer the same basic question, “Why do we exist?”

Walking Shadows releases The Nature of Existence Nov. 23 as a single-disc DVD ($24.95), a two-DVD special edition ($29.95) and on Blu-ray ($29.95).

The project took four years to complete, with Nygard hitting the road to conduct interviews, then returning home to raise money for his next trip. He has worked as an editor for such TV shows as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and has directed episodes of “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Office,” “Mind of the Married Man” and the new Disney XD series “Zeke and Luther.”

Nygard himself grew up an Episcopalian in Minnesota and recalls how his parents would take him to brunch after church.

“So church became about this countdown to getting pancakes,” Nygard said. “And I realized that the pancakes were a metaphor for living in the moment. As an adult, I don’t have to wait to get pancakes. But if we’re not enjoying what we’re doing now, we’ve lost the moment.”

Nygard said he had always been skeptical of what he was taught as a child, which over time evolved into a curiosity about why people believe what they do. But he wasn’t quite sure how to structure that concept into a film. He had filmed segments with a Christian pro-wrestling organization and was considering other interviews to do when he found himself in Israel for a “Star Trek” convention related to his work on Trekkies.

Being in a central geographical hub of some of the world’s major religions ignited a spark.

“I realized that if I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity, I was never going to get this documentary off the ground,” Nygard said. “That really forced me to organize.”

It wasn’t for another year, however, that the project really began to take shape, when editor Paul Tarantino suggested Nygard film his own journey as a means of connecting the segments.

“It’s the documentarian’s dilemma: How do you tell the story you want to tell?” Nygard said. “Concept docs are the hardest to make. My favorite documentaries are usually about a one person — a protagonist and a journey.”

Interview subjects range from noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, to Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kerhsner, to Nygard’s neighbors, whose 12-year-old daughter tells him straight up there is no afterlife.

“The spine of the film is how to find the truth,” Nygard said. “If you ask someone why they believe what they do, most people will have difficulties answering that. I’m always open to the best argument that you can make, but you have to back up your beliefs with something other than you feel it’s the truth.”

The film, he said, gives a good snapshot of what the world believes.

“Some people have criticized me for not choosing a winner,” Nygard said. “But then it becomes propaganda. No one likes to be preached to, except the choir.”

Nygard said he had so much good material that he couldn’t use in the film (the first cut, he said, was five hours long) that the extended interviews have been organized in a seven-disc companion series made available at NatureofExistence.com.

“The film is the appetizer,” Nygard said. “This is the buffet for people who want to go deeper into these topics.”

Each disc deals with two topics: “Existence & Purpose,” “Religion & Spirituality,” “God & Devil,” “Truth & Faith,” “Sin & Free Will,” “Morality & Sexuality” and “Prayer & Afterlife.” Nygard introduces the topics before delving into a series of 15- to 20-minute interviews.

The seven-disc set is offered at $119.95, with a nine-disc version that includes the two-DVD special edition of the film offered at $139.95. The individual discs are available at $24.95 each.

Nygard’s next projects include an examination of the meaning of marriage to different cultures around the world, and possibly a Trekkies 3. But for now, his thoughts continue to drift toward the questions raised in The Nature of Existence.

“To me, there’s one rational conclusion from this movie,” Nygard said. “And that is there are many conclusions, and not all are rational. We hold beliefs because we want to. I still don’t have an answer. But I relish the fact that life is a search for answers. And that makes me excited to live in this universe.”

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