This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Adam Zais is VP of Business Development at Wistia.
Once upon a time, I was a filmmaker. This was back in the days when there actually was this stuff called “film” in the camera. You know, a plastic substance sensitive to light? Lots of time and messy, smelly chemicals required to actually see what you shot? Totally old school. And back then there were only seven colors, not counting black and white. Unless, of course, you had one of those really cool big boxes of Crayola crayons. Well anyway, that’s the truth, and if you don’t believe me you can look it up in your encyclopedia Britannica.
In high school, I got into filmmaking. Live action, clay animation (waaaay before claymation), “flipcard-style” human body animation, scratch-films (good for rock band lightshows, kinda trippy stuff), and so on. My oeuvre was a broad representation of styles.
In my senior year, I took Sociology as an elective. It being senior year, I was already halfway out the door and thought this would be a “gut”—slang of the times, meaning an easy class to get an “A” in and pad my GPA. But my high school had a graduation requirement for a “senior thesis,” too. My best friend and I hit on the idea of making a film (and an accompanying paper) that would do the double-duty of fulfilling the senior thesis and Sociology term paper requirements.
Piece of cake, right? Now all we had to do was come up with an idea that would require the least amount of work for us and be somehow related, however loosely, to Sociology. Whatever THAT was. Oh, you want to know what it is? Okay. Let’s go to the encyclopedia.
I can almost see your eyes glazing over, so I’ll spare you. Let’s just say that my buddy and I seemed to remember terms like “behavior” and “field research” and “social.” After all, this was SOCIAL-ology, right? We were (and still are) a couple of wise-asses and smart-alecks. It HAD to be funny. This still left the problem of what the heck was the film going to be about.
We used to love to watch a television show called Candid Camera. We thought it was hilarious. We got it into our heads that our film would be a presentation of field research into the question of what happens when you disrupt expected norms of social behavior in an everyday setting (I can hear you laughing already. I know who you are. I’m watching you).
Okay, I’ll admit it: we basically ripped off Candid Camera and did our best to pitch our idea in just those highly academic terms to the powers that be. Guess what? They bought it! (Wasn’t aware of it at the time, but that moment was a foreshadowing of my career in sales and marketing.)
Brimming with newfound confidence fueled by our idea passing muster with the school, we went to the local grocery store, the “everyday setting” for our “field research.” And what we were going to do to “disrupt expected norms of social behavior” was to do things completely unexpected while shopping for groceries.
We’d written a script that we thought was going to be a.) funny, and b.) only slightly uncomfortable. (Turns out that we’d underestimated the threshold of discomfort, but I digress and will get to that later.)
My friend and I met with the store manager to explain our idea. In hindsight, I suspect that we thought we were the Farrelly brothers (unknown to us, or anyone for that matter, at that time.) We gave him this fairly well-rehearsed line of academic-sounding B.S., sprinkled liberally with a bunch of filmmaking buzzwords and, lo and behold, he agreed! Off we went to start filming.
Our “rig” consisted of a Beaulieu 4008 ZMII Super 8 camera, a cassette tape recorder, and a mic. This was state-of-the-art, baby! (Chris Lavigne is eight shades of jealous, I’m sure.) We had decided not to use a tri- or mono-pod because we thought it would be too conspicuous. (Uh, so me toting around a five-pound deck and a ludicrously huge mic duct taped to my shirt was somehow inconspicuous? Honestly!)
We had scripted two main “scenes.” The first called for me to wheel my shopping cart down an aisle as if I were shopping, sidle up to another shopper’s cart, and either root around in their cart and take something out, placing it in my cart, or put something from my cart into theirs, and then push on down the aisle. We didn’t script my dialog because I was pretty good at ad-libbing.
The second scene called for me to don an official Daitch Shopwell (that was the store, you can look it up) white lab-coat-looking thing and stand by the produce scale, offering friendly assistance to unsuspecting shoppers, weighing their produce, and going into my improv thing, telling them things like “this is too heavy, you’ll need to get something lighter” and so on.
By now, dear reader, you’re probably on the edge of your seat dying to know how it went. Well, by the time the cops showed up and the red-faced store manager kicked us out in front of a somewhat sizable crowd—a mix of disgruntled shoppers and curious onlookers—we’d shot easily five or six 50-foot cartridges of film and filled up a fair amount of one side of the audio cassette. I suppose it could have been worse.
Why did this happen, you ask? Well, as it turned out, one of the unwitting participants in our little story thought I was trying to steal her pocketbook (I wasn’t, I swear!). I had stayed in character after stuffing a huge bag of potatoes into her cart while saying, if memory serves, “how do you like them potatoes?”, and continued along the aisle. Her cart had been kind of full, so I had to move a bunch of stuff as she stood there, looking quite dumbstruck. How was I supposed to know she thought I was making a play for her purse? She didn’t holler, “STOP, THIEF!” or anything. I just figured that we had gotten another brilliant shot.
We’ll Fix It In Post
Anyway, Pete and I finally talked our way out of the situation with the cops, went to the post office to send off the film to be developed (yes folks, this is how it once was) and headed home. A week or so later, we got our film back and headed into the studio, my basement. We started reviewing the raw footage on my manual, reel-to-reel, all-in-one editor and splicing device.
Only at this point did we realize the flaw in the plan. How the heck were we going to align the audio with the film? Holy sh*t! Now we had twice the work to do. Fast forward, voila!, we finally had the final cut. But wait! We still had to write a 15-page paper. We were looking less and less like the Farrelly Bros. and more like Dumb & Dumber. We ended up roping another buddy of ours into the project and all was well.
Suffice to say, we crushed it. The print has been lost, but my memory of the first (of many) showings of the film is as clear as if it were yesterday. Louis C. K. couldn’t have gotten more laughs out of an audience. We were the toast of the town. We were nominated for an Academy Award. (No, not really.) We couldn’t have imagined a better reception. We decided that as filmmakers this was to be both our greatest achievement and our swan song. We never made another film again - unless you count the miles of video of our kids. Which you shouldn’t.
Oh, one more thing. Yup, we got an A+.