By Katie Chambers
Finding your tribe is one of life’s greatest pleasures—and losing it is one of the greatest sorrows. In NYWIFT Member Amy Nicholson’s beautifully observed film Happy Campers, working-class Americans gather every summer at a seaside trailer park in Chincoteague, Virginia, to enjoy the simple pleasures of a scrappy, no-frills vacationland, and each other’s company. When a developer buys the land and reimagines the property, the inhabitants of this shabby Shangri-La wistfully eke out the joys of one last summer together as a melancholic twilight hangs in the air.
Happy Campers just made its world premiere at DOC NYC, where it received a Special Mention for the Grand Jury Prize. The jury said, “Amy Nicholson’s Happy Campers is a truly cinematic film with a strong directorial sensibility and a genuine auteur’s stamp that celebrates, mourns, and memorializes a beloved working-class seaside refuge about to undergo redevelopment. The film beautifully captures the life, spirit, and charm of the Inlet View Campground. The U.S. Jury chose it for special mention as the film is a genuine delight to watch in today’s turbulent times.”
Amy spoke to us about her unique process making this film, biggest challenges and triumphs, and the commodification of some of life’s simplest pleasures.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC screening! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
We were thrilled to be back at DOCNYC for our World Premiere. We’ve screened at DOCNYC before, so we knew we would be treated like gold. The audiences at DOCNYC seem to know how fabulous the programming is, and it’s a pleasure to present a film to them.
Our core creative team are all local, so everyone was able to be there, which means so much to me. Our sound designer, Matt Davies, was the only exception, and he flew in from LA for our big night!
How did you first learn about this community? What inspired you to make the film?
I grew up in Maryland and Chincoteague Island is just one of those places you go for family vacations. My dad retired in the area, and I was out taking photos with my Hasselblad one winter about 12, 13 years ago. I wandered into Inlet View, which is pretty much closed during the colder months, so I was able to poke around with my camera and shoot stills of this visual riot of tiny houses.
Years later, my dad and my husband and I drove in there during the summer, and it was so alive. I decided to rent a place to see what it was like and immediately fell in love. By that fall, my husband and I had a spot on the water and slew of wonderful new neighbors. It wasn’t until our third summer that we found out it was closing – that’s when I started to film.
As I was about to watch Happy Campers, you told me it is “best watched while drinking a PBR and really relaxing.” And I agree, the film is definitely “a vibe!”
So much of it is shot without dialogue, really capturing the sleepy, dreamy atmosphere of the community, giving the folks on camera a chance to “just be.” Why did you choose to approach the story this way?
I actually did a lot of interviews – about 15 – and they were fantastic. Everyone who sat for me was so well-spoken about the community and why it was so special. But at some point in our edit, we decided it was best to only include the only personal stories that illustrated the magic, and leave room for the audience to experience the place for themselves.
Knowing some viewers would have preconceptions about Inlet View, we wanted to give them the opportunity to fall in love with it. It’s a much more subtle approach than traditional impact docs, but we felt strongly that it would be more effective in the end. We also threw out lower thirds, supers that explained the situation, and all of our drone footage; it all felt heavy-handed.
I noticed that Happy Campers was workshopped in 2022 as part of DCTV and IDA’s DocuClub NY works-in-progress screening series. How did the film evolve during that process?
After putting the DocuClub program on pause during Covid, the IDA fired it back up last fall in DCTV’s beautiful, new theatre. So, they were actually one in the same event. I felt so lucky to be chosen to participate after the hiatus.
We really thought Happy Campers was close to a locked cut – ha! Docuclub completely changed this project. We got incredible feedback and surprising insights from our fellow filmmakers; issues and ideas that we hadn’t even thought of. And the IDA gave us the gift of Supervising Editor Isidore Bethel. His feedback was amazing. He really freed us up to make the film we wanted to make all along.
What did you learn during the making of this film that most surprised you?
That I was so much happier living in a crusty, old RV, covered in mosquito bites, wearing beat up Birkenstocks, eating deviled eggs and cold cuts for dinner, than I have ever been.
What was your favorite moment making this film? And your biggest challenge?
One of my favorite moments happened on a particularly miserable day. I had been out shooting since very, very early. I was sunburned, the equipment was filthy, and I was just done. You know that moment, when you have that conversation in your head, like, ‘This was a terrible idea and who did I think I was that I could pull this off???’ I had to drag everything into the shed next to the camper to tediously remove the daily deluge of sand. To make matters worse, I had been out for hours in the boiling heat without a snack, so by the time I got everything put away, it was late afternoon and I was starving. There, on the steps of my camper, waiting for my return, was a big Tupperware bowl of fresh, steamed crabs that my neighbor Chrisanne had caught and cooked for me.
I had two big challenges with this film. The first was shooting alone. As much as I prepared, it is really difficult to direct and run a camera and capture sound simultaneously. Some wonderful veteran crew pals were generous with their advice, and I took sound classes at DCTV. However, there is no learning in a year what an amazing DP has practiced over a lifetime. Being it was the only way to convey the intimacy of the community, I forged on. I missed a lot of good shots and wound up with way too few whole scenes. Luckily, I had brilliant, empathetic editors who were very deft at hiding my mistakes. I will always wish I had one more summer.
The second challenge was funding. I was lucky to get two grants from Catapult and a bit of Exec Producer money. Catapult also watched every cut and gave us invaluable feedback and encouragement. I had guardian angels who read through my 642 proposal rewrites, lovely industry contacts who made introductions for me, and best friends who knew when to drag me out for a gallon of wine. However, having more financial support would have helped me amass greater industry confidence in the production, and save my husband from years of my chronic insomnia.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
That they can be really happy living in a crusty, old RV, covered in mosquito bites, wearing beat up Birkenstocks, eating deviled eggs and cold cuts for dinner.
Also, that our physical landscape and life experiences have been corporatized, homogenized, and monetized enough. That we need to place a much higher value on the people, places and simple pleasures that make the fabric of America – and life itself – intriguing, amusing, and lovable.
What kinds of projects excite you?
I know that documentaries are supposed to save the world. I just happen to find myself interested in things that have a specific, unexplainable appeal. Like a dog grooming school full of first-time students, a beauty pageant at a muskrat skinning competition, a carnival ride from the seventies at the center of a political melee, a couple with an incredible collection of mutant animals that die in strange ways, and now, a scrappy, rust-bitten trailer park that holds the secret to happiness.
On the surface, these quirky subjects don’t seem all that profound. But something makes me want to get to the bottom of why I’m drawn to them and once I start digging, I can’t stop. I am never not personally changed by what I find. Sharing that with audiences in the form of a film is what makes me happier than anything.
What’s next for you?
Amy Nicholson is a filmmaker based in New York City. Nicholson’s most recent documentary, a short titled Pickle, won multiple audience awards and was selected for Op Docs and the Criterion Collection. Pickle was also nominated for IDA Awards and Cinema Eye Honors. Nicholson has directed two features. Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride won the Special Jury Prize at DOCNYC and screened at IFC Center. Muskrat Lovely premiered at the Hamptons and was broadcast on Independent Lens. Nicholson’s films have screened at Hot Docs, Sheffield, Full Frame, DOK Leipzig, BFI London, Camden, Traverse City, Rooftop Films, and the MoMA.
Connect with Amy Nicholson on Twitter and Instagram at @FilmsByAmy, and follow @HappyCampersDoc on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Amy Nicholson’s website is filmsbyamy.com and you can learn more about the film at happycampers.film.
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