Josh Weinberg is a Denver-based tech support geek turned independent filmmaker who released his first web-based comedy video The Website Is Down: Sales Guy VS. Web Dude last spring to coast-to-coast reverberations of laughter. The frame is filled by a computer screen being manned by an unnamed tech support guru, the proxy of an outdated Halo hero. He shoots enemies and trouble-shoots for a contentious sales employee who doesn’t know the difference between the company website and the Internet, who shrieks when his desktop icons are scrambled out of phallus form, and who is stuck in the sedimentary layers of simultaneously-running Windows 95 applications. The series is akin to The Office in tone, though we never see the complacent characters behind their cubicle walls.
Weinberg hit the refresh button on the uncanny IT department dramas, releasing his follow-up, Excel Hell, in March. In the new episode, Chip the Sales Guy is at the helm, electrifying his coworkers with a dangerous game of Minesweeper and downloading the “MILF” computer virus. Even though Weinberg takes clear aim at the absurdity of the typical day-worker’s pleading and often pathetic help desk requests, his comedy reaches across the interface for a far-from-condescending lecture on how to work your hard drive. I spoke to Weinberg recently to talk about how the series was born, the name “Chip,” and his thoughts on independent film.
The Rumpus: What sparked the idea for The Website is Down?
Weinberg: For a long time I had an idea about making a movie that took place on the screen of someone working at a computer. I thought it would be cool to see that, watching the story only through the actions onscreen. Originally, I had this idea when I was in school getting my computer science degree. At the time the it was not going to be a comedy, but a mystery where you would watch someone uncovering a secret, like detecting a hacker or whatever. It was going to be all text, all Unix commands, but only ultra-geeky people would know what the fuck it was about. So I never did that! It would be like the advanced version of The Website is Down.
The Rumpus: That sounds incredibly tedious.
Weinberg: Oh, yeah. But then again, no more tedious than making any other movie. It would just present its own unique set of problems.
The Rumpus: It would be the in-your-face version of The Website is Down for all of the people not IT-proficient?
Weinberg: That’s right. Like, “This isn’t for you, you plebeians.” So again, that didn’t happen. Really, it’s been more fun doing it as a comedy; obviously more people can appreciate it that way. I had the idea for [The Website is Down] in my head for a very long time and finally the pieces just fell into place. I’ve been making a lot of movies with Casey [Cochran], who also works in tech support, so he completely understood the characters and scenario. He plays Chip Moorhead, the Sales Guy.
The Rumpus: It’s a great character name, “Chip.” There’s something annoying about it, it’s a little grating.
Weinberg: It’s an annoying name for sure. It came about when I was speeding up the character voices, I thought about making them sound like chipmunks. That’s where the name “Chip” comes from. We try to throw in the most third-grade humor as possible.
The Rumpus: Tell me more about your other actors, do they have a background in IT and tech support too?
Weinberg: Yes, Casey’s a tech support guy, I’ve worked in tech support for a long time, and then there’s Jesse Johnson, he’s not in tech support, but he is a film guy with an oddball sense of humor. In the first video he plays the character calling in from the City of Arvada [Colorado]. I didn’t tell him to do any of that stuff about the mayor. I just said “You’re going to call me and tell me the website is down.” He did three takes, all of them different and off-the-cuff, and all of them hilarious.
The Rumpus: What was your process for writing the show? How long did it take?
Weinberg: In total it took two-and-a-half months for the final product. I wrote The Website is Down over a period of, maybe, two weeks; it took another two or three weeks to record, and another month to put it together—and a lifetime of experience and frustration in tech support for all the material.
The Rumpus: One time I called my IT department because there were fingerprints on my screen and I couldn’t find any cleaning wipes.
Weinberg: [Laughs] Oh, god. Casey would love you.
The Rumpus: It was a personal low.
Weinberg: There’s an area on the website called “The Datacenter From Hell” where people have written in some funny stories. There is one about an executive who called his IT guy and told him his mouse didn’t work; the IT guy asked him, “Well, is it plugged in?” He said, “No, it’s not.” So the IT guy asked him, “Do you still want me to come down there?” And he said yes!
The Rumpus: Are you a gamer in real life?
Weinberg: I get addicted to stupid games. I’ll play one game intensely for short time and then delete it.
The Rumpus: Like Bejeweled on Yahoo! Games? That’s a popular-stupid one. It’s like Tetris but you switch jewels around.
Weinberg: I never got into that one!
The Rumpus: You might try it out.
Weinberg: Maybe I will.
The Rumpus: Well, if your interests are stupid games, anyway.
Weinberg: Yeah, I don’t know about that. I’ve been trying not to play as many lately. At the time of the first episode of The Website is Down I was playing Halo a lot. In the movie what you see is the first version of Halo that was put out like five years ago. Pretty much anyone playing Halo online is doing it because a) they downloaded a hack copy of it and are too cheap to buy the newest version; or b) they’re kids and adults who find an oddball community together. You find some characters on there.
Halo is interesting—the first version—because as an original multiplayer game it had no voice chat like a lot of games have now. It was all text-based. You could talk to other people but you had to type it, and that honed your shit-talking skills, and how to type and play at the same time. I was thinking about the idea of the movie when I got a call from my boss as I was playing it one day—and that’s funny because my boss is calling me right now!
The Rumpus: Do you have to take it?
Weinberg: No, he can wait. So anyway, I get this call and I’m trying to play Halo and, you know, at the same time that I’m trying to de-bug some problem: I’m busy trying to cut somebody down in the game and make it sound like I am paying attention to the guy on the phone. To me, that was pretty entertaining.
The Rumpus: It sounds like you have nostalgia for these older video games. Even the idea of trying to make a movie that’s entirely in computer code, in something like DOS before there was Windows, is pretty committed to the old school.
Weinberg: Yeah, that’s what got me into computers in the first place. I always thought there was something really cool about typing and watching it show up on the TV. For whatever reason, that really got me. I used to play all of those text adventure games where you type, for instance, “Look at the house,” and it would give you a description of the house. They were fun. I definitely have nostalgia and it comes through in the series—like the use of Wolfenstein 3D in the new video, Excel Hell.
The Rumpus: Do you play any new video games?
Weinberg: I tried to get into World of Warcraft because I was thinking of using it for one of the new episodes, but it’s not exactly my thing. I kind of ended up making more fun of it than I did appreciating it.
The Rumpus: As an indie yourself, what kind of independent films or shows do you watch?
Weinberg: I watch a lot of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I watch a lot of Adult Swim; they recently had an explosion of, not bad, but bizarre shows. I think what they did was say, “We have a million dollars. Instead of spending it on one show and making it look like a million-dollar show, let’s spend it on 30 shows and have them all look like shit.” They shoot out all this stuff, find whatever works, and then cancel all the rest.
I think the web has really lowered the standards for appearance in video; and people have lowered their expectations of production values, so it doesn’t bother them as much if it looks bad. For me it’s always been more a matter of content than of the look or style. A lot of people do get off on the look of things—like films trying to replicate, say, a comic book style, or some other stylistic—but I think that happens a lot of times at the expense of plot or character, and the art of storytelling. I’d gladly trade the look for all of those things. That’s one of the benefits of cheap production equipment that, yeah, you do get plenty of crap, but you also get a lot of stuff with everything there but the polished look. And I’m cool with that.
The Rumpus: Is this something you’ve noticed, in terms of production quality, in the film submissions to the festival you co-created, The First Look Student Film Festival?
Weinberg: That’s where I realized that production quality is not more important than anything else. I am, and the rest of the festival audience is very accepting of low production values if the acting is good, the storytelling is good, and the plot and writing is good. Those things are so key that if it looks bad—especially if the filmmaker takes advantage of the “bad” look and gives some reason that it looks the way it does—then it’s perfect. But even if filmmakers don’t do that, I’m still pretty forgiving of low production value.
But I’m not biased against student films with higher production values either. Just because it looks good doesn’t mean I automatically suspect it’s going to have flaws in other departments. But sometimes, I think, in film schools the focus is on the production aspects only because that’s the easiest thing to teach. You can teach people all of these standard technical details about lighting, about the camera, about how editing works, and that stuff is just a set of facts. What’s hard to teach is writing, storytelling, acting—the more personal things. Whether it’s the film school’s fault or the students’ fault, I don’t know; but they focus on the stuff that’s easy. The part that’s hard is, well, the student’s may not have learned it yet. They’re young. So the content we have focused on in our festival is film that work as film, that emotionally, once you’re done watching it you feel like you’ve experienced something.
Are you writing all of this?
The Rumpus: No, it’s recording.
Weinberg: I was wondering, because I’ve been talking a long time. That reminds me, did you see the Onion article with the headline, “Everything Taking Too Long” and there’s a picture of guy staring at a microwave waiting for his food? [Laughter]
The Rumpus: A perfect segue back to your web series: “This is taking too long, it won’t work! Come fix it!”