By Zachary Greenberg
As someone interested in the ever changing world of cryptocurrency, a flashy new short film recently captured my attention. Directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Gregory Romein, Tulip is told from the perspective of a fictional crypto YouTuber dubbed “Mr. Biz” (Carlos H. Tejed) who experiences great success followed by a disastrous fall after a market crash causes his community to turn on him. The film showcases the influence that financial influencers such as Mr. Biz have in fueling the industry as prominent voices of the community. But with this popularity comes immense scrutiny, especially during turbulent times.
I found that Romein was really able to capture the nuances of this huge culture conversation currently happening in real life. Greg was happy to sit down with TV and City for a wide-ranging interview, featured below.
You can watch Tulip HERE.
TV and City: To start off, can you tell us your backstory? Where are you originally from, what led you into the film industry, and what was your path leading you to Emerson College where you created your film Tulip?
Greg: I’m from Seattle, Washington, and got introduced to storytelling my senior year of college at Seattle University. I had to fulfill a general elective class that was called Digital Media and Storytelling. The final project for the class was to tell a story about someone you’d never met before and create a narrative profile about them. I was super into the challenge of having to find a stranger who had what I thought was a compelling story. My project culminated with a documentary on Frank Brown, a local artist who converted his front yard into what he called The Urban Street Gallery. He made art out of driftwood., but what he was really doing was bringing the community together. He was inviting, sincere, and a natural storyteller who I’m incredibly thankful to have had the pleasure of knowing. Rest in peace Frank Brown.
After graduating from Seattle University, I took off to New York, Los Angeles, and even Brazil with a 5d Mark ii. I pitched my father on the quip “I’m honing my new craft” as I would be documenting street artists along the way. It was like I was a modern-day vagabond but eventually, I needed to find a more permanent situation. After a year at a post-production house in NY, I applied to grad school and ended up in Boston at Emerson College. I was kind of at a fork in the road, cliché as it is, Emerson gave me a path to continue and hone my craft: to make mistakes repeatedly and learn a thing or two. There were plenty of times I was an email away from quitting the program. But through my persistence and patience I grinded it out and the result is my thesis film Tulip which hopefully allows me to continue this path. I’m happy but it’s also like being at the fork in the road once again. I have my degree, a short film that’s gaining recognition, but I’m unsure where it will lead me…
I am assuming you named Tulip after the tulip light bulb mania which is regarded as the first asset bubble in history. Can you go into detail about how you came up with that title and storyline?
You’re correct, spot on! There are a couple of ways I incorporated the word from the phrase into the film. At first, I wanted a single-word title that was crypto-related but not a tech jargon word, to help the film appeal to a larger audience; and not alienate those who find crypto cringy.
After developing the plot and character arc it dawned on me that the sudden rise and fall of Mr. Biz’s success as a crypto YouTuber mirrored that of the tulip bubble. I thought naming it Tulip would help to reclaim the association of “tulip” among the crypto community in a refreshing perspective. As the connotation of the tulip bubble is a rather negative peddled quip used by pundits and naysayers that are myopic about the future of the innovation of both the digital asset Bitcoin and blockchain technology. Yes, the film touches on the volatile asset class, but in actuality, it is a story about a son reconnecting with his father.
Do you think that crypto will end up obsolete like tulip mania? Do you invest in crypto? If so, which coins?
I have a long-term conviction on Bitcoin as a store of value and a way for the world to get off the dollar hegemony, there will no doubt be a couple of layer 1’s that will be like the New Yorks, Londons, Tokyo’s of crypto (Ethereum, NEAR, Solana, etc.), NFTs as an asset layer for Web3 and the mechanism for new types of financial instruments (can represent credentials, memberships, financial positions, baskets of assets, tickets, music, in-game items, real estate, social networks, identities, and many more) DeFi will undoubtedly democratize and create a more self-sovereign financial world… however: I also believe a vast majority of cryptocurrencies will become obsolete or in more compelling terms, “go to zero!” THIS IS NOT INVESTMENT ADVICE!
Is Mr. Biz based on a real-life story that you know of?
The character is a fictional representation of the influencers that make up crypto YouTubers. There a literally hundreds of crypto channels with hosts that have a personified crypto caricature to appeal to their audiences. Though Mr. Biz’s name was inspired by a crypto OG named Mr. Biz, who doesn’t have their own channel but from time to time will be on a Friday panel of speakers on the Crypto Banter channel hosted by Ran Neuner. However, he only appears as an avatar/memoji I don’t know how else to call it, but the answer is Mr. Biz represents no one person or story. He captures the spirit of the crypto community.
Before producing the show, did you know lead actor Carlos H. Teed? Where did you two meet?
No, I met Carlos through my producer Patrick who was roommates with Carlos in college. Carlos is based out of New Mexico as an actor, animator, and director. He wears many hats and not only does his performance speak for itself he played a big part in all the VFX (visual effects) which I’ll go into more detail about later.
Why did you decide to set the film in Europe?
Great question! The production was originally planned to be in Boston Spring of 2021, but we continued running into logistical issues around Covid. The main issue was the film’s producer Patrick had moved back to Prague, Czech Republic when Emerson College shut down back in March 2020. By the time we were ready to film the travel ban for Europeans was still in effect which delayed the production. Patrick had a great idea of suggesting we film in Prague because he would be able to secure all aspects of the crew, locations, scheduling, etc., He had been working in the industry and had a large network that made the transition as smooth as possible. The decision to change locations meant I had to tweak the script to give context because Mr. Biz wasn’t originally living in Prague, but it felt like a natural decision. Bitcoin and crypto are borderless with a global identity. So, in my eyes, the plot could adapt to whatever environment rather easily. In fact, when I think of a feature film around this premise I keep struggling with where the film should be located. As in how to depict the most honest representation of the crypto community. I keep coming back to parrel storylines like the film Babel written by Guillermo Arriaga as an example.
It’s interesting how all of Mr. Biz’s fans assumed he was just a scam artist trying to pump a coin. But really, we got a behind-the-scenes look at Mr. Biz as someone struggling to make a living as a part-time Uber driver. Mr. Biz found a passion for creating YouTube videos and was just trying to build a crypto community. As soon as the crypto market got ugly, all of Mr. Biz’s fans turned on him which led to his depression. Was your goal to showcase a different side of the crypto market that most people don’t consider? Can you share any other insights into this?
Your question brings up an important reality about the toxicity found in the crypto community both on YouTube as well as Twitter. These platforms and all social platforms are filled with both positive and negative sentiments. This isn’t unique to crypto but the nature of crypto is ironically very tribal despite the fundamental tenets of Bitcoin and what Satoshi’s grand vision promoted. Similarly, to Timothy May who wrote the Crypto Manifesto. Maybe more Satoshi’s grand vision but Timothy May can’t be left out in the lore of cryptocurrency.
Back to the question, one thought is broken up around the way people become more fanatic when they bet on a specific team or a horse at the derby. When there’s more skin in the game, and that’s what 99% of retail is in crypto for, a quick cash grab, the allegiance to a specific Layer 1 or the Bitcoin maxi’s vs the degens is going to create a more toxic environment. Plus there’s a shit load of keyboard warriors, trolls, bots, etc.
After this last crash, I came across multiple crypto hosts starting their episodes off by addressing this issue. I’m not coming to bat for all of them, I’m well aware of their business models and shilling schemes, but the backlash is ferocious. I mean you have some people losing way more money than they should invest and it’s just part of the job I guess. People love you when things are great and hate you when they’re not. I hope I captured that aspect of the crypto community in a true light.
What were some of your favorite parts of Tulip?
The two montages are rewarding from a post-production perspective. The first montage when Mr. Biz is in a crypto research frenzy was incredibly labor intensive with all the VFX overlays. But what made that scene come to life was the sound design, big shoutout to Jay Sathyanarayanan, who captured not only the urgency of the moment but the need for Mr. Biz to compartmentalize his two worlds. This was a big element of the film that I emphasized throughout every aspect of Tulip, the contrast between Mr. Biz’s real-life world versus his digital world.
I especially enjoy the montage after Mr. Biz’s episode on Bitcoin reaching $50k. We labored over the entire film but that section when it came to the editing all fell into place perfectly with the track Bitcoin Barron by YtCracker.
My favorite scene is when the grocery bag breaks, and Mr. Biz hears the family singing a birthday song. The second Lukas the cinematographer got into position with the lens looking through the fence, I knew it was going to be a strong moment. It’s when Mr. Biz realizes what he doesn’t have and misses. The thing he’s grown apart and distanced himself from: family. I also love the transition to the castle scene with all the VFX messages popping over. The low angle was something I got from Succession episodes and thought it juxtaposed the typical view of power through Mr. Biz’s performance, the score, etc.
How did you pull off the visual effects like having the chats on screen, incoming calls, and the moving green and red price chart?
The VFX was a monumental effort that took the collaboration between Anna Volodina, Carlos Tejeda, Nino Aphakidze, and myself. We worked for months making iteration after iteration on every detail of the UI/Graphics. Luckily the three of them had plenty of experience to help guide my vision because this was a first for me. I had a script riddled with VFX but totally overlooked the challenge I had created for myself/the team. All the iPhone and computer VFX were planned onset using greenscreen. That made the placement easier, but every detail from the size of type font, and color, I mean it was a whole separate project in developing a cohesive look/feel among all the different graphics.
In short, I’d put together visual references of examples of how I wanted the text bubbles to appear, both visually and in motion, then Anna created the design, which Carlos would composite, and then Nino would re-link it into the timeline. We didn’t do it the most efficient way for coloring/grading because Carlos burned the VFX into the raw footage, but lessons were learned all along the way. Most importantly it came out great and brought the film together. I’m confident to say there wouldn’t be a film without the VFX.
During Mr. Biz’s emotional freefall as the crypto market was collapsing, was the toilet paper being empty a reference to the mass COVID craze to buy toilet paper because there was widespread fear that stores would run out? Or something else?
I see where you’re coming from, but that wasn’t my intention. I included that bit because it’s such a human experience. You’re having a bad day, nothing’s going right, and then you’re on the toilet, and BOOM the TP is gone…like everyone’s been there. The editor Nino said that moment was what really made her laugh and kind of cry for feeling for Mr. Biz.
It emphasizes just how bad things are going. And when things can’t get worse… this is similar to my decision of having the grocery bag break.
It’s like when you’re running late, are in a bad mood, and you discover you have a flat tire and now will miss your meeting. These human moments bring the audience into the film because they can relate. Maybe not 1:1 but something similar in nature.
On YouTube, we saw Mr. Biz’s channel called Fishing Crypto where he had 5 subscribers, but it seemed like he should have had way more based on all of the livestream chats. Can you explain this discrepancy? Were all of the followers in his head? Did he lose subscribers because of the crash?
The idea was for him to start as an unknown YouTuber with a small amount of followers/subscribers. Then when BTC hits $50k the flood of new followers are the ones that ultimately turn on him. We struggled to find a way to indicate the rise and fall of followers and debated over the # of followers Mr. Biz should have at the beginning. I think what’s important is that we see the arc and the actual # count is better represented through the VFX Burp’s (our term for tweets) which indicator his followers.
At the end of the film before restarting his YouTube podcast, Mr. Biz talks to his dad who tells him that nothing is biting yet. This also seems to allude to his channel name of Fishing Crypto. Can you please explain this connection? In your opinion, was the main lesson of the film to always keep trying until something bites?
Ah very interesting take and in a way, that lesson can certainly be taken from the film. The reason I included that line was that I wanted to bring full circle the fishing crypto theme and not have it be left for interpretation. It’s a story that doesn’t have one main lesson, but the ending captures the essence that at the end of the day we always have our family. Even if we’ve become distant, for whatever the reason is, family is always there for you. Mr. Biz has an avoidant relationship with his dad, and he tried to fill the void with the rush of crypto and these faceless digital followers. When he loses that is when he realizes that he doesn’t want to lose his dad also.
The back story is his mom died when he was younger, developed a strained relationship with his dad (issue of being the older child), and decided to go his own way. One that was going in the opposite direction of the thing that emotionally was too painful: his family being a trigger to lose and the memory of his mother.
This is why I included Ms. Ayers. A maternal figure that serves as the “mentor” also has her own troubled relationship with her son. Especially during Covid, family relationships went through many ups/downs. I could go on about this but we all experienced COVID and how that affected us so I’ll leave that for others to parcel from their lives.
Will there be a sequel?
There’s no plan for a sequel. However, I have ideas to make a feature film out of the general concept of the film. Not something verbatim but in the same world that I created for Mr. Biz…
What are some of your favorite projects you have created?
I think it surprises a lot of people that Tulip was my first narrative film. I’ve made some short documentary films but nothing that I’m super proud of… more early years tinkering with a camera or class projects.
Can you share some other features you are currently working on?
A father and his two sons host a foreign exchange student to live with them as they grieve the recent death of their mother.
What is your dream goal as a film producer?
I’d specify that I’m a director/writer first and then a producer second. My dream goal is to be represented by an agency to work as a commercial director while developing my screenplays. I want to do this professionally and travel the world telling stories of all kinds with people with different life experiences than mine.