Rodents of Unusual Size has been nominated for the Wildscreen People and Nature Panda Award. This documentary explores the relationship with the people of Louisiana and the nutria, large South American rodents, which are decimating the landscape.
We spoke with directors Chris Metzler, Quinn Costello & Jeff Springer about making this film.
When did you start making films and where did your interest in the industry stem from?
Chris and Jeff met at film school at the University of Southern California (USC). For Quinn, it was all about being high school and re-creating scenes from his favorite films to crack his friends up. There wasn’t much else to do in his little town in Idaho. It started becoming a challenge of always wanting to raise the stakes and see where he and his friends could go next. Once he was hooked he couldn’t stop and now here we are. All of us love to travel and meeting interesting people, so making documentaries helps us do both.
What made you decide to make a film about rodents considering your background of making country and rock and roll music videos?
A lot of life is serendipity and we’re ever curious, so we have pursued unique opportunities wherever we go.
The three of us are big fans of quirky documentaries with interesting characters trying to overcome the odds. Even though this movie is about giant swamp rats (and what’s not to love about that?), we hope the broader environmental themes resonate beyond the animals.
Many years ago, when we were on tour with a previous film, “Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea,” we became friends with a theater programmer who was from a generations-old Cajun family in the southeast part of the state of Louisiana and she introduced me to the subject matter of nutria: A Rodent Of Unusual Size. However, we were involved in the making of another film at that time, so we filed the story idea away. We kept kicking around ideas about how best to approach the story, and at one point we just decided that we needed to jump on an airplane and head to Louisiana. Once we got down there, you get taken in by beauty of the area, the sheer number of nutria that were destroying the wetlands and the unbelievable dedication and joy of the people who were tackling the issue. We think this movie resonates best with those who have a taste for the offbeat. It’s part horror story, part environmental love affair and a biopic of a giant invasive rat. What’s not to like?
Did you take any different approaches when filming animals compared to your previous experience making films? Did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs?
It was definitely a new experience, as none of us are wildlife photographers or hunters. But with that said, putting ourselves in new situations is one of things we really enjoy about making documentaries. So at first we were just really curious and keeping an open mind.
It probably was tougher for Jeff because as being both a director and cinematographer he had put his face up close and personal with all of those nutria. But he always felt that looking through the lens or at the viewfinder kind of creates a barrier to all of this action you are witnessing and so you feel a bit detached. But as the bodies pile up (any given hunt could yield a body count as high as 300 nutrias) and you look up from the camera it quickly brings you back to reality.
And then after a while when you see the destruction they cause and consider how many other animals are going to suffer because of that, we started to understand and accept that hunting is just part of what’s necessary and controlling their numbers. Also, hunting is not just about collecting food. It’s really an activity that bonds families together.
“Hard headed Louisiana fisherman Thomas Gonzales doesn’t know what will hit him next. After decades of hurricanes and oil spills he faces a new threat – hordes of monstrous 20 pound swamp rats. Known as “nutria”, these invasive South American rodents breed faster than the roving squads of hunters can control them. And with their orange teeth and voracious appetite they are eating up the coastal wetlands that protects Thomas and his town of Delacroix Island from hurricanes.”
The human stories are really what make this film shine, do you think this is a more successful route in engaging the public with conservation issues?
It is a tricky one to answer as we aren’t advocacy minded filmmakers. That doesn’t mean we don’t have strong personal opinions when it comes to the environment, but it’s not what motivates us to tell the stories we do. We always go into a film to explore the nuances about the difficult decisions in life and we hope in sharing these human centered stories (with humor) the audience will empathize with their way of life and at least be curious to dig deeper and learn more. That’s a long way of say, “yes.”
The film tackles the issue of nutria with a level of humour, despite it being a very serious issue regarding the loss of wetland and elemental protection for the residents. What is the overall feeling of Louisiana residents toward their future in this environment and its sustainability?
Louisianans live life one day at a time and do it with a sense of joy. They’re practical and know that things are always changing, so they accept their fate that everyone will have to continue to adapt.
Has the wetland started to show signs of recovery with any increase in biodiversity?
The nutria control program is making enormous strides in controlling their numbers. Over the course of the program they’ve gone from more than 20 million down to about 5 million. So we would say that there has been a lot of success, although as Thomas says, “as long as there are two left there’s going to be millions more.” There is no way getting around it, nutria like to breed and have lots of babies.
Because of this success, PETA has kind of been silent on the issue as many see it as the lesser of two evils.
Has the nutria catching been met with any resistance? Trap tampering, protests etc.
In the rural areas not so much, but in urban areas more wealthy people have a fondness for the nutria and feed them, so they often tamper with traps.
California is now facing a nutria invasion, do you think the people of California will be as understanding to a cull, or even to the utilisation of any catches for products such as fur and meat?
We promise we didn’t introduce them as a street level marketing opportunity for the film. :) I think Californians in general will be more resistant to culling the animals as it is such a new and unusual issue to many of us.
Many thanks to Chris, Jeff & Quinn for talking to us, and for making such a fantastic and engaging documentary telling the story of a new and unusual environmental issue.
The trailer is available to watch below, and the whole documentary will be available for public viewing at the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol on Tuesday 16 October 2018, at the Arnolfini.
…They DO exsist! 😱