The Me On the Screen: Or, What I Learned From Being In One-Sixth of a Documentary

As with most decisions in my life, I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into when I agreed to be the subject of a documentary. When the filmmakers first approached me — this was back in 2013, I believe — I thought mostly about how cool it would be to tell all of my friends that I was going to be in a movie, and I said yes without even thinking about it. So the camera crew followed me, and a few other Venture for America Fellows in Detroit, for about a year and a half, and they took what they filmed and made it into a movie they called Generation Startup, which was just released.

My cofounder Scott, whose heavy presence in the promotional materials belies the fact that he only appears in the actual movie for about thirty seconds.

The thing about being in a documentary is that it’s not really you who’s in the documentary. Sure, there’s a person who looks like you and goes by your name and says and does a bunch of things that you said and did, but that person isn’t really you. My IMDB page is a lie: I don’t appear as myself in Generation Startup, I appear as a character named Max Nussenbaum. This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful life, this is not my beautiful documentary.

Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself. Watching a piece of your life story distilled to ninety minutes has a way of pulling parts of yourself that are normally blurry into sharp focus. Do I really laugh like that? Do I really gesture so gracelessly? Do I really say “fuck” as often as that guy in the movie does?

Take, for example, the brief scene midway through the film where I complain to the camera about how a slow period in my romantic life (okay, fine — my sex life) is affecting my emotional well-being. I’m mortified by this twenty-second clip’s appearance in the movie, but there’s no denying that is the kind of thing I would — and, apparently, did — say.

I spoke remarkably freely to the cameras — or at least, I find it remarkable watching myself now, two years later — because the filmmakers gave me and the other subjects GoPros, to capture footage from the times when they weren’t around. With no one else behind the camera, opening up was almost automatic. Think of the way one rambles and reveals when leaving a voicemail; now imagine the voicemail also records your image, and has no time limit, and will one day be screened for a national audience.

Besides, the documentarians’ arrival had come at a tumultuous time in my life. My cofounders and I had just moved into the shell of our half-rehabbed house, sleeping on dusty mattresses in a room with no walls and limited plumbing, and we were struggling to turn Castle into something approaching an actual business. I was brutally insecure about my ability to get the company off the ground: some days, achieving any kind of liftoff felt so far away that all I hoped for was that we’d fail in a manner that at least wasn’t completely mortifying.

My “bedroom,” Summer 2014

And everywhere I looked, I saw other people succeeding — or maybe it’s just that I was such a mess myself that everything I saw looked like other people’s success. My roommate (and fellow documentary subject) Brian’s company was hardly less embryonic than our own, but he exuded a certainty about his choices that I struggled to feel about Castle, let alone the rest of my life. Meanwhile, an ex-girlfriend I was still attached to had started dating the founder of a hotshot New York startup, and their ads followed me everywhere: first in podcasts, then in subways across multiple cities, and then, even though I’d only visited their website once, on what seemed like every page of the internet.

(Three years later, not only am I still served their ads constantly, I recently starting getting ads for several of their competitors as well. I give it 3:1 odds that I end up buying their product before the end of the year.)

I don’t want to oversimplify (the documentary itself, by virtue of being ninety minutes long and only one-sixth about me, is oversimplified enough already): life was still pretty good, and I wasn’t, like, miserable, but I needed an outlet. And my closest friends—the people who could have filled that role before—were now my cofounders, and that meant projecting optimism, no matter how strained, had become a part of my job description.

And there, in the corner of the closet, were those GoPros. They became, in effect, my free therapy: I’d set them up in my room or in my car and just talk to the camera, saying all the things that I wanted to say, but didn’t want anyone else to hear. I must have known, in the back of my mind, that in my quest for intimacy I’d turned to the loudest megaphone I’d ever been given, but the multi-year delay between my making these recordings and anyone else actually seeing them — not to mention the knowledge that 90% of what I shot wouldn’t end up in the movie anyway — made the latter part a distant, near-imaginary abstraction.

(Though of course, it’d be disingenuous of me not to at least acknowledge that my incorrigible attention-seeking must have played a role in this opening up as well. Call it the Exhibitionist’s Dilemma: we can’t stop seeking the spotlight, even though we know it hurts.)

Pro tip: GoPro selfies are extraordinarily unflattering.

So here I am, three years later, spewing on screen about my fears and my insecurities and my sex life, or lack thereof, in a movie a non-zero amount of actual, real people have seen. But as distasteful as I find much of his performance, I have to admit that the kid in that movie is a lot like me.

And that’s turned out to be the most unexpected thing about being in a documentary: the me on the screen is a compressed, chopped-up, sound-bite version of the person I was three years ago, and yet I still learned something about myself from watching him.



spelunker, herpetologist, ultracrepidarian, onanist, has a hook-hand. More:

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Max Nussenbaum

spelunker, herpetologist, ultracrepidarian, onanist, has a hook-hand. More: