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Growing up in a Small Town: 'Nimrod Nation' Series Premieres on Sundance Channel

By Shelley Gabert

He won critical acclaim, awards and many honors for the feature-length documentaries he wrote, produced and directed with Nanette Burstein--On The Ropes (1999) and The Kid Says in the Picture (2002)--but Academy Award-nominated producer and director Brett Morgen finally realized his 20-year passion for exploring small town America in Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary series he created for the Sundance Channel. 

The series, which premieres November 26, brings viewers a compelling and well-drawn portrait of the inhabitants of Watersmeet, a tiny, remote town situated in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Like its fictional counterparts in Fargo or Northern Exposure, the community is full of unique, engaging characters who are united by their love of hunting, fishing, sport shooting and the Nimrods, their high school basketball team. Each one-hour episode (which runs on consecutive Mondays through December 17) follows the 2005-2006 basketball season while exploring team members past and present and their relationships with friends, family and each other. 

"I grew up in a the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, but I've always had this romantic image of small towns," says Morgen. "They remind me of the agrarian societies that existed at the time the Constitution was written, where Jeffersonian democracy really worked and everyone had a voice."

Inspired by the 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist H.G. Bissinger, which spawned a 2004 feature film and the current NBC television drama, Morgen had spent three years trying to find his own Texas town for a documentary. Ultimately, though, he abandoned his pursuit. "I had pre-visualized the film so much that I could never find a place that had all of the elements or a cast of characters I wanted to pursue," Morgen admits.

Still, he continued to envision the kind of documentary he wanted to make and in 1998 he received his MFA from New York University Film School, where his thesis was about the image of small-town America in film. He got married and had children, which, he said, made it much harder to even consider moving his family into a small town to shoot for any length of time. Fate, however, intervened in 2003, when Anonymous Content, a production and management firm, hired him to direct a commercial on the Nimrods for ESPN. Years earlier, ESPN had included the Nimrods in their search for the country's quirkiest basketball team mascots. Nimrod is described in the Book of Genesis as a mighty hunter, which definitely fits as Watersmeet residents young and old spend a lot of time in hunting gear taking advantage of all the game found in nearby forests, rivers and lakes.

The Nimrod commercials aired on ESPN's Without Sports series in March 2004 and caused a major sensation, resulting in articles in The New York Times, USA Today and other media outlets. Jay Leno also hosted the entire 13-member team, along with Coach George Peterson III, on The Tonight Show. Requests for Nimrod sweat shirts, hats and coffee mugs were massive and a website was created to handle the volume of orders. While the success of the commercials was gratifying, Morgen also had finally found the town and the people he had been searching for all along. "When shooting the commercials I had never experienced anything like this town before," he reflects. "The region itself was under-represented in literature and film, and it was an entirely different culture of people who really lived off the land." 

Coach Peterson and his son, George Peterson IV, a member of the squad, were cast in the film along with Brian Aimsback, a Native-American on the team, who would help represent the nearby Potawatomi and Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservations.

 "I'm a huge fan of John Ford, so this television series is like a modern-day western exploring the cowboys and Indians of the last frontier," Morgen explains. "Watersmeet is located in one of the coldest regions in the country--colder even than most places in Canada--so we definitely wanted to take advantage of the snow and the environment, the vast areas of wilderness, which became one of the stars of the show."

Morgen made four or five trips to the town to set up the shooting style and express his vision for the series. "We had two or three crews filming for a few months, and I had a bit of a boot camp with the DPs, but then I handed off most of the shooting," he explains.

He also cast a host of other colorful characters, like Jeff Zelinski, class of 1973, and Dale Jenkins, 83, who was featured in the ESPN commercials and played for the original Nimrods in 1940. Jenkins and other former Nimrods meet at the local diner, sort of like a Greek chorus to comment on the events of the town and the team.

"I watch a lot of reality programming, but I didn't want to load in as much drama per minute as they do on those shows," Morgen maintains. "Instead, I wanted the series to have a lyrical feel and a leisurely pace that would mirror the attitude and the pace of the town."

While editing Nimrod Nation, Morgen was also busy working on Chicago 10, an animated documentary that he wrote, produced and directed that looks back at the eight anti-war protestors and trail following the 1968 Democratic Convention. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in February 2008. He researched the film for three or four years, and it includes archival footage along with performances by Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrery Wright and Dylan Baker.

"Chicago 10 was probably the most difficult project and most complicated story I've ever attempted to tell," Morgen admits. "You could do a film about the trial or the convention but to combine them was a bit overwhelming."

He has also been trying to maintain his commercial directing career (he has worked on campaigns for Budweiser, Southwest Airlines and IBM and many other companies). "All the roads of my film career intersected during the last six months of 2006 and it was a bit daunting," Morgen says. "I was so immersed in Chicago 10 that it was such a relief to have this other world [of Watersmeet] to go into."  

Nimrod Nation is executive produced by Morgen, Kevin Proudfoot and Adam Pincus, and Sundance Channel wanted it from the beginning, despite what Morgen describes as its subversive content and conservative NRA characters. "Sundance Channel has wanted to do a project with Brett Morgen for a long time," says Laura Michalchyshyn, Sundance Channel's executive vice president and general manager for programming and creative affairs. "When he approached Sundance Channel about Nimrod Nation, his enthusiasm for Watersmeet was contagious and we were convinced."

Now that the Sundance Channel executives have seen the series, they're very pleased. "It's warm, heartfelt and engaging and it fits in perfectly with our mission to show diverse programming and to introduce our viewers to a world they may not have known about before watching," says Michalchyshyn. "The portrayal of Watersmeet and the Nimrods is a glimpse of small-town America that we rarely get to see on television."

Morgen found working on Nimrod Nation as creatively fulfilling as any of his feature films, but he calls the timing of it fortuitous, certain that it would have been a different film if he'd made it earlier in his career. "I don't think I could have made Nimrod Nation with the same perspective that I have now being a father of two children," he allows. "I went into this series to focus on the Nimrods, but as it evolved it became about life and death in small-town American. The younger basketball players taking the place of the former players at the diner, which really shows the full circle of life."

Shelley Gabert is a contributing editor to Documentary.