When we were kings

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim talk about their unblinking look at ill-fated GovWorks.com.

Published May 11, 2001 7:39PM (EDT)

"Startup.com," a documentary by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, follows the lives of two friends who leave promising jobs in high finance to start an Internet company. The two entrepreneurs, with the help of a few friends, raise $60 million in cash to fund what amounts to a way for people to pay their parking tickets online. In a year and a half, their company, GovWorks, grows from a small circle of buddies to a buzzing office of 250.

All that money, and all that responsibility, don't come for free. The founders are Kaleil Isasa Tuzman, a charismatic leader, and Tom Herman, a laid-back, touchy-feely guy in a goatee. The two have to fend off competitors, deal with increasing pressure from their investors and ultimately face off against each other. In the end, their business shatters, seemingly as fast as it came together.

Noujaim hit upon the story because GovWorks co-founder Tuzman was her roommate. Shortly after Noujaim started filming him, she met Chris Hegedus, an experienced filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about a start-up company. The two decided to collaborate, and Hegedus' husband and partner, D.A. Pennebaker, agreed to produce. Together, Noujaim and Hegedus shot the movie, letting the story unfold in classic cinéma vérité fashion, capturing it with the often dark, often grainy -- but omnipresent -- images from a pair of digital video cameras.

The film tracks the entire process: the long hours, the dry business meetings, the flights on no sleep and a curious business culture of company retreats and corporate cheers. It manages to be smart and succinct yet messy and complicated at the same time, asking questions about ethics and responsibility, casting young against old and magnifying a tale about the Internet boom out of a couple of charismatic personalities. I met with Hegedus and Noujaim for an hour on a busy press day upstairs at a midtown Manhattan pub.

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Chris, you've said that you thought that the Internet entrepreneurs were almost like rock stars. After I saw the film I had to disagree. Two of the qualities of rock stars are that you either want to be them or want to sleep with them. I couldn't imagine either one with these guys.

Hegedus: I think there were probably a lot of people who wouldn't mind sleeping with Kaleil. But I kind of meant more that they were celebrities. It seemed, especially in the very beginning, with these Internet parties that were happening in New York, that everybody -- artists, models -- were flocking around them. And all their friends, this generation, wanted to be part of it. Everyone wanted to come to the party somehow.

What do you think the people were attracted to? Was it the money, the ideas, the potential or just the newness?

Hegedus: It was the adventure. Here was something, the Internet, that was created and giving everyone the opportunity to be part of this exciting new thing. When you create a new business, you can be your own boss. You can invent what you're doing. It was very creative. It was anti-Establishment.

Noujaim: At the beginning there was more of this rock star mentality -- until they had to answer to these V.C.s [venture capitalists] asking when they were going to be making their first profits. And then of course, with the huge pressure of having $60 million on your shoulders and all of your friends' careers hanging over your head, things got very serious.

The us-against-them mentality started to drift away as soon as they wanted serious money. In the film, we see Kaleil and Tom fumbling with "them." We don't necessarily see the two plotting against "them."

Hegedus: Their site was not a quirky, sexy site that might have been much more filmable. But in a lot of ways I was instantly attracted to Kaleil. I thought he was very charismatic. I also thought he was very ambitious and brave to try to do government. It was such a big, unwieldy idea. They were kind of forced quickly into more conservative roles because they had to deal with government officials. A lot of business behavior, that reverting to Goldman Sachs -- where most of them had worked -- just came back to them.

I liked that it ended up being one of the less sexy Internet ventures, because so much of the Internet revolution, at least in the press, has been about how the businesses generated culture, how business culture is culture. Businessmen were not just portrayed as leaders and inventors, but as something almost akin to artists.

Hegedus: I don't work in a big corporation and I never have. A lot of the business-culture phenomenon that they were instigating -- doing a cheer, going on retreats -- they had to do in some ways. They grew so fast, from just a handful of guys to 250 employees. I found that fascinating to watch because it was so different from my world. They were able to be so young and take these aspects seriously, which obviously came out of going to business school.

Noujaim: I learned a lot from the way that Kaleil ran the business. And a lot of it is things that people will laugh at -- the meditation in the forest, how serious he was when he was getting the troops to go forward -- but at the same time it's a culture that worked.

You filmed 400 hours. How do you even start to work with that, to edit it down?

Hegedus: It was an enormous amount. The first step is finding a story. The second is getting back what you have on tape. We knew the story that we were telling was very personal, so we were looking for a story that would tell the experience of the Internet and this company, but through these two buddies.

You have a lot of smart business-speak in the film, and it's mocked at the same time. Still, you were able to let them talk about very difficult concepts without explaining much. Did you feel like you had a license to focus on the human part of it and go short with explaining terms because we live in a media universe where we understand a lot of V.C.-speak?

Hegedus: No, it was a huge problem for us. I wanted to make a film for a general audience. When I started this, V.C. stood for Viet Cong. There was tons of vocabulary, not just with the business part but the technical part. They would go into this shorthand and Jehane and I would go into the bathroom, which was kind of our little office, and ask each other what they were talking about.

Noujaim: It was a challenge. When we were filming I was constantly thinking, "Kaleil, speak in English."

The technological aspect takes a back seat as well. Was there just too much expository stuff that you would have to slog through as a viewer?

Noujaim: That was disappointing for Tom. He was up until midnight every night working on the technology. But it's just very difficult for a general audience to understand what exactly is going on. And in the end, we were much more interested in the story than in making a process film about an Internet company.

Did your film, your craft, turn into something that was more business oriented because you were surrounded by all this business culture?

Noujaim: Totally. I spent three years of savings on this film.

Did you ever invest in the company?

Noujaim: No. It was such a temptation at the beginning. Kaleil had this great idea that I could buy into the company now, sell in series B, and that could go toward financing the film. Or taking stock options. I was so tempted -- all these people were going to become millionaires and I would be stuck holding this camera, following them around. A family member of mine did invest -- he lost everything. But I had to put all my money into this film, because something was going to come out of it in the end. There was this real optimism: I don't want to work for the man anymore; I want to do my own thing.

What involvement did Pennebaker and his office have? I'm surprised that you spent all of your money, that there wasn't some money coming from one of the most respected documentarians in the country.

Noujaim: I was surprised that they don't get funding for all of their films, but they don't. It's just not a moneymaking business. But Penne's a charming and amazing person, and he was generally kind of an advisor. At the beginning, I would come to him and say, "Kaleil wouldn't let me into these five meetings. What do I do? Do you think he's losing interest?" And he would say, "You need to have a talk with him and tell him that this is as important to you as his business is to him."

Would you have spent fewer hours filming if not for Pennebaker?

Noujaim: No, I would have shot more.

I ask because that's one of the things that Pennebaker and his coterie are famous for: these crazy shooting ratios where you shoot way, way more than you'll ever need.

Noujaim: I was way more obsessed with it. I felt, karmically, that this whole thing was working out: This is an amazing story; I have such an inside perspective because it's my roommate; I have an amazing filmmaker, Chris, who's involved with me, and Penne, who's like some kind of fairy who gives brilliant advice and has a gut feeling about film. I just knew that these tapes were 10 bucks apiece, and if I had to stay up all night watching them for the next six months, OK then, because I didn't want to do anything to fuck this up.

Amid all the dismay over the crash, with Internet businesses dying one after another, there was a strange thing happening, almost a celebration. There were people who were saying, "These Internet guys are finally getting theirs." It's actually died down a little, but there was a time not long ago when it seemed that there were people who were happy to see these businesses fail.

Hegedus: In the beginning there was, especially for GovWorks. It was one of the first big ones to go under. It all happened so fast. There was this horrible cynicism: "I told you so." Within the company itself it was interesting, because so many of his [Kaleil's] friends and the younger workers felt so entitled to make millions. And then they didn't. They felt such anger and resentment. That was really interesting for me.

Why do you say "for me"?

Hegedus: I'm from such a different generation. When I was their age you were lucky to get a job. And most of them had quite well-paying jobs at these Internet companies.

When I would talk to cynics at the start of the crash, I would ask them what part of all this made them happy. In the early '90s, there were no jobs for young people. The film concentrates on the people who started this company, but I'm sure you were watching this other level of workers come in -- even younger kids.

Noujaim: There was this kid, Marvin. He was from Queens. He came in and started working to fix computers and move boxes around. But his computer skills were amazing. Three months later, he was in charge of all the servers. Two months after that, he was sitting at a table with a CEO of another company. It was just amazing that people got opportunities, people who didn't have the opportunity to go through all the schooling that you'd have to do to sit in a CEO's office.

Hegedus: That was one of the interesting things about GovWorks. It was such a diverse company. They really tried to hire every race, give everyone opportunities.

Noujaim: It was like the Rainbow Coalition starting a company. And they were hiring in the same way. They wanted to move their offices up to Harlem and start another Silicon Alley. They had some big ideas about bridging the digital divide. It was these ideas that really interested Chris and me: We weren't following just some dot-com, we were following a company that really hoped to change the way government worked.

So where do you stand on this? Is this fallout sad to you beyond what happened here? Or are you more interested in only this one company?

Noujaim: I've never seen Kaleil in the state that he was in when he had lost all the money and had to sell the company and let go of his friends. He's somebody who has always succeeded. For somebody like that to fail, or to have a perceived failure -- they did sell the company, they did sell the engine that Tom had built, but they didn't make the billions -- I can imagine that the same total depression could happen to a lot of the really amazing, creative, gutsy people who were out there starting companies. Hopefully these people will continue to do stuff that is interesting and creative and new.

You're speaking in past tense. Is it really over?

Hegedus: Yeah, certainly this market bubble has popped. Now we're into something else. It was David and Goliath -- and Goliath stepped in and is taking over.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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