These tri-state economic stories are a bit of a specialty for you - why did you choose unemployment as a focus this time?
We've done a few films on the human face of the economic crisis, and some of the history, too, with 'Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags' and the Triangle Fire story. In a way, you could say these are the children and grandchildren of many of the characters you saw in Schmatta. This Great Recession, you hear all the statistics, you read the articles, and yet you kind of lose perspective on the human story. Levittown after World War II became the metaphor for the new suburban dream, so why not look around there at some of the fallout of this Great Recession, at people who'd really had good lives and now are beginning to question the whole future of the social contract and the American Dream?
Was there a moment that this story crystallized for you?
There were two things. We were pre-interviewing people, and this character Alan Fromm listed a litany of near-catastrophes in his life that he had survived. I asked him about unemployment, and he said, "Oh, being out of work for a year isn't that big of a deal. I've been through much worse." That was a starting point in our whole journey. Here's a guy who's survived everything - including the collapse of the World Trade Center - and then he's thinking of ending his own life and whether his insurance policy would cover his family. You realize what a toll this takes on an individual, even though sometimes it's hard to see at first. The other thing was the isolation of these characters. We found out that a number of these support groups and networking groups meet in diners because no one goes to the unemployment office anymore; it's all done over the internet. So these unique Long Island diners, with their classic oldies playing from the 60s and 70s, reminding everybody of the good times, became a motif and a nexus point for us.
Of all the millions of unemployed people out there, how did you end up with this particular group?
A lot of people talked to us, but I have to be honest with you, when we wanted to turn the camera on, a lot of them weren't comfortable going public with their stories. So first it was getting people to go on camera, and then we wanted to focus on mid-island around Levittown. There also seemed to be more of a support network out on Long Island than in Jersey or Westchester, so we were able to connect with more people there who were likely to cooperate.
I think this film is a unique snapshot of a time that's a bit of a tipping point.
Why do you think people were so reticent to speak with you?
What's really amazing is how many victims of this economic crisis - which was totally out of their control - have internalized this message our society seems to send that, "Hey, you're a loser. This is your fault. You're not good enough to make the grade." It's incredible how much that becomes a part of their psychology, and then the shame and the guilt. After the premiere, some people in the audience got up and said, "I've never told this story before, but my sister has been living in our basement the last seven months because she's out of work," or "Our uncle is in the attic, and we're collecting his disability to help us pay the mortgage." It almost became a confessional.
How did it feel while you were shooting, to be facing this daily reminder or how fragile our footing really is?
It is scary. There's no doubt about it. You think you're lucky to have a job, a house - to not have to worry how you're going to pay for lunch or dinner. It certainly makes you appreciative of what so many of us take for granted. In a way, it was like witnessing people being disappeared. It's not like a hurricane or an earthquake, where it all just happens in a moment, and people's worlds are turned upside down. This is surreal in a way. The homes still look beautiful, the houses and neighborhoods, but then you go inside and you see what's happening to the psyches and identities of these people. And they really did seem to be just disappearing.
Like you said earlier, this film is really about the American Dream - has that changed forever?
I think that's the question this film forces all of us to ask. We've had recessions before and a boom-bust cycle. But I think this film is a unique snapshot of a time that's a bit of a tipping point, where all of a sudden that question has a weight and a poignancy. The American dream has been: If you work hard and you're responsible and you're a good citizen, then you can have a good, stable life - and give your kids a shot at a better life. But sadly, I think we're questioning that, and the evidence is lives like the ones you see in this film. What has changed in the social contract? What has changed in the global economy? We see this isn't just a Long Island story - it isn't even just an American story. Look at Europe, look at Japan. As we enter the 21st century, there's a paradigm shift going on in terms of how the economy and technology and capitalism work. And we haven't really come up with the new paradigm that guarantees that we'll have what you would call a middle class. That question lingers: Is this the end of the American Dream? I sure hope not, but there's no doubt that it's the challenge for this next generation coming up to reignite it.
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