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'The Purple Couch' emphasizes similarities, overcomes differences

A couple fights division with TV cameras, cushions, and a chance to talk

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 2007



SAN DIEGO

It's a typical August morning in Vista, Calif., the sky a cloudless blue, the air blazing hot by 9 a.m. On the sidewalk outside the Curbside Café sits a purple velvet couch. It looks ridiculously out of place here on Main Street, as do the dozen or so people fussing about it – a cameraman, several production people, the director, a film editor, and a few people waiting to sit on the couch and talk.

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A young man holds a long-handled fuzzy microphone a few feet in front of Mark Nordquist, an ex-pro football player asked to talk about a defining moment in his life. He chooses his father's death, when Mr. Nordquist was in high school: "He came to football practice every day to watch me. His death left a big hole in my life." He looked to coaches to fill the void. "My relationships with coaches were always father and son," he says. It wasn't until college that Nordquist broadened his search for comfort and companionship. He's now been married 43 years.

Luke Eder, the director of photography, focuses on Nordquist's face, his coffee cup, his arm lying casually on top of the couch. When the camera stops, everyone thanks Nordquist for his candor. He has just become part of The Purple Couch, a project conceived by Michael and Cheryl Johnson, cofounders and partners in Moving Pictures, Inc.

The Purple Couch was inspired by the Johnsons' frustration after the divisive 2004 presidential election. Tired of seeing the country portrayed in red and blue and "of people making snap judgments about others," Michael and Cheryl decided they would record people's stories in an effort to show that Americans are more similar than different. "We've become a society of labels and very quickly put one another into boxes," says Michael. "We have forgotten our humanity."

The Johnsons bought the couch for about $800. Purple, they say, signifies "spirituality, wisdom, the divine, and love." So far, the couch has been set down only within San Diego County, on beaches, at Balboa Park, and on sidewalks like this one. But the Johnsons and their band of followers – friends, relatives, paid and unpaid film and television professionals, and many young volunteers – want to take it to sidewalks, malls, beaches, and parks all over the country. They'd also like to make a living at it. Right now most of their crew – and they themselves – volunteer or are paid a minimal amount. Their goal is a network television series. Also on the horizon are an interactive website, with interviews and visitors' comments, a documentary, and a book.

They're hardly newcomers to the field: Michael is CEO of Industrial Strength Television, a production company specializing in documentaries that include "Bigger Boxes," a film about Wal-Mart, and "Reclaiming Your American Dream," which won three local Emmy Awards in 2004. Cheryl is a former junior high school science teacher who left teaching to join forces with her husband.

At the shoot on Aug. 2, Bill Hogan, a venture capitalist based in Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., observed the activity with an eye toward funding; Michael says they have had interest from other investors as well.

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By midmorning, several locals are filling out release forms and waiting to take their turns on the couch. A "people wrangler" is off rounding strangers up, asking if they'd like to participate, and some passersby stop of their own accord to give the couch a try. Cheryl, sitting off-camera on a wooden crate, asks the questions, usually one of her staples such as: "What is your happiest or saddest childhood memory?" or "What do you think is true about God?" Depending on how subjects answer the broad questions, Cheryl follows up with more specific ones.

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