For those of you who don’t watch The Office: Threat-Level Midnight is the name of a movie produced by Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), the present-but-soon-to-be former lead character of the program. Various mentions of it are made earlier in the series, though in a recent episode it is declared finished and the ep is centered around Michael showing it off to the other characters (most of whom played parts). As one might expect of a movie created by the uncreative and null-brained Scott character, the movie isn’t very good.

The entire episode gave me flashbacks to some of my earliest “productions”. My friend Clint and I used to make radio movies. The first set was a series of rip-offs of a major film at the time. They were fun to make. We didn’t have a script. We just had an idea of where the plot would go and took it scene-by-scene. We made four in all. Fun to make though they were, they were dreadful. I don’t even think Clint and I ever actually made our way through listen to an entire “movie.” We became increasingly aware of how terrible they were. Years later we would listen to them again and they took on a whole new level of entertainment. Nostalgia and (mostly unintended) comedy. Having third graders play adult characters is funny. Having them try to talk even more pipsqueaky to emulate third graders is hilarious. Probably not to anybody but Clint and myself.

We always intended to make an actual movie-movie with the concept. But making movies is hard. In high school (I think? Maybe junior high) we did actually make some moviesbut by that people we realized that they couldn’t be remotely self-serious. We called it Howser & Mitcham (named after the two main characters). Unlike the radio movies, these I don’t mind showing to people, but under the category of “things we did when we were young” rather than “What do you think?!”

In a way, it’s a really good thing that we never fully appreciated how bad the things we were doing actually were*. When you’re working creatively, you have to start out bad so that you can improve from it. Over the years I’ve met with more than a few would-be writers who have said that they wanted to write, but they could never live up to their own expectations. Some of them basically realized that they simply didn’t have the time and energy to devote to improving their craft. Some took a more egotistical tact: It would almost certainly be great, would probably be published, but would never live up to my expectations. Their only shortcoming, then, is that they are just perfectionists. Thus allowing them to believe in their own greatness without ever having to actually produce anything. The best of both worlds. At some point I will pick up on this as it pertains to novel-writing, but for now I will stick to movies.

The idea of making an actual movie-movie, longer than an hour, was revived in college. My roommate Hubert, bereft of creative talent but a good producer-type, was particularly keen on the idea. So keen it kind of made us nervous. I don’t know if it was that we weren’t serious about it or that we recognized that something like that would take time to do right and he wanted to do it immediately. I wrote the outline of a plot with a movie that would have been doable (“The Late Shift”). Hubert loved it, but my actor-friend was kind of lukewarm on it, which killed Hubert’s enthusiasm. This worked out for the best, we thought (though my ego was stung).

Threat Level Midnight puts a finger on why I felt more relieved than anything when The Late Shift kind of got tossed by the wayside. Even with a good script (which TLM lacked), it wouldn’t have had much in the way of anything, production-value wise. Less, even, than Clerks, because apart from an actor and a lighting guy, we didn’t have much of anything in the way of production talent or even thousands of dollars. And while TLS was a comedy, it wasn’t a silly-stupid comedy like Howser & Mitchem were. And we didn’t want to do Howser & Mitchem. We wanted to do something better.

Making a movie is still on the list of things I want to do before I die, through Threat Level is mostly what I am going to be aiming to avoid. The good news about the way that my life has unfolded is that I will be able to actually take film classes. The only real questions will be money and time. Whatever it would be, it would likely need to be something pretty modest. One of the ideas involves most of the movie taking place in an auditorium or gymnasium. Unfortunately, I worry that the window for writing that piece has passed and I’m not sure I could write it today as I could have a decade ago. It needed the mentality of a younger person. I may even re-visit The Late Shift.

On the other hand, the whole thing is less important to me than it used to be. In part because I don’t really watch movies anymore (in favor of TV shows, which I definitely couldn’t make). In part because I’ve found that novel-writing provides me a way to tell the stories I want to tell. And from a practical standpoint, I’ve been developing ideas for a multimedia thing that would rely most heavily on novels, but will buttress that with other productions (including, perhaps, short films) in order to entice people to read. As mentioned before, an advantage to the way that my life is unfolded is that I have options. Unfortunately, so many possibilities I am reluctant to commit in any particular direction.

* – A moderate counter-example. I took a visual-media class in high school and made a music video. The write-up was great. The editing wasn’t very good due to technical limitations (no longer an issue). I got the only standing ovation from the teacher. There was going to be another assignment at the end of the class, but the teacher went and had a stroke. Clint and I have talked about going back and re-doing the music video with today’s technology. We probably could. But they would still be, at best, very skillful home movies, until I’m ready to commit.

Category: Theater

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2 Responses to Threat Level Midnight

  1. Kirk says:

    Back around ten years ago, I used to hang around an internet discussion group dedicated to Bill Maher’s show “Politically Incorrect.” Maher made a comment on the show about how most women really don’t like each other. A few female posters joked about it, even going so far as to make jokey threats against each other.

    So, I went and wrote an entire novel about women beating the living shit out of one another. I even gave the characters the same names as the posters on the discussion group. It was a lot of fun writing it, and I eventually posted it.

    Funny, when I read it now, I can see all the mistakes I used to make in my writing back then. I guess it’s good that I’ve progressed.

    As for your comment about no longer liking movies, I’m not really into them myself any more. I find myself often coming this close to cancelling my Netflix subscription, but never quite pulling the trigger.

  2. Mike Hunt says:

    If you remember, the original script was insulting to Dwight, except Michael changed Dwight’s name so he wouldn’t find out.

    Unfortunately, he once spelled Dwight’s name as “Dwigt” so it was obvious who he was making fun of…

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