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.
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.
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.
"Our experience has been that people are dying to be heard," says Michael.
Kelly Burk, an effervescent waitress at the Curbside Café, starts talking about her new boyfriend before the camera is even rolling. "He is the love of my life," she says. Ms. Burk, a single mother of two, tells of a particularly lonely night, when she wrote on the back of a cellphone bill the qualities she wanted in a boyfriend. After she began dating her new beau, she found that list and realized he embodied all of them. She smiles rapturously into the camera. "I think we both kissed a lot of toads before we found each other," she says. Watching Burk talk, I find that despite – or perhaps because of – the voyeuristic feel of the whole thing, this is pretty compelling entertainment.
That's because what works in drama is the personal aspect, says Richard Walter, a professor and chair of the screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. "Look at movies," he says. "Nothing is more false than a movie, and yet we want movies to seem real. Because what's real about film is the emotion you feel.... We are looking for a connection between our own lives and the characters' lives."
Leo Braudy, a cultural historian and University Professor of English at the University of Southern California, says people tend to feel a tug of war between exposing their innermost thoughts and hiding them. "Whether you're sleeping with your mother-in-law or talking about something that happened in the third grade, there is a need to tell stories," he says, and the couch itself is conducive to that sort of exposure. "We learn protocols of behavior from popular culture. A couch is the late-night TV talk-show setting. People think you're on the couch, you start talking. It signifies a kind of privacy and intimacy."
Soon Fred Albury sits down. He is bald, clean-shaven, and wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. Asked how he thinks we can improve our country, Mr. Albury is thoughtful and articulate.
"National healthcare, affordable housing, ending the war in Iraq," he says. "We're spending millions upon millions on the war in Iraq, but we don't address our own citizenry. I don't know who said it – I think Voltaire – that a society can only be judged by how well it treats its old people and its children. We fail on both counts." After health problems caused him to lose two jobs a few years ago, he says, he now works for a temporary service. "And," he adds, matter-of-factly, "I'm homeless."
There is general astonishment. This guy – homeless? Moments ago, he was quoting Voltaire. Albury senses our disbelief. "I know ... when you think of homeless people, you think of people who are drug-addicted and drink," he says to the camera. "I don't fit into any of those categories, but day to day, I have to think about what I'm going to eat, where I'm going to sleep, and how I'm going to survive."
If Cheryl and Michael wanted to prove their point about how little we know one another, they couldn't have scripted it better. But the power of this moment is that it isn't scripted. In this makeshift living room, with concrete in place of carpet and the sun as a blazing roof, a single admission cuts through our assumptions about one another's worlds.
"There's a whole life in this person you've judged in 30 seconds," Michael says of his inspiration for the project. By taking the time to sit, talk and listen, it's remarkable how much of strangers' lives a purple couch on a San Diego sidewalk can absorb, support, and reveal.