Category Archives: Essays

Deception at the DMV

A true story from the archives. Enjoy!

By Christopher Pickhardt

– Copyright 2009

Last year, an idea was sparked in my head upon the realization that my driver’s license was about to expire. In the honor of good comedy, I felt it was incumbent upon me to mess with the system a little bit. So, in the tradition of comical pranks and inside jokes, I decided it was necessary to alter my appearance for my new license photo.

Given that idea, I did not want to just wear funny glasses, make a silly face or dress as a priest (as “Jackass” alumni Johnny Knoxville brilliantly did several years back) no, I wanted to take the idea much further. I figured if I am going to run with this idea, I might as well sprint with it. So, I chose to wear a wig; not just any wig, but a Bohemian-style wig I had purchased back in 1999 for a Qui-Gon Jinn costume I was assembling for the absurdly anticipated premiere of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (yes, I am a movie dork and proud of it).

This wig is wondrous; truly a cascade of flowing hair rivaled only by the manes of the most majestic lions of the Serengeti. The wisest investment I have made to date, bar none; this $40.00 special-ordered wig has paid for itself tenfold, as I have used it on countless occasions over the years whenever it was deemed necessary.

Whenever I wear it, I feel like the son of Sasquatch or some other starved, feral beast out to masticate the young of the privileged. Hear my roar! Upon placing the hairy crown over my scalp, I instantly feel the encompassing locks engulfing my face as strand upon strand either shoots up my nose like rebellious mustache fragments or taste them plunge into my mouth, aggressively caressing my drenched tongue as would a long full lover. Numerous bouts of spitting out hair, placement adjustments and glances in the mirror ensued as I secured the day’s prized adornment as a genuine element of my person. I even wore a rather captivating brown suit to further establish and project a grandiose image of myself to the subjects I was about to address within the stale, depressing walls of the local office of the Division of Motor Vehicles.

To pull off a stunt this brazen, one must confirm that all key elements are in place to secure proper execution. I could not leave anything to chance as the slightest oversight could bring my comedic masterpiece crumbling to the ground. The covert plot must be a success, so overcompensation and strict attention to detail was instituted to ensure personal hilarity. I went above and beyond my Six Points of Identification required by New Jersey state law to efficiently obtain a driver’s license renewal, taking with me in my arsenal of identity verification: my current NJ driver’s license, United States passport, High school diploma, vehicle registration and insurance cards, college diploma, Social Security card, and a current bank statement. I was confident I had the points in the proverbial bag, leaving the only one unpredictable variable in this equation, which was whether or not the keen DMV staff would buy my presumptuously daft appearance as gospel, or see through my façade and destructively heckle the grandest practical joke I had ever proposed.

With my doubts hovering in my psyche, although fairly low on the scale of deterrence, the rouse was now perfectly prepared. My suit looked dapper and dashing, the celestial hair magnificently flowing, and my confidence was rock solid. I chuckled mischievously as I took one more gander at myself in the mirror—tickled pink at how utterly ridiculous I looked, while grinning proudly at the risky self-imposed challenge I was about to embark on.

I was on a mission, not one of nobility, but of jest, and as I drove from my house to the local Division of Motor Vehicles I could feel the butterflies parading inside my stomach like kernels of popcorn exploding over an open flame. Perspiration omitted from my pores at a steady rate the closer I got to my intended target—slightly nervous about the wool I was about to pull over the inspecting eyes at the DMV. I took deep breaths and got into character as I jumped from the car and walked through the parking lot towards the agency’s entrance. I felt the eyes of everyone I walked past upon me, like a sudden pariah among a colony of disciples. Undeterred I ventured into the building where the motor vehicle constituency was located, feeling a soldier’s resolve in my veins like mother’s milk.

“No one can stop me now,” I thought to myself, as I approached the double-glass doors of the DMV, with adjacent heads turning as my presence appeared in their peripheral vision. Surely, I was a strange sight to behold in a venue usually comprised of boredom and impatience, but a well-dressed man wearing a wig to the DMV,was confidently not a summation I would gamble the bystanders were thinking upon witnessing my entrance into the busy home of state driving privilege. I speculated my ironic appearance would be regarded by the congregation as any number of characters in our diverse societal paradigm: a rugged beatnik, or eccentric artist perhaps, maybe a begrudged biker (hoping to be deemed presentable for a change by the masses) and possibly even an unrelenting hippie wearing a suit for the man, while flaunting long locks of rebellion for himself. Whatever the label I was given, there was no turning back now, as the momentous time had come to perform the prestige of a lifetime.

I got into the rather surprisingly short line for renewals in the back of the room near the door. I felt conspicuous, more conspicuous than I have ever felt before, like a shotgun hiding under a napkin. Beads of sweat were collecting under the wig and on my forehead, as it felt like the eyes of the nation were drawn on me. My heart pounded relentlessly, and my stomach was electrified, but I felt jazzed; starting to get into the rush that was slowly enveloping me from the inside out.

I followed the lead of the guy in front of me and moved a couple steps forward, now feeling a calm begin to wash over me. That soothing cool sensation was to be short lived, as my movements clumsily triggered the collection of documents tucked under my left arm to be regurgitated from their folder onto the floor beneath me in a manner not only mortifying given the tight surveillance, I felt was surrounding me, but scattered all over the place in a messy manner only a troublesome two-year old could arrange.

Immediate stares followed my horrendous display of attempted stealth—from the patrons waiting in the uncomfortable chairs all around, from DMV staff that casually looked up at me upon hearing the choice obscenity that slipped from my lips and from the two police officers standing nearby as added division security.

 I could feel the panicked sweat cascading down my head with salty pools beginning to collect in the nooks and crannies of my armpits and seeping like a sponge onto my eyebrows.  I quickly bent down to pick up all my identification documents, cursing my clumsiness and the premature attention I was currently receiving in the wake of my faux pas. It was only a collection of seconds in reality as I grabbed my passport, license and other points of identification, but in my mind, it was an eternity—like a lost child in a large department store, filled with terror and vertigo at the intense overwhelming sensations overcoming their every sense of being. Then like a flick of a switch the scrutiny was over, with my documents finally in order and back into their rightful folder and all the prying eyes reverted to their home positions.

Soon enough, it was my turn at the preliminary verification desk where a middle-aged woman was waving me over to inspect my points and to verify, I am indeed who I say I am. As I walked over to her, I felt cool and collected and most certainly back on my game. With a smile of pearly whites, I introduced myself to her and said I was here to renew my license. She was a very nice, pleasant person and I recall thinking she was almost overly kind, given that she worked at a place most deemed to be the closest place on Earth to Purgatory.

Any local branch of the Division of Motor Vehicles was a place you go only when absolutely necessary and never with the anticipation of a speedy exciting visit. Long waits prevailed here, feeling like a penance for the privileged gift of driving, which was granted to the masses by miserable, not particularly animated employees who worked at paces even snails would describe as lethargic. All the while we the waiting patrons are inflicted as we await the beckon of our name, with a level of boredom not soon experienced by those lucky few who transcribe tax codes into braille for a living.

It was this knowledge that made this woman’s cheerful demeanor that much more welcomed by me as I delivered to her all the requested points of identification, explaining that I brought WAY more documentation than deemed necessary, to ensure that all my bases would be covered.

The documentation review process went fairly quickly as I waited for the other shoe to drop and for her to question my authenticity. A momentary chill of nerves rushed through me as she inspected my license in a way a doctor examines an x-ray. I felt as though the gig could be up, as my current license was four years old and featured a photo of me bald and clean shaven. My youthful appearance in that picture was truly contrary to the bearded Yeti that was presented before her today.

“Wow, your hair sure grew,” she said to me in an amused tone as her eyes rose from studying the photograph in her hand to the man himself.

“I know, it grows like weeds,” I replied, in a matter-of-fact manner confidently peppered with a hint of dually amused dismissal. “It’s amazing what four years can do,” I continued with faux enthusiasm.

Before I knew it, I was verified and cleared with the properly signed paperwork in my hands and the finish line in my sights. The last step on my farcical journey was only a mere twenty paces to my right—a distance I traveled with steadfast self-assurance and thoroughbred agility.

The line at the main counter where the photos are taken, paperwork officially processed and currency exchanged was but one person long and as I joined the short procession, I was giddy inside like a child waiting to board a ride at Disney World. I stood there patiently for my turn while perusing the female specimens sitting, standing and mingling about the room in their skimpy shorts and spaghetti straps with their assets on display like strawberries on shortcake.

“Next!” I heard from in front as suddenly it was my turn to go. I deferred back to my 12 and headed to the counter where several women were stationed. A police officer paced behind them, surveying the room with minimal interest. As I approached, I felt the eyes again, glaring suspiciously at me from behind the counter. There was no paranoia this time, all eyes were tractor-beamed on me: the glowing suit, the pristine beard and Neanderthal hair, exasperatedly accompanied by a smile surely reminiscent of a used car salesman. I held my resolve and kept on trucking, submitting all my papers to the woman in charge.

Skeptical would be an understatement when describing the tone in her voice as the woman scanned my old license photo.

“This looks nothing like you,” she stabbed, as a wave of chills sank from my forehead to my groin upon hearing her accusatory remark.

“I know,” I shot back calmly. “I’ve been growing it out for a movie these last four years along with the beard,” I said confidently and deceitfully.

“I’m an actor and I have been producing an independent film for the last couple years, this look is necessary for the part,” I half-truthfully continued, knowing that all that information was technically true except for the part about growing out the mane in front of her; a white lie necessary in executing the elaborate escapade I was chest-deep in the middle of.

“Wow, it REALLY doesn’t look like you at all,” the persistent persecutor mused as her biting words enticed the cop and other DMV employees to congregate in a semi-circle behind her like rubbernecking motorists to an accident. This was clearly the most excitement this place has seen in a LONG time. I guess I do not blame them—how often do you see a guy sporting a bushy beard, with very long unkempt hair donning the sharpest suit outside of a courtroom in your local motor vehicle office?

The suit, I thought was a nice touch; a way to add a little class and validity to the wig. I thought I would be seen as a business professional that happened to enjoy long hair (an eccentric lawyer or small business owner perhaps). What I mistakenly overlooked was the sheer discrepancy between the two appearance factors. My intentions towards vindication had backfired eliciting the exact opposite reaction from these people: one of doubt, conspicuousness, and scrutiny rather than a preferred welcoming and procedural air. If I had worn torn jeans and a leather jacket with a Born to Ride patch on the back, I think I would have encountered a fraction of the prying eyes.

The vast contrast between my current appearance and the older photo she held in her hand was a clearly justified red flag, but not an antithesis that could technically be contested, as I was VERY prepared for just this scenario. Due to the brilliance of the immaculate portfolio of identification provided by me for specifically this purpose, only the hardest of asses would attempt to discredit the encyclopedic ensemble of credentials before them. As this woman of imposing authority studied me intently, I could tell that she began seeing the resemblances as she looked at my face, focusing on my eyes, mouth, and nose and comparing them to the details in my old license. It was a few moments later when she was taking into consideration the thorough dossier in front of her that I knew I had won. I could see in her face that there was no justification for dispute here, I was indeed the man I claimed to be and in minutes I would have achieved exactly what I came here to do.

“Ok, stand in front of the blue square on the wall over there,” the woman said to me in resignation. I obliged happily and prepared myself for the moment I had been anticipating. As this other lady—slightly older than the other, fiddled with the camera I readied the biggest smile I could muster and held it for whenever she decided to click the button. I stood there steady as a totem and braced feverishly for that fateful lens to capture my face—etching it in time what to me, was a true achievement in humor, my dearest friend and partner in arms. SNAP went the camera as the jubilation rushed through my body like the building of a huge sneeze. I had done it! The picture was taken, and I had won the day, fooling everyone in the room.

While I awaited my finished identification my thoughts went to Andy Kaufman and the countless stunts he pulled in his brilliant career. To pull this stunt off was if anything, a tribute to Andy and anyone else who dared to put everything on the line in the name of comedy. After all you cannot take life too seriously, especially if an opportunity is presented to you for a great practical joke. One would be remiss to think otherwise.

Any moment now, it would be ready. The anticipation of seeing the final product was killing me. I could not wait to lay my eyes on this absurd new license, and I was even more anxious to show everyone in my life what I had accomplished. Anticipating the hilarity that would ensue from this made every ounce of nerves I felt in the process well worth it.

The woman told me I may want to consider taking another picture soon after I was done with the long hair so I would more closely resemble my old self in case I was ever pulled over. I nodded in agreement with her, knowing full well I would never do that. This picture was way too good to only use for a few months. I wanted the delight of walking around with this photo for the next four years and was not concerned at all with any legal implications that could possibly ensue as a result, as I knew there was nothing illegal about it.

My signature was spot-on, I had all the proper identification and had all the answers to the questions asked. So, I did not look like my picture in person, do you have any idea how many people do not currently look like their license picture? I don’t have that answer for you, but I am sure the number is pretty high.

All these thoughts went out of my head as I was finally handed my new license (my first one featuring all the new digital watermarks and imprinting modifications, which ensured near-impossible forgery). Looking at it, I had to hold back the laughter as I gazed at the huge smile plastered across my face in the picture…and that waterfall of long brown hair accompanied by that colorful austere suit…oh man, I was impressed with myself for actually pulling it off.

I thanked everyone at the counter and said goodbye, further staring at the license as I headed for the exit. I could tell they were still watching me skeptically as I ventured further and further away from them like a camel fleeing the desert sun.

As soon as I could I paraded my new license around like a mother with a newborn. I showed it to family, friends, and coworkers to glorious, howling laughter and high marks. Some people laughed so hard they could not breathe; another friend of mine fell off his chair—satisfying results of a prank gone right. Accolades like these made me feel like a comedic god and further cemented my dedication to entertainment. Making people laugh can be addictive – a drug in itself, and one I am not ashamed to enjoy.

Laughter as they say is the best medicine and I am in total agreement. Too many people get consumed by their black clouds that they forget what really matters, choosing to focus their priorities in the wrong direction. We should take proactive steps on the daily basis to ensure that we spend a greater time smiling, laughing, and pursuing our dreams rather than engaging in negative preoccupation. We must do whatever we can to make ourselves truly happy and direct our energy towards activities that leave us feeling positive and fulfilled at the end of the day. For me, it was a prank containing a silly wig; a sharp suit and a wily smile…only time will tell what the next prank will be.

My Writing Journey

By Christopher Pickhardt

I have worked as a writer for the better part of the last ten years. Focusing primarily on copywriting (and SEO) and other types of web content, I have helped individuals and businesses with their online presence in various capacities. I have also written several scripts for film and television as well as collaborated with other writers on creative projects over the years.

Writing has been in my DNA from an early age and served as one of the strong-suits of my academic career. But earning a living through the written word took many, many years and a LOT of effort. Those of us with a creative streak know too well how hard it can be to make a living in one’s chosen field, so we often juggle other lines of work to pay the bills in support of our true passion. I have held MANY jobs in a wide variety of industries on my journey as a writer and all-around creative professional.

Corporate VIP Relocation Coordinator. Standardized Patient. Videographer. Video Producer. Video Editor. Waiter. Bartender. Market Research Panelist.

Those are just some of the titles I have carried over the years on my path as a professional writer. Each position allowed me to hone a different set of skills that not only helped me to be a well-rounded person, but also informed my creativity by offering a bounty of experiences to pull from. I am the person I am today because of the person I was years ago and the ups and downs of my story have truly enriched my life for the better.

 

Traversing the Corona Virus Roadblock

Empty NYC 2020

By Christopher Pickhardt

The world is on pause right now as it collectively battles the fast-spreading Corona Virus aka Covid-19. The proactive and preventive measures governments worldwide are taking in order to slow down the spread of the virus are unprecedented in modern times. From Shelter-in-place orders in California and New York City and social distancing measures across the rest of the country, governors are urging citizens to stay home as much as possible in order to prevent spikes in Corona Virus cases from inundating our already overloaded hospitals and healthcare facilities.

All non-essential businesses have been ordered closed in an effort to prevent mass gatherings of people. Cities around the world have come to a virtual standstill, with eerily empty roads and highways sitting quietly like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Since many of these measures went into effect early last week, millions of people across the country became unemployed overnight, as their “non-essential” jobs evaporated before their eyes. Schools and universities have been closed. Wait staff and bartenders, barbers and hair stylists, actors and actresses and all types of performers, all suddenly without employment. Restaurants are only permitted to serve take-out and delivery. The entire travel industry, including cruise lines, airlines, resorts and hotels have all been affected because of the virus. That leaves only grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, medicinal Marijuana dispensaries and a few other businesses open to the public. It has been strongly recommended that we only venture out of the house to either exercise (while honoring social distancing of at least 6 feet from the person next to us) or to pick up vital provisions like medicine and food. The rest of the time we must stay indoors.

As we all adapt to this new normal, there is a massive cloud of uncertainty hanging overhead. It is unknown how long we will have to remain bunkered down in our homes, as we have never been here before – at least not on this scale. The Influenza pandemic of 1918 aka “The Spanish Flu” lasted almost two years and affected 500 million people, but that was at a time where we were a lot less connected than we are today. It did not take long for the Corona Virus to spread from China to all corners of the globe. In three months this little virus has caused BIG trouble planet-wide. And in its wake, families are left doing what they can to get by day by day. We all have to take precautions to stay healthy – both physically and mentally, as we are continually bombarded by the media with stories of woe and tragedy, leaving us feeling a bit helpless at times and very uneasy.

I am trying hard to keep a positive state of mind in all this chaos and focus on proactive measures aimed at ensuring a cash flow during this crisis. As a creative professional I have taken a financial hit myself. Film, television and theatrical productions have virtually shut down nationwide, leaving an entire industry in a state of limbo until this pandemic calms down. Some casting is still going on, with a majority of opportunities focused on remote from home work. The voiceover industry especially is thankfully still up and running, so at least I have that. But my video production work that helps keep me afloat has all but ceased for the time being, as many companies are focused on simply surviving this epidemic rather than moving forward with marketing initiatives.

As employees across the globe switch to working from home, that leaves many companies running a physical skeleton crew at their facilities, which means my avenues for sales calls are limited at the moment. The couple projects my partner and I do have on the books are pretty much on hold for the moment, as the ban on public gathering prevents us from actively filming anything right now. Additionally, the few nights a week that I work at a restaurant to fill in my financial gaps has also disappeared before my eyes, as there is a moratorium on in-person dining in effect until further notice. So given that I am relegated to staying home, I am switching gears and turning my attention to writing for the foreseeable future. I am hoping to snag some new freelance writing clients to help weather this all-encompassing storm as well as working on some creative writing projects that have been resting on the back-burner for a while.

I hope this crisis will not last too long, but however long it does last I am going to make the best of this window and work to be as productive as possible. I pray we will all get through this Corona Virus situation safely and most importantly healthy. God speed.

 

Heavy Lies the Crown of Leadership

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Prairie
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Prairie, Texas February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Christopher Pickhardt

After day one of the Democratic National Convention last night in Philadelphia, what is clear (and what has been evident for some time) is that the party is broken, the political and economical system is rigged and America is divided. This was especially apparent after last week’s disastrous Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump was anointed the new authoritative king of the right wing.

The Democrats have chosen to anoint their own queen, Hillary Clinton, who has hungered for the Presidency as much as Bill hungers for a fresh intern. Clinton’s ascension to the Democratic nomination has been a tumultuous journey as we all know; fraught with party divisiveness, alleged voter fraud, the FBI email scandal and the now infamous DNC email debacle which has forced the resignation of committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who takes most of the blame for the committee’s blatant favoring of Clinton over Bernie Sanders; whose campaign they actively worked to sabotage. So it is suffice to say that the Democrats are truly a dysfunctional mess of a family who now after continued marginalization and unfair treatment, have asked the recipient of their venom – Bernie Sanders, to step up and fix the problems THEY CREATED. The amount of balls these party “leaders” are exhibiting are clearly gigantic.

But, Bernie is a big enough man to see the grand picture and will do what needs to be done to unify the party and ensure Donald Trump does not become our next President; regardless of hurt feelings, resentment and pettiness. Sanders has continually presented himself as a vessel for a MOVEMENT that is greater and more important than ONE MAN and his humble declaration of progressive change over personal ego is a unique marvel to witness.

Regardless of party or ideology, a political leader’s job is to show the way and to present ideas with conviction and heart. And most importantly, one must LISTEN to the people and actually HEAR what they have to say and then TAKE ACTION on their behalf. Bernie has heard the call and is following the will of the people in pursuit of a better America – a country that, as Bernie says, belongs to ALL OF US and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors. We can all learn a lot from this man, who has selflessly driven a movement with integrity, poise, unity and a deep deep love of country.

THIS is what a TRUE leader looks like.

So in the end it appears as though Bernie did not win the fight, but he has won the war. His ability to grow his campaign from a tiny upstart in New Hampshire to the behemoth grassroots movement it has become – all without big corporate donations, is an incredible accomplishment. Throughout this Primary season, Bernie was able to get over thirteen million votes and tens of thousands of volunteers to help spread his message across America and around the world. Bernie has also negotiated with Democratic leaders to adopt many of his initiatives going forward – like a $15/hour minimum wage, making public college tuition-free a reality and further combating climate change (among others) and he has forced the Right-leaning Clinton to move more to the Left.

[For the entire Democratic Platform look no further: https://www.demconvention.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Democratic-Party-Platform-7.21.16-no-lines.pdf]

In other words, his impact is unmistakable. Sanders’ efforts have set in motion a grand tide for change which have inspired a generation of young people, who will be the future of America, to take part in moving the country forward . They just have to show up and carry the torch Bernie has so graciously burdened himself with to this point. If the roars of applause he received last night as he approached the podium  to give the evening’s closing speech are any indication, Bernie Sanders’ appeal and popularity have not dwindled – even after the furor that his supporters unleashed as he officially endorsed Hillary Clinton less than two weeks before. The cheers, clapping and adulation lasted for what seemed like an eternity and as Bernie struggled to quell his following’s accolades, you could see on his face just how touched and humbled he was by this display. After all this time it appeared as though he was still not used to this kind of admiration.

Thank you, Bernie. Your efforts and passion will be remembered long after we are all dead. And that is a remarkable feat, for very few candidates linger in the collective memories for more than the length of the cycle. The 2016 Primary will be one for the record books and I know history will mark Bernie Sanders’ name with a huge bookmark.

Bernie in LA

The actor’s main struggle is chasing that next job.

Point Break Chse

By Christopher Pickhardt

Unless you are in a long-running TV show or play, you are always facing the inevitable hunt for the next gig. And even then, the future can still be uncertain, for a show or play’s future relies greatly on its audience – or lack thereof. It can be challenging and frustrating to not have job security; especially if you are not one of the Hollywood A-listers who demand millions in salaries.

As an actor, you must consistently apply to all relevant breakdowns on the casting sites, continually hone your craft in workshops and with coaches and self-promote yourself to the industry on the regular basis. You must audition, audition, audition and then audition some more. One must learn to BE COMFORTABLE in that room or face the prospect of continued unemployment. That means learning to RELAX and ENJOY the RIDE. The actor’s daily routine is tedious, meticulous and time-consuming – not to mention expensive. You must have discipline and perseverance if you want to get anywhere in this business. Like anything in life, it is what YOU make of it. Effort = reward. You can’t expect results without putting in the time. I know that more than anyone, believe me.

I find that this process can be hard to navigate at times, especially given all the obstacles that life and the world throws in front of us. It is SO easy to get off track or to fall victim to a lazy moment. But it is that struggle that makes the journey that much more rewarding, as you see the fruits of your labor manifested in front of your eyes. For me, it is the big picture and incremental progress that sustains my fight during the hard times. I am proud of the progress I have made in the last few years. I am further than I was, but still not where I want to be ideally.

So I travel further up the road, chasing this dream with no end in sight and no timeline to confine my path. I am in it to win it and will proceed until my dying breath. Why? Because I have no choice, this is who I am. And it is up to me to follow my heart and use my God-given gifts to make a life for myself that lives up to my potential. Every action brings me a step closer to where I want to be and God-willing, I will arrive at my destination sooner rather than later.

What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to Me.

teaserposterjpgsmall3

By Christopher Pickhardt

Just about ten years ago, in 2006, my best friends and I embarked on a grand creative journey. Out of the blue, we decided to form a production company (Crazy Elk Productions) and produce an independent film called ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate,’ an ambitious dark comic adventure film that consumed the better part of six years of our lives. It was  an amazing creative experience for us that I can look back on with a great sense of accomplishment (as I was heavily involved in its making in the form of co-writer, co-producer, actor and co-editor, among many other hats alongside director Jason J. Dale).

It was a monumental task producing an ambitious project like this on such a shoestring budget, but with that challenge came tremendous rewards. Now that the film is in the can and we are past the film festival submission wormhole, we are actively looking to get the film out into the world; which is a whole other challenge in itself, but one that has greater chances of success than it did just a few short years ago, when you consider the advent of the digital distribution age we find ourselves in. I feel good about the future of this film and look forward to the world feasting their eyes on it.

I felt it was apropos to share an essay that I wrote back in 2009 as we were knee-deep into production on this film, for it really provides a window into the world of independent filmmaking and into the soul of the grassroots artist. Additionally, make sure to check out the film’s trailer below the essay, which I have included for your joyous perusal…

  What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to ME

We have had a motto that has somewhat guided us since we began this journey on ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’: what we lack in budget, we make up for in creativity. Given our meager resources I am very proud of what we have produced thus far. Lacking a large nest egg to cushion us, we have been forced to really get imaginative with how we have been making this film. Whether it is stretching the dollar to limits unseen by fund raising and bargain hunting or throwing away all conventional ways of storytelling and production, we have slaved since day one to achieve our filmmaking dreams. And as we watch the film come together in the editing process, like pieces of a puzzle, we stand behind another motto, one we adopted around the same time as the prior: ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is the greatest independent film ever made. A bold statement to be sure, and one ‘El Mariachi’ fans may dispute, but never the less, one I will stand behind until the day I die.

It is hard to put into words what ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ means to me. How do you express a love this strong in words? I can honestly say I have never loved anything as much as this film. IT is my baby, my passion and the single most important thing in my life. My best friends and I have been working on this film for over two years now, going on three this summer. We have spent countless hours producing this project: discussing, planning, shooting, sweating, problem solving, bleeding and pressing on, as obstacle after obstacle, problem after problem, and antagonist after fucking antagonist has attempted to get in our way. We will not be deterred, not by the naysayers, the worrywarts, the assorted Riff-Raff, the inevitable financial woes or any other unforeseen force that is always working against this film. But, that is the life of the filmmaker and even on big budget films; there are nothing but obstacles and problems to address. So one must just keep their chin up and soldier on.

‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ will be finished this year and then everyone can finally see the fruits of our labor, which is an independent film like no other. It is a film that transcends genres, is rich with character, ripe with humor, filled with action and danger and is truly a passion-filled ‘labor of love’ that started with four friends sitting around a kitchen table one night discussing ‘what if?’ This grand experiment, for lack of a better word, has grown into a family of creative artists over 400 strong from all over the north east. We are building a creative revolution, a collaboration of not only artists, but friends, who together are helping each other achieve their personal goals while striving for greater heights creatively and personally. This film is just the beginning of something truly remarkable, for it signifies that anything can be done no matter how impossible the odds against its success are and that if you work TOGETHER, ANYTHING can be achieved. ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is just the first of many creative endeavors we will be working on together in all artistic realms in and out of film.

I sometimes find myself in disbelief at all we have accomplished. It is truly daunting to think of all we have been through since we started this film back in 2006. I pinch myself at times just to make sure this surreal dream is indeed a reality and not a sick Matrix-type joke I have been sleeping through. My dreams are unfolding before my eyes, almost too fast, and I find myself struggling to keep my mind on anything else. I can honestly say that ninety percent of the time I am not here; I am lost in my dream world physically present, but mentally on another plain going a hundred miles a minute in the idea super-highway. It is a place I don’t ever want to leave. Why would I want to?

This has been one HELL of a ride, filled with DRAMA the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. It is as if a door was opened into another world once production began on this film, bringing forth both great and terrible experiences; leaving our lives behind the scenes resembling a movie in itself. We have been through SO much these last couple years, both creatively and personally. Almost everyone involved with this project has had to deal with some pretty heavy shit, but we are still going strong, still fighting the good fight to get this thing finished. I am happy to say we are closer to the end than ever before with a rough cut actually in sight. The excitement is starting to brew, for nobody really has any idea what is in store for them! I am so excited for everyone I know and love to see this film that I feel high all the time, like I am floating along on a current of intense positive energy.

I am very thankful to God for the amazing family and close-knit circle I have been blessed with; I could not have asked for anything better. Without my belief in God and the strength that gives me and us each day, we would not have gotten through half the madness we have overcome. It is through faith and hope and the memory of my Mom that guided us through some of the hardest and darkest days and into the bright clearing we are at today. We have learned a lot and also gained much more wisdom these last couple of years; I know I am a better person because of it all.

In the end, experience builds strength, which in turn creates wisdom, which finally influences our character and makes us the enlightened people we are meant to be. I look forward to all the wonderful experiences the future has in store for us as we embark on a continuing quest for creative Zen – a place we can truly reach if we continue to work hard and to BELIEVE. And we will, I know it…right here in northern New Jersey, right under our noses; who knew?

Below, is the link to the film’s trailer:

A Raised Glass to the Grandest of Silver Screens

Ten Plex
The Route Four Ten-Plex as it sadly stands today.

By Christopher Pickhardt

I am mourning the loss of the Route Four Ten-Plex movie theater, which is officially being demolished today. I wish to thank the Ten-Plex (if one could actually thank a building) for providing countless fond memories of seeing hundreds of movies on its wonderful screens, from my childhood up until 2007 when the doors were officially closed to make way for the AMC Garden State Plaza theater down the road. Apparently the governing powers that be felt that having two multiplexes in a short radius from each other was a bad idea. Out with the old and in with the new I guess.

For me those grand cinematic experiences from within those hallowed Ten-Plex halls of yesterday will be cherished until my dying breath. This theater holds special meaning for me not just for the entertainment and joyous glee its welcoming doors extended to me, but for what it represented to a kid growing up in the world. The Ten-Plex no doubt, was the theater I frequented most growing up, but especially during the mid-late 90’s when I was officially an independent driver and had the power to go check out a film at my leisure, which was usually in between classes in college or instead of!

From K-9 to Disney’s Beauty & The Beast to The Star Wars Trilogy: Special Editions, from The Lost World: Jurassic Park to The Edge to Copland, The Devil’s Advocate, Heat and LA Confidential, regardless whatever movie I saw – whether good or great, I was thrilled to pull into that humongous parking lot filled with the excitement and promise of yet another escape from the mundane into the imagination of the silver screen. I will forever remember that smell of fresh popcorn that attacked your nostrils as soon as you entered the lobby and filled you with not only a burning desire to buy some, but with an undeniable happiness at the prospect of a night at the movies. One of my greatest pleasures was simply having my ticket ripped by the usher upon admission to the theater lobby. It was a moment that said “here we go, it’s time.”

I chased that moment often, not unlike a crack-addict chasing that tempting dragon. I would frequent the movies at least once, if not twice a week during those late ‘90’s college years and can recall many a matinee at my favorite theater seated in the great theater #1, the GREATEST single theatrical auditorium ever; with its MASSIVE screen and comfy reclining seats, made extra special by the section right in the middle of the auditorium where there was about a three-row gap in between sections which allowed for a perfectly ideal view of the screen and a plethora of leg room which to stretch out in.

There were numerous occasions where I would have to fight to grab these primo seats from other film-goers who also knew how grand they were, with one occasion in particular (The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition in February of 1997) where I had to dive over three rows of seats to secure our coveted row of choice. The struggle was real, but a challenge I always rose to overcome. I could always be counted on to save seats for the often large number of friends that would accompany me to the big movie premiers in those days (the chaos of opening night of Howard Stern’s Private Parts, also in 1997, was a particularly memorable affair). Back then my friends and I would arrive at the theater sometimes three hours early to ensure we secured the prime seating we required and as the minutes counted down towards show time, we grew increasingly antsy and eager to claim the seats we always felt entitled to. After all, we considered ourselves the real film buffs (not in any disrespectful fashion, just more of a matter of fact) and given that we took the extra care to arrive super early, just assumed that these pedigree seats were rightfully ours and nobody else’s. Today, with the advancement in online ticketing and the busyness of our current lives, my friends and I do not arrive that early anymore, but the excitement and fever pitch ahead of the big premieres still remains – for we will always be fans and that love never dies.

To me there is never an activity that gives me greater joy than walking into the movie theater lobby, sitting down in my cherished prime seat and awaiting the dimming of the lights and the rolling of the trailers, for it is the triumphant procession preceding an amazingly satisfying event that I will forever hold dear to my heart and will miss with indescribable sorrow upon my eventual and inevitable death. I am sure it sounds crazy but I often think that the one thing I will assuredly miss as I am taking the final breath of my hopefully long and fruitful life are all the movies that will be made and released long after I have left this world. Even if I will not even be aware of them, because I will be dead, I still feel a sense of sorrow at the knowledge that inevitably films will always be made and someday I will not be alive to see some of them. For a film-lover like me, whose life has always revolved around movies, that is a profoundly troubling thought.

If we can shape our afterlife into a unique world just for us, I wish to spend my eternal existence entering the doors of the never-closing Route Four Ten-Plex and coast along the ages in an everlasting loop of grandiose entertainment and joy, with my loved ones joining me in a cinematic nirvana. It is a beautiful thought that would serve as a dream come true for a guy who learned to love movies from watching the original Star Wars films and whatever else was airing on HBO on the big television in his grandparent’s basement. The joy and wonder those memories provided are what etched a burning desire to become an actor in a kid who knew what he wanted to be when he grew up once he saw his heroes like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker grace the screen in their magnificent ways.

Film enthralled me and shaped the person I am today. Without film in my life, I shudder to think what I would be doing today, for it has informed just about every decision I have made since high school and guided me through college and into the professional world. The countless movies I have seen on the big screen have filled me with excitement, moved me to tears and made my sides hurt from laughter. And most of these cherished moments happened in Paramus, New Jersey at my favorite place on the planet. That old brick building that served as a beacon of happiness for me will now shamefully be turned to dust and into a gym I hear – how typical. In closing, I salute the Route Four Ten-Plex for everything it was and for what it will always mean to me and wish it farewell as it slips away into the abyss of memory.

Ten Plex Then
The Route Four Theatre in 1969 before it was known as the Ten-Plex.