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

Glossary creates an amazing homage to David Foster Wallace

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.

UPDATE: The Glossary has taken down the video at the request of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.


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.

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