In a 1960 "Twilight Zone" episode called "Eye of the Beholder," a doctor and several nurses wheel a woman into a post-op hospital room. The woman's face is bandaged and we're told that she's undergone several surgeries to look normal. After a climactic buildup, the medical staff removes her bandages and reveals that she is, in fact, a perfect blond beauty. But the staff is clearly disappointed; the operation has failed, her face shows "no change—no change at all." As the doctors and nurses remove their medical masks to reveal their own pig-nosed, deformed faces, the punch line completely unveils itself. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and in this society the norm has been flip-flopped from what we expected.
Local filmmakers Josh Wagner, Brad Wilson and Jon Aaseng play with a similar idea in their new short film Adam Funn. Their topsy-turvy story—filmed entirely in Missoula with local actors—offers up a classic scenario: If you woke up one morning and the entire world had gone mad around you, would you question everyone else's sanity, or your own? It recreates the eeriness of a "Twilight Zone" episode and combines it with unending, nonsensical contradictions akin to that of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (and not the benign Disney version).
In the film, an everyday guy named Adam (played by local actor Andy Shirtliff) wakes up one day to find that nothing makes sense. Strange people in party hats now haunt his favorite coffee shop. A receptionist at the office where he's applying for a temp job says, "May you help me?" In what could be a tribute to that "Eye of the Beholder" episode, people at the bus station shrink away from Adam in horror and disgust despite the fact that he's perfectly shaven, showered and dressed to the nines. His day escalates from bewildering silliness to pure horror as this new world he's woken up to begins to turn on him. And when people start asking him with high-pitched concern, "Where's your fish?!," it's as alarming as it is humorous.
Wagner (well-known in the local art community for writing the sci-fi/western comic book tale Fiction Clemens, as well as a fantastical 2004 novel, The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe) says the story behind Adam Funn is best described as "absurdist dark comedy" and was inspired by an experience that Wilson had when he was living in Seattle.
"After being raised in Hamilton—isolated, sheltered—Brad discovered the wild world of the big city," says Wagner. "And on one particular day he went to work and everything everybody said sounded ridiculous."
The film captures those times, Wagner says, when modern technology and information overload create a culture shock that renders the world alien.
"Everyone in his office was on cell phones having [separate conversations]," he says. "At that time cell phones were still kind of a novelty for him. And so this idea popped into his head: 'Has the world gone crazy around me?'"
Inspired by the anecdote, Wagner encouraged Wilson to make the experience into a film. The two co-wrote the script, Wagner took on production responsibilities, Wilson directed, and Aaseng handled the cinematography.
"Because I'm a pretty shy person I wanted to experiment with myself and be the producer," says Wagner. "The most interesting part for me was going out, talking to people, doing the casting, keeping everybody organized. It's something I'm not used to and it really pushed my boundaries."
Wagner says nearly everybody the trio approached was willing to help. They got permission to film a scene at Break Espresso—albeit at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., before the shop opened. Wagner's contract position for a company called CTG in the Rose Park building also paid off when the owners allowed the crew to use the building's stairs and offices for various scenes, including a lively cop chase, which they shot for 14 hours straight. One actor, Nathan Carter, got the filmmakers late-night use of Butterfly Herbs as a long-time employee there. The Missoula sheriff's department and Hellgate High School also provided help with filming locations and props. And local band Volumen lent their touring van to the film to serve as what it was originally, an ambulance.
As for casting, Wagner says that they handpicked a couple of actors, but did a casting call for the rest.
"When we did casting I started realizing this was kind of a blessed project," says Wagner. "We had about 20 people try out and we had a principal cast of about 15. In almost every case, someone would come in the door, read some lines and just nail it. For 14 of those roles there was the perfect actor and the rest we used for extras."
The 25-minute film has taken more than two years to make. "The crew didn't get paid," explains Wagner, "and when you're getting free work, you can't be picky about deadlines." But in the end, he says, because locations, actors and props all came together, it turned out exactly as they wanted it, and for just under $500.
In a world gone mad, serendipity is sweet.
Adam Funn screens at the Crystal Theatre Sat., Aug. 22, at 7 PM and 11 PM, with live music between shows. $2.