As a kid, Roger Nygard questioned authority when he discovered adults had stretched the truth about the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.
He challenged the faith he was raised with: "I never really quite bought into it."
He searched to make sense of life after his father died: "I couldn't see any meaning or purpose behind it."
And as with many people, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 caused him to "rethink my place in the universe."
So when he reached his mid-40s and still didn't have satisfactory answers to life's conundrums, he decided to see if anyone else did. Armed with a camera and 85 tough questions, he interviewed a fascinating cross-section of experts and ordinary people.
The result is The Nature of Existence, a thought-provoking patchwork of opinions from people including Taoist Master Zhang Chengda, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, evangelist Jed Smock, comedian Julia Sweeney and dozens of others on religion, science, morality, sex, soul, scripture, suffering and doomsday.
Nygard — best known for Trekkies, a documentary about Star Trek mega-fans, and Six Days in Roswell, about UFO enthusiasts — spoke with the Indy from his West Coast home. His film will help kick off this weekend's downtown Indie Spirit Film Festival. (For a longer version of this interview see csindy.com.)
Indy: In the film, you mention factors that motivated you to make the movie, including a "personal crisis." Can you talk a little about that?
RN: Well, I think it has to do with — you could call it a mid-life crisis — but any time you reach a point in your life where you're going down a path toward a career or something that is not raising children, you're kind of forced to consider the concept. Maybe that's because it's built into us, or it's society or family or evolution ... I think it was maybe a confluence of those things, because I am single and don't have a family.
Indy: And so if you're not going to have kids, then what are you doing here at all?
RN: Right. What are we supposed to do while we're here? Is it more than what we're doing? I think that children and family becomes the answer to that question for the majority of people, at least by default. Once you have a child, you don't really have the time to ask these questions anymore.
Indy: How did you determine the 85 questions?
RN: Well, I sat down and came up with the first one, which is the classic existentialist question: Why do we exist? Then that started begging a lot of other questions: Since we are here, what are we supposed to do? Do we have a purpose, and if so, how do we find it?
Most people, when I've been asking these questions, go in a religious direction to answer them. In the United States, which is heavily Christian, the No. 1 answer is "to glorify God." So that begs more questions, too. Define for me what is God? ... And what does "glorifying" mean? ... I didn't know the answers to these, necessarily, so I thought I would just start asking people.
Indy: How did you select the 175 people you interviewed?
RN: I just started one day, and four years later I kind of reached a finished product. I didn't have a number in mind, and I didn't know where the journey would end. I started in Israel with a rabbi — and that's only because I get invited to Star Trek conventions occasionally to screen my documentary, Trekkies. So I thought, if I'm going to Israel and I don't bring my camera, I'll never start this thing.
Indy: We often have ideas about what people believe when we hear their labels: Christian, Hindu, atheist, scientist. Who surprised you most during filming?
RN: (Laughs.) Everybody was a surprise. Because you do have preconceived notions. Like the Sikhs — I talked to them while I was in India, and I'd had no idea who they were. All I knew was that they wore turbans, and everybody assumes that somebody who wears a turban is an Arab.
But they're very different. They walk around with swords and preach nonviolence. They're very open and welcoming. ... They feed anybody who's hungry. Anybody off the street can come [to their temple] and eat or work there and help prepare the food.
No matter what religion I encountered, even those I really strongly disagreed with, when I got to know the people I got to like them because I learned about them. ... That's what surprised me overall the most.
Indy: Did you come up with answers to the 85 questions — or did you have some before — and did they change?
RN: Yes. I had my suspicions, a lot of which became solidified the more information I got. And others were changed completely. ... One thing that never made it into the final cut, I asked a professor of psychology in Delhi ... "What is love?" And he kind of smiled and half-chuckled and said, "Love is something that evolution created so we would not feel used during procreation."
Indy: There was another film that came out this year, Religulous, that was similar in some ways to yours. What did you think of it? And how do you think it compared to yours?
RN: I really liked Religulous, I think Bill Maher is very funny and entertaining to watch. Religulous, I think, is 90-some minutes of one man's opinion, and my film is 94 minutes of the world's opinions — in a nutshell. Mine is more about you deciding for yourself.
Indy: You had 450 hours of footage, and the film is about 90 minutes. What are you going to do with the other 448.5 hours?
RN: Well, check out thenatureofexistence.com. We're putting up new "Webisodes" each week. We have about 15 short videos up there now on these questions and topics. They're stand-alone, like "Should people have premarital sex?" That's a new one we just put up recently.
Indy: I know your co-producer, Paul Tarantino, joked about a sequel or a TV series. Was it really a joke, or is anything like that in the works?
RN: It's certainly in my mind. Once we give birth to the film — you know, we're doing a few film festivals first — we're going to start showing it to distributors. ... And once we find the right home for the film, the topic is so inexhaustible.
I think it would clearly make a great series. It's comparative religion, it's anthropology, it's psychology, it's sociology, and it's human drama — the latter being most important. People are interesting, and what they believe and why they believe ... is endlessly fascinating. So, that's the long answer to "yes."
Indy: So after all the filming you did and pulling this into an hour and a half, what are you hoping people at the festival will take from this?
RN: I hope they'll laugh, or get angry or feel something ... In some sense, I should warn people not to see the film, because it messes with your mind. You know, it messed with my mind, learning all these things.
Indy: Anything else you want to say about the film?
RN: ... You sort of asked this, but I can give you a more succinct answer if it's useful: "What is the answer?" "Did I find out why we exist?" And I found you cannot give people the answer — they have to arrive there themselves.
What I can say, though, is that I can give a clue: The answer is in simplicity. ... We expect there to be some big complex answer in the heavens that explains everything — almost an incomprehensible answer. But the answer is so simple, that's why it's hard to see.
Indy: You won't give out this answer?
RN: You can't really give anyone the answer, give them a purpose in life. But I do like what Aha said, who is the guru near the beginning of the film.
When a woman stood up in one of his seminars and asked him, "What is my purpose? I don't even know where to start," he said, "Your purpose is that person there, to your left, and that other person to your right. That's your purpose: other people. What you're talking about is recognition. You think you need recognition. You're going to be forgotten 100 years from now. And to do things to help people and to be present, that takes courage. To be in the moment."