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The Story Behind 'This Is Water,' the Inspiring Video People Can't Stop Watching


It’s been viewed a million times since last night alone and has single-handedly resurrected the voice of troubled literary genius David Foster Wallace, bringing his words to a global audience that might not even recognize his name. And it was all done without permission. “This Is Water,” a cinematic interpretation of Wallace’s bleak-yet-inspiring 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, has quickly become one of the week’s most passed-around videos. It was created by The Glossary, a small video production shop in Los Angeles. We wanted to know the story behind the video, and the team that created it was kind enough to answer a few questions. Check out the video below and our Q&A with the creators after the jump.


The following email Q&A from AdFreak was answered by The Glossary's Matthew Freidell, director; Allison Freidell, producer; and Jeremy Dunning, producer.

AdFreak: How did the idea come about to create a short film from "This Is Water"?

The Glossary: After suffering through a particularly awful commencement address at his own college graduation, Matt came across DFW’s speech online and it really struck a chord. Ever since then, he’s listened to it periodically to remind him of the core message. A short film seemed the perfect way to spread this message to a wider audience.

This is a pretty ambitious undertaking, trying to enhance something that's already so powerful without visuals. Did you ever worry that even with all your skills, you might not do it justice?

Absolutely we were worried! Wallace has an extremely passionate following and we knew it wouldn’t be easy to adapt the original version. We couldn’t use the entire 20-minute speech since we didn’t have the budget, and that length of video is tough to release online. We had a ton of long conversations about what to cut, and it was probably the most difficult part of the whole process. However, we encourage anyone who enjoyed our video to seek out the complete text and experience the full message.

What did you have to do to get permission to use the audio?

We had little to no budget for this project and we knew that the publishing house was going to be really skeptical of our little company’s request to utilize his work. We had faith in our vision for the video and that once it was complete they would see that this was something made with the best intentions in mind. We are in no way making any money directly from this video; it was purely a passion project. While we had high hopes for this, we could have never seen all of this attention coming. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Did you give yourself a budget to work from?

The whole budget came out of our pockets, but we had an amazing group of friends who helped us along the way. The cast worked for a small amount knowing that the project was something we were incredibly passionate about.

Were the talent auditioned, or are they just friends of the agency?

The main actors auditioned; everyone else was cast based off their look. We got extremely lucky with the talent of the cast. They all were able to communicate a lot with no dialogue and not much screen time.

For many of the commenters on your video, this seems to be their first exposure not only to this speech but also to Wallace. Was that part of your goal, to introduce him to a new generation?

Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech. But as members of a generation that is often referred to as “generation me,” we felt like this message actually changed the way we thought about life in a way that went beyond the typical cliched advice into something actually useful.

Prior to this video, your YouTube clips tended to top out around 1,500 views or so, with one or two exceptions. What's the impact been like for your business, having one of your creations go so viral so fast?

It’s a little too early to tell, but as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed. We feel like we’ve done that with this video and we’re over the moon with the response. But we’re always looking for what’s next, so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed “This Is Water” to get in touch with us.

The full text of David Foster Wallace's This Is Water can be purchased in book form on Amazon. To learn more about the team behind the video, visit TheGlossary.com.

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