(This is chapter 21 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
And then, every once in a while ... you try something different and it works out just fine.
When I started my "Notes From Underground" movie project I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was just working something out for myself, getting a few things out of my system. By staging the movements of Fyodor Dostoevsky's sad-sack aging hipster through the worst night of his life in intricate detail, and reliving these scenes over and over and over and over and over and over and over again as I edited the thing to the last microframe of its life, I was doing something I needed to do, and that was the only reason I was doing it.
But when it was done, almost miraculously, I had made a good movie. I knew it was good because I saw it in people's faces when they watched it. I could tell that they related to the story, and to the main character, as much as I did.
So this is the wonderful lesson I learned: sometimes it's only by creating something truly private and personal that you can be understood by others.
Notes From Underground wasn't any kind of financial or breakout success -- in fact I lost a couple thousand dollars giving away 750 copies to celebrate the release in August 1998. I hired a publicist -- I was going big-time now -- to issue a press release inviting people to sign up for a free copy at litkicks.com. After about 36 hours I had 750 addresses. I then spent the next three weekends running a "stuff, seal and stamp" assembly line in the family living room with Elizabeth, Daniel and Abigail to get the copies out.
Years later, internet culture pundits would get big book deals to write about "free" as the new business model. I didn't bother writing about it; I just did it. The reason I gave away 750 copies is that I had ordered 2000 copies, and I didn't want them cluttering up my apartment. I also had a near-religious urge to "spread the word", Gideon-style, though I'm not exactly sure what Dostoevsky's word (or mine) was with this quirky work.
The press release and giveaway program worked: I got good press. The film was praised in WIRED Magazine, the Village Voice and New York Press (which compared my work to the early Ramones, about the best praise a guy from Forest Hills, Queens ever needs to hear).
Strangely, two Time Inc. magazines covered the movie. Entertainment Weekly did a nice little box about it, illustrated with a photo of Phil Zampino as the Underground Man, crouched under a desk while delivering a tirade. I taped this article up on the door of my office in the Time-Life Building.
As far as I know, my connections at Time Inc. had nothing to do with Entertainment Weekly or, later, Time Digital, writing about Notes From Underground. The coverage won me some much-needed bragging rights in the tech department, though many of my co-workers probably wondered how I'd had the time to make a movie when I was supposedly working hard at the job.
Even though I knew Notes From Underground had turned out well, I didn't want to follow it with another video project. Filmmaking turned out to be about twenty times harder than I'd expected. If I'd known it would take two years to complete the movie, I would have never started it. Notes From Underground convinced me that building websites wasn't so bad after all.
Also, there was no other movie I wanted to make at that moment. Notes From Underground was my movie, and it said what I wanted to say. Now I could get on with my life.