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“The Bed Thing”: A Short Film by MZS | MZS

“The Bed Thing”: A Short Film by MZS | MZS

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The short film you’re about to watch was more than ten years in the making. I directed, edited and cowrote it. It’s the story of two friends who lean on each other during a difficult period of their lives. It’s also the story of what happens when life gets in the way of art, and also how criticism, however constructive, can become paralyzing, even for a critic. For now, let’s just say there are reasons why this film has never been seen by anyone except my closest friends until this very moment, and that I’m going to tell you about them here. Maybe it’s best to watch “The Bed Thing” first and then read this piece, so that you don’t go in it with any preconceived notions about what it’s about, or what it’s trying to do. 

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The Bed Thing by Matt Zoller Seitz from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

E. Jason Liebrecht plays Jason, who is sleeping on a couch in the living room of his apartment following a devastating event. His best friend Stephen, played by cowriter Stephen T. Neave, comes over to the house to try to get him up and moving again. And that’s pretty much all there is to it, although hopefully you learn a bit about their personalities and stories as the movie goes along. 

Jason is basically me, just as the character that Jason played in my first feature, 2005’s “Home,” was basically me. Jason’s best friend Stephen is basically Stephen, another cast member in “Home” who had become one of my closest friends after Jen’s death, and who wrote the script with me. 

 “The Bed Thing” was shot in four days in fall, 2008, two-and-a-half years after the death of my first wife, Jennifer Dawson, who had died of a previously undiagnosed heart ailment in April of 2006, leaving me to raise our two children, Hannah and James. It turned out that this was the opening tragedy in an “if it rains, it pours” period of my life. One of my closest friends, Andrew Johnston, the longtime film and television critic of Time Out New York, was dying of cancer, and my stepmother, Genie Grant, had also been diagnosed with cancer around the same time. By the time I finished shooting the movie, Andrew was dead. 

Stephen was going through his own rough period, having recently endured the death of his mother, Dorothy, and one of his closest friends had died as well. The replacement of one bed with another is drawn from my own life: following Jen’s death, I started sleeping on the couch in the common area. I just couldn’t bear to be in the room where she died, and where she and I had slept side-by-side. My brother Jeremy and my high school friend David came over one day and insisted on taking apart the old bed and replacing it with a new one, hoping that would jump-start me into moving further along in the grieving process. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether gestures like that help. 

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At the time that I finished a rough cut of “The Bed Thing,” I thought it was the best thing I’d done as a filmmaker. I didn’t see much that could have been improved in the writing, direction, and cinematography (by Grant Greenberg, and then-young NYU grad from South African who went on to a terrific career). Dave Bunting, a filmmaker, musician and actor who has done a lot of editing and narrating for me on other film projects, played one of the bed salesman. Israel Rivera, Jr. played the other bed salesman. He actually worked at the bed store where we shot the scene where the guys go bed shopping, and the salesman’s patter in the movie was rewritten based on my conversations with him. 

I was also proud of the fact that we’d shot “The Bed Thing” on Super 16mm film. Grant originally tried to talk me out of it, arguing that there was no reason to shoot a project like this on film anymore now that high-resolution video had become affordable and versatile. I understood his point, but still wanted to shoot on film because I still think it has a look that’s impossible to match in clarity and beauty, particularly when you’re shooting outdoors in the daytime during a visually interesting period like the fall. 

I’d planned to have “The Bed Thing” color timed and conformed after editing and then blown up to 35mm with a sync soundtrack right there on the reel, just like the short films I’d watched as a film student coming up in the 1980s. I had set aside some money for that final leg of the process—it was estimated to cost about $14,000 by a local post house back in 2009, although that number is surely higher now. I edited “The Bed Thing” on Final Cut Pro in the same bedroom that you see in the film, working from a low-resolution copy that was provided to me by the postproduction house on a Mini-DV cassette, a format that is now obsolete. I had been saving money to pay for all of this.

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Then life got in the way. My son James developed asthma and we didn’t have health insurance, which meant I would have to pay for his treatment out-of-pocket. There went the postproduction money!

I did have a contingency plan, though. I showed the film to one of the backers of my feature. He offered to loan me the money to finish “The Bed Thing” properly if it got into a major festival and pay it back over time. 

Unfortunately, “The Bed Thing” didn’t get into any festivals. I submitted it to 2010 festivals, including Sundance, Slamdance, Raindance, Tribeca, South by Southwest, and Cinequest (which had premiered “Home”), plus probably four others. They all rejected it, except for Cinequest, bless them. But I didn’t think it was worth going through the trouble and expense of finishing a movie shot on film to show it at just one festival. And I couldn’t picture screening it from a low-resolution video with timecode at the bottom after going to all that trouble to shoot on film; it just would have been depressing. So I abandoned the idea of taking “The Bed Thing” on the festival circuit.

I was devastated. Also, resentful and mystified. Having been a juror on a lot of festivals over the preceding 15 years, I knew “The Bed Thing” was better than a lot of what was out there, certainly in terms of the photography and performances, although I won’t be so bold as to hazard a guess about how the direction or writing compared to whatever festival jurors were seeing in 2009. I recut it a few times after that, thinking I’d resubmit it, but the notes I got were demoralizing—one friend told me the comedy wasn’t working, another didn’t like the performances, another said he though the direction was pretentious. I know you’re supposed to have a thick skin about this kind of stuff, but I was not in a good place at that point in my life, and I took it all as certification that I didn’t know what I was doing, that the film was garbage, and that I was unable to see this clearly because I was just too close to it.

So I gave up. 

People tell you not to get discouraged by rejection—hell, I tell people that!—but when it happens to you, it’s a different story. I figured that I must have poor judgment when it came to my own work, that “The Bed Thing” was not good after all, and that I should probably just file it away under “lost causes” and get on with my life. 

The uncut 16mm negative of “The Bed Thing” still sitting on my shelf in my workspace, wrapped in plastic.

I have a feeling that if I submitted it today, under my own name, it would get in more places, because I’m better known today than I was back then. But that doesn’t testify to the actual quality of the piece one way or the other. And n my opinion it makes the whole situation worse. Film festivals are filled with work that just isn’t very good, because the person who made it is famous or connected, or my my case, semi-famous, or knows somebody who runs the festival, or somebody who gave money to the festival, etc. I know this because I’ve suffered through such movies and had discussions with festival programmers and been made privy to the truth of why they were included. I don’t want to be an example of what I call a festival indulgence. I feel like I had the chance to get in on the merits back when I actually made the movie and it didn’t work out, so it’s better to accept it and move on.

But since this year is the tenth anniversary of my giving up on “The Bed Thing,” I thought I might as well put it out there anyway, if only to justify writing this piece. It’s still not really finished — there are placeholders in the end credits, the sound mix is rough, and the music hasn’t been cleared. 

I am still proud of it, and I hope it speaks to people. 

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