‘What Now?’: Recent grad uses documentary to shed light on student-debt epidemic

Winslow Crane-Murdoch, pictured, has spent the last year traveling the country to produce "What Now?" a documentary on student debt.

Winslow Crane-Murdoch, pictured, has spent the last year traveling the country to produce “What Now?” a documentary on student debt.

By Karam Singh Sethi
March 27, 2014

Meet Winslow Crane-Murdoch, recent college graduate about to shed some much needed light on the national student debt epidemic. Winslow left school in debt.  To pay off loans, he set out on a cross-country journey finding odd jobs, but also to tell a story.  He is interviewing indebted youth, policy-makers and employers to weave together a grassroots documentary he’s dubbed, “What Now?”.

Since starting the project Winslow has paired with L.A. based production company, SuVen Entertainment, raised an impressive $26,587 through a Kickstarter campaign, interviewed Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed and appeared on Boston news stations — all within a year.  Now, he’s about to finish the road trip with college buddy Sam Silton and start the next leg: post-production editing and distribution.

Before we get into the interview with this stud, take a look at some startling facts about student debt and the promo video for the documentary:

  • About 2/3 of all college students graduate with student loans
  • 58 percent of students in debt come from households with a net worth of $8,500 or less
  • 8.2 million young adults ages 20 to 24 are either out of work or underemployed

Q: What was your inspiration for “What Now?”?

A: Inspiration comes from many places, so that’s not necessarily a quick answer.  Initially, the idea came while writing my final college paper.  I was stressed about the job search, not really that I wouldn’t be able to find work, but more that I wouldn’t be able to find anything that interested me.  The progression of sitting at a desk in high school, to sitting at a desk in college, to sitting at a desk at a 9 to 5 job, terrified me.

Born from that stress was a simple wanderlust to travel across the country and tell an important story.

There was a problem though.  Money, and from there, debt.  Taking off to travel and write wasn’t a viable option, but I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller in some fashion, so I looked into the film industry. I often came across the, “It’s all about getting your foot in the door” advice, but the traditional rat race takes a significant financial privilege that I, and many others, are not privy.  Unpaid internships, not an option.  Living in an expensive city, not an option.

With “What Now?” I decided to make my own door.

If young graduates were afforded room to take risks, able to act on that feeling of wanderlust, and given at least partial freedom from financial burdens, innovation in the U.S. would rapidly move forward.  With this film, I’m hoping to show the human impact of debt and shift that slight existential truth into a reality.

Q: What’s your relationship with student debt?

A: I owed $26,000 when I graduated and have since paid that down to about $16,000 through work and support from my parents.  I consider myself lucky, as it’s a low number relative to the people I’ve met and below the national average of $29,000.

That’s a car, healthcare, or mortgage payment.  Graduates are less likely to take on more debt, when they’re already in the hole.  That means young adults delay “adult” decisions.  It lowers the Consumer Comfort Index and damages the overall economy.  It’s a real trend, especially with the people reaching out to us to tell their story.  We consistently run into the question of value: was my education worth XXX dollars of debt?  When education has a tangible cost, you begin to look for tangible results, and unfortunately for many that Rate of Return is slim.

Q: Was the outpouring of financial support and media attention surprising?

A: Very surprising!  I was pretty naïve about the whole Kickstarter process, but I just went for it.  I soon realized raising $25,000 was no joke; it took an immense amount of planning, communication, and resolve.  That being said, I am unbelievably grateful for the opportunity it is providing “What Now?”  The whole experience is humbling.  People are coming out of the woodwork to share their stories.  If anything, my experience thus far has proven student debt is a unifying issue.

With surpassing my initial financial goal comes a daunting pressure that’s driving this project.  Things have not always gone to plan, but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and hope to create something the backers can be proud of.

Q: What are your top three experiences so far?

A: Just three is tough, but ok.

1)  Our first night on the road, we drove down to Tivoli, NY to interview a young woman who was living out of her van in the parking lot of a co-op.  We walked in and immediately met a young guy who was a leader in the student run organization Strike Debt, on Bard’s campus.  Within hours of arriving, we were already in one of their meetings.  The night was filled with passionate discussion about student debt that I was fortunate enough to get on camera.  To have a, this is why I’m making this movie, experience the first night was absolutely motivating.

2) When we were in Detroit we met this guy named James, who was born and raised in the city.  He agreed to show us around and spent 5 hours driving us around.  He showed us the most rundown projects, the wealthiest suburbs, and talked to us about the rebuilding of Detroit, once the beacon of the American Dream.  Unfortunately many are left out of Detroit’s renaissance.  He introduced us to a woman from the suburbs of Detroit, living between two abandoned homes.  As this woman put it, she comes home to dark streets at night, in an abandoned community, and downtown Detroit’s revitalization has meant nothing for those in her situation.

He also made a point to show us the better parts of the city, the middle class Black communities where children were out raking the leaves.  “That,” he said, “will be a story no one tells about Detroit.”

3) When we were in Washington D.C. we were desperately trying to get in touch with politicians to speak about student debt.  We struck-out pretty much everywhere and were about to move on after our last interview in Bethesda.  After crashing on one of our kind interviewees couch’s we trekked our camera gear into Capital Hill to get a few shots.  Sam and I were wearing beat up flannels carrying hiking backpacks crammed with equipment.  We walked from the Senate building to the Lincoln Memorial, lugging our gear, sweating like crazy.

Right when we got there, I got a call from Democratic Senator of Rhode Island Jack Reed’s office.  “Can you be here in 15?”.  Sam and I found a cab and booked it back.  We walked into the Hart Senate Office Building, in worn-out flannels, with beards, luggage, and not smelling so great.  We tried to look undaunted by the sweeping power suits around us (I’ve never been stared at more in my life).  We ended up having an amazing interview with the Senator, despite our worn out appearance.

Q: When do I get to see this damn movie?

A: Good question….End of the summer? End of the year?  It’s really hard to say.  It will all depend on where/how we are able to edit the film.  Even with a concrete plan there are plenty of undefined variables floating around.

If I have to get a part time job and edit it off my laptop it’s going to take awhile.  If we get a studio space, and a post deal from someone connected and interested, then the editing process will move much quicker.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for the documentary?

A: After interviewing so many amazing people, I want to do justice to their story. People struggling to just get through the day end up sharing so much.  This film is my way of paying them back.  Student debt can seem nebulous at times.  Like most economic debates, the discussion seems stuck on numbers, so another objective is to shift the conversation towards the true cost of these issues.  We’re not just dealing with dollar signs, but lives, dreams, and futures.  By grounding the debate on the human impact of debt and unemployment, hopefully we can begin to influence policymakers to work on tangible solutions.

Logistically, My hope is to create a feature length documentary that can be accompanied by an interactive web series.  If additional funding comes through we plan to make an interactive map on our website, where people can follow the cross-country journey, meet interviewees, and learn about specific demographic and geographic economic realities.  We have 200+ hours of footage.  Not all of that will fit into the final film so I think the website could house that extra footage, as well as photos, testimonials, and statistics about how different parts of the country are dealing with this issue.  Hopefully with that full media package, we can educate policy makers around the true cost of student debt.

Q: What Now? (But actually)

A: As is with most grassroots projects, we’re still dealing with money issues.  The Kickstarter budget was meant to last for 6 months on the road, and there is some left, but it’ll soon run out.  For post-production and distribution purposes we are applying for many filmmaking grants and working part.

The question is no longer if, but how and when is this project going to get finished.

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