One of my favorite documentaries is Winnebago Man. In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick synopsis: A filmmaker goes to great lengths to track down the reclusive Jack Rebny, a cantankerous old man only famous for showing a blooper roll of his mundane outbursts of rage that appear in the Caught in the process of creating an industrial film, Winnebago RV sales videos went viral several decades earlier in the VHS era. The film has it all – it’s amusing, it’s funny, it’s peppered with some of the most poetic vulgarity ever uttered. It’s tender and friendly. It underlines the absurdity of advertising and salesmanship. It revels in the challenge of making a film, but even more so in the challenge of breaking through to another person. I was in London to do an MA in Documentary Film which required me to produce a 20 minute short documentary for a June deadline and it was January. I wanted to make a movie like Winnebago Man. But where would I start? Where would I find a character and such a challenge in a place where I knew almost no one? Well, the internet of course.
I’ve browsed social media and googled a lot to find something that fits my needs. I tried to think of unorthodox subjects or hobbies that quirky participants would have. I’ve been trawling through YouTube rabbit holes on the subject of pigeon racing and dialect coaching. Both interesting, but worn out. A tweet just happened to pop up in my feed about “this bakery in Leeds that has an absolute ‘mare'” for something to do with illegal sprinkles. It already had hundreds of thousands of likes.
I was months late for this viral moment, so I had a lot of catching up to do. Essentially, a Leeds bakery called Get Baked was reported for having used “illegal” American sprinkles that contained a banned food coloring on their most popular biscuit and would therefore no longer be able to use them. The bakery’s owner made a huge stink about the inconvenience (predictably dubbed #Sprinklegate) for his large following on social media, creating an even bigger stink as the controversy was discussed and shared. It got big enough to be covered by global media and was one of the BBC’s most shared articles of the year. I had to figure out if the man championing the banned food coloring in his beloved rainbow sprinkles via vulgar (but eloquent) social media posts might be my Winnebago man.
I emailed the bakery and asked to be contacted by the owner. I received a response almost immediately and scheduled a zoom interview for the next day. And that’s how I met my subject, Rich Myers. Sitting up in a dark room, apparently in a sweat, with headphones on, he said, “What do you want to know?” in the shallowest, most disinterested affect to ever cross a video call. I tried to appear funny, legit and proactive and carried the interview in my overly bubbly advertising persona, hoping it wasn’t actually as boring as it seemed, there really was a story and I would be able to count on that one complete strangers not to ruin my life.
Rich told me how his previous attempts to run his Get Baked business had failed. He wanted that to be a key element of the film. The brand’s history has been confusing as it has morphed over the years, having originally started out as a company that basically just supplied store-bought snacks and desserts to stoner students. As the business thrived and grew in popularity, Rich’s next move was to enter the hot food market with a burger joint spin-off of Get Baked. It wasn’t long before the complexities of running this type of business proved too taxing and intense; he had bitten off more than he could chew (excuse the pun). The pressure caused Rich to develop horrible anxiety that led to panic attacks, so he left Get Baked, the store closed, and the whole thing faded from memory.
Great I thought. There’s some meat here. Some drama, some stakes. Business is taking off now, but it could be counting on the fickle nature of the viral buzz. I can work with that. But I also hitched my wagon with someone who admittedly suffered from anxiety, ADHD, and a tendency to make difficult things easy. Rich was open about his failures and seemed genuinely enjoying all the attention, making him somewhat anti-Jack Rebny. A blessing as in truth I had neither the time nor the means to hunt down an unwilling participant.
But in the months that followed, getting Rich’s time and attention proved difficult, as I had feared. Not because he was evasive, but because he’s a busy, in-demand person whose little business has taken off. When I had him, he was a cooperative participant and didn’t seem to mind my involvement in anything he did. But outside of the time we were physically together, some messages went unanswered and I feared the whole thing could fall apart at any moment if it only haunted me. Luckily he didn’t, at least not for long. I persevered and shot as much as I could in the weeks that followed, hoping it would be enough for the story I was trying to tell.
The cut is where things really meander. The hardest part about this film was making it alone. I found that as the only person who knew what I had shot (and therefore what was available for editing), I had no one to consult with on the best way to proceed when I got stuck . I was fortunate to have many friends who watched edits with me and made suggestions, but ultimately only I as a producer/director/DP/editor had the knowledge to solve the editing problems. Often the problems themselves were difficult to identify.
As I struggled lonely with the editing, I felt like a total cheater. I’ve been editing professionally for over a decade, so if I couldn’t edit my own film, well, I might as well hang it up. I could forgive mistakes and difficulties in shooting, preparing, directing, etc… after all, none of this is my forte. I’m an editor. I should be able to fix it in the post. Sitting there in what was supposed to be my element, running out of ideas and feeling utterly hopeless that I would ever find out what was wrong and how to fix it, felt inexcusable. It was a sobering reminder that even if you’re good at it, editing is really, really hard (and relies on proficiency in every other part of filmmaking). I wondered if I should make the film about that fight and be a more self-centered filmmaker (like Winnebago Man!). But a film about a person talking to themselves in an editing room wouldn’t be very entertaining, interesting, or relatable to most viewers.
Was I having some kind of proxy fight for spending so much time watching Rich tell his? It felt like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? where the project invades my real life and psyche and I could be sucked into the computer screen at any moment forever. Every aspect of this project rested on my shoulders from start to finish. What if I failed at this film? What if I fail this MA program? This program that turned my life upside down and felt like I was jeopardizing my career? Because if I walked away from everything I built in New York and then went to London and made a shitty movie, or maybe no movie at all, well, that doesn’t prove that everything I had to start with was the result of a terrible mistake? What if I was defined by failure?
Winnebago Man is about triumph. It’s about finding someone who doesn’t want to be found and then forcing them to face the fact that they aren’t so misunderstood and people actually love them. I didn’t want my film to be like Winnebago Man. The real fight came from inside the house, not from my subject. With my deadline tightening, I wasn’t sure my film would ever see the light of day, aside from the academic requirements I had to meet to complete my MA.
It turned out that resolving this matter required shooting again. I dragged myself and all my gear back to Leeds about two weeks before the final film was supposed to be ready. Dozens of hours of editing later and with heroic efforts from friends in audio mixing and color, I delivered my film. I would like to tell you what grade I got for this, because that’s how we measure success and human worth in science, but unfortunately I haven’t gotten that metric yet. I can tell you that despite all my fears and doubts, I’ve decided that I put too much time, effort and painful hard work into it just to let it languish and it wouldn’t hurt to submit it to festivals. So far it’s been accepted by two, including the Leeds International Film Festival, so I guess it’s not quite the horrific failure I feared.
An interesting takeaway from this experience is that failure is sometimes subjective and therefore you really have no control over whether you “fail” or not. And worrying about it isn’t productive. While I think I managed to keep my film from a complete mess, someone might still look at it and think…wow, that thing sucks. Even if you do everything “right,” you can’t please everyone. So as long as you feel like you’ve 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 with hindsight. But that’s the blessing of a deadline: time flies, and at some point you have to be done with the project, whether you like it or not.
On that first phone call with Rich, he told me how his father’s battle with cancer and subsequent death was a huge motivation in his drive to start a business and be successful. I didn’t know that before we started talking. I told him that my father had actually died only a month ago. I did all this in a dense fog of fresh sadness. Maybe that’s why we got along so well and he gave me such easy access. Really, our shared, burgeoning fear was caused, at least in part, by our attempt to do the impossible — to make our fathers proud. My film didn’t turn out like Winnebago Man – it’s not really about breaking through to another person – but I think I managed to do it anyway.