The Riot and the Dance: An Interview with Director N.D. Wilson
Interview by Théa Rosenburg // Image 1 by Dianne Jago
Yesterday, my daughters met a snake. We were at a friend’s farm to see kittens and pygmy goats but ended our tour in the living room, watching a python study us through the glass walls of its cage. It seemed interested in whether or not we were food.
I don’t know how I thought my daughters would react to a python, but I didn’t expect them to want to pet it. I didn’t expect them to answer, when asked if they’d like to come back on feeding day and watch it eat an entire rat, with an emphatic yes.
But they did. And I credit The Riot and the Dance for that.
Directed by N.D. Wilson and narrated by his uncle, biologist Dr. Gordon Wilson, the film explores both the beauty and the brokenness of creation. Our family sat spellbound as Dr. Wilson described hummingbirds, pumas, redwoods, and sidewinders with the enthusiasm an art collector might use to describe a fine painting: see the brushwork here, the intricate detailing there, the vibrant colors hidden away under here. When asked later which part of the film they liked best, my girls answered in unison: “The snakes.”
But if my daughters had their moment of epiphany watching Dr. Wilson handle sidewinders, I had mine listening to N.D. Wilson discuss beauty for this interview. Wilson—director, yes, and one of my favorite authors (100 Cupboards, Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, and more)—has long explored the wonder and tumult of our world, often by celebrating or contrasting it with the fantastic worlds of his stories. Here, Wilson explains why we need to know creation as well as tend it, why backyard discoveries are sometimes the best kind, and why nobody uses the word “pulchritudinous” anymore.
How does The Riot and the Dance differ from other nature documentaries?
The biggest difference with The Riot and the Dance is that it views nature not as a meaningless accident, but as art. When you view something as art, there is intrinsically a design, a creator, a creative personality behind it. There are things to be learned from art, as opposed to from shrapnel.
When I watch a beautiful nature documentary—we’ll assume it’s a fantastic one, like Planet Earth—I can be moved by the visuals, because they are still art. The creatures are in fact works of art. Everything from the symmetry of a puma's face to the way a coyote yawns is an amazing feat of design and engineering. But in a documentary like that, everything is taken as if it just happens to be there.
If I’m walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I don’t want to say, “Man, it’s so weird that all those paintings just ended up on the wall somehow.” I don’t want to point a camera at one and say, “Look, here’s a painting on a wall.” No, I want to say, “Here is a painting by a particular creator, in a particular style, in a particular mood that communicates a lot about the personality of the one who made it.” So that's the biggest difference: we approach creation as art.
In the film Dr. Wilson says, "A Christian should look at everything through the lens of Scripture." How does looking at nature through the lens of Scripture change the way we see it?
Through Scripture, we understand that creation is ours—it’s been given to us. We’re supposed to take responsibility for it. We’re supposed to steward and guide this creation. And that does not mean we walk away and let it do whatever it does on its own. There’s a dominion relationship man has to creation that’s by design, and part of that means paying attention to creation and getting to know it.
But we also realize that there’s been a fall—that’s wrapped up in the title, The Riot and the Dance. When we go out there, we don’t take nature as authoritative. There’s been a bunch of vandalism, a bunch of groaning. There’s death, disease, “nature red in tooth and claw”—animals killing each other and elephant seals misbehaving. Because we’re in a position of dominion over it, we are allowed to pass judgement on it. We are allowed to say, “This is not how we want it to be, this is not how it’s supposed to be, and not how it’s going to be eventually.”
So, we can marvel at our Creator’s abilities and worship him for what we see, but we can also see these broken things and know that creation groans for the Resurrection. And we, as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, are actually supposed to do something about this. There are things we are supposed to do. When we find little civilizations that are like biker gangs, which is what elephant seals are—they run like the Hell’s Angels run—I would go farther than any nature lover and say, “You know, we’re actually supposed to teach the elephant seals to knock it off.” That's not the way it was in Eden, and it's not the way it's going to be in the Resurrection.
What would it look like to reform the elephant seals?
I think we’re a long way from that, so I can’t imagine how we would start or what it would look like down the road. But we see the promises of Scripture about the lion and the lamb. The elephant seals are part of the same reality, right? So when the lion and the lamb are no longer antagonists, when children can play around the adder and shove their hands in cobra dens without fear, then I think whatever the elephant seals are doing at that time, it'll be better. It'll be much better.
It's apparent that the expression of beauty matters to you as a director. Why do you think it matters that a Christian's work be beautiful as well as truthful?
I taught writing for a long time, and one of the things I would tell my students was that to have beautiful content and express it in an ugly way is a kind of falsehood. For example, there are a bunch of different words that we use for attractiveness. We can say "attractive," "beautiful," "gorgeous," "cute," "pretty”—we have all these different words. And we use them instinctively in different situations, even those words that have almost exactly synonymous meanings, like "beautiful" and "gorgeous." But we use them differently because the physical object of the word has different effects on the reader. We’re trying to accurately capture and reflect what it is that we're imitating.
But the word "pulchritudinous"? It means the same thing. "Pulchritudinous" means beautiful, and there's a reason none of us use it. It's an ugly word, and to use an ugly word for a beautiful thing is a kind of falsehood. Saying “This all is the result of a meaningless, purposeless explosion," is one kind of lie, but looking at God's creation and saying "Pulchritudinous" is another kind of lie, because we fail to imitate its beauty. When we look at the reality that God has created, and try to capture that and imitate it, a major factor of our imitation has to be to try to imitate in microcosm the beautiful effect of this landscape, the beautiful shape of this creature, this creature's movements, and so on.
So when we made this film, we set a high bar for ourselves cinematically and took as much time as we needed to do it—it took us about three years to do the first one—and that was because we didn't want to say, "We are the ones who know that this is truly beautiful," but then make an ugly film. If we're the art appreciators—the ones who understand that there is an artist and this is his work, and we want to celebrate it—then we need to do everything we can to create a beautiful artifact ourselves and not just have talking heads explaining fairly bland cinematography. We wanted to use our words and our cameras and our lenses in a more effective imitation than that. We wanted to tell the truth, and beauty is part of the truth.
In the film, you started with the Pacific Northwest, and then expanded outward. Why do you think it's important to begin with the parts of creation that may seem mundane before exploring what would seem more exotic to many viewers?
When you’re able to sit in awe of an ant war on the sidewalk in front of your own house, then the awe that you experience looking at God’s creation near you, where he has placed you, will lead you outward. It will give you a desire to see more of his work, to walk through the rest of his museum. But if you sit in your corner of his museum and say, “I’m super bored, maybe there’s something more interesting over there”—well, that’s not a healthy approach. We should not explore because we resent where we live or where we’ve been placed in the world. We should not explore out of boredom or out of numbness, but out of gratitude and excitement and wonder.
I never want to write a book that makes someone bored with their own life, and this film is the same way: I don’t want the kids who watch this movie to then be bored in their backyards. I want them to be excited in their backyards, and I want their backyards to lead them to more and bigger and grander discoveries.
Do you consider yourself a writer or filmmaker first, or have the two always been related for you? How does your work in one field influence your work in the other?
I've always wanted to work in both, but it's really been the last couple years that my primary vocation has become filmmaker, really since I made the movie The River Thief. For a decade before that, I was primarily a writer who always had a foot in film. But it was front burner, back burner: my novels were on the front burner and whatever films I was working on were on the back burner, simmering. That’s reversed over the last few years.
But when I write, I write visually: I plan a scene, I envision a scene, I even block a scene—in terms of the movements of the characters, the movements of my perspective as narrator—and then I write it. I try to capture what I see. Writing has always been visual for me, and that works naturally, obviously, when I turn to film.
I wanted to ask about your relationship with your uncle and how you got started on this project together, because he seems like he would be so much fun to grow up with.
Absolutely. I grew up in a very literary family, but I had the science uncle, Gordon, who would come pick me up to go insect collecting, hunting for rubber boas, digging for fossils. He’s the one who would show up and take me out on adventures. He’s also the one who would invite me over to watch nature documentaries. He had this major outdoor influence on my imagination. Because of him and those adventures, I’ve always had this love of the natural world and the creatures in it.
A big part of why I wanted to make this film was to try and give that experience to others. I wanted to try and capture the experiences I had with this uncle who inspired so much joy and pleasure in me when we were out there catching frogs, and link thousands and, hopefully, millions of other people to him on this trek. That was a big motivation for the project, and why I wanted to work with him in particular.
It was a continuation of my childhood to call up the same uncle and say, “Hey, we’re going to Sri Lanka,” or, “Want to go chase things in the Sonoran Desert?” Where I had grown up exploring the ponds of the Pacific Northwest with him, grabbing him and going to the other side of the world was a blast.
The Riot and the Dance (Part 1: Earth) releases on DVD soon. Part 2: Water is scheduled for release in 2019. N.D. Wilson’s newest book, Outlaws of Time 3: The Last of the Lost Boys, is excellent, and it’s available now.