for Inland 360
Twenty-some years ago, a group of teenagers in the small town of Orofino took up a video camera and aimed it at the world. They turned scenes from their favorite movies into satire, created their own special effects, and filmed skits — most notably, about a guy who sold fishing tackle and also appraised antiques.
“The adults never got it, but we thought it was hilarious,” says Quinn Costello, one of those teens who, now 38, is a successful documentary filmmaker living in Oakland, Calif. His feature-length debut, “Rodents of Unusual Size,” co-produced with Jeff Springer and Chris Metzler, aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens” last month and has garnered awards and acclaim at film festivals across the country.
Of his time as a fledgling filmmaker in Orofino, Costello has mostly fond memories. The self-professed former weirdo teenager didn’t enjoy hunting or fishing or any of the other outdoor activities that make up the bulk of things to do in north Idaho, so he made and watched movies instead. His parents often took him to see art house films in Spokane, and he attended the 1 Reel Film Festival at Bumbershoot, where he discovered short films. He credits his mother for introducing him to directors like Stanley Kubrick.
“What that taught me about filmmaking is that you just kind of have to do it,” he says. “We didn’t have any teachers or anyone giving us permission, we had no money, and in that way, we learned by doing. That’s the best way if you’re making films — not waiting for permission.”
Not surprisingly, Costello studied film when he went to the Evergreen State College in Olympia.
“It was ground zero for hippie sentiment,” he recalls.
There, he fell in love with documentaries, which captured not the imaginary worlds he was used to, but real worlds he’d never seen before. Evergreen’s emphasis on experimentation helped him refine his creativity. He came to admire documentarians like Les Blank, Errol Morris and the Maysles brothers, whose subjects often were artists or eccentrics.
A world unknown to many is the subject of Costello’s latest film. “Rodents of Unusual Size” focuses on coastal Louisiana’s plague of nutria, an invasive species of semi-aquatic rodent that was brought from South America to the United States some 90 years ago by shortsighted fur traders looking to make a buck. These 20-pound swamp rats have wreaked environmental havoc in Louisiana for decades. With their giant orange teeth, nutria have devoured vegetation, turning wetlands that soften the devastation of hurricanes into useless bogs and hastening coastal erosion. No natural predators exist to control the nutria population, so humans — specifically, Cajuns — have taken up the task. Encased in rubberized fishing garb, they traverse the swamps in boats and on foot, getting paid $5 a tail for their quarry through a state-run incentive program.
It was those people, more than the nutria or their havoc, that first interested Costello. While on vacation in New Orleans with his family, he got to talking with an old friend’s wife about a job she’d taken working with nutria around Lake Pontchartrain.
“I started to nerd out on Louisiana in general,” he says of the early days of the project. “I wanted to make something that felt like a little time capsule, given how much Louisiana changes year to year and how much land is being lost. The history of Louisiana is being written every day as people move out of the bayous and wetlands that supported the Cajun communities, so I wanted to make a snapshot of this moment in time, told from the perspective of the nutria.”
As with the films he made as a weirdo teenager, Costello didn’t wait for permission to begin this documentary. He and his co-producers, with the aid of a Kickstarter campaign, went to Louisiana together to “see what would happen,” as he put it. “I felt bashful, as an outsider, going to make this film,” he adds. “I asked a Cajun friend if he had any advice about talking to Cajuns, and he said, ‘Don’t worry; you’re not going to be talking.’”
With earnest curiosity and deep respect, Costello and his co-producers went about making their snapshot, capturing on film the varied ways in which Cajuns interact with nutria. They followed people on nutria hunts, hung around nutria tail collection sites, filmed a nutria skinning contest, sampled nutria cuisine, met a pet nutria, and interviewed clothing designers who are making nutria pelts fashionable.
“A lot of it wasn’t even filmmaking,” he admits. “We just hung out and made friends, and that informed the spirit of what (the film) would turn into.”
That aspect of his craft — allowing a story to shape itself rather than making it bend to his will — fascinates Costello. His storytelling is a process of paring back rather than bringing forth, as it might be for a writer or a musician, and it requires grace, humility and a keen eye for detail.
“There’s so much that just kind of happens in the editing room when you’re making a documentary,” he says. “When we’re filming, a lot of the time, we’re not necessarily thinking of what the end result is ultimately going to be. We have some rough guidelines and a broad sense of how things are going to go together, but it’s in the editing room where we whittle things down and open up enough space so that people can live in between these little moments. It’s like putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle with a million pieces,” he jokes.
The idea of capturing reality as it is, of course, complicates this process of whittling.
“You’re making decisions all the time about what is actually real, what’s going on in the moment, and what’s just a representation of something,” says Costello. “We’re having an impact, every single time, when we film; we impact the process of what the subjects do, so we just have to respect the subject and their time.”
That kind of respect — both for the subjects of the documentary and for the process of filmmaking itself — comes through in “Rodents of Unusual Size” in a way that may surprise some viewers. Giant rats eating the guts out of Louisiana’s coastline doesn’t seem like a topic that lends itself to joy or hope, and yet that’s the deeper message of the film. The profound connection between the Cajun people and their land, and between one another, is so much more important than the disasters that befall them.
“They’re not a glum lot,” Costello says. “It’s amazing how quickly they’re losing ground to the nutria, but the fact that it’s also being met with this incredible joie de vivre by the people still hanging on challenges me to reassess what priorities in life are and should be. It’s that kind of resilience and joy that comes out of knowing that there is such an impermanence to their home. They accept life as it is, which is really challenging but also bursting at the seams with joy.”
“Rodents of Unusual Size” is available for download on iTunes. Costello’s next project, a documentary about the ceramicist Edith Heath, is forthcoming on the digital channel KCET’s program “Artbound” this April.