The self-help industry is so pervasive in society that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was always there. As if the insatiable desire to optimize our bodies, minds, relationships, and careers through endless tips and tricks is somehow a core part of what it means to be human. In reality, there are billions to be made by tapping into this vulnerability – and serious consequences for the many who fall prey to its mirage.
In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “You’ve Never Been Completely Honest,” filmmaker Joey Izzo uncovers a dark chapter in the early days of the self-help industry with a never-before published audio interview with Gene Church, a participant in a four-day leadership seminar organized by his employer Holiday Magic Inc in 1970 California.
Chasing promises of work advancement, Church and his colleagues embarked in a secretive program that quickly turned physically violent and emotionally abusive. Yet, none of them left – they stayed and they participated.
Church’s interview is harrowing but Izzo’s brilliance here is finding a way to capture audiences with bold animation while simultaneously leveraging 16mm reenactments to remind them that yes, this did in fact happen. As Izzo notes, nailing the hybrid style required a delicate balance: “It would be easy to just make an edge lord-y short and lean into every aspect of violence, but then people would just turn away from the truth of Gene’s story. So I wanted to strike a balance that rides the line that maintains the discomfort but keeps you in your seat watching until the very end.”
The execution was so impressive, that our team awarded “You’ve Never Been Completely Honest” with the unofficial Best Nonfiction Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and were thrilled to hear Izzo is developing the project into a series with Brain Dead Studios and A24!
We reached out to Izzo ahead of the premiere to hear more about the film, what led him down this rabbit hole, and what he learned from the experience. Read on for his enlightening answers.
“I grew up in the Bay Area, so self help seminars and personal development training were all around me. My parents dabbled in it as well, and I remember being fascinated with those giant binders of self-help cassettes and the numerous books. 10 years ago, when I first discovered Gene Church’s book ‘The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled,’ I felt like I had stumbled upon an origin story that clarified a lot of missing pieces of the presumed narrative of the self help business. The violence and abusive core of this industry was made shockingly apparent, and this plunged me down a rabbit hole of self help research that hasn’t stopped since.“
On the self-help industry:
“I think most people don’t see the self help industry as a movement. I certainly didn’t before this all began. Most people think there are a bunch of individual companies that have existed at various times throughout many generations. If you’ve done any digging into these various companies you might think that there’s a few bad apples, but on the whole, everyone is operating on good faith and wants to help you. Gene’s story added further layers of financial corruption and systemic abuse to that myth.
The self help industry originated out of door-to-door salesmen and pyramid schemers – like the company Gene worked for at the time, Holiday Magic Inc. The self-help movement was developed by these same corrupt operators, cloaking their schemes in New Age philosophy and the emerging Human Potential Movement. But underneath the rhetoric you’ll find an abusive system that is shaped like a… lets say, a three-dimensional triangle.”
On the hybrid documentary approach:
“The hybrid concept seemed like the best way to convey a sense of memory shaped by traumatic emotional impressions and realistic moment-by-moment accounts of the events as they unfolded. For the reenactments, my DP Arlene Muller shot on a high-grain 16mm stock and push-processed it to really feel like we were uncovering something hiding in the shadows. We wanted it to look like it was being unearthed, almost dug up from the ground. The reenactments were always intended to stay very grounded in the reality of the events, whereas the animation was given full license to get surreal and metaphorical.
Mortis Studios were in charge of the animation and we spoke at length about the stylistic approach needing to seem appropriate to the era that we are conveying, early 70s. Ralph Bakishi’s work was certainly an influence, not just in form, but also in terms of blending live action with animation. Some parts of Gene’s story are extremely distressing, brutal, and gross. The right combination of animation and reenactment dialed in exactly where that line was drawn at any given moment in the short.”
On the draw of the Leadership Dynamics Institute:
“Think of it like this: You are a salesperson in a high-pressure environment. Everyone around you seems to be working overtime to land the next sale and become rich. Your coworker just got a huge promotion and seems to have leveled up in every way. They tell you that the only way to get to where they are is to take a life changing personal development course called Leadership Dynamics Institute (whispered into your ear).
Every executive at the company has taken the course including your coworker. It’s expensive and he can’t tell you exactly what happens during the course, but it’s guaranteed to get positive results. And as it turns out, the next course is happening in two weeks. Would you sign up?
It’s easy to answer why they initially signed up for the course. I think most people would be at least intrigued with such a pitch. As the short clarifies, they really didn’t know about the extreme and abusive nature of the course until they had signed up, flown across the country, paid the hefty nonrefundable fee, signed the release, given away all of their personal possessions, and are now sitting half-naked in a semicircle inside a hotel conference room. They initially didn’t know, then were blindsided and overly committed. As the violence starts, peer-pressure and abject fear goes a long way to keep you there.
A few ‘tough guys’ have come up to me after screenings, saying that they wouldn’t have fallen for it and they would have been out of there the minute the releases were sent out. I usually smile and say, ‘Oh yeah, so you’re the hero I’ve been looking for.’ No matter what you think you would do in that situation, I don’t think any of us really know for sure. But according to Gene, it’s highly likely you would have stayed and participated just like they did.”
On the challenges of making the film:
“We shot this film during the height of COVID in Los Angeles, January 2021. So everything about it was hard, not to mention the fact that we had to get 70+ shots on 16mm in one day. I was pretty nervous going into the shoot, but we prepped extremely well and managed to keep everyone safe and got everything we needed and more.”
On the upcoming A24 series:
“A24, Brain Dead, and I are working on a docu-series that expands on the premise of the short, chronicling the entire history of the self-help industry. I can’t really go into too much depth, because we are still shaping our story and finding new things every day. But I can say that this short film portrays the beginning of a corrosive ideology and financial scheme that has mutated and multiplied throughout the last 80 years.
The dangers of the self help/personal development/wellness industry, be it physical, mental, or financial, abound to this day. The same strains of the earliest forms of self help are still operating and co-mingle with new players every year. But the pervasiveness of the ideology and language is also quite troubling. It’s the low key nature of its ubiquitous and omnipresence in our daily lives that is in some ways the most damaging. I hope to provide a historical interlocking narrative to bring clarity to this abusive underlying cultural force that affects us all. With this series, we are attempting to make this secret history visible and publicly known for the first time.”
On lessons learned:
“It’s taught me to put less pressure on the way I think. So many of us become obsessed with trying to change our thought patterns and block out negativity. From my research, I’ve found that methods that claim to be able to block out negative thought patterns to be highly dubious, fraudulent, and at times metastasize the internal conflict. So go easier on yourself!”
On best advice for aspiring filmmakers:
“Try something new and follow your curiosity. Nobody needs another (blank). It’s been done and there’s plenty of industry filmmakers already trying to copy cat last year’s whatever.”