2004 BBIFF




16:40 TRT
Narrative Dramedy, Dark Comedy
OK Premiere
Writer, Producer, Director
Francis Estrand-Cinematographer
Valerie Shoaps-Editor
San Francisco, CA
A failed dancer picks a fight with a female student in his aerobis class and loses.


In 1994, I was working for a small, inept publishing company in Emeryville, Californiaan utterly forgettable experience except for one empoyee. Call him Ralph. Like me, he didn't really want to be there. I was a writer, he was a musician, and publishing was our day job. Only he cared less than me about appearing enthusiastic.

Our workplace was populated by an ever-changing cast of social misfits. Personal interactions were strained, and trying to talk about them was futile. So, Ralph found ways of mirroring the absurdity of the situation to everyone. One time, he walked up to me at work and stared. "Hey fuck face," he said. Then he pretended to catch himself: "Oh sorry, I'm not good with people."

Ralph's daily routine went like this. He would roll into the office around 10 a.m., wearing torn jeans, sneakers, and a leather jacket. Hed plop down at his desk, make a few personal calls, and then persuade me to join him in a coffee break. After he'd somehow detained me for half an hour, Id return to my desk and scramble to catch up while Ralph made more personal calls and harassed the other workers. At 11:45, hed talk me into taking an early lunch. Wed drive to the local food court, where hed load up on pasta, burritos, sandwiches, and soda, and wash it all down with a gelato milkshake. After an hour and a half, hed drop me back at the office, and Id slog through a dozen voice-mail messages while Ralph parked his car behind the office, curled up in the back seat with a pillow, and took a one-hour digestive nap. Around 2:15, hed come in through the rear entrance, wander into the mail room, and shoot some Nerf hoops with the clerks. Then he'd grab the Wall Street Journal and head for the men's room. After 45 minutes, he would emerge, return to his desk, and call a friend to tell a dirty joke. At 4:00, he'd gather his things and rush out, eager to get in an early game of basketball at the Y.

You might think that Ralph didn't last long at his job, and at any other company, he wouldn't have. But this routine went on for almost two years, during which Ralph hatched an ingenious plan to advance his publishing careerand, in the process, take a much-needed vacation from his hectic schedule. He convinced a publicist at the Hawaiian tourism bureau to send him on an all-expenses-paid trip to the islands so that he could write a favorable story about Hawaiian travel. He gave assurances that the article would appear in a national publication, carefully omitting that he hadnt yet secured a contract from an editor. While hiking along the Napali Coast, he twisted his ankle, forcing him to return home early. The injury kept him from his basketball games for four months, but it didnt keep him from the food court. While recovering, he gained 50 pounds. You couldn't help but feel sorry for Ralph as he limped through the cubicle corridors, hiking his acid-wash Levi's up and over his expanding gut.

Once his ankle had healed, he enrolled in a dance aerobics class to burn off his excess blubber. He was one of two men in the class, and he soon realized that he had struck the mother lode. The women in his classdrab secretaries, dull accountants, dreary paralegalshad never seen the likes of Ralph. He was not a conventionally handsome man; acne had scarred his face, and doctors had performed several surgeries on his broken nose. But the women loved his quirky jokes and sassy dance moves. After their workout, they would take their fun-loving classmate out for drinks and more dancing.

Ralph dropped the extra weight in record time and was so sold on aerobics that he became a certified instructorand it was good that he did, for he was soon fired from his publishing job. It was 1996, and no sooner was he unemployed than he discovered the burgeoning dot-com movement, in which guys like him were called "visionaries." For the next five years, he bounced from one Internet job to another, getting fired here, laid off there, and always increasing his salary. He bought a black BMW just to flip the bird at his critics. His band put out a CD, performed live shows, and garnered favorable reviews. Through it all, he kept teaching dance aerobics and loving the attention from his female students, whom he dated shamelessly. His Saturday morning class grew famous among women at the Y, and Ralph would often stagger in after a late night of boozing and chain-smoking to teach it. He would start the class by having the women lay quietly on mats while he recited an affirmation: Put aside your cares. The next hour is for us. Lets remember how wonderful we are, give ourselves the love we deserve, and summon the inner strength to crush our enemies.

Throughout the years that I toiled in publishing, I kept in touch with Ralph. When I needed relief from my oppressive surroundings, I'd call to hear the latest story about his aerobics class. There was the one about the porn star who faithfully attended his Saturday morning workouts, the grandmother in the class who bought him expensive gifts and tried to date him, and the ex-girlfriend who showed up and screamed at him in front of his students. Naturally, when I began thinking about writing a short comedy in early 2003, I thought of Ralph. But I didn't want to make a straight biopic or a documentary, nor did I want to make a happy film. I wanted to make a comedy that incorporated the bleak atmosphere in which Ralph and I had developed our morbid humor as self-defense. I wanted to recreate the circumstances that drive people to bizarre, self-destructive behavior in the workplace: failed artistic dreams, an intolerable day job, a disapproving parent. So, to Ralph the aerobics instructor I added heaps of self-loathing, despair, and loneliness and came up with Roger Brown, the protagonist in Overpowering Musk. The result, I hope, is a story not about Ralph but about the unholy laughs he and I have shared over the years.

The script for Overpowering Musk went through about eight incarnations in six months. During that period, I studied digital production at Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, learning technical skills I needed to shoot in digital video. I was very lucky to attract talented people to work on the film, all of whom gave generously of their time. Most of all, I am indebted to my wife, Elena Vega, for her contributions to the script and the film and her unwavering support.