In the wake of the release of my documentary, Programming the Nation?, in New York City, I’m constantly reminded of the age-old adage: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
Looking back now, I realize how true this is. Somehow, upon receiving my B.A. in film and literature from UC Santa Cruz in 2000, I managed to complete several original screenplays. After graduating, I spent the next two to three years feverishly re-writing those screenplays in a concerted effort to get a green-light through the Hollywood Dream Machine. Even after successfully advancing to the top five percent of the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition (sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures) and signing with a WGA agent (who lived in Atlanta, since none in L.A. were interested!), my desire of making a feature film still did not come any closer to fruition.
Of course, back then, I never really kept budgetary constraints in mind while writing. But, after getting very little traction trying to peddle what I realized were multi-million-dollar, character-driven stories, I finally decided to try something new. I decided to write a low-budget script—meaning one with minimal locations and characters and virtually no special effects. Worst case scenario, I thought I could produce and direct it myself with the help of a skeleton crew… And that was basically how the idea of Programming the Nation? came about—as an experimental script that took a mockumentary approach and incorporated a narrative storyline of the moviemaker himself. The storyline was based on the history of subliminal messaging in America, and a fictional government conspiracy upon which the director had apparently stumbled.
Admittedly, I was also heavily motivated by the events that transpired on 9/11, and the ways in which the mainstream media and the Bush administration were beating the drum for war with Iraq… even though there was no evidence of Iraq’s involvement with terrorism, nor were any weapons of mass destruction ever discovered upon their soil. This sounded a lot like government mind control to me, whether it was subliminal or not.
After spending over a year writing and researching the film, not only did I find the topic extremely fascinating, but it was a lot of fun creating dialogue for various authors and experts based on their actual books and essays on the subject. Once the script was finished, I immediately dove into pre-production, but found myself in a dilemma over whether to proceed with shooting based on the original script, or to change directions entirely and make it a traditional documentary, as numerous colleagues urged me to do (particularly considering that the subject matter seemed more than capable of standing on its own).
I concluded that this would all iron itself out and began contacting, arranging and conducting interviews, figuring it was better to move forward and shoot something than do nothing. Then I hit the obstacle known as financing. Financially, there was no way I could continue to travel and speak with experts on the subject on my own dime alone. So I took it upon myself to learn the business side of moviemaking, something I was unfamiliar with and never taught in film school. I formed an LLC, wrote a business plan and somehow successfully raised enough capital to keep production moving forward.
After about two years and more than 30 interviews with a variety of authors and experts including Wilson Bryan Key (Subliminal Seduction), Dr. Eldon Taylor (Mind Programming), William Poundstone (Big Secrets), Noam Chomsky (MIT Professor of Linguistics), Douglas Rushkoff (Media Virus!), Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!), Mark Mothersbaugh (musician from the band Devo/founder of Mutato Muzika), Geoff Tate (singer of Queensryche) and Dennis Kucinich (a U.S. Congressman of Ohio), I realized there was no way I could trivialize the issues and subject these people were so passionate about by inserting the narrative originally set out in the script. So we proceeded to re-write, edit, raise additional capital and spend more than four years in post-production, taking Programming the Nation? from mockumentary to documentary.
I guess it just goes to show that although you might not always know where a ship is headed when you set sail on a journey, if you hang on, enjoy the ride and navigate through stormy waters, eventually you’ll reach land and coast to shore. Where you end up might be a total surprise. MM
Programming the Nation? opens at the Quad Cinema in New York City on Friday, August 19th and in Los Angeles and San Francisco later in September. (Image via IFC)