Filmmaker Amy Nicholson Discusses Documentary Film and How Other People’s Realities Become Her Own

Based out of New York, documentary filmmaker Amy Nicholson explores wittingly unconventional topics through her unique lens of storytelling. She began her career in the frenzied world of advertising, working for big names like Snapple and Nike, before starting her education at NYU Film School. Having directed and produced four documentaries, Nicholson’s films have aired on PBS/WNET Thirteen, toured the festival circuit, and qualified for Oscar consideration. Her latest short film, “Pickle,” invites viewers into the lives of two unsuspecting “parents,” as they recount the lives (and tragic deaths) of their unusual and eccentric pets.

Pickle Couple Still

Real world engagement appears to have always been an outlet for your creativity, through advertisements and more currently, documentary film. What drew you to these forms of storytelling?

I don’t know where I saw this quote – it’s probably somebody’s tagline – but it was “REAL LIFE IS BETTER THAN TV.” I couldn’t agree more. I love figuring out what makes people tick. We are all the same really when it comes down to it. So I love meeting people I would have never met – unless I was doing a film of course – and living their life with them for a while.

Your documentaries range in subject from famous amusement parks to tragically dead pets. Where do you get the inspiration for your films? Who, or what inspires you the most?

I think the films pick me, but I do look for subjects that lend themselves to two sides – usually a funny side and a serious side. I am not making films that are going to save the world or bring to light some massive social change, so I try to find subjects that can benefit from my ability to look at something tragic and see what’s funny about it, or look at a situation that seems one way, but when you peel it back, it’s another.

Having made both short and feature documentary films, which length of storytelling do you prefer? How does each differ in the ways the story is unraveled?

They are both the same to me, but the shorts are a lot easier to take on because there is so much less to manage. When you are in the thick of it, something small like keeping track of people to list in the credits can become a real slog for a feature. But with a short, those things are all less cumbersome. And shorts are definitely cheaper! Plus, I don’t feel the same stress to make the short so successful; by the time you get done with a feature, it feels like the success of it determines whether it was worth spending years of your life on it. That’s a lot of pressure.

Pickle Film Still

Your most recent short film, “Pickle,” explores the relationships formed between unsuspecting pets and their two unconditionally loving owners. How did you stumble upon the idea to create this film?

That is my Dad, and his wife Debbie. I have been visiting the farm for 20 years and never thought to make a film about the animals. There wasn’t much in terms of pictures, and there was zero footage. So I had to come up with a way to tell it and make the stories hang together as one. My Dad is a great storyteller, so I have to give him the credit. It was also one of those projects where I knew I would have the two sides – the silly and the sweet.

Most of the pets mentioned in the film have died a tragic death, like Pickle getting shocked by the aquarium heater. Cut into the film, you have added animation that portrays these explicit deaths in a comical way. What made you decide to add another layer of humor to an already tragically absurd story?

As I said, there was no footage of any of these animals. So that was the basic reason. However, the film needed punctuation so that you knew you were allowed to laugh. By the time you get to the first chicken animation, hopefully you are already in on the joke. But if you are not, it’s clear we are having fun with death. I mean, the chicken is roasted by defibrillator paddles.

Death is an overall theme explored, in both animals and humans, throughout your short film “Pickle.” The couple in the documentary each has their own opposing views on what happens when something, or someone dies. How do you picture death? What do you think happens when living creatures (humans include) die? Do humans and animals see/feel different things?

I am a big animal person, so I do believe that animals feel and understand everything – for the most part – less than on a human level, but in certain ways, more. I am not a big believer in afterlife or a God with a long white beard, but I am kind of with Debbie when she says, “It’s one big ball of energy and all living things go back there.” But I am also very practical too, so I get it when my dad says, “When something dies, it just dies.” Nothing makes you think about life more than the experience of death. I think living with a certain degree of kindness toward living things – from ants to trees to humans to elephants – is the way to go.

What are some of your upcoming projects we can look forward to? What other stories would you like to cover in possible future documentaries?

I have two things I am working on now. One is a long-term project and I am going to try to branch out and make a feature documentary that’s a bit more verité/more poetic. I also have a funny short idea that I need to get cracking on! It involves something people put in their yards that is pretty silly. That one is more of a social experiment.
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Read Short Film PICKLE Movie Review and learn even more about this wonderful film.

Thomas DeVito

Thomas, who studied English at SUNY Oswego, is an aspiring screenwriter and a Contributing Writer for Monologue Blogger. When not typing away at his computer, he can be found watching the latest films, or reading the newest bestseller. Unfortunately, he is unrelated to Danny DeVito.

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