Andy Gray: I’m talking today to Erik Proulx, who is an independent filmmaker, a former creative professional, and a current creative professional, exploring a bunch of interesting things including expressing himself and bringing life to some interesting issues through film. Erik, welcome to A Congruent Life!
Erik Proulx: Thank you very much for having me.
Andy: Absolutely. I’m glad that we are able to connect in this way. We had a fantastic connection in Fargo, of all places, over the last couple of weeks.
Erik: Right—of all places.
Andy: Fargo, North Dakota—who would have thought that out paths would cross there, but it sounds like maybe our paths have actually crossed in other ways, so that’s actually pretty cool.
I’ve got to say that one of the highlights for Misfit Con, which was—I don’t know if you call it a conference—the event that we were mutually attending there in Fargo. One of the highlights of that event, for both my partner Maisie and I, was actually watching your film called Lemonade: Detroit. It wasn’t so much the film as the way that you introduced that film with so much, let’s say, soul and profound insight. It wasn’t like this big analytical metaphor. It was just this time that you shared your journey and your approach to the film with our audience. So I’ve just to say atop, thanks for sharing yourself with us and with the audience in that way and for sharing that film with us.
Erik: You’re very welcome.
Andy: So let’s just start, Erik: can you give us a quick introduction to who you are and what you’re up to?
Erik: Who I am . . .
Andy: [laughs] “Who I am” doesn’t have to be too difficult of a question—but whatever you want to share.
Erik: [laughs] That’s I think we started to get into that before you started rolling—what I am and what I’ve done are two very different things. They’ve actually been topics of discussion, privately and publicly. Separating the “who you are” from what you do has been an important part of my work, my thought process, my journey, and my filmmaking.
But what I do, a long way to answering your question, is I’m a filmmaker now. Prior to this, for 15 years or so, I was an advertising creative. I worked for different agencies around the country as a writer, a socio-creative director, a creative director, coming up with ideas for clients, and getting in line on TV and commercials, billboards, print ads, web ads, radio ads, or whatever. I was the maker of the words and the generator of the ideas behind them for most of my career.
Then, in 2008, like so many other people in 2008, I lost my job and decided to do something else with my life and took all the creative passion I have for coming up with ideas and connecting with an audience. I tried doing it in a longer format so I made a documentary film, not ironically and not coincidentally, about advertising professionals who got laid off and reinvented themselves, and that film was called Lemonade.
Since then, I got the bug. I got the bug in terms of the pure form of storytelling—and that is documentaries—and have made a second documentary called Lemonade: Detroit, which I shared in Fargo; and then, a third feature-like documentary called 365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley, which is about everything that happened in Pennsylvania, at Penn State, after the Jerry Sandusky, for lack of a better word, “scandal” and how a community responded and how there are people who did and did not move on, or who did and did not forgive, a whole multitude of people, including Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno and the Board of Trustees at Penn State. We make it parallel to the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. It’s a really hard movie to summarize in a sentence or two, but it’s something I’m really proud of.
Andy: Well, there’s a lot of stuff we can dig into in what you’ve just said. I think your introductory comment about separating who you are from what you do is precisely the reason that I wanted to talk to you today and share your story on the show. We put so much energy into defining who we are and how that shows up in the world, but the experience that you described in 2008, where all of a sudden you lost your job—I imagine that was somewhat unexpected and probably had a big blow to your sense of identity, particularly professional identity, but I imagine personally as well.
Erik: Yes, I spent a lot of energy and money becoming a copywriter in advertising, being able to call myself an “ad guy,” being able to call myself, “My name is Erik and I’m a copywriter.” I went to ad school. I went to a university in New Hampshire, graduated in 1993—many years ago, I guess, now at this point. But, after that, without really having a clear sense of what I wanted to do with my English degree, I saw a commercial on TV that really connected with me. It was for the United Way, and it was this really beautifully-produced, beautifully-written, profound, heartstring-pulling commercial that hit me over the head like a ton of bricks saying, “Somebody had to write this,” and all at once, I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do for a living.”
So I investigated. I had started taking some classes, and eventually, went to a full-time advertising program in Atlanta called “The Creative Circus.” It was from there that I developed my career as an ad guy, as a Don-Draper type person, without all the money, women, and booze, [laughs]. But I use that example because that’s the clearest definition of what I did for a living, which was to come up with ideas for ads and some of the clients, and go on TV productions for commercial shoots. So, for many years, almost 15, that was my identity. I am Erik and I am an ad guy. I am Erik and I’m a copywriter.
“I am Erik and I am a copywriter” became one and the same. It wasn’t until I lost my job in 2008 that I saw separation between the two, that all of a sudden, today, after I lost my job, I’m not a copywriter anymore, only Erik. I still write ads; I still freelancing—but I’m Erik, and what does that mean?
I would say, since then, it’s been a discovery, a constant discovery of re-identifying myself with just me, and not attaching it so deeply and personally with my job title, because the job title can change. Who you are can evolve, but you’re still Andy Gray; I’m still Erik Proulx. Despite what your business card says you are, you still have something that defines you, but it can only come from you and not from what you do, if that makes any sense.
Andy: Yes, that does make good sense, thanks. So, you have this experience of many of years, just finding yourself—Erik the Copywriter, Erik the Ad Guy—and then all of a sudden, that comes to a screeching halt.
Andy: You lost your job. Your world is upturned. What’s next? How did you connect the dots between this potential loss of identity, or at least the loss of the identity that you had known, and this project of building a movie to tell those stories?
Erik: A little history before 2008—having spent 15 years in the business of advertising, it’s very cyclical. Agencies win business, and they staff up. They lose business and they shed. It just happens. It’s just almost expected, and many people getting laid off is not uncommon. This was actually the third time over my career that I got laid off. The previous two times, I got right back in the job pool. I was talented enough where I wasn’t unemployed for very long. I had to relocate cities to get my next job, but I did land on my feet. It wasn’t very long before I was working again.
The 2008 was a little different. I asked myself if I wanted to get back into it, which was a first big question, the first big difference compared to previous layoffs. Do I want to do this again? The second was that even if I did want to, nobody was hiring. It was the great recession. Ad] budgets across the industry had been slashed. Clients were not spending money on advertising anymore. It’s this sort of perfect storm of, “Okay, do I want this? Do they want me? Does the industry want me back?
And for those people who are in the industry and do still see and feel the value in creating communications for clients, what can I offer them having gone through this? I have this sort of wily veteran’s layoff knowledge, having gone through it a couple of times already that I could pass on. So I started blogging. I wrote a blog called Please Feed the Animals that was a blog for the recently unemployed advertising professional. That was sort of the tagline underneath the title.
What I really just wrote about at first was, “Okay, you’ve been laid off, so here’s what you do. Here’s a directory of the unemployment services. Here are the best days to wait in line to file,” just the real tactical little things you can do. Popular, I think, Groupon was launching right about that time, like things that people could do to save money and stay afloat—how to watch your freelance career while you’re looking for a full-time job—real kind of tactical things.
Over a course of writing this blog and inviting some guest writers and other people who lost their jobs or what they were doing just to keep their head above water, I started hearing all these really inspiring stories of people, who were losing their jobs but not so desperate to get back in, because it had really forced them to look inward and discovered what it was that made them tick.
It wasn’t always, “Work until 2:00 in the morning, writing ad copy.” Sometimes it was, “I used to paint all the time, and ever since I became an art director in advertising, I stopped painting. Why did I stop painting? Now, I’m painting more and kind of selling my work, getting gallery shows, and having some success.” Other people were like, “I’ve always roasted coffee, and now, I want to explore doing it professionally.” There were just a lot of people—one guy said he was exploring professional motocross racing—just story after story of people doing something else entirely but something that spoke for who they were, not what they did.
The blog became really about that, about people who were reinventing. Just hearing enough of these stories—”This seems really interesting. I feel like it’s bigger than a blog. I’m going to make a film about it,” and not having ever made a film before. At first, it was just going to be me, renting a van, and travelling to these different places around the Northeast, different cities around the Northeast, that I could just get a handy cam and figure out how to do some audio and just kind of make a little video that might go on Youtube.
That was the initial plan, but once I had just sort of announced it out there to the world—on the blog and on Twitter, and all that stuff—really talented people, professionals in film, editing, and advertising world offered their help. And so, what was going to be just a Youtube video, basically a branding video for my blog, turned into a much bigger project and sort of laid the groundwork for what we would become my new reason for being, which is filmmaking, a filmmaking in a way that connects with people and helps them heal from something in one way or another.
Andy: That’s such an awesome story. It showed up in a way that you completely didn’t expect. I think there are a couple of things actually that we could follow up on in that story. Maybe to start with—so you started discovering and sharing these stories from other people that were in similar kinds of strains or had similar events happen in their lives in unanticipated ways. How do you think that the process of hearing and sharing those stories helped you understand who you were independent from your identity as an ad guy?
Erik: I remember, the first time it really struck me may not have been until the first day we started filming. It was in LA—the side story—in one of those things that made me feel like, “Oh, this is absolutely the right path.”
The side story is that I gathered and curated all these wonderful stories that I knew I wanted to be on the film, and a handful of them were on the West Coast. I was in Boston, and being unemployed and not having a budget to make this film, I was trying to figure out ways to get things donated or sponsored, or something. I had just read that Virgin America had opened up a Boston-to-Los Angeles corridor, and they just started flying in 2009, just started flying on Boston to LA.
So I wrote a blog post on Please Feed the Animals, just basically a letter to the head of marketing for Virgin America. I asked, and basically, told them the premise of the film: “Would you like to become the official airline of unemployed advertising people?” I put that letter out there, then tweeted her, and asked all my influential Twitter friends to retweet. Within an hour or so, she was like, “We’re on it.” Her name is Porter Gale. She said, “We’re on it,” and tweeted in Twitter, in social media, and just asking for it. She was responsible for getting these free flights for me and the crew, from Boston to LA, to do this filming. That was the side story.
Once we got there and started doing the initial filming, to answer your initial question, Jeanne Schad—if you’ve ever seen Lemonade, she’s the very first person to come up and tell about the story when she got laid off. We were asking her questions—or, Marc Colucci, our director of the film at the time. I was asking her questions. I was sitting there, listening, and I just felt completely overwhelmed with just like, “This is so perfect,” hearing her share her story, which mirrored mine in the way that she got laid off, and then hearing her tell about her post layoff life.
She became a consultant, and she’s working with really big companies on how, “If you’re going to lay people off, here’s how to do it in a better way that I got laid off.” Her life just felt so rich, and it was only because she had gone through this layoff of something that she really thought she liked that was she able to see that there was something so much better.
I just felt like in the flow of my own life and in the flow of connecting with other human beings and really feeling like I had found my [calling]. A quote that I said in the movie was, “I got laid off, and I found my calling.” All of a sudden, I felt like this is what I’m meant to be doing.
Andy: That’s such an awesome piece of that movie. Story after story, it was like, “You know, this is really sucked. It was really hard. But then, once I got a little bit of distance from that and once I started breathing that in and saw this opportunity, look at what I can do now without these other constraints.”
Erik: Yes, you see that it’s such an overused metaphor: Winter turns to spring. You have to die to one thing to be born into something else. It’s almost impossible to know what the rebirth is going to be, when you’re dying as an ad guy or when you’re dying as a Detroit auto worker, but inevitably, there is a rebirth, and having faith that the rebirth will happen is a really powerful thing to feel while you’re going through it. It might not become obvious for a while. You might have to continue your struggle for a while. In fact, you do have to continue your struggle for a while, but knowing that the struggle will be worth it is comforting.
Andy: That fits in with the other thing that I want to make sure we don’t go by from your previous description, which was, you didn’t know anything about making movies.
Erik: No. [laughs]
Andy: When you led into this, it’s like, “I don’t know how to make movies.” Probably, anybody around you that would offer an opinion would say, “You’re crazy for doing this,” but yet you pursued this path, and the help that you needed showed up.
Erik: Absolutely. I had a confidence. I think that really helped me in a way to not know what I didn’t know, and I just knew what I wanted very clear. I think I’ve had various levels of success, and non-success since then, in having a very clear picture of what it is that I wanted and what result that I wanted—and that made all the difference. I had zero idea how I was going to get there, but I knew I wanted to make this film.
The folly is in saying that I could do it on my own, because there is no way I could have done it on my own. Really talented filmmakers made it possible—I just had a vision. I was just a guy with the vision, and I knew that I wanted to get it done, and I would go so far as to write a blog post, a personal letter to the head of marketing of Virgin of America to get it done. The vision was clear and the people who were good at making it happen were onboard with it. It was infectious, I think. If I’ll take credit for anything, it was for infecting a whole bunch of other people who were [more] talented than I was to make it happen with me.
I learned that one of the ways that I wanted to redefine myself was not just as an ad guy but as a filmmaker through that process, and I have developed my skills in different ways since then. It just comes from who I am. Some of them, I had to learn; and a lot of them, I’m still learning. Most of it, I’m still learning.
Andy: You unexpectedly, and somewhat, painfully shed this identity as “Erik the Ad Guy” and took on this new identity as “Erik the Documentary Filmmaker”. Can you talk a little bit about that process of moving from this previous world to making Lemonade, and now, embracing other movies and jumping into other projects?
Erik: I would say that that evolution is still in process. I still work on a contractual basis for different agencies around the country doing what I’m trained in, doing what I spent 15 years honing a craft in doing. I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed that I’m able to make a living in advertising by my own terms because film projects come up and there tend to be space them. I put everything I had into 365, in Pennsylvania. I was living there and working full-time on that. That ended and then there’s a gap between that and the next film project that I’m still sussing out. But, in the meantime, I’m still able to fall back on Erik the Ad Guy.
I guess a sort of a big lesson for me, and for anybody I talked to and anybody who might be listening, is having a singular definition of who you are based on just your career, because Erik the Ad Guy does not leave any room to become Erik the Filmmaker, and Erik the Filmmaker does not leave me any room to still be Erik the Ad Guy or the dad, if I’m only defined by one thing.
I did this big ceremonial release of my “Erik the Ad Guy” identity. In advertising, there are so many annual award shows for people to congratulate themselves [laughs] by saying, “You have won a gold pencil, or a gold bowl, or a gold lion, or some gold trinket, indicating how awesome you are in the ad world,” and the results of that particular award show, like Cannes, is coming up. It might be happening now or coming up in the next week or two—the advertising award show—where you get this giant hardcover book that costs at least $100, and inside is all the award winning work.
I had probably 100 of those —some hardcover, some softcover, some thick, some thin—advertising award show annuals that cost anywhere from $50 to $100 a piece. It just accumulated over the years, and I made a real deliberate effort to give them away here. I’m shedding my identity as an ad guy. I gifted all of my award show annuals to different people in the ad industry who are still in it and still wanted them.
I’m a filmmaker now. The folly in that is that I just replaced one pseudo identity with another pseudo identity. I’m not just Erik the Ad Guy; I’m not just Erik the Filmmaker. I’m a living breathing creative individual. When I tried to identify myself by just one thing, again, as a filmmaker, I think that you run into some trouble doing that. So, now, I have a much more free-flowing outlook on my own life, on my own career path. There are a lot of things that I do.
As AJ said, he left finance. He was trained and taught growing up and going to school that you do one thing and you do it well—and he calls bullshit on that. That’s the lesson that I’ve only learned recently because I do one thing, advertising, and do it well; do one thing, filmmaking, and do it well. Well, you know what? There’s a whole bunch of very fulfilling things that can also earn me a living. It’s not just one thing. And so, over the last year or so, I’ve really embraced the variants in my own career, whether it’s still working for agencies, writing for clients, guest-blogging, and writing and working on films, which has been the focus. Working on films has been the focus, but it’s not my singular definition, not anymore.
Andy: I love the way that you nuance that. I think a common trap when we go through this reinvention process is just to say, “Okay, so I’m at a pivotal point in my life. I’m reinventing. The old stuff is bad; the new stuff is good,” but it’s really not that simple. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
Andy: That fact the you spent 15 years as Erik the Ad Guy makes Erik the Filmmaker all the more effective and unique. It’s all of that previous experience that gets rolled up into who we are today that gets new expression into the world in all kinds of crazy ways. And, maybe tomorrow, you won’t be Erik the Filmmaker; you’ll be the “some other creative expressive” guy. [laughs]
Erik: [laughs] Yes, I actually had this idea that I’ll just throw out there because I think somebody should do it in case I don’t end up ever getting to it—this thought to make a pared-down housecleaning service just called “Dishes and Laundry”. All they do is just come in and do it, because to me, those are the two biggest pains of my existence. The thing is it just keeps accumulating and don’t ever just feel done. Just have somebody come in like once every other day and just do your dishes and your laundry for you.
I actually looked into making that as a business, in finding a way and what that would look like. How could I keep my cost down? Who would be my staff? What’s the administration like? I actually considered it for a while. So, yes, who knows? One day, I could be operating the next housecleaning service.
But there are people who are born to do certain things. There are physicians who are born to be physicians. There are humanitarians who are born to be humanitarians; and people who couldn’t do anything else but engineer, computer software, or do video games for a living. It’s a huge honor, and incredible.
In a lot of ways, I wish was blessed to have that singularity, having such a clear idea about what I was meant to do with my life, but mine is a little messier than that. Mine and I think for a lot of people, especially at Misfit Con and Fargo, aren’t so clearly defined. All we want to do is make a connection with the world, make the world a better place than it was when we entered it, and make a little bit of a dent. How we do that isn’t always so neatly-packaged. And what we learned in college, the degree we got and the training we received, isn’t the only way to make that dent. I’m only recently finding peace in the nuances of that—that I can make a lot of little dents, and it feels pretty good.
Andy: Life is messy. Life is marvelously messy, and all of these things fold into the whole—absolutely. If we take all these various threads that we’ve been talking about, the purpose of this show, A Congruent Life, is to really explore theses themes of authenticity, reinvention, and happiness, and how we manifest that into the world. In that context, what would you say that living authentically or congruently means to you?
Erik: One thing we discovered, you and I discovered, was that we have a common friend is State College, Pennsylvania, somebody who actually filmed for my movie, named Joel Blunk—and he was on the previous podcast of yours. He turned me on to a book called Soulcraft.
To me, living authentically—it can change. This can change from day to day, or year to year, but it’s living according to what that little voice inside your head or inside your soul is telling you how to live. That could be messy sometimes, too, because we are programmed to live by certain societal norms—get a stable job, have a stable family, live a stable life—when really, there’s something inside of us screaming for something else. Having the courage to listen to that voice is authenticity, even if it’s just degrees, even if it’s just a volunteering after your 9:00 to 5:00 in the thing that speaks to you; or finding a way to make a living doing the thing that speaks to you.
That’s authenticity—being honest with the person you are and radiating that identity outward, whether it’s volunteering, making a movie, going back to school, connecting with another human being on a podcast. It’s just being who you are, and not necessarily what you do.
Andy: Erik, how can our listeners engage with you and find out more about your movies and engage with your work?
Erik: Well, anybody could email me anytime. Erik (at) fightingmonk.com—that’s my email address. My films—the one that we’ve talked about is Lemonade, and that’s LemonadeMovie.com. The Detroit follow up is LemonadeDetroit.com. And the film about Pennsylvania and everything that happened post Jerry Sandusky at State College is 365DaysTheFilm.com.
Andy: Perfect. We’ll make sure to link to those movies in the show notes.
Andy: Erik Proulx, I’m really glad that we made the connection in this way. It’s so good to spend that time with you in Fargo and discover you and your work, and discover our mutual friends, and I’m really excited about that. Thanks for sharing this time with us and sharing your wisdom on A Congruent Life.
Erik: You’re very welcome, Andy. Thank you.
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