Creative Quarantine: Filmmaker Michael Bertin

Filmmaker Michael Bertin

1. How are you holding up?

Pretty well. Last month I wasn’t too worried about the future. This month, it’s sort of all-consuming, which is probably impacting the work I can get done. That in turn is having a slightly negative impact on the future I’m already worried about. So, yeah! Fun! Still, deep down, I tend to believe things will be okay on the other side.  

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

We had to release our movie into this environment after having screenings canceled and seeing theatrical distribution collapse. So we are going to take a financial beating. That’s been not great. But, as the adage goes, when life gives you lemons, try not to let it drain your lifeforce. 

But, as the adage goes, when life gives you lemons, try not to let it drain your lifeforce.

Looking ahead, we have two projects that we are ready to start. But since they both depend heavily on traveling and sitting down with people to interview them on camera and those people don’t want strangers in their faces for prolonged periods of time, that hasn’t happened either. So yes, Covid-19 is affecting our work. 

There are probably other things I could be getting done—I absolutely didn’t read ‘Infinite Jest’—so the rest of the issues are self-inflicted. I doubt it’s good for either short term or long term mental health to live in a country that finds new ways to be some combination of malevolent and dysfunctional every day. 

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

I’ve always consumed a disproportionate amount of live music. I love going to shows. But now that that’s out of the question for a while I’ve gone out of my way to support artists across all disciplines wherever I can. I hope to be more mindful of that when things go back to normal. Whatever normal is at that point still probably means many artists and creative professionals live precariously. 

I think there’s a certain class of politician that doesn’t even see your job as real unless you go to a factory and carry a lunchpail or you put on a suit and go to an office. Everything else to them isn’t really work. So artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, they just slip through the cracks. Right? Because of our circumstances my production company didn’t qualify for any small business support. I’m not asking for a handout and we’ll figure things out, but I’d be lying if I said it’s not frustrating to see, for example, private jet companies getting millions in PPP loans that will ultimately be forgiven while I get told $1200 is supposed to last me 10 weeks. The whole point of these programs was to protect jobs. I understand that but two things: First, private jet use is probably one of the few things that experienced an increase in demand because of the pandemic. Rich people seemed to have not taken a hit and they probably want to not have to fly commercial if possible even more for the time being. But even then I’m just complaining about one tiny slice out of hundreds of billions of dollars. 

So artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, they just slip through the cracks. Right?

More importantly, there was a study out showing that PPP/CARES programs saved one job for every $250,000 it spent. The rule of thumb used by economists is that for every million in public money you spend, you create 6-7 jobs. That’s about $167,000 per job. So the way the Trump administration went about it we paid a 50% premium on saving jobs. For every two saved, we should have saved at least three. And that’s probably a massive undercount as creating jobs from scratch is more expensive than keeping a job that exists. And I have a good guess about what a study is going to find in 4-5 years about where all that surplus ended up. 

I think I’ve gone off on a tangent here (oops, sorry) but we’re going to end up in a situation where thousands of creatives are going to leave these fields because they need to eat and pay rent and few if any of these programs were really beneficial to them. And who knows what work we miss out on in the future because of it–great books that never get written, albums not recorded, films never shot. And maybe it’s not wrong—or ‘politically risky’ is maybe a better way to put it—for politicians not to care too much about it as these industries have always been oversupplied with labor. The problem is that the people who do survive and continue on are the ones with the financial resources to go without income for a while (read: wealthy). So in seven years when there is another reckoning in media and the arts with handwringing over “Why is there a paucity of diverse voices?’ there will be some mea culpas and some statements from management about doing better. But nobody is going to look at policy from the Covid-19 era and go, “Hey guys… over here.” 

And who knows what work we miss out on in the future because of it–great books that never get written, albums not recorded, films never shot.

But yeah, I hope to keep buying more creative work than I can afford across more disciplines.

4. Of the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?

I don’t know about well, but A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers seems to have been mirroring my mental state pretty well. So it’s comforting to see yourself somewhere else and be like, ‘Cool, this is other people, too.’

5. Please feel free to share any of your recent projects.

So we made a documentary, ‘Throw A Billion Dollars from the Helicopter,’ about tax policy. Well, that and baseball. It’s cool. It’s got an anarchist and a serial killer in it. You can find a trailer and other info here:

Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter from Michael Bertin on Vimeo.

It’s not so much about sports as it is about wealth transfer upwards and how maybe we’re not sending our best people to office to represent us and make policy that makes our lives better. If there’s any twist, it’s that our overtly political story isn’t a battle of left v. right but one of small-government low-tax Republicans fighting against other small-government low-tax Republicans. We’ve gotten really good media response thus far. And we’ll keep working it for the time being. 

Michael Bertin is a former journalist and author. In addition to a near decade-long stint as a staffer at the Austin Chronicle, he’s had his byline appear at ESPN, Grantland, 538, Deadspin, Slate and Wired among other national publications. He also co-authored a biography of the late comedian Bill Hicks, ‘Agent of Evolution,’ for HarperCollins in the UK. Just prior to making this documentary Bertin worked as a data analyst for a team in Major League Soccer. He holds BAs from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MBA from the University of Chicago, which is a self-important way of saying he’s swimming in student-loan debt. ‘Throw A Billion Dollars from the Helicopter’ is his first feature-length film.