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The Quest for _____ (1998) rough cut work print

March 16, 2018

The Quest for _____ is the first student film I ever directed.  The film was never completed, but I’ve had all the masters for years.  Thanks to the leeway of my inheritance, I had David Friedman return all my project videos, which he had been storing in a plastic bin in his basement since before I left for Florida in case I became unable to pay for my storage unit.  The version that we turned in was a rough cut made by Bonnie Williams, one of four people for whom the film was a graded project (Shawn Plew, Adrian Degner, and I were the others).  The film stars A.K. Murtadha as TraditionalMan, a film noir detective (we broke into groups by the genre of film we wanted to make, as I recall Bonnie and Adrian were in the film noir group, and Shawn and I were in the surreal group, and we agreed to merge) who finds his life overtaken by the vicissitudes of the computer age.  A major influence on the film was Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which I had not seen at the time, but Shawn had, although I may have seen it before the film reached the stage seen here. A.K. noted the clear influence while we were shooting.  The film was intended to have little or no spoken dialogue, as well as original music that I composed on paper but was never recorded (this is now in the manuscripts box in my storage unit).  Early internet concepts like “information superhighway” were visualized in our film. The idea of masks and reality was also very important.  I remember Shawn’s insight of going into a lesbian chatroom that would be all men, a novel idea at the time.

The rough cut isn’t a perfect rendition of my/our vision.  It doesn’t quite cut together, even for a film heavily influenced by such surrealist classics as Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and sometimes moments before I called action and after I called cut made it into the edit.  The most glaring problem is the return to Mr. Fake Shemp’s face immediately after it was supposed to have fallen off and shattered. Although he was supposed to return unharmed later in the film, it shouldn’t have been clear right away.  It does, however, give a general idea of what the finished film was supposed to look like, which is quite an accomplishment, as Bonnie noted difficulty because we never had a formal screenplay, just a bunch of e-mail exchanges in which the four of us worked out an agreement as to what we wanted.

The transfers to digital were made by The Video Room, one of New York’s last video rental stores, March 12-15, 2018.  Unfortunately, the camera master, “Abdul in the Tunnels” has not been transferred to digital.  The tape stopped playing partway through.  I left it with them to try again, which may involve putting the tape inside another cassette.  The worst case scenario is that I will get only the twenty minutes or so before that point in the tape, which may still make completing a final cut of the film impossible.

The film’s locations included Shawn’s grandmother’s house in Shelbyville, Indiana, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church there that he attended and was able to get us into on a Sunday afternoon, as well as the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis campus, Holliday Park, and Broad Ripple Park (little or none of that footage is in the rough cut).  I wanted to get a shot of A.K. pushing his way past dense foliage before ending up on the highway, but a suitable location for such an image was never found during the shoot.

Another technical problem was the books.  The intent was to have the computer screens appear inside each book, but we didn’t have any better way to achieve the effect than the simple inserts.  The book Text Book is an actual textbook that was used for the class that was considered the declaration of the English major.  The other books, it’s not obvious, are a Donahue copy of L. Frank Baum’s The Magical Monarch of Mo circa 1913 that I had recently acquired for $100 when I was unable to get a copy of the Dover edition (online bookstores didn’t have much of a presence at the time), and an NRSV Bible.

The last problem was extras. We couldn’t get any except for Bonnie, Shawn, and, briefly, Bonnie’s younger brother, which is why the computer lab and church scenes are so sparse.  Joe Williams selected the character name Kibo because of an early internet user who was known for introducing himself wherever his username was mentioned online.  Student Jay Duncan expressed interest in playing ComputerMan (which Shawn ultimately played) because he really liked the the idea of wearing a computer monitor on his head for a role, but bowed out due to schooting schedule.  Bonnie chose her “Doctor Anonymous” character name herself, and omitted her closeup from her cut (we were mostly introverts who wanted to stay behind the camera)–I’m pretty sure her closeup is on the damaged tape.  I named Adrian’s character, which was a blatant THX 1138 reference, Ermac for “error machine,” which was an explanation given, I believe by Electronic Gaming Monthly, for a secret character that appeared in Mortal Kombat under certain circumstances. I created and personally applied all of the makeup and cybernetic features (scrap circuitry provided by Phil Goldsmith of Goldsmith Piping, 2107 North Adams Street in Indianapolis) of his design. Mr. Fake Shemp was an overt reference to Sam Raimi, who used “fake shemps” in his Evil Dead trilogy in essentially stand-in roles, as well as Bruce Campbell as “Final Shemp,” the last face of Darkman.  One of our classmates who was attending college at the same time as daughter, Michael Coatney, had been in high school plays with Bruce Campbell.  In those days, Bruce Campbell would give a “grunt” of an e-mail to fans who wrote to him, and he sent me an e-mail of several lines telling me that Michael was one of the funniest guys he ever met and describing some scenes they had together.

I have not discarded the original tapes and do not intend to, so there may still be hope to finish the film.

Prior to the upload of this film to YouTube, probably fewer than fifty people had seen the film, but it managed to get a 7.1/10 rating on IMDb from fifteen votes besides mine.  Since A.K. told me he didn’t know what he had done with his copy, this is probably the first time since the classroom screening that anyone has seen the film other than me except for a few graduate schools and festivals, so one can only assume classmates who saw it remembered it fondly.

The only person involved with the film with whom I still have contact is A.K., although it’s been relatively brief.  Dennis Bingham, the chair of film at IUPUI, who did not teach this particular course, which was taught by music professor Jay Fern, told me that Bonnie, using her married name (which he did not tell me), was regularly sending small donations to the department.


A Blank Films Production

directed by Scott Andrew Hutchins

written, produced, and photographed by Shawn Plew, Scott Andrew Hutchins, Bonnie Williams, Adrian Degner

starring Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha and Zandra Mukes

with all of the above

and Joe Williams as Kibo

temp track from Lost Highway by Barry Adamson and Angelo Badalamenti

thanks to Rhett McDaniel, Rick Filibaum, Phil Goldsmith, Ron Plew, Michael Maitzen, and Katherine E. Ellison (and Bonnie’s friend Peter, who asked not to be credited).

instructor: Jay Fern

shot in Indianapolis and Shelbyville, Indiana.

Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI)

One Comment
  1. The Video Room Called and said the “Abdul in the Tunnels” tape is “simply unplayable” and to come pick it up.

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