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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!

The young adult summer reading list! What to read when you’re not reading Harry Potter

The young adult summer reading list! What to read when you’re not reading Harry Potter

Harry Potter is huge. His presence in the collective literary room is like having the Pope in a Catholic school cafeteria. Everyone wants a piece of him. Maybe his aura will rub off and we can have some of that, for want of a better term, magic.

But there are other worlds out there to explore (though don’t try to tell that to my son). Harry Potter rocks, but so do these tomes. I love the way the list breaks down exactly what you should read by asking questions. I actually found my next read with it! Howl’s Moving Castle, here I come…

what to read this summer

How to write about King Arthur, Camelot, Excalibur and Merlin. Feel chivalrous.

How to write about King Arthur, Camelot, Excalibur and Merlin. Feel chivalrous.

NOTE: This is the third post in a series,where I hope to capture the stress, heartache and rewards of writing a book with characters from the Camelot mythology. The title of my upcoming book is The Camelot Kids.

Catch up with part one and part two in this series for a complete picture.


Writing is hard.

Writing about famous figures is harder.

Writing about Camelot is downright dangerous. The consequences of taking creative license with something that has Ivy League programs dedicated to it invites wrath that’s usually reserved for atheists writing about God. But, really, can you think of a more exciting hill to climb?

When I started researching The Camelot Kids, I’d never read any of the classic Arthurian tomes. I’d never seen the racy Excalibur flick or Disney’s Sword in the Stone. But somewhere along the line I’d become so familiar with the gist of the key characters that I spontaneously grew an appetite to consume their stories, old and new.

As I immersed myself in the myth of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table I’ve been struck by how familiar it is. Where did I ingest the story so deeply that I could tell you about Mordred or Morgan Le Fay? How could I recall the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone? Why was Lancelot so burned into my mind’s eye?

When I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I was surprised to find that it was good to see these old stalwarts, these staples of fantasy. It wasn’t quite the same as seeing a new Indiana Jones movie, or picking up a new Harry Potter, but it was still a tug at the heart which is the sole domain for old favorites.

But how could a myth that I’m unfamiliar with mean anything to me?


Street art for all of us

street art

Street art for the rest of us

What is it about economic hard times that brings out the street artists in us? As the industrialized world grapples with low wages and few jobs, the number of sidewalk artists that have blown me away has grown. My uncle, Henry Chalfant, documented the youth of New York in the 1980s. His film, Style Wars, shows how pertinent this kind of work is. An argument can be made that the art these kids do is more “important” than any art you see in a gallery. It’s arguable, but the argument becomes easier the more street art you see. Especially these days.

Here are some magnificent examples. The Calvin and Hobbes bit in the first link tore a tiny hole in my heart…

Street art inspiration