(This is chapter 19 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I love Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground because it may be the most honest novel ever written. It begins as a madman’s rant — “two plus two equals five!” — but the madman soon reveals himself as a mere poseur, an ineffectual urban nobody, not a real madman at all but just a frustrated and lonely adult, confused about his past and starved for attention.
The “Underground Man” looks back at his own history and concludes that human beings must be essentially irrational, because he has tried to live a rational and honorable life, and his good intentions have been blocked at every turn. The climax of this beautiful and rambling narrative is the terrible tale of a dinner party with friends that turns into a disaster, followed by an attempt at a romantic encounter that ends in complete humiliation. Dostoevsky wrote Notes From Underground about himself, but when I read it in the mid-1990s I couldn’t help feeling echoes of my own life.
I guess it was Dostoevsky’s gift to make many readers feel this kind of personal connection. I got the idea to direct a modern-day Notes From Underground when I found out that Phil Zampino, a fellow computer programmer who’d performed at my Biblio’s web writers reading in February 1996, was also a Dostoevsky freak. So I said it as a lark: “Let’s make a movie of Notes From Underground. You can be the star and I’ll direct.”
It was just a wacky idea, nothing more. I did not realize I was beginning a project that would soon consume my life, that would misdirect my career and help to end my marriage, that would also turn into my biggest success so far. I just thought it was a fun idea. Hah.
I’d always been interested in video. Several years earlier I took a course in video production at a Greenwich Village school Film/Video Arts and directed a 5 minute comedy called Lucius, starring my friends Mary Saliba and Dan Wasserburg, about an over-eager filmmaker who wants to make a cinema verite film about a homeless guy and ends up causing his death.
I hadn’t done any video work recently, but became interested in an emerging video format called Quicktime after seeing a CD-Rom of the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night produced by a company called Voyager. I liked the sharp but soft tones produced by Quicktime compression, and I had an urge to experiment with this medium. My first idea when I conceived Notes From Underground was to try to sell the work to Voyager, a New York company that also produced CD-Roms by Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman. But I learned that Voyager, like many of the more experimental media/technology firms in New York, wasn’t doing too well financially, so I didn’t bother submitting the idea to them. I figured I’d just do it myself.
Phil and I met on 10th Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of west Midtown Manhattan to shoot walking scenes all over the neighborhood, up and down the sidewalk, inside candy shops, up to a dance studio on Broadway where he looked longingly in at the moving figures in the window (I was lucky to get that shot).
Phil and I communicated well and I didn’t have to “direct” him much on that first outing. My main instruction was “pretend I’m Martin Scorsese.” He gave me the performance I wanted, and I took it home to digitize on my Mac 7500. The scene came together after I added some music from Georges Enesco’s “Romanion Rhapsody”. I played it back and liked the way it worked. Now I was stuck: I would have to make the movie.
Our next session took us to Tompkins Square, the grungy park at the center of the East Village, so Phil could deliver the confessional speech that begins “I’m a sick man” by the chess tables near Avenue A. Phil and I had agreed to depict the Underground Man as an aging urban hipster in New York City, a typical unappreciated “artistic genius” who lives in the East Village, has a mundane day job, never gets married, never gets famous, collects a lot of books. Tompkins Square Park was the perfect place to film the opening monologue, because that description captures about half the people who live nearby.
I liked working with Phil because he was able to bring out the quiet and restrained side of Dostoevsky’s character. It’s all too easy for an actor to turn the Underground Man into a ranting, spitting lunatic. But I believed the Underground Man should be played as timid, unremarkable, a quiet face in the crowd. He’s one in a million: the near-bum on Bleecker Street with the blanket full of books, the old guy on the subway angrily reading “New Republic”, the businesswoman eating alone in a vegetarian restaurant hiding when she sees her friends. Phil agreed to underplay the role, to let the anger seethe. I was very happy with his work, and I don’t think Robert DeNiro could have done it any better.
We videotaped most of the solo scenes first, then tackled the group scenes. I recruited my friend Liza Sabater, another Dostoevsky fan and also a writer and sometime-actress, to play the lead female role, a prostitute. She was superb in the role. Liza was not involved in the Internet at this time, but I would run into her again years later after she created a popular blog called Culture Kitchen.
My brother-in-law Jeff Groth put on a suit and played the stranger who bumps into the Underground Man on the street during the book’s (and the movie’s) first extended comic scene.
Phil’s friend Will Perez played the foil — a servant in the book, here an incompetent office intern — for the later comic scenes. We shot the office scenes in the Pathfinder basement.
Several of my friends from Pathfinder agreed to play the snobby dinner party companions — Matt Urbania as “Steve”, Nathaniel Wice as “Freddy”, Mike Coble as “Robert”, John Satriale as “Zorko” — for the climactic scene, which we videotaped in the lobby of the swankiest hip hotel in New York City, the Royalton on 44th Street. I liked the swooping white chairs in this pristine lobby, and we had a great time videotaping and drinking (on me, of course) until we were kicked out. Luckily, I got all the footage I needed before my group got the boot.
Phil and I shot the final scene at Trinity Church on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. I guess I wanted to add a subtle religious touch to the film to correspond to Dostoevsky’s own religious purpose in writing this powerful book. I also wanted to end the movie with something other than total bleak hopelessness. The spires and gravestones of Trinity Church provided the resonance I needed.
We did a lot of our taping in the downtown financial district, where Phil lived, and I also shot some prescient footage of the World Trade Center for several of the voice-over scenes. One of the central motifs in the book is the image of a “Crystal Palace”, a grand edifice in a noble city (there was a real building known as the Crystal Palace in London at the time Dostoevsky wrote the book). I used the World Trade Center to represent the Crystal Palace in my New York version of the story. This was my original mockup for the CD-Rom cover:
“In the Crystal Palace suffering is unthinkable. Suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a Crystal Palace if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did say before that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes his suffering, and would not give it up for any satisfaction.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground