In honor of Labor Day, which goes down Monday, Sept. 3, I’d like to start off with a bit of heresy: the 1999 movie Office Space, directed by Mike Judge and starring Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston and Gary Cole, which has since passed into our pop culture world as a kind of classic touchstone that sums up all of our pent-up insecurities and hates about the state of labor in America in wonderful, endlessly quotable glory, actually kind of sucked.
Sure, the movie was funny, and had some good acting, and I still to this day laugh over that scene where the guys beat the guts out of that printer in the field, but the movie ended up rejecting its own premise. It starts of with Peter declaring that he wanted to live in a world without work and just “do nothing.” That was it. No more work for him. It was, in the last days of the 20th century, the ultimate rebellion against society. But then the movie ended with him exchanging his white color computer screen for a blue collar shovel, apparently finding happiness in manual labor that had eluded him in software development.
“The cynicism of multimillionaires like Mike Judge and Jennifer Aniston telling us to find happiness with a shovel is monstrous,” English professor Curtis White wrote in his 2007 book The Spirit of Disobedience. “All of the trust generated early in the film through damning depictions of work go spiraling away in disgust. The only answer the film provides to its big question, ‘What should we do about alienation in work?’ is ‘Nothing–give up; find a way to conform.’”
Of course, Office Space isn’t the only movie that ever addressed the problems of labor in society. Two years ago, the comedy Get a Job, a very local examination of work and conformity that was written, produced and directed by Baldwin High graduate Brian Kohne and starred Willie K, Eric Gilliom and Kathy Collins, premiered on Maui. In the film, Merton (Gilliom) is a slacker who finds he must conform to society’s mandate that he work, so ends up getting help from a job counselor (Willie K).
Since then the movie has played on other Hawaiian islands as well as various Mainland film festivals, where it’s won award after award (click here to watch a trailer for the film). In response to audience feedback, Kohne has also made a few edits to the film and ended up cutting a few minutes from its running time. The resulting film will play again this Friday, Aug. 31, at the Iao Theater in Wailuku before proceeding to proper distribution and, eventually, cable and DVD release.
On Aug. 23, I sat down with Kohne at Wailuku Coffee Company to talk about labor, the movie and just how much work it took to get the film produced.
MAUITIME: Thanks for sitting down with me. So what’s it like working as an independent filmmaker?
BRIAN KOHNE: As an independent filmmaker, I have great freedom. I have the freedom to determine which 20 hours of the day I would work. Get a Job took a solid year of writing. I isolated myself in Kula and just banged away.
MT: How long have you been working on the film?
BK: It’ll be four years come November.
MT: Why so long?
BK: In film school they teach you to make a movie three times. You write it, produce it and edit it. But in today’s times, an independent auteur makes it four times. Marketing is equally important and integral to each and every process and it’s as time-consuming as any of the other processes.
MT: Please describe how all this works.
BK: When you’re writing, you work in isolation. But when you move into production you’re now working with hundreds and hundreds of personalities, in addition to the fictional characters. Then when you start editing, you go back into isolation.
MT: Wait–you edited this movie yourself? Isn’t that unusual? Isn’t the whole point of hiring an editor to bring in an outside set of eyes to bring a fresh perspective to the film?
BK: It is unusual, and I’d advise against it. But our budget meant I had to take that on. Also, editors can be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean they can convey what needs to be said. This humor is very unique–I’ve worked on it for seven years. Local humor is typically very local.
MT: In other words, what’s funny to us here in Hawaii isn’t necessarily funny to people elsewhere.
BK: Right. Eric, Willie and I have been working on these comedic principles for the past seven years. Kathy Collins as well played a big role. [But] as an editor, I was able to find and showcase what was funny about our material. Could somebody have done better? Probably, but I knew I did my best. My goal though is to have an editor.
MT: I was taught that comedic writing–making someone laugh–is the toughest writing out there. If you can do that, then you’re the best.
BK: For me, that’s been easy, but everything else I’ve had to do was hard.
MT: Why tell this particular story in Get a Job?
BK: The characters and dynamics are the result of the Barefoot Natives collaboration. As for the story, I was on the Mainland, wondering if I should come home. This was four years ago. The workforce on the Mainland was crumbling. I applied for a lot of jobs over there, and wasn’t even getting a nibble. I reasoned that it would be easier to make a feature film called Get a Job than it would be to actually find a job. It’s probably true.
I struggle to tell people what my film is about, but that whole process of finding a job–filling out applications, interviewing, having to sell yourself–is humiliating. I feel for those people. It comes through in Willie K’s character. Now Merton has never worked, but he goes from boy to man in one week while trying to find a job. And he comes to a very profound conclusion.
MT: So how would you characterize the comedy in Get a Job?
BK: You know, the English view screwball comedy as an intellectual pursuit. So I’m happy having what’s been called a “ dumb comedy” that has more under its hood than people give it credit for. People like this film more the second and third times that they watch it.
MT: Why is that?
BK: Comedy is rhythm. We cut stuff out. Up until now, the first draft had elements that were jarring. I think I addressed them. The pace, too: the movie moves so fast that people miss stuff. It’s a tightly woven story, and the first time you see it you’re not aware of the set-ups. This movie gyrates in the realm of the ridiculous and the fantastic. It’s also a farce, which requires a big cast and many locations–the complete opposite of the budget I had.
We pulled it off, but we got lucky. Close to 300 people appear in the film in 35 locations.
MT: What was the budget?
BK: Two hundred thousand.
MT: That’s it?! So what’s it really about then?
BK: Get a Job is a step in the direction of a self-sustaining film industry in Hawaii where we can tell our own stories. I consider it Hawaii’s first major motion picture comedy.
MT: Earlier, you mentioned that the fourth part of your job was marketing. What was that about?
BK: Marketing is a skill-set most indies don’t have. I would love to have spent the last 18 months making my next movie, but I couldn’t because I want to maximize the potential reach of this film. We’re fighting against the perception that local movies suck. Taking this screenplay to the end requires isolation and getting kicked in the balls.
MT: Sounds wonderful. Have you always wanted to do this for a living?
BK: Yes. When I was at Baldwin High I made Super 8 movies. In college I worked in sports journalism. I’ve worked in television, film; I was a music producer [of the Barefoot Natives, which includes Willie K and Eric Gilliom]. I’ve done sales and marketing in Silicon Valley. They were all important. I hate working in a cubicle. But because of the depth of my experience, I’m able to do all four elements of the film.
I’m very passionate about home and culture. I want people who’ve learned these skills to come home and live here. Movies are the most powerful art form invented by man.
And the indigenous movie industry here needs help. The way people can help is by supporting local filmmaking–even when the movie sucks. By doing so, you’re helping us turn the corner and become better producers, better writers.
MT: What’s your next movie?
BK: It’s called Brother’s Kuleana. It’s a thriller set in 1976. It’s heavy, but still a comedy–I can’t help myself. I’ve worked on it for seven years, but I’m not going into production until it’s smoking.
GET A JOB : THE MOVIE
Screens at Iao Theater (68 N. Market St., Wailuku) on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2, 7, 8.