Could you live for a month relying solely on the generosity of strangers for food, shelter, transportation, and even showers, with no money and no help from friends or family? That's what Joseph Garner attempted to do in his documentary Craigslist Joe, which follows Garner as he attempts to not only survive, but travel across the United States and back by making and answering posts on Craigslist. But instead of approaching this premise as gonzo/stunt filmmaking, Garner used it to explore the concept of community in post-recession America to find out if technology and economic hardship have made Americans more isolated or if the internet is simply a newer, more modern tool to allow people to connect, form communities, and help each other in the digital age. Watch the trailer for Craigslist Joe below, which opens in theaters and on iTunes August 2.
I spoke with Garner over the phone about Craigslist Joe, what he discovered while making it, the possible political implications of his film, his experience meeting Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and a lot more. I also got an exclusive clip from Craigslist Joe which you can find in the interview (which has been edited for clarity and brevity).
Jonathan Kim: Do you think Craigslist Joe says more about America or about the Craigslist community?
Joseph Garner: I would have to say more about America. I was never a huge Craigslist user -- I'd use it for things like finding an apartment or a job or concert tickets. I wasn't a serious user like so many people out there. For me, it was just kind of a vehicle, a jumping off point. If you took the Craigslist element out, I was just living off online communities to see if I could better connect with people outside of my social circle, and I think it would've worked as well. It just felt like a perfect vehicle to use technology and social media to interact with strangers.
JK: Is the experiment of Craigslist Joe not as much about living for a month off Craigslist, but about being humble and not being afraid to ask for help?
JG: That's certainly a good spin on it. When I first came up with the idea, it was just at the end of 2008 and I was actually working in Las Vegas on The Hangover (Garner was an assistant to The Hangover director Todd Phillips) and our country was going through the recession and I was very disconnected from what was going on in the rest of the country. And I got to thinking, "If I lost everything, what would happen?" Are we at a place in our society with technology and social media where we have the potential to take care of each other? Or is technology and social media, especially in these tough times, creating isolation from one another?
JK: A lot of times when I do reviews I focus on the political aspects of films, and you were talking about feeling disconnected and people becoming more isolated. It seems like there's a correlation between that and Republicans increasingly saying that you succeed or fail solely on your own efforts and values and that we don't have any obligations to help those in need. Do you think that has anything to do with the feelings of increased isolation or do you think it's something else?
JG: It was never my intention to make a political film or to try to sway one group of people to think something else. I kept my personal beliefs out of the movie, more or less, and I just wanted to go out there whether I was meeting with a healer in Seattle or a dominatrix in Chicago, it didn't matter. Whoever they were, I wasn't sitting them down and trying to pinpoint their political beliefs or any other beliefs, for that matter. It was just seeing how they're coping and what they're going through right now. But to get back to your question, I feel like there is and was, at the end of 2008, a very divided country. Not just politically, but in terms of haves and have-nots and, of course, in politics where people were seeing maybe the worst Congress ever in terms of getting things done. When people's lives are at stake and people are losing their homes and their life savings and there's poverty and inequality in education and all those things out there, you've got to just put that stuff aside and realize there's a bigger picture that we're dealing with. I feel that our country is still pretty divided.
JK: Speaking of which, a theme that I thought came out in Craigslist Joe that I definitely wasn't expecting was the idea of the government not doing enough, whether it was post-Katrina New Orleans, the woman with cancer, soup kitchens, or the children of incarcerated parents. Was that a theme you wanted to go after or were you surprised to see it emerge?
JG: I was surprised and, again, I felt like with a lot of people dealing with those types of struggles, it wasn't necessarily like they felt that the government was completely turning their backs on them. When I was in New Orleans right at the end of 2008, that was a few years after hurricane Katrina hit and I just assumed that things were all good, that they had rebuilt everything, and people were back in those communities, especially in the Lower 9th Ward, and I was completely surprised and disappointed and saddened to find that that wasn't the case. But with the guy John who was my ride from New Orleans to San Francisco, he said, "We're taking the initiative to kind of rebuild ourselves in an artistic way." He also applied for government grants and financial support was coming his way, but a lot of the people took personal responsibility regardless of outside help or lack thereof.
JK: To switch gears briefly, Zach Galifianakis is the executive producer on Craigslist Joe. I was wondering what kind of input he had on it.
JG: I met Zach a couple years before on the set of The Hangover and just sort of pitched him the idea. He seemed to like the initial idea, and I went out to shoot it, not knowing if it would be a documentary or a bunch of seemingly isolated, non-connected stories. So I started putting a cut together and sent him a rough cut of it just to kind of get his feedback, and he called me right away saying, "This is not what I was expecting at all. I'm pretty moved by it. I thought you'd be out there kind of partying and doing adventurous things for yourself, but I was really surprised by the humanity you were able to touch all across the country." And then from there he gave some feedback on the intro, several more cuts, his input on the trailer -- he's just been very supportive along the way.
JK: One thing I was a bit unclear of during the film was whether you ever took jobs for pay and then used that money during your trip.
JG: No, there was no payment whatsoever. I went out there with no money and I didn't accept any financial form of payment. It was all jobs in exchange for a meal or a place to stay or a ride out of town. I didn't want money to be a factor, I didn't want to take money with me or get a job or take that kind of handout. I felt like, yes, I was asking for support along the way but I never felt like I was putting someone further out than what was comfortable for them, like, "Hey, can I sleep on your couch tonight?" or if someone had an extra bunch of bananas they could give to me, and that would be great. But I didn't want someone to take me out to dinner and buy me expensive food or give me money for bus fare. If they were going to Seattle and had room in their car, I wouldn't mention that I was doing a documentary in the beginning for any of the postings -- I was just a regular guy who happened to not have any money but was looking to meet up or looking to hang out or looking for adventure. And once people said, "Yeah, okay, you can come in the car with me," then I would mention, "Hey, is it okay if a camera guy comes, too? We're working on this little project."
JK: So you gave us an exclusive clip that's going to go along with this post. Could you tell me a bit about it?
JG: This is from the New Orleans section where you get to see a little bit of the Bourbon Street nightlife and then it cuts to the morning where I meet John who was our ride to San Francisco. I met him on Craigslist when I was trying to meet Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, and had to hustle back from New Orleans to San Francisco. In the morning, we walked around the Lower 9th Ward, and as I mentioned before, this was a few years after Hurricane Katrina, and just walking around and seeing all the devastation was really hard to take in, especially after spending three and a half weeks on the road and feeling so much warmth and generosity from people who were inviting me into their homes, and then to see this once-vibrant community that was pretty much wiped away. And like John mentioned, those people aren't coming back, but he was able to start rebuilding with some of his friends in the community and kind of create art spaces for them where people from all over New Orleans gathered and had music festivals, art shows, and there's this project called the Fundred Dollar Bill Project where they had kids from school districts draw these Fundred dollar bills and then a specialty truck running on vegetable oil picked all these drawings up and took them to Washington D.C. where they requested an even exchange of real money for this Fundred money to help rebuild New Orleans. That ended up being one of the most inspiring experiences of the month for me.
JK: You mentioned meeting Craig Newmark, and in the film you see part of your conversation with him. But I was wondering how, as the guy who created Craisgslist, does he feel about it philosophically in terms of what it is and what it has become? Did he have any insights about it that really changed your perspective of what something like Craisgslist is?
JG: Craig is a completely humble, modest guy and sees what he did as, in his words, "No big deal." He just started it as a service to some of his friends to let them know what's going on in San Francisco and it's organically grown throughout the years. I told him that it's so weird to see a website without banners and advertisements all over it and asked him why Craigslist is like that. He said that in his first year, he was offered to sell some ad space to Microsoft and he would've made more money, personally, in that one transaction than he had in his entire business life. But he said, "No one wants to see those types of ads and they slow the site down. It's not what our users want." He's pretty hands-off, he doesn't even run the company anymore -- Jim Buckmaster does because Craig sees himself as a terrible manager. But Craig is actually involved with customer service because that's the area he likes to focus on. But he lives a very modest, humble life and he doesn't feel like what he created is anything amazing, although when we were walking we saw that woman who said she met her husband on Craigslist, and I was talking to Craig after that and he said that he gets lots of wedding invitations, and lots of people find relatives on Craisgslist. But Craig's also interested in helping out veterans, government transparency, he's an avid bird and squirrel watcher -- he has a lot of interesting hobbies.
JK: I read in an interview that you'd be willing to do this kind of trip again, maybe even a longer one. Do you have plans to do something else along these lines or are you headed off in a different direction for a while?
JG: I'd love to do something along these lines again because I feel like there's so much more to explore, especially with that notion of how technology is shaping our interactions with each other and if it's leading to a more connected society or if it's isolating us and making us almost too self sufficient. I feel like that's going to be such a huge thing moving forward in my lifetime and all of our lifetimes, how technology affects all aspects of life. So I feel like that's a really interesting question that I'm certainly not done exploring.