Director Erin Derham delves into subculture of devotees who seek to preserve nature, not embalm it
The prevailing image of taxidermists is not a flattering one--sort of morticians to the animal kingdom. The kind of lugubrious characters who could have been portrayed on film by Vincent Price or Peter Lorre.
But director Erin Derham uncovers an unexpected world of artists, naturalists and conservationists comprising the ranks of taxidermy in her documentary Stuffed, which just premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
We made a movie about nature and not about some weird art form. Taxidermy's not weird.
No one was more surprised to discover what kind of people are immersed in taxidermy than Derham, who admits to being somewhat disturbed by the mere idea of it before she embarked on the film. Contrary to finding a morbid crowd, she encountered an array of gifted artist-scientists devoted to preserving animal life for altruistic purposes.
"These people love animals. They protect animals. They donate time, money, and skill to
nature conservancies to help connect our future generations to nature," Derham writes in a director's statement. "They are funny, and kind, and wild. Best of all, they are a fascinating breed of human that is highly proficient at both science and art."
Director Erin Derham at the world premiere of Stuffed
Derham filmed in the U.S., South Africa and the Netherlands, capturing the meticulous work required to "mount" animals for display. The birds, leopards, lions and other creatures seen in Stuffed are not embalmed; instead, the muscle, bone and organs are removed, leaving the exterior of the animal (for lack of a better way of putting it) as a kind of empty form, almost like a collapsed coat. A precise model of the animal is created out of styrofoam-like material or other materials that can be sculpted, all based on exacting anatomical measurements. Part of the artistry is deciding what pose to create for the animal--a choice generally based on study of the animal's behavior. The precisely-fitting "coat" is then delicately pulled over the sculpted form.
Other documentaries about taxidermists have portrayed enthusiasts of the art as oddballs. Derham eschewed that approach.
"That was the whole objective from day one--if I was going to do a documentary about taxidermy it was going to be meaningful and not, you know, a joke," Derham told Nonfictionfilm.com after the world premiere. "I was trying to do a movie that was happy and beautiful and positive and about the environment. Because you mention taxidermy and you think the opposite of everything I just said."
Derham's previous feature-length documentary, Buskin' Blues, has something in common with Stuffed.
"So far everything I've done has been about a subculture," she explains. "My first documentary was on street performers, a subculture that's never been filmed before and is very misunderstood. People think they're homeless and they're beggars and they're not. For the most part they're pretty famous artists that are just choosing to be on the street. This is the same thing. As soon as I found out more about taxidermy I realized they're the street performers of the modern art world. I loved that! I loved that they choose to do their art in that fashion, even though the world doesn't respect them, because it's the only thing they want to do. And I love that. I have so much respect for them."
The documentary is rendered as beautiful as the preserved creatures in the film. Lush photography highlights the stunning work of taxidermists including Allis Markham, Ferry Van Tongeren, Jaap Sinke, Daniel Meng, Travis de Villiers, Wendy Christensen, Timothy Bovard, George Dante, Dakota Rose Gould and Remington Hutton, among others. The editing and score are equally superb, provided (respectively) by Jenn Strom and Ben Lovett.
After a party following the world premiere, Derham explained her approach to the music.
"I told my composer I want a mix between like Royal Tenenbaums and Pride & Prejudice, like I want edgy and fun and funky and the most beautiful orchestra you've ever heard, because to me that's who they [taxidermists] are," Derham comments. "They're tinkerers in their head but they're also these incredible artists that are just thinking in these long notes with 15 different accompaniments beside them. So it's that feeling that, for me, has to start in the music."
She added, "We started the music before we started filming, intentionally. That's how I've done every movie. When I made the busking documentary I did the score and then I edited to it and that's just how-- my mom's a jazz musician, that's how my brain works. I hear it and then I see it. And that's why my composer and I get along so well... To me it's the only way I know how to tell a story."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.