If you believe that our beloved Park Slope is a hotbed of satirical opportunity, you are not alone. Filmmaker Daniel Goldberg, a Slope native, gives an affectionate portrayal of the community’s absurdities in his surreal and parodic short film, The Master Cleanse.
Described as a “hipster comedy with a paranoid twist,” the film truly is a community project– not just based in the neighborhood, but also relying on support of community members. Daniel and his team are working through the crowd-funding startup Seed & Spark, based in Prospect Heights, and have so far gathered over sixty supporters. They’ve also planned local events, like the upcoming funding party at Prospect Bar (details below).
So what is it all about? The film tells the story of Manifest Refuge, a fictional commune founded by a PhD-turned-hippie and housed in a Park Slope brownstone. The commune is based around the mysterious–and eventually ominous– Master Cleanse and the “soul friends” who swear by it. But just as the commune isn’t really about the cleanse, neither is the film. When one of the members falls in love with an outsider, suspicions rise. Below, Daniel talks about Park Slope perfectionism, the self-help mentality, and how an intentional community gives way to comedy, intrigue, and romance.
You describe the film as “Portlandia meets Rosemary’s Baby.” There has been a precedent of poking fun at the stereotypes associated with Park Slope (yuppies, hipsters, “idealistic hippies”) but less so of introducing that element of paranoia. Where did you see an opportunity within the intentional-community environment for that sort of darkness?
Well, I remain fully supportive of intentional communities, and I’m probably the most stereotypical Park Slope yupster you can imagine, so I think I actually found the opportunity for that darkness in myself. There’s this desire in me to “cleanse” both myself and the world, to make things perfect, to live a perfect life, which is actually a very dark thing – especially if I’m overzealous about it.
To a great extent, that desire to make myself perfect is what motivates me to practice Buddhist meditation, even though meditation is all about coming to terms with imperfection. There’s kind of a paradox there. The commune in my film doesn’t practice meditation, though. They practice something else.
How do you think it brings a new point of view to the characters and their surrounding themes?
I think the dark paranoia element brings a new point of view to the characters because hopefully these are people we can recognize from our everyday interactions and within ourselves. There’s the mopey young set-dresser eager for a fresh start away from the NYC gay club scene. There’s the corporate lawyer type who’s obsessed with the purity of his body in a kind of neurotic way. There’s the love interest Brook, who came to the commune, Manifest Refuge, hoping it would bring her to the forefront of political avant-garde ceramics but has since become a bit disillusioned.
They’re actually far less grossly caricatured than the Portlandia types. This isn’t some kind of exposé on actual Park Slope culture, but it’s a heightened, surreal vision of the Slope that’s meant to shed light on some of the absurdities of the culture by making those absurdities even more absurd. In that sense, maybe it’s more Twin Peaks than Portlandia, although the characters in Twin Peaks were pretty much the polar opposite of urban yupsters.
How do you think the “yupsters” of Brooklyn (and Park Slope specifically) differ from those we see on screen in shows like Portlandia?
Well, I think maybe that element of perfectionism is different. There’s this one couple on Portlandia that’s kind of high-strung, but for the most part they’re all really cool or rebellious or free-spirited. I haven’t been to Portland actually, although my co-writer has, so I’m just going off the TV show. The focus in Portlandia is more on the fact that they use natural deodorant that doesn’t work, or drink alternative milks, and those aren’t necessarily things I would even associate with the Slope to such a great extent. I love Portlandia, though, just to be clear.
Having grown up here and having felt fully a part of the neighborhood, I think the funniest and darkest thing I see is that intense exertion and striving – which is very NYC – coupled with the need to make everything seem effortless – which is very Brooklyn.
You mention having been part of a handful of self-help communities yourself. Were those enlightening experiences? When did you decide they would be a good backdrop for a dark comedy?
They were all incredibly positive experiences – and yeah, some were even enlightening. I think actually that the decision to set our film in an urban commune sort of arose from the desire on the part of co-writer Ittai Orr and myself to explore this blurred boundary between love and friendship. We created this perversely idealistic world where all the members of the commune were “Soul Friends” and then we created this outsider character who wants a traditional kind of romantic/sexual relationship with one of the members.
But this isn’t some kind of crazy cult; the way we set about creating the commune was really to remember always that these people are just typical Slopesters – including the leader, Dr. Emma Horowitz. She’s not some sinister cult leader. She’s a very warm, erudite psychologist with a PhD from Princeton who lived in Park Slope and decided to turn her brownstone into a commune one day in 1996. The fact that the characters and situations feel real makes the humor that much more outlandish.
The commune we created is very very loosely based on some places I’ve seen or heard about, but there’s actually not much noticeable resemblance to be honest. Part of the appeal of setting your film in a commune is that you can invent whatever rules you like. The one thing I did notice about every spiritual community/organization I’ve been to is the desire to prove their self-awareness. When you’re a part of something like that, you make concerted attempts to show that you know how absurd it seems, that you’re savvy to how it might look to an outsider, etc. We definitely tried to capture that in the script.
You’re a native Park Sloper. Do you feel that there’s some pride in your portrayal of Park Slope (and its residents) that comes through along with the satire? Do you see yourself in the characters?
I definitely see myself in the characters. And I like to think I have some pride left.
Perhaps on a more serious note, though, I think any good satire has to be a so-called “affectionate satire” in order to be worthwhile at all. There’s no insight to be gained, otherwise. I’m definitely proud of where I grew up, so I’m sure that that comes across.
Can you speak a bit about the history of the project itself? How did you and your collaborators find each other? How has it been working through Seed & Spark, with such transparency and interaction between creators and supporters?
My co-writer Ittai Orr and I met on an online dating website and we became fast platonic friends. For a minute I had the idea of casting and hiring crew via dating websites, but I anticipated some problems and decided against it. I later saw his rendition of Caligula, which he translated and directed for the stage, and I was impressed. The germ of the idea came after we attended the first annual Park Slope Film Festival, and we wanted to make a film that was quintessentially Park Slope. We wrote at a lot of Park Slope cafes, of course – The Tea Lounge, Root Hill Cafe, Cafe Dada – to help us stay in the Park Slope state of mind.
Seed & Spark has been great so far. It’s a new startup based in Prospect Heights, and it’s focused exclusively on independent film – both crowdfunding and also online distribution. As one of their 14 founding filmmakers, I’m in touch with the CEO and all the people involved. They’ve given us some great advice on how to crowdfund successfully, and their platform is working well for us as well. I think people really like the “wishlist”, which lets you direct your donations toward certain areas of the film budget, and our supporters have had a lot of fun “buying” us some weird props. But the fact that there’s a cash donation button means people can give any amount, no matter how small.
A lot of our donations have come in small increments from a pretty wide pool; a huge number of donations have come from the Park Slope community, because it really is a community. Then there have also been some extremely large contributions from certain donors. We have only 2 weeks to go (our deadline is January 29th) and a pretty big funding gap to fill before we can realize this idea of ours.
And finally– have you ever tried to do the Master Cleanse?
I haven’t, but I know a girl who has. She passed out somewhere down the line. But remember, our film has nothing to do with Cayenne, lemon, and maple syrup. It’s about so much more.
Donate to The Master Cleanse at Seed & Spark, or stop by the funding party on Friday, January 25 at Prospect Bar (545 Fifth Avenue between 14th & 15th Streets), 9:00pm, $12 minimum contribution made through Seed & Spark. Free Master Cleanse shot upon admission (recipe is, of course, top secret).