Looking back: Jeff Erbach’s The Nature of Nicholas (2002)

Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) dissects bugs in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) dissects bugs in Jeff Erbach’s The Nature of Nicholas (2002)

I had one of those odd experiences this week when you, in effect, encounter an earlier version of yourself and are surprised to be confronted by how you might’ve changed in the intervening years. I was contacted a few weeks ago by local producer David Zellis about an upcoming screening of Jeff Erbach’s The Nature of Nicholas, a movie I edited more than twenty years ago. David had taken over distribution and somehow managed to get Cineplex to agree to special screenings in eight cities in October. Since Winnipeg is the film’s hometown, he proposed a post-screening Q&A and wanted to know if I’d be interested. I needed a moment to consider – it’s been a long time and I wasn’t sure I’d have much to say, but the prospect of seeing the film again on a big screen seemed interesting. I’d only seen it projected once before, and that was at the Cinematheque, which is rather small and intimate, back in 2002 – after which I’d watched it once more on DVD (to which I’d contributed a brief, scene-specific commentary with writer-director Jeff Erbach).

Summer days are long and there's not much to do in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Summer days are long and there’s not much to do

And so on Tuesday evening, October 17, I drove out to the Cineplex VIP theatre on McGillivray, met up with David and some of the other people who’d worked on the film, a little nervous about revisiting this piece of work from what now amounts to a previous existence. Back then, I was still doing work for the National Film Board – cutting a documentary called The Pacifist Who Went to War (2002) – and we initially set up an editing system in a vacant room at the NFB office, where an assistant would digitize the rushes while I worked down the hall; at the end of my documentary day, I’d walk over and spend the evening assembling the scenes shot the previous day. After Jeff’s shoot was over, I took a break from the NFB project, moved the Nicholas editing suite to my apartment, and spent the next month cutting at home, with Jeff sitting on my couch to discuss the work in progress.

Kimberley (Erica Zawadowski) tries to save herself and Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) from embarrassment during a party game in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Kimberley (Erica Zawadowski) tries to save herself and Nicholas from embarrassment during a party game

There were the usual issues that arise when working on a small budget – finding solutions to get around an occasional lack of coverage, or moments of awkwardness in the performances (the main characters were kids, played by inexperienced actors). But on the whole, the job went quite quickly and smoothly. Given the material, and Jeff’s approach to it, the biggest challenge was finding the appropriate pace and tone – the narrative was inherently low-key, despite the fantastic elements, and had a slow, halting quality because at its core it was about uncertainty and an inability to communicate clearly; how do you convey emotions and meanings which the characters themselves are only partially aware of?

Nicholas and Bobby (David Turnbull) visit some girls in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Nicholas and Bobby (David Turnbull) visit some girls

As the screening started on Tuesday evening, I was nervous about how it would play after two decades, but as it unfolded I was relieved to find that any reservations I might have had about my own work quickly fell away and I was able to watch with some detachment. Yes, there was occasional awkwardness, but there were also effective emotional touches and genuine moments of humour, and although the material didn’t lend itself to naturalistic performances the actors for the most part did find an authentic way to inhabit the story’s slightly unreal world.

Bobby (David Turnbull) flirts with Jenna (Katherine Lee Raymond) in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Bobby flirts with Jenna (Katherine Lee Raymond)

The Nature of Nicholas attempts a tricky balancing act, mixing genre elements with an ironically nostalgic evocation of an idealized prairie landscape of wheat fields and small town life. Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) is on the cusp of adolescence; it’s the end of the school year and, after this summer, he’ll be entering high school and a whole new social world. His best friend Bobby (David Turnbull), unlike Nicholas, is extroverted – more physical, devoid of social anxiety. Nicholas is inward-focused, exploring his sense of self and how he fits into the world. This is reflected in his private “lab” in the garden shed where he studies – and dissects – bugs and small animals, probing to find out how things work. Bobby, on the other hand, is becoming interested in girls. Nicholas can already see his friend drifting away from him.

Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) makes a tentative move in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Nicholas makes a tentative move

One day in the lab, as he and Bobby chat about what to do with their summer days – and about girls – Nicholas suddenly, tentatively, kisses his friend. This opens up something previously unexpressed, but now impossible to draw back from. And the film slips into what will become an extended metaphor, its initial stylized realism giving way to something else, drawing on the tropes of horror, while never actually becoming a horror movie. Bobby splits in two, one half more aggressively confirming his socially-defined masculinity, the other half a sickly reflection of an alternative self awoken by the brief moment of intimacy in the shed. This decaying zombie-Bobby makes its way to Nicholas, who sets about to care for it as it gradually wastes away.

The discarded part of Bobby (David Turnbull) seeks shelter at Nicholas (Jeff Sutton)'s home in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
The discarded part of Bobby seeks shelter at Nicholas’s home

As Nicholas nurtures this part of his friend, Bobby simply wants to dispose of it and get on with life. To complicate things, Nicholas’ dead father (Tom McCamus) begins to show up, an oddly corporeal ghost who is obviously concerned with his son’s emerging sexual non-conformity. Unable to make himself heard, dad begins to insert his hand into other people’s backs, controlling them like puppets so they can speak what he wants to say; he uses Nicholas’ mother (Ardith Boxall) and her new boyfriend Roy (Bob Huculak) to question Nicholas and essentially warn him to conform to acceptable norms.

The ghostly dad (Tom McCamus) speaks through the mom (Ardith Boxall) to warn Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) not to follow his desire in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
The ghostly dad (Tom McCamus) speaks through the mom (Ardith Boxall) to warn Nicholas not to follow his desire

After Bobby retrieves and disposes of his alternate self, Nicholas himself begins to sicken and eventually splits in two, the “unacceptable” part of himself being led away by his father to a decaying house beside a dusty country road where it can be stored away out of sight, while the conventional-boy identity can move ahead and enter the more fraught world of high school … though dad remains close to ensure that things won’t get out of hand again.

Bobby (David Turnbull)stops by to demand the return of the lost part of himself in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Bobby stops by to demand the return of the lost part of himself

While the film’s metaphor about gender fluidity and the tension between individual sexual identity and the social pressures which come to bear, particularly during adolescence when kids like Nicholas are trying to figure themselves out, may seem quite obvious, it also seems even more pertinent today as conservative forces have grown louder and more aggressive in their attempts to enforce conformity. The use of horror imagery seemed a bit more problematic back when we were making the film, but now seems to reflect those resurgent conservative attitudes which insist that gender non-conformity is indeed something monstrous; in the film the “zombie” parts of Bobby and Nicholas are shown to be vulnerable rather than horrific, reflecting the cultural tendency to cast difference as something unhealthy and undesirable, rather than simply something alternative to the norm. The film’s empathy for that difference short-circuits its superficial resemblance to a horror movie – which may be detrimental on a simple dramatic level. That’s probably not for me to say.

Dad (Tom McCamus) leads the problematic part of Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) away to a place where it can be permanently hidden in Jeff Erbach's The Nature of Nicholas (2002)
Dad leads the problematic part of Nicholas away to a place where it can be permanently hidden

I will say that I remained engaged at the screening, appreciating some nuances in the performances which I’d forgotten – both those of the more experienced actors (Ardith and Bob in particular), and among the kids. Jeff and David do well with what is occasionally quite difficult material, but I also found several of the girls adding interesting notes – Katherine Lee Raymond as Jenna, object of Bobby’s interest, Samantha Hill as her cousin Vicki, and Erica Zawadowski as Kimberley, who’s far more knowing than Nicholas when they end up in the closet together during a game of spin-the-bottle at Jenna’s party.

After the screening, I joined actors Ardith Boxall and David Turnbull, DoP Brian Rougeau, producer Jeff Peeler, and production designer Leanne Foley at the front of the theatre to answer questions from Kat Gallagher of the OurToba Film Network about the production and its prescient treatment of gender diversity in a local film context.

All in all, an interesting experience, revisiting a time – and a career – which feels very distant now. And it was nice to connect with some people I hadn’t seen in a long time (and a bit of a shock to see Bobby now in his thirties, with a career in local radio).

Comments

4 thoughts on “Looking back: Jeff Erbach’s The Nature of Nicholas (2002)

    1. Sorry, I don’t have any information about what Jeff Sutton’s done since several movies back in the early ’00s.

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