No Jobs, but a Wealth of Time, Creativity and Now a Film
By SUSAN DOMINUS
Published: March 15, 2009
When Kirsten Major and three friends decided they were going to go ahead and make a short film she had written, she asked if they thought they might all be able to find some time to shoot in the next few days, even though that would mean taking time out of the workweek. The four collaborators looked at one another at the coffee shop and realized that, yes, as a matter of fact, they were all free the very next day, and every day after that for the foreseeable future.
Whatever problems unemployment may create, scheduling conflicts are not among them. Adam Lehman, a 27-year-old executive assistant who lately cannot even find temp jobs, was pretty sure he could squeeze in a meeting whenever it was convenient for everyone else, even if it cut into the time he and his roommate (also newly unemployed) were spending perfecting the moves to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” dance. Josh Koll, who is also 27 and had been laid off from a lighting design firm a few months earlier, knew his regular Bravo reality television regimen could wait. Ms. Major, 42, whose previous day jobs had been with nonprofit organizations, and who had been looking for work for months, could give herself permission to take time off from the musical she was writing on spec.
The problem they had all expected, at first, was working around the schedule of Joshua Helmin, a 26-year-old assistant managing editor at Parents magazine, whom Ms. Major hoped would star opposite Mr. Lehman in the 15-minute romantic film, “Jonathan, Just Because.” But then Mr. Helmin lost his job to cutbacks, too. “When we found out, we were all like, ‘Awwwww,’ ” Mr. Lehman recalled last week as he sat with cast and crew at the coffee shop in Hell’s Kitchen where they frequently meet. “Then we were like, ‘Yaaaay!’ ”
The four friends take comfort in numbers, even as they watch certain numbers go down — how many weeks left of severance pay; how much in the savings accounts. But they take even greater comfort in getting one another out of their respective apartments, where each had been napping, despairing or hip-hop dancing in increasingly significant expanses of time.
Ms. Major had always wanted to write a film, and had always wanted Mr. Koll, who has some experience as a freelance videographer, to direct it. But it was not until she was seriously unemployed that she had the creative space to write the script, and the nerve to make it happen. “I would not have done this unless I’d lost everything,” she said.
CALLING themselves the W.P.A. Players, they worked on a budget of exactly zero dollars and zero cents. Yet from nothing came something: They lighted one scene with a floor lamp from Ikea, persuaded a cafe manager in the East Village to let them shoot there free — it’s not like there was much business there these days, anyway — and took advantage of the city’s familiar glory for sets. Shooting the skyline from the Brooklyn promenade, Mr. Helmin said, “made me realize how lucky we are to be in New York City. I mean, ‘Gossip Girl’ used that shot several weeks in a row, and now it is ours.”
Granted, that is probably not the reference that most of us have in mind when a glimpse of the skyline triggers strong emotions, but his point speaks to something enduring about the city: Even unemployment can feel burnished by the setting. To be an out-of-work artist in New York is to be part of a grand tradition, and that history no doubt helps fuel aspirants like Ms. Major and her friends, who might otherwise succumb to fear of failure.
Some of the artwork that will come out of all this free time for creative types is probably painfully bad, and some may be masterpieces that the world would otherwise never have seen, but all of it will do something for the people who make it. “Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, the major prize of this film is that we did it and now we know we can,” said Mr. Koll. “Unemployment gave that to me.”
There are also practical advantages that come with being unemployed in the media capital of the country — everyone knows something about how to promote themselves or knows someone who knows someone, which is how the four friends got Therapy, a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen, to sponsor a premiere of the film, scheduled for Sunday; persuaded a representative from the Logo cable channel to attend the premiere; and convinced a popular Web site, towleroad.com, to carry the film.
The plot, Ms. Major said, is simple: two men who take a chance on each other. The inspiration is pretty straightforward. “Both characters are heartbroken,” she said. “They have no money, they don’t have a lot to give. Everyone’s a little desperate.”
“And in the end,” added Mr. Helmin, “it all works out.”