Comedy and Cosmic Perspective as an Antidote to Hate

I’ve Got Issues writer-director Steve Collins on how he has looked to film, rather than religion, for a path to inner peace and salvation.

Long ago, as a pre-teen atheist, I really didn’t understand religion. Why would you need that? Just be nice to people. Simple. However, religion made a lot more sense to me once adolescence kicked in and I started feeling more pain. As I started making films, cinema became my spiritual substitute: Take what you’re feeling and process it through the movie, transmit it to an audience, feel less alone. Or the reverse: Watch a movie, receive transmission, also feel less alone. It’s a form of communion. As a teenage film nut, I would have done anything to even direct the crappiest of straight-to-video exploitation films that were at my local video store. I had that blind, mad, sloppy love for movies. But once I was actually able to get my first movie Gretchen together in 2005, I had seen too many great films and I wanted my movie to take us someplace that felt transcendent, eternal. I never logged time in an actual church, but I still wanted grace.

Every film I made was my solution to a personal spiritual crisis. My crises were not extraordinary, just work-related disappointment passed through passion and a melancholy streak. I am a filmmaker and a film teacher, not anyone who saves lives or is on the front lines of any atrocity, but it’s all a matter of scale. Increase the amount you care, and you can make your very own trauma. It’s a bad idea I do regularly. I thought maybe when I started teaching, the ups and downs would be less tumultuous, but I realized quickly that all difficult tasks can hurt you if you commit. There was always cynicism as an escape pod, but I couldn’t have looked myself in the mirror if I’d made that choice. My constitution was poorly designed for getting what I needed – perspective.

Courtney Davis, Macon Blair and John Merriman in Steve Collins’ You Hurt My Feelings.

Each film I made was a way to organize my struggle and lift myself out of a hole; they were all desperate acts. My first feature, a mixed-up teen coming-of-age story called Gretchen, was a cry out for the awkward and frightened. I wanted to prove that feeling mattered more than anything, that a big heart and some chutzpah meant something. Gretchen was a film soaked in comic irony: exaggerated teen delinquents, adults playing adolescents, but ultimately I was trying to get my cynical generation to go toward something more authentic. My second film, You Hurt my Feelings, my first drama since I was an angsty teenager, came out of my disappointment with Gretchen’s commercial fate. The film is about a male nanny healing from some unspecified heartbreak by taking care of children across four seasons in New England. This is essentially what I was doing, having abandoned my film-centered home in Austin for parenting in rural Connecticut. My third film, The Secret Life of Girls was a documentary born out of another failure: three years of development for a sensible commercial project that I couldn’t get made. The Secret Life of Girls was my body taking over and just picking up a camera. I took my young children outside and tried to find something beautiful and mysterious. Working with real subjects, I found things so beyond what I could have created. There is so much more out there more interesting than our problems. I was rejuvenated.

Becky Ann Baker and Courtney Davis in Steve Collins’ Gretchen.

Admitting I want my movies to light a path for lost souls, I feel exposed for ridicule. It must seem especially odd, considering how strange some of my films are. Case in point, I’ve Got Issues features a love story between a woman whose face is frozen in an expression of unimaginable anxiety and a character whose body has melted into his couch. It’s an unlikely spot for salvation, but weird movies made my life better so I kept returning to the belief they could help others. One day recently, as my latest project was not taking off and I was down in the dumps, I got this email:
“I couldn’t sleep because I had to re-watch the movie Gretchen that your company produced. I just wanted to reach out and say “Thank you” for changing my life. It’s one of my favorite films of all time and anyone I get to share it with, falls in love with how fucking weird it is but yet – real. Anyways have a great 2020.”

It’s nice to get something like that. If your films don’t have mass appeal, you want to believe they matter to your small audience. All this toil wasn’t supposed to be just for me. I was trying to build a path toward something kinder, funnier, more beautiful, and I didn’t want it to be a secret. I wanted communion.

Just an hour ago, I got a terse critique of the I’ve Got Issues trailer from Matt42:
“Another awful fucking movie”

He seems so exhausted with it all. Sorry Matt42, at least you didn’t have to watch the whole thing.

Cinematographer Nathan Smith and writer-director Steve Collins on the set of I’ve Got Issues. (Photo by Tate English.)

I’ve Got Issues came out of a national crisis, instead of a me fretting over the fate of some creative project. I wrote it in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when all that human ugliness, which must have been there before, was illuminated to everyone. Most of the sensitive, struggling people I knew were reeling. Every headline was more bad news. It felt apocalyptic, an atom bomb of hate, rippling across our inner landscape. I decided, as a way to rescue myself and my band of creative collaborators, that I would make a film about tenderhearted characters joining together and choosing light over darkness. It would be our lifeboat. I took all these small stories of people being taken advantage of, heartbroken, beaten down, and linked them to the larger picture of suffering across time, to try to see that pain is part of our process of renewal.

As a political solution, I’m probably no help (please vote). My focus is dealing with our personal response to hurt, how we delude ourselves, how we are our own worst problem. I’m looking for deeply empathetic comedy rooted in the difficulties of being human. Ordinary difficulties, such as losing one’s car keys, and extraordinary difficulties, like why it is we can’t seem to get along with each other, and how sometimes problems big or small can plummet us into questioning the point of it all. Most of us tend to trap all the pain inside ourselves, our own jailers. We are terrible at seeing things in perspective.

The poster for I’ve Got Issues was designed by Steve Collins’ friend and collaborator John Merriman (who also stars in the film) to look like an end-of-the-world evangelical pamphlet, with a nod to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Now in 2020, in the midst of political chaos and a global pandemic, I’ve Got Issues is more prescient than I wanted it to be. The hydrogen bomb that bookends the film doesn’t seem like such a metaphor anymore. The bad guys of my film – charlatans, narcissists and phony gurus – were modeled after our current leaders. Somehow in fiction they were easier to rehabilitate. I tried to both recognize evil and practice infinite compassion. It was my way of not falling into the aftershock of hate. Long ago, I started the film-for-religion swap that brought me toward creating I’ve Got Issues. The film is my comedic book of parables about how to survive modern life. Comedy can help if we let it. Write me a line if it does. (And sorry again, Matt42.)

Steve Collins is the writer, director and producer of the absurdist comedy I’ve Got Issues, out now on VOD, which is narrated by Jim Gaffigan and stars Macon Blair, Claire Titelman, John Merriman and Byron Brown. In 2011, Collins wrote and directed the feature film You Hurt My Feelings, a New York Times and New York Magazine critics pick. His first feature, Gretchen (2006), won Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Collins has taught filmmaking at UT Austin, and presently heads the production department at Wesleyan University. (Photo by Tate English.)