NEW YORK — David Sauvage stands on a sidewalk in SoHo, whipped by a cool autumn wind. He wears a black T-shirt and blue jeans. Dark, curly hair flops over his ears, and thick, rectangular glasses frame his brown eyes. He is 31 and thin as a filmstrip, casting-call perfection for the role of the struggling documentary director. At the moment, he is talking about stories and choices: purity, effectiveness, and truth.
“You can only tell people’s story from the inside, in their words,” he says, “or you can tell your story, and use people as pawns.”
Sauvage is breaking from hours of video storytelling slog, splicing clips of protesters from the Occupy Wall Street gathering in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park into a slick, quick package to beam out to the masses during football timeouts or cop-drama cliffhangers.
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The work is unpaid. It is his contribution to the Occupy movement, a personal protest against a system that seems to have lost interest in the stories he wants to tell, because, he says, all anyone cares about is telling the stories that people with money want to hear. But that’s not the case in Zuccotti Park, he says. Not amid the throngs of protesters who have caught the nation’s attention by force of presence alone, but have vexed so many Americans by refusing to articulate a set of goals or demands that their movement hopes to achieve. The presence in the park has energized Sauvage. The muddled message from the protests has jarred him to action.
“That feeling, that connection of human beings to one another, it’s alive down there,” he says. “I want to get that out. It’s unfair to expect the people who are angry and outraged to express their desires in the language of politics and power.”
A woman rushes up to Sauvage on the street, pink-cheeked, cradling a flower bouquet wrapped in plastic. She hugs him. He introduces her: the creative director of Bon Appetit magazine, one of his more steady sources of cash. To pay the bills, to afford to pursue the stories he wants to tell, Sauvage cuts commercials for big corporate clients. Now here is one of them — a friend, but also a reminder of the power that money holds over his storytelling — gently intruding on his labor of love. She chats for a second, then darts away.
He ducks inside to escape the chill.
Occupy Wall Street is a Monet protest: The closer you look at it, the less sense it makes. Upon inspection, the tidy caricature of neo-hippies raging against the financial system melts into a dot matrix of social, economic, and political anxiety. In Zuccotti Park on a recent afternoon you could find signs that said “Capitalism is Cancer” and “Free Empathy” and “I am the 99%” and even “Zionists Control Wall Street.” A woman was singing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”(Gonna make a change/ For once in my life) in a seemingly endless loop.
In the month since it sprang to life in the park and inspired hundreds of similar protests across the country, Occupy Wall Street has reveled in the opacity of its message. The outcry itself is the point. To focus it risks diluting it, or splintering the group, or opening it to co-option by entrenched political interests. It’s all very Tao Te Ching: The message is the message, and the message that is spoken is not the true message.
Confused? So is the country. Opinion polls show wild fluctuations from one to the next on the simple question of how many Americans support Occupy Wall Street. The protesters’ critics, meanwhile, are happy to stick with the hippie caricature in mocking the movement. Whether they like it or not, the Occupy crowd is rolling up to a crossroads. How far the movement will spread, and how much it will influence the public debate during a time of wrenching change in America, almost certainly depends on how the protesters reconcile the competing demands of telling their story on their terms and of telling their story in terms that the masses can understand and connect to.
As it happens, David Sauvage has wrestled that problem for much of his life.
Sauvage grew up in Los Angeles, living the life, as he puts it, of “the perfect spoiled white kid.” He attended Harvard-Westlake, an elite private high school, and then Columbia University in New York. In college, he dreamed of writing plays. When he graduated, all he wanted to do was find a way to make a living out of telling meaningful stories. Instead he found a constant friction.
He finished at Columbia in 2002 and left New York a couple of years later for Los Angeles, where he worked four months as an assistant to the executive producer of CSI: Miami. He left, returned to New York City, wrote a couple plays, crapped out, went back to L.A. again, and earned an M.B.A at the University of California (Los Angeles).
In business school, Sauvage shot a 23-minute documentary, Carissa, about one of his business-school classmates who was forced into prostitution at age 12. He found an executive producer — and mentor — in documentarian Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, two of the higher-profile American documentaries of the last decade. Carissa was distributed by a studio and won awards at several film festivals. Sauvage thought maybe his long-running battle between storytelling and moneymaking was ending. And then … nothing else came his way.
He lives in the East Village now. He calls himself an independent New York documentary and commercial director. To pay the bills, he started directing commercials. Bon Appetit is maybe his biggest client, but there are others. The last spot he cut aired on the backseat TVs of New York City taxi cabs during Fashion Week.
He laughs at the irony: It was an ad for The Wall Street Journal.
Sauvage found a creative outlet a month ago near Wall Street, in an asphalt park a few blocks from Ground Zero. He visited it at 9 p.m. on one of the first brisk days of the fall. He was impressed at how people braved the cold, but shocked by the difference between what the protesters were saying and what the news media was saying about them. That disconnect echoed Sauvage’s broader frustrations with the political system. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but recoiled when candidate Obama’s promises to change the tone and dialogue in Washington seemed to vanish after inauguration, leaving special-interest groups as powerful as ever.
“It feels like there’s no honest conversation” in society at large, he says. “Money has co-opted the language of mattering.” In Zuccotti, “They all think the conversation needs to change, even though they all think different things.”
Sauvage wanted to help the protesters communicate with the nation at large — “the 30-second world,” he calls it. He sat down over coffee with another friend in the film business, producer Glenn Grossman, and they sketched a plan.
Let’s make a commercial, they said.
He is reclining on a couch, under the glow of a tall orange lamp, surrounded by food wrappers, obsessing. His assistant sits at a desk, scrolling on a touch pad through clips of person after person staring into a camera and proclaiming, “I want … ”
The office beyond them is dark—through a window, Sauvage and his colleague Lotta Forssman, 27, look out on rows of young men in jeans and ball caps who are splicing videos across multiple computer screens that light their faces. From the couch, Sauvage barks a director’s critiques, clip by clip.
“The audio on this is really terrible.”
“That smile looks so cheesy.”
“She’s so stiff.”
“He looks like he’s trying to remember his line.”
“I like that one.”
He pops up, smiles, leans over the screen. He asks Lotta to pull up the full series of takes for each person. He stops on a curly-haired young man, with a green shirt and a scruffy beard, who says, “I want a paradigm shift from competition to cooperation.” One, two, three, four, five takes roll by. David is not satisfied.
Now there’s a black woman, her head shaved, with a strong Afro-Caribbean accent, who says “I want equality in the world.” Cars and voices blare in the background. David: “I like her look, but not her sound. Put that one aside. Probably won’t use her.”
This is an editing session for Sauvage’s second commercial. He spent a half-day in Zuccotti with a cinematographer, capturing hours of raw footage and filming 25 people. Only a few will make it into the final 15-second ad.
Filming posed challenges. Some protesters were camera-shy. Some wanted 14 different things. Some struggled to articulate what they wanted. Some, Sauvage says, were incoherent. Often he shot several takes of each person, as directors are apt to do. Take it up, he would tell them. Take it down. Try to sound less nervous. Later, in the editing room, he discards all but the strongest “I wants,” adds music and graphics.
The tension is, whom do you use? “What if somebody says, ‘I want to end capitalism’?” Sauvage says. “That sounds different than someone who says, ‘I want economic justice’. Do you use the person who says, ‘I want to end capitalism’? I decided not to, because I know how the other side would use that … That was me making a message, without even trying.”
He is distilling Occupy Wall Street — he is telling the most meaningful story he can find — with all the tools that moneymaking has taught him.
But Occupy Wall Street is not ready to be distilled.
Sauvage’s first commercial, a 30-second spot he made with Grossman, was picked up by progressive activists and plopped onto the crowd-funding website Loudsauce. Online donors pledged more than $5,000 to get the commercial on the air, probably on a cable network such as ESPN. Sauvage plans three or four more ads, and hopes to get more money behind them. He and his colleagues dream, somewhat immodestly, of raising the cash to air one of them during the Super Bowl.
One place you won’t find the commercials, for now anyway, is on the official Occupy Wall Street website. Initially encouraged by some of the movement’s founders, Sauvage ran into trouble when the broader group in Zuccotti Park weighed in. They decided not to post the initial ad because they worried it would look like an official list of demands.
The ad airing nationally is under the banner of Occupy Together, a support group of sorts for all the Occupy protests across the country, but not an official arm of Occupy Wall Street. The message that is spoken is still not the true message.
Sauvage’s 15-second spot is nearly done. He settled on five protesters, including an elderly white woman, a black man, and a young Asian woman. This is what they told his camera:
“I want the war to stop and the money to go to education and health care.”
“I want accountability.”
“I want a constitutional amendment banning all private money from government.”
“I want gay people to have equal rights.”
And at the end: “I want a more honest dialogue in this country.”