In 1993, brothers Robyn and Rand Miller released a project that would change the face of computer gaming. The project, two years in the making, was Myst, a game that took players to the mysterious Myst Island, where they navigated eerily lush landscapes and solved cryptic puzzles. In a time when most homes didn't have Internet—and before CD-ROMs had really caught on—Myst had a beguiling storyline, cutting-edge visuals and impressive sound effects. It generated a cultlike following of fans, who made it the best-selling PC game of the '90s. Wired magazine even suggested it was defining computer games as a new art form.
But as a narrative, Myst had its limitations—players simply solved riddles, and there were no complex characters. That's what spurred Robyn Miller to move from the computer lab to the movie studio, writing, directing and starring in a new feature film. In The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, the titular character (played by Miller) claims he's a 150-year-old epileptic vampire with gay tendencies—his alleged lovers include Andy Warhol and Count Robert de Montesquiou of France. It's a mockumentary—though Miller insists on calling it a "faux-documentary"—with a strong mythological bent, and it's set in Portland. (Watch for the scenes at Southeast Belmont Street's Pied Cow, in which owner Jimmy Chen makes a cameo as himself.) The Washington Post called it "strangely poetic," praising how it challenged the purportedly objective nature of documentary filmmaking. Last September, it won Best Picture at the Oregon Independent Film Festival.
"For me, I felt like it wasn't a big jump," says Miller, 47. "The ability to tell stories [in computer games] is there, but I wanted to delve a little deeper. [This film] is multitiered, with the simple message that people who are unlike the vast majority of us are still very precious.â
Miller lived in Portland for two years and still visits frequently. Portland, he says, "celebrates diversity and weirdness," which is why he decided to set the film here. "I feel Augustus would locate himself in a place where he could be accepted," Miller adds. "He wouldn't get as many stares."
Augustus gets those stares due to his distinctive appearance: A hairless man with pasty flesh, he covers his bald head with a stiff, waxy-looking blond wig and favors a Mr. Rogers-style wardrobe. But Miller says it's easy to be drawn to Augustus. "I have known people like Augustus," he says. "He's this moralistic guy who has a lot of flaws, but in a weird way, you're attracted to the character. He feels like a guy who is hiding entire parts of himself, even though he desires to be so open."
Miller thinks smaller towns with more conservative audiences—such as Spokane, where Miller now lives and where some of the film was shot—may "shake their heads quizzically" at the film. It remains unclear, for example, whether Augustus is actually a plasma-slurping vampire or just a mentally unstable man. In the film, he speaks vaguely and evasively about living during the Civil War and being immortal. "Blood is better for the desire, but plasma is what you need," he says at one point. When asked how he gets the plasma, Augustus replies: "Well, I just don't want to be talkin', you know, just sayin' everything like that. Some things you want to be private."
To create such a slippery character, Miller says he drew inspiration from literature, particularly Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. "I have a real love for early monster films and books," he says. "Frankenstein's character is very innocent at the core, but he has to try to make sense of very complex things."
But he didn't stop at fiction. "I was partially inspired by my own mom," he says, laughing as he compares his mother to the occasionally reactionary, ever-elusive Augustus. âI hope she doesnât hear this.â
SEE IT: The Immortal Augustus Gladstone is available on iTunes beginning April 1.