Chapter 21: My Movie

Levi Asher's Notes From Underground featured in Time Digital, 1999
(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 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.

9 Responses

  1. “…I was doing something I
    “…I was doing something I needed to do, and that was the only reason I was doing it.”
    I liked this chapter but the above doesn’t seem a clear explanation for doing the film.

  2. Warren, I think it’s a very
    Warren, I think it’s a very clear and complete explanation. You feel a need to do something and you act on it; why you feel the need is irrelevant.

    Levi, you may have mentioned somewhere (earlier?) where to get this film – I’d love to have a copy. I have books and stuff to trade – as well as cash.

  3. Thanks for comments
    Thanks for comments …

    Warren, I wrote a little more about my motivation and my feeling of connection to the story in an earlier chapter. I guess I was drawn to the idea that New York City in the 1990s had so much in common with St. Petersburg, Russia 150 years before. I was certainly commenting on the society I lived in, and I suppose I was satirizing my friends and co-workers and, most of all, myself.

    Dan, I have many copies of the CD-Rom but they don’t play well on today’s computers. Instead, I’m working on remastering a YouTube version from my original source video. As I mentioned earlier, I have put up the first section (about five minutes long) on YouTube, though I’m not happy with the transfer and plan to replace it with a better version soon. With that said, here’s a taste of it, and I will be putting up the other nine sections hopefully later this year.

    Notes From Underground: A Sick Man

  4. Warren: What Levi is saying
    Warren: What Levi is saying is that he needed to make the movie. And I don’t think he needs to offer an explanation. Many artists experience the need to make something, that constant itch to express and put thoughts and feelings into a cohesive piece of work. I’ve been known to stay up two days straight because I NEEDED to finish something. Not because I had any specific obligation from someone else — nothing along the lines of “Bob from Accounting needs those figures by the Thursday meeting” — but because there was some part of me that just wouldn’t shut up. Does that help clear things up?

  5. Damn!!! I thought that pic
    Damn!!! I thought that pic from time digital looked familiar
    I musta seen it in there, unless it’s deja vu all over again

  6. You sent me one of the cds
    You sent me one of the cds all those years ago, I watched it the other night it’s still enjoyed- So thank again
    Anonymous Bosch UK

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