By Jacob Kornbluth
My first documentary, Inequality For All, opens theatrically on September 27 in the top 25 markets. This is an extraordinary release for a doc, and I couldn’t be any more proud of the film.
As I go from film fest to film fest, people ask me all the time – when did you get the idea for the film? The strange but true answer is this: I got the idea for the film when I gave up on the film industry.
A little background. It is 2007, and I had made two narrative independent films. They had both premiered at Sundance, and both of them had been picked up for distribution.
Haiku Tunnel was my first film – a quirky office comedy about a temp (my brother) who starts uncontrollably fucking up when he goes “perm”. After getting picked up by Sony Classics, it premiered on September 11th, 2001. Yes, you read that release date right. My friends have since then helpfully informed me that that particular week was the worst week for box office since Pearl Harbor got attacked.
Perhaps it was the tragic release date, or maybe it was something about my personality. Whatever the reason, the opportunities to work in comedy just weren’t there. No one was listening. Instead of pursuing comedy directing gigs I wasn’t going to get, I decided to write a drama, The Best Thief in the World. This starred Mary Louise Parker and Showtime produced it. It was a semi-autobiographical story about a kid who breaks into other people’s apartments in the building he lives in in Washington Heights. I love the film, but as my (endlessly supportive and witty!) friends told me about this one, it was the kind of film everyone respects and no one goes to see in a theater.
So there I was: In my 30’s, having made a comedy and a drama, neither of which had made any money. I was told that the industry needed some idea of who I was – was I a comedy director? Did I direct drama? Could I do anything marketable? Without being able to answer that question, I was unemployable. I felt like I had spent 10 years working – and having some success at it – only to find that I was nowhere. I couldn’t even get a meeting with an agent.
It’s impossible to understate the drama of all this… I had a career that I had worked my ass off to get into, I felt like I had some success, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make a living. It was driving me crazy. I resolved that I was going to make a living at this filmmaking thing no matter what. I didn’t have any other job skills, after all. I had given my life to this. It had to work.
I went on countless meetings; the meetings gave purpose to my otherwise empty days, so I’d meet with anyone. I sipped lots of sparkling water in waiting rooms, and valet parked my car at lots of offices. This was the first part of a cycle, and the second part of that cycle was lots of unreturned calls, lots of people who were always too busy to meet me. It’s amazing how busy people in the film industry are when you aren’t important to them. On the bright side, I developed a “go-to” for my over-priced Hollywood lunch order – chicken Caesar salad and an Arnold Palmer (I recommend Arnold Palmers highly for work meetings. Quite refreshing from the lemonade, and the iced tea has just enough caffeine to perk you up, and they usually have free refills…) I pitched and I pitched. Comedy ideas, drama ideas, dramedy ideas… they all failed. I just had this feeling that no matter where I went, someone was in a better position for the job. I didn’t work for over a year. I broke up with my girlfriend. My money ran out. Maybe, I thought, I needed to read the writing on the wall and move on.
The horrible thing was this, not only couldn’t I get a job… I started to get depressed about what success would look like if I actually did get a gig. I mean, what if I was actually successful at making things I didn’t believe in? Would that suck worse than this?
Well… truthfully, the depression of being rich and not doing what you want would probably be better than the depression of being broke and unemployed. I’m no idiot. But neither seemed that great.
Then, one day, I just snapped. I decided I had to get out of LA. Immediately. I put everything in my car and drove it up to the San Francisco area, where my brother Josh lived (the one I made Haiku Tunnel with). I got a Craig’s List apartment, and walked around for a week. I think of this now as my “detox” from LA.
A strange thing happened. The best way I can describe it is that things started to feel “real”. My Craig’s List roommate was an elementary school teacher. She liked to drink beer, eat pizza, and hike. She had a great laugh. To hear her talk about plants and the kids she taught made me melt. I fell for her instantly. I decided I was going to make a life for myself in Northern California, career be damned. Her friends were teachers, engineers, and worked at non-profits. No one knew anything about film. In one way I felt like a failure, since I had totally bailed out on film. I couldn’t escape it, though – I had never been happier.
My roommate and her friends were worried about real things – politics, the economy, their jobs. As it turned out, so was I… how were we going to make a living? The market crashed in 2008, and I became frustrated that there didn’t seem to be any large ‘narrative’ about what was happening in America. Why did we seem to be struggling more than our folks? Was this real or our imagination?
Over time, I realized that this was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the story of our economy and what’s happened to the middle class. This is the point in the story that’s so hard communicate in this recounting… if I had problems figuring out how to get anyone to fund my work in narrative films, can you imagine the pitch about “I’d like to tell the story of the economy?” I felt as though I had been stripped down to nothing, and from nothing a genuine idea came forth.
My brother Josh and I were exploring casting a role in a film called Love and Taxes that we were trying to put together, and Robert Reich’s name came up. I knew him from being Secretary of Labor under Clinton and being a pundit on TV. When we met, I connected with him immediately. He was brilliant, warm, and funny. We started talking, and it turned out he was looking for ways to get his message out to young people. Reich and I quickly started making little videos and putting them online. I got lots of e-mails from people saying some version of “thank you”. No one had ever done that for the fiction work I had done. It was surprisingly gratifying. I wanted to do it more.
So I started thinking about how to make a film, with him, about the economy. I had never made a doc, they were notoriously hard to fund, and if there was any infrastructure in the Bay Area, I had no idea how to find it. It was an impossible challenge, and I had never been happier.
END OF PART 1. READ PART 2.
Jacob Kornbluth is an award winning writer and director of feature films, television, and theater. His latest film, Inequality For All, won the Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be released by The Weinstein Company / Radius-TWC on September 27 in theaters nationwide.