Making the Joplin Undercurrent, our second photonovel, may be the trickiest ledge I’ve ever had to walk creatively.
And you guys know I love walking that line.
Two years ago through our working relationship with the Joplin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Mark Neuenschwander and I talked over the virtues and vices of Cold Brewed, which is free for a few more weeks. Carrie wanted to do something similar with us for the city of Joplin, but wanted it to filter through her job as a tourism marketer. We brainstormed ideas and then pitched it to Patrick Tuttle, the department head of the CVB. Since the city had shut down a marathon that year, there was still some money left over in the budget for some sort of bigger production. Well I took our idea, put on my producer/salesman cap, and headed down to City Hall to pitch it to council. At this point, it was late 2014.
Here’s the thing. It was a crazy pitch, I know — most of mine are. I’m with Elon Musk here: the space race should shoot for making us a multi-planetary species and if we miss but end up creating non-rocket maglev launches along the way, it’s still a win. So I go for crazy and big — I’d rather commit seppuku than fail, I’d rather self-destruct trying to make my plan work than to try some feeble excuse for a plan. It’s the classic Teddy quote:
“It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
— Theodore Roosevelt
As always, the execution of my vision is always crazier in retrospect. We literally had to write an entire narrative that worked like one giant piece of ad placement for the city of Joplin while simultaneously maintaining the narrative integrity of the story AND get it written in the span of a few months so that we had time to shoot and edit it. Honestly, in the Platonic sense I still don’t know if such a thing is possible — perhaps narrative and advertising are irreducibly irreconcilable, philosophically. We certainly had our share of debates: is this too pushy? Is that too subtle? But I will tell you this: if it’s possible to do both within the confines of this photonovel medium that Mark and I have pioneered, then that’s precisely what we did. We walked that line.
I pitched The Joplin Undercurrent to council based on that quote in the book For the Love of Cities that I reference so often:
A 2009 Gallup study that looked at the levels of emotional engagement people have with their communities, found that just 24% of people were “engaged” with their community. Gallup also found a significant relationship between how passionate and loyal people are to their communities and local economic growth. The most “attached” communities had the highest local GDP growth. Despite this, it feels as though our places and our leadership have forgotten how to connect with us emotionally and our cities have suffered because of it.
And they loved the idea, especially when they passed around my iPad and took a peek at Cold Brewed.
The real work making The Joplin Undercurrent began.
Honestly, biggest personal lesson from both The Joplin Undercurrent and Cold Brewed is this: when I get worried about being incompetent at some skill I use than my writing, I overcompensate in that skill tend to focus less on the writing. I believe I did a knockout job as a director and assistant producer, but I fell short in my first love — I had to fix large swaths of the writing in post-production on both projects. I will never make that mistake again: just because a knight finds himself defending his off-hand side with the sword doesn’t mean he should let down his guard on his strong side. Me too. I must lean into my role as a writer in the pre-production phase before I ever touch a light, a camera, or a makeup kit.
Or order a set of items that puts me on the FBI watch list: chemistry set, ball bearings, face masks, and a police uniform.
Having been honest about my weakness, I can now be honest about my strength: I’m quite pleased with the end product. I’m pretty confident that Mark and Carrie and I somehow managed to walk that line between tourism advertising and photonovel — I think, in other words, that it both entertains and sells Joplin. And here’s how:
The team’s whole mission for the last few years has been to rebrand Joplin for what the city will come to represent. With the mass of national attention that fell upon the city in the wake of the largest tornado on record, people began to realize that Joplin is no longer merely a mining town that went boom and bust. Neither is she merely a hotstop on the Route 66 pilgrimage. And, of course, she’s far more than “that city that lost a third of its infrastructure from that massive tornado.” Our task has been to show what she’s capable of — that Joplin builds. That Joplin crafts. That Joplin invents. That Joplin inspires. That Joplin makes imagination manifest in the world — it’s a place of up-and-comers, a place of dreamers and go-getters.
As a photonovel, The Joplin Undercurrent both exemplifies and illuminates this at once. We needed a metaphor for the tornado — all of its pain, all of the people that took advantage of one another, all of the people that pitched in and helped one another (her “miracle of Spirit” so frequently appealed to by opportunistic politicians). I chose to write a story with a bit of fantastic realism and a mystery built around that fantastic realism: a tool that can be both exploited for great pain or wielded for great healing.
I think if you read it, you’ll see all of the themes around the tornado, Joplin’s past as a mining city and pilgrimage stop, as well as a picture of her very bright, very hopeful future.
Which means, on my end, despite my failings and fumblings, I can say with confidence: mission accomplished.
On the upside for you, as one of my constant readers, the city commissioned us to make this thing so you will be able to enjoy it online forever:
In closing, I’d love to give the cast and the crew — anyone who was involved from beta reader to advertising — safe space here to comment on their experience making The Joplin Undercurrent with Mark and Carrie and I.
Let’s share our memories, struggles and triumphs below: