Betting It All on a Failure
One of my favorite documentaries is Winnebago Man. If you're unfamiliar, here's a brief synopsis: A filmmaker goes to great lengths to track down reclusive Jack Rebny, a cantankerous old man who's only famous because a blooper reel of his profanity-laden temper tantrums, captured in the process of creating industrial sales videos for Winnebago RVs some decades earlier, went viral in the VHS era. The film has it all—it's amusing, it's funny, it's riddled with some of the most poetic vulgarities ever uttered. It's tender and kind. It highlights the absurdity of advertising and salesmanship. It revels in the challenge of making a film, but even more so, the challenge of breaking through to another person. I was in London earning an MA in documentary filmmaking, for which I needed to produce a 20-minute short doc for a June deadline, and it was January. I wanted to make a film like Winnebago Man. But where would I begin? Where would I find a character and a challenge like that, in a place where I knew almost no one? Well, the internet, of course.
I was browsing social media and doing lots of googling to try and find something that might suit my needs. I tried to think of unorthodox subjects or hobbies that would have quirky participants. I went down YouTube rabbit holes on pigeon racing and dialect coaching. Both interesting, but well trodden. Randomly, a tweet popped up in my feed about "this bakery in Leeds having an absolute 'mare" over something to do with illegal sprinkles. It already had hundreds of thousands of likes.
I was months late to this viral moment, so I had plenty to catch up on. Essentially, a bakery in Leeds called Get Baked had been reported for using "illegal" American sprinkles that contained a banned food coloring on their most popular cookie, and thus, wouldn't be able to use them anymore. The owner of the bakery made a huge stink about the inconvenience (predictably dubbed #Sprinklegate) to his large social media following, thus creating an even bigger stink as the controversy was engaged with and shared. It got big enough that it was covered by global media outlets, and was one of the BBC's most shared articles of the year. I had to find out if the man championing the banned food coloring in his beloved rainbow sprinkles via vulgar (but eloquent) social media posts could be my Winnebago Man.
I emailed the bakery, requesting contact with the owner. I received a response almost immediately and set up a Zoom interview for the following day. And this is how I met my subject, Rich Myers. He was sitting in a dark room in what appeared to be sweats, with headphones on, and said "What do you wanna know?" in the most flat, disinterested affect to ever cross a video call. Trying to seem fun, legitimate and proactive, I carried the interview in my overly bubbly advertising persona, hoping against hope that he wasn't truly as boring as he seemed, there really was a story here, and I'd be able to count on this perfect stranger not to ruin my life.
Rich told me about how his previous attempts at running his business, Get Baked, had failed. He wanted that to be a key part of the film. The history of the brand was confusing, as it morphed over the years, having initially started as a business that basically just delivered store-bought snacks and desserts to stoner students. As that enterprise thrived and gained massive popularity, Rich's next step was to get into the hot-food market with a burger joint offshoot of Get Baked. It wasn't long before the complexities of running this kind of business proved too taxing and intense; he'd bitten off more than he could chew (excuse the pun). The pressure caused Rich to develop terrible anxiety to the point of suffering panic attacks, so he walked away from Get Baked, the business shut down, and the whole thing faded into memory.
Great, I thought. There's some meat here. Some drama, some stakes. The business is taking off now, but it might be relying on the fickle nature of viral buzz. I can work with this. But I was also hitching my wagon to someone who was admittedly suffering from anxiety, ADHD and the propensity to just bail on things that are difficult. Rich was forthcoming about his failure, and seemed to really enjoy all the attention, making him sort of an anti-Jack Rebny. A blessing since, in truth, I didn't have the time or resources to go hunting down an unwilling participant.
But over the following months, getting Rich's time and attention did prove difficult, as I had feared. Not because he was evasive, but because he's a busy, in-demand person whose small business was skyrocketing. When I did have him, he was a cooperative participant and didn't seem to mind me tagging along with whatever he was doing. But outside of the time we were physically together, many a message went unanswered, and I feared the whole thing could fall apart at any moment if he were to just ghost me. Fortunately, he didn't, not for too long anyway. I persevered, and over the following weeks shot as much as I could, hoping it'd suffice for the story I was trying to tell.
The edit is where things really spiraled. The hardest thing about making this film was doing it alone. I found that being the only person who knew what I had shot (and therefore what was available to go into the edit) left me with no one to consult on how best to move forward when I got stuck. I was fortunate to have many friends who watched cuts with me and made suggestions, but ultimately, as the producer/director/DP/editor, only I had the knowledge to solve the edit's problems. Often, the problems themselves were hard to identify.
As I struggled in solitude on the edit, I felt like a total fraud. I'd been cutting professionally for over a decade, so if I couldn't edit my own film, well, then, I might as well just hang it up. I could forgive errors and struggles in shooting, prepping, directing, etc. ... after all, none of those things are my forte. I'm an editor. I should be able to "fix it in post." So to be sitting there, in what is supposed to be my element, running out of ideas and feeling utterly hopeless that I'd ever figure out what was wrong and how to solve it, felt inexcusable. It was a sobering reminder that editing, even if you're good at it, is really, really hard (and reliant on competency in all the other parts of filmmaking). I wondered if I should make the film about this struggle, and be more self-referential as the filmmaker (like in Winnebago Man!). But a film about a person talking to themselves in an edit bay would not be very entertaining, interesting or relatable to most audiences.
Was I experiencing some sort of struggle by proxy from spending so much time watching Rich recount his? It felt like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? where the project is bleeding into my real life, and my real psyche, and at any moment I could be sucked into the computer screen forever. Every aspect of this project from start to finish was resting on my shoulders. What if I failed at making this film? What if I failed at this MA program? This program that I turned my entire life upside down to pursue, and for which I felt like I basically put my career on the line? Because if I walked away from everything I had built in New York, and then gone to London and made a shit film, or perhaps no film at all, well, then, doesn't it prove that everything I had to begin with was the result of some horrible mistake? What if I were defined by failure?
Winnebago Man is about triumph. It's about locating someone who doesn't want to be located, and then forcing him to confront the fact that he's not all that misunderstood and actually people love him. My film was not going to be like Winnebago Man. The real struggle was coming from inside the house, not from my subject. As time was dwindling before my deadline, I wasn't confident that my film would ever see the light of day outside of the academic requirements I had to satisfy to complete my MA.
It turned out that solving this thing required shooting again. I dragged myself and all my gear back to Leeds one more time, about two weeks before the finished film was due. Dozens of editing hours later, and with heroic efforts from friends on the audio mix and color, I delivered my film. I'd love to tell you what grade I got on it, because that is how we measure success and human value in academia, but alas, I haven't gotten that metric yet. I can tell you that, despite all my fears and doubts, I decided that I put too much time, effort and painful hard work into it to just let it languish, and saw no harm in submitting it to festivals. As of now it's been accepted to two, including Leeds International Film Festival, so I guess it's not quite the atrocious failure I had feared.
An interesting takeaway from this experience is the realization that sometimes failure is subjective, and to that end, you really have no control over whether you "fail" or not. And worrying about it isn't productive. While I think I managed to save my film from being a complete mess, someone could still watch it and think … wow, this thing sucks. Even if you do everything "right," there's no pleasing everyone. So, as long as you feel like you exhausted all your options, all possible solutions, and you've done your best with what you have, well, then, that should be all that matters. Of course, that's easy to say in retrospect. But that's the blessing of a deadline: Time marches on, and there will come a moment when you have to be done with the project, whether you like it or not.
On that first phone call with Rich, he told me about how his father's battle with cancer and subsequent passing was a huge motivator in his drive to start a business, and to succeed. I didn't know that before we started talking. I told him that my father had actually just passed away, a month ago. I was doing all of this in a heavy fog of fresh grief. Maybe that's why we connected so well, and he gave me such easy access. Really, our shared, blooming anxiety was at least in part caused by our attempt to do the impossible—make our fathers proud. My film didn't turn out much like Winnebago Man—it isn't really about breaking through to another human being—but I think I managed to do that anyway.