Sunday, March 14, 2010

Roundtable Pictures Takes A Look At The Workplace

By Lars Trodson

There is an essay in today's New York Times Book Review called "Take This Job and Write It" and it focuses on why writers tend to avoid the workplace as a subject. "In normal times," writes Jennifer Schuessler, "(writers) tap away at their 'offices' at Starbucks, thanking their lucky stars for the book contracts that allowed them to give up their day jobs. But in recent months a cry has gone out for fiction writers to get up from behind their laptops and get back to work, real work -- or at least to start writing about it again."

Two years ago, when the economy got the shakes, Mike Gillis and I did just that. We placed our focus on the workplace and created a little film called "Elevation." We worked on this for months, from a script I wrote, and honed it with the actors Lisa Stathoplos and Gregg Trzakowski. We shot it in one day in an office in downtown Portsmouth. 

This was a film not only topical -- that is, an examination of how downsizing a workforce affected those people who are able to keep their jobs -- but also an examination of the Kubrickian notion that our lives were being taken over by machines. We took that idea one step further, and brought up the idea that we, as people, were indeed becoming soulless. Do we have to lose our souls in order to stay alive in today's workplace? In "Elevation" we were saying that we didn't need to worry about the machines replacing us, we were doing a good enough job killing off one another all alone. 

Anyone who has a regular job today knows that in order to survive you need to negotiate a daily minefield of mind-numbing ego, contradictory goals and co-workers who would love to see you make a mistake. It seems like surviving is the number one goal, and surviving often -- too often -- means that you sometimes need your co-worker, who may be your friend, to fail. What does that do to one's soul?

So when we made "Elevation" we made the conscious decision -- one that few if any people noticed -- to borrow the color scheme of the opening titles of Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." This was to underscore the notion that a "clockwork orange" is evolving inside all of us. The font that Mike picked for the titles is called "robot." That's what the film is trying to say.

"Elevation" begins with the clickety-clack of the machinery of the factory where the two main characters work. A middle aged factory foreman, Scott, has been called into his boss's office for a little chat. He thinks he's about to be canned, but the conversation takes a surprising turn. Nothing is either simple or terribly warm in this little movie. The character of Natalie, played by Lisa, is as cold a human being as you would ever want to meet, but perhaps, unfortunately, you have. She's harrowing, but in the end you must decide who is worse, and you will also ask what you would do under the same circumstances.

We tried out little things. The Chinese characters that are framed on the walls behind them spell out "master" and "servant", but the appellation could apply to either character at different times. In the Schuessler essay, she writes that "As our hard times grind on, more notebook clutching novelists may in fact begin returning to the office or factory floor, if only to find that the workers are speaking Chinese." On the white board we put the words "do not erase" above Scott's head, as though this applied to him, but I don't think you can see that in the final cut.

This isn't "Employee Of The Month" with Jessica Simpson. This is our take on the dark side of working, which may seem uncomfortable to many.

Do you see yourself here?