Filmmaker Ben Berman (“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”) isn’t resting too hard in quarantine: he’s already made a short film during his time in isolation, which premiered as a Vimeo Staff pick this morning. “The Follow-Up” is a 5-minute screenlife short that utilizes the Cameo platform — where users can pay to get personalized video shoutouts from celebrities — to capture the disorientating and isolating online life so many are experiencing while shut indoors.
“In quarantine, but even before quarantine, the way the world is going is people are separating,” said Berman in an interview with IndieWire discussing his film. “People are in their own spaces and they use the internet for connection, or at least the feeling of connection, and Cameo is like that but on steroids in a way.”
Berman’s fascination with Cameo started in December. The filmmaker was going through a low period and, to relax, he took a hot bath, during which he happened to receive a text from his friend Jon Mugar, who appears as Berman’s “voice of reason” in both “The Amazing Johnathan” and “The Follow-Up.”
“He texted me a Cameo from Jon Lovitz,” said Berman. “I was naked in the bath, feeling really depressed, and Jon Lovitz was on my phone saying, ‘Hey Ben, congratulations on finally figuring out how to live a peaceful life.’ I found it really bizarre and funny, and realized I wanted to do some kind of project utilizing Cameo videos.”
Berman loved the idea of asking the Cameo celebrities not to deliver a birthday shout, but for their advice on real-life and existential matters. The first person he reached out to was Richard Karn, who became a TV star in the ’90s playing Al Borland on “Home Improvement.”
“I don’t want to use the term ‘washed up,’ but Cameo mainly exists of talent of a certain era,” said Berman. “So for me, Ben, who feels washed up in his career — I mean, sure, I did one doc, I’m proud of it, but it’s what do you got now — for me to feel washed up and to reach out to a Richard Karn, who use to be a big deal on a sitcom, but now who knows what he’s doing, was funny to me.”
While in quarantine, Berman, like so many, found himself turning to the internet for information during these scary, confusing, and isolating times. It’s a feeling he captured in reaching out to a number of Cameo personalities for COVID-19 support and information.
The instinct to make a short under quarantine was natural for Berman, who said he only feels fully healthy when he’s making stuff. He also feels that as someone who has worked freelance, he is better equipped to handle the aimless isolation of bouts of unemployment and empathizes with what so many people who find themself out of work must be experiencing.
“I have experienced years of being busy with work, and very, very not busy for months on end,” said Berman. “So I’ve gotten some of that, ‘Oh, what are you when there’s no one there telling you what to do,’ out of my system.’ But only after years of it being really hard.”
Berman is considering making a sequel where his character starts a GoFundMe to get him out of the debt he incurred from his Cameo addiction, but he’s also contemplating other stories using the same screenlife device — exploring the filmmaking challenge of how to tell stories about how we increasingly live our lives online.
“What’s interesting to me is how can a narrative unfold in nontraditional ways, and in quarantine, with the equipment we have access to now, and not 15-50 people getting together with lighting and cameras,” said Berman. ” This screenlife medium is one way I’m interested in telling stories now, in this moment, because we don’t have anything else.”
Before COVID-19 put Berman in lockdown in his Los Angeles home, he was taking meetings and up for a handful of commercial and documentary series jobs. He said that as the realization of how long the COVID-19 crisis could keep the TV and commercial industry from returning to business as usual, there has been a real shift in thinking.
“I got the sense, especially over the last two days,” said Berman. “That both the commercial industry and the TV industry, people, instead of just waiting, it’s become, ‘What can we do now? What can we use now to continue our path forward?’ And I think that’s the right question to be asking.”
In the conversations Berman is having, he reports that many in the advertising world are tasking copywriters with rethinking how to do commercials without production.
“‘Can we do stock footage commercials, can we do archival based commercials?'” said Berman. “It’s now more clear than ever, people are figuring out a new way to do it. And I would like to think that what the ‘Follow Up’ shows is there are ways to tell stories with what we have in front of us.”
Check out “The Follow-Up” above.