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Film short: The Secret Files of Phillip Niles, by Russ Hexter (and starring me!)

Film short: The Secret Files of Phillip Niles, by Russ Hexter (and starring me!)

Secret Files of Phillip Niles by Russ Hexter, starring Ben Zackheim

Russ Hexter died in 1996 at the age of 27, and I still feel like giving him a call every day. He was the kind of best friend who dozens of other people called their best friend, too. Kind, generous, and so talented it was inspiring just to be around him. Yeah, it’s easy to put the dead on a pedestal, but Russ belongs there.

Just before his death he directed Dadetown, a mockumentary that helped define the genre. It screened at Sundance and blew audiences away. He was on a trajectory that was indisputable. He was Hollywood-bound. But knowing Russ, he would have kept his New York roots, even as the glitz of LA trained its eyes on him. He was just that way. He loved grit, and realism and he had a keen eye for what made it translate to film. He was scheduled to meet with Diane Keaton the day after he died to discuss directing her next film. I think they would have worked very well together. He was a huge fan and shared her sensibilities and sense of humor.

Recently, I was having one of those “how did I get here?” moments. They seem to happen more frequently as I grow older. I have a horrid memory as it is, so it’s always a bit of a dark comedy to be in my brain when I reminisce. Questions like, “did that really happen?” and “did I actually go to that party, or did I just hear about it happening?” plow through my head as I try to determine how much of life is what happens versus what I think maybe, kind, sorta, maybe not happened. One question I asked was “how did I end up writing a mystery series?” At first glance, it appears unlikely. I always liked action films, Star Wars, comic books. My life was supposed to be filled with super heroes and hidden identities. But when I dug deeper I remembered my love of Sherlock Holmes. I remembered my pile of Hardy Boys books. And I remembered Phillip Niles.

The Secret Files of Phillip Niles was a Russ Hexter student film. He asked me to play the lead for reasons I’ll never understand. I’m no actor, as you can see in the short film. But my love of mystery (and my old dream to be a detective like Sherlock) overcame my camera shyness. I’m glad I did. Watching the old movie (1988!) reminds me of the kind, efficient filmmaking Russ was known for. The shoot was as much a social scene as it was a set! We all had fun and I think it shows.

Sure, the film is rough. We were all just getting our hands on the equipment for the first time. It’s all voice-over and soundtrack. It was cut on an old Steenbeck. But you can see Russ’ love of story in every frame. And I hope you can see my love of being the sleuth hero. Thanks for the chance to go all  Benedict Cumberbatch, Russ. I miss you!