Lost your job? Documentary details layoffs' sweet side

Layoffs hurt. But "Lemonade" tells the story of job losses that turned into more fulfilling careers.

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    Erik Proulx, who made the short documentary Lemonade about triumphing over layoffs in the advertising industry after being laid off himself, poses for a portrait in his basement home office in Melrose, Mass.
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Even though everyone at his Boston advertising agency knew layoffs were coming, Erik Proulx was still shocked when he lost his job as senior copywriter last October.

With no steady salary and lots of free time on his hands, the 30-something husband and father of two fired up his computer, created a website, and began blogging about his experiences. “I’ve heard so many people express some kind of despair after losing their jobs. I was one of them,” Mr. Proulx says. “It was important for me to discover in myself that this could be the best opportunity of my life – with the right attitude.”

Soon his website (www.pleasefeedtheanimals.com) was attracting hundreds of laid-off ad professionals who contributed their own experiences of creative projects they’d undertaken. Proulx was so intrigued by their stories that he ended up creating a 40-minute documentary about life on the other side of layoffs. In a strange twist of life imitating art imitating life, Proulx found fulfillment in unemployment by filming the stories of people who found fulfillment in unemployment.

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“I’ve been exercising this belief that I have that when you do what you love, money just seems to fall in line,” Proulx says. “That’s fairly cliché, but it’s the truth.” In its final edits, the film – called “Lemonade” – has been sent to judges for the Sundance Film Festival.

“Lemonade” revolves around the lives of Proulx and 15 others who were laid off from the ad industry. Instead of focusing on how unemployment crimped their lives, the film looks at how their unexpected downtime
allowed them to follow lifelong passions.

“There’s a real ‘Who am I?’ ” moment when you no longer have your job as an identity,” says Michelle Pfennighaus, an unemployed professional featured in the movie. Her moment came after being forced to leave her job as senior art director at Arnold Worldwide, a Boston ad agency, in March. Today, she is a yoga instructor and holistic health counselor who talks about her life with a twinkle in her eye.
“The best part is making a living doing something I’m passionate about,” she says.

Another of the film’s turnaround stories comes from Bob Weeks, laid off from Arnold in October 2005, who turned his hobby of coffee roasting into a business. He has traveled to Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Colombia to learn everything about coffee – from seed to cup. His coffee, which he often serves out of his mobile cafe at local markets, is also available at Whole Foods, as well as at
a small retailer in eastern Massachusetts.

“Lemonade” addresses why these people decided to do something different after being laid off. For most, it was the feeling that life didn’t hold the same wonder anymore. Given time to think about where they might be in 10 years, they no longer saw rejoining the workforce as a viable option. But by doing what they felt passionate about, they found something even more fulfilling.

It is clear that these individuals’ lives aren’t simple. Their days are full of challenges they never knew they’d have. Sometimes, they’ve not known when the next paycheck would arrive.

“I’m happy. I’m also still a little unsettled,” says Kurtis Glade, who was senior vice president at McCann Erickson until March. Mr. Glade, whose daughter was diagnosed with a severe disease said to be inherited, created a short film that called attention to the natural saline treatment that surfing offers for the disease. Now he is raising funds for a longer film on the subject for the nonprofit Mauli Ola Foundation, which organizes surf camps for children.

Like many in “Lemonade,” Glade does freelance advertising work to support his family. His average day is a game of “bumper cars,” he says. “But at least I’m driving.”

In Proulx’s words, “Lemonade” fell into place “seamlessly.” Documentaries of its caliber can cost more than seven figures to produce. Proulx raised $400 to pay for odds and ends throughout the project. Everything else was donated, including the directing skills of Marc Colucci of Picture Park, a Boston-based production company.

“It’s rare, I think, that someone has an idea like this that is very timely,” says Mr. Colucci, who volunteered after finding out about Proulx’s project from a Web-surfing colleague who read his blog.

Through connections initiated by Picture Park and others, Proulx found The Camera House and Rule and Abel Cine Tech, who all donated high-end cameras for filming, as well as Bug Editorial Inc., Finish Editorial, Soundtrack Group, and Mir Internet Marketing, which offered sound mixing, interactive work, and postproduction assistance free of charge. Past colleagues, new contacts, and strangers gave their skills to “Lemonade.” Even Peter Nelson, director of photography on Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” donated weekends to the project.

When Proulx found individuals in New York and Los Angeles he wanted to interview, the crew faced the predicament of getting around the country with no budget. Proulx published a letter to Virgin America on his website, asking the company to donate plane tickets. Through the social-networking service Twitter, Proulx’s followers bombarded the carrier with additional requests. The same day, the airline offered round-trip tickets for the entire crew to fly across the country.

While creating the film, Proulx has done freelance ad work to support his family. Money is tight, he says, but he shrugs off the idea that he was brave for making “Lemonade.”

“I didn’t want to be fooled into the belief that taking a full-time job would be any more or less risky than starting my own thing,” he explains. “In a lot of ways, taking a full-time job is even riskier, because you have to rely on the whims of your employer.”

Colucci recalls a segment of the film when the interviewees share their experiences about being laid off. “Everyone’s story runs into one big kind of story,” he says, “And I feel that runs off into other industries; you can talk to 100 people, or 1,000 people, who have been laid off and hear the same exact thing.”

At a time when unemployment is at its highest level in nearly three decades, the documentary offers insight into the world of living one’s dreams and the inspiration that comes when people believe in themselves, take risks, and prepare for the fight of their lives.

“If nothing else,” Proulx says, “I just want people to know that when you lose your job, life could just be beginning – not ending.”

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Whetted your interest? Check out a trailer for "Lemonade" below.

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