One of the Phantom Hillbilly's films, Phantom Fundraiser, begins with the following message: "PRACTICALLY EVERY HUMAN BEING ALIVE WHO KNOWS THE PHANTOM HILLBILLY OR HAS HEARD HIS NAME CAN REMEMBER EXACTLY WHAT THEY WERE DOING AND WHERE THEY WERE WHEN THEY HEARD THAT HIS CAMERA HAD BEEN STOLEN." It was in the sardine-packed, now-defunct basement bar at Nocturnal where I read these words, on the last Tuesday of last May, on the monthly night known as Independent Tuesday, where local filmmakers screen their wares to a welcoming crowd. It was certainly the first I'd heard about the Phantom Hillbilly's stolen camera, largely because it was my first encounter with the Phantom Hillbilly. Upon delivering its bold proclamation, Phantom Fundraiser continued, amounting to what was basically an extended advertisement for the event described by its title: A fundraiser to be held the next day at Beulahland, with the proceeds going to help the Hillbilly purchase a new camera. Upon realizing the true nature of the piece, I instantly thought, "The audacity! This fool not only expects us to help him buy a camera because he was too scatterbrained to keep it from getting stolen, but he's forced us to watch 10 minutes of his scatterbrained propaganda under the pretense of showing us a 'film.' Ever heard of a flyer?"
On another, deeper level, however, one much closer to my heart, I thought, "This fool expects us to help him buy a new camera… and he should. This fool is good."
In the span of its short running time, Phantom Fundraiser manages to not only promote its agenda, but provides a veritable tour of the truly weird Hillbilly's brain. Upon hearing his camera's gone missing, the Hillbilly throws a hissy fit on the sidewalk, convinces himself the camera's still-remaining manual is the camera itself, and--finally facing facts that the camera is gone for good--makes do with his Viewmaster viewer, pretending it's a camera and envisioning himself a "big-time director" with tight satin pants and a hot girl feeding him grapes.
Slightly crazy-eyed on screen, with a rubbery face and jittery, bony limbs flying akimbo on every word, in person the Phantom Hillbilly (AKA Nick Wells) is a shadow of that wildly funny persona. Tall and slightly stooped, he keeps his head down and shambles quietly around his neighborhood in the East Burnside and 28th area, a frequent diner at places like Beulahland and the Laurelthirst. Over lunch with me at La Buca, he was sweet and humble, discussing his work with the matter-of-fact air of an outsider, as if the Phantom Hillbilly is a character that Nick Wells views with the same bewildered endearment as everyone else.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Wells started doing "standup comedy-ish things" when he was 11, performing skits at summer camp. He was a theater major at UNLV, but dropped it when he realized that he had to "learn other people's lines," when in fact he yearned to write his own. He also loved the tech side of theater--building sets, hooking up lights, and crawling around in the catwalks. Eventually he realized that his love of performing and writing, combined with his technical expertise, could be brought into perfect harmony via the college's fledgling film program. In 1993 he created a film called Misanthropolis, a Matrix-like sci-fi piece featuring a dystopic world of brainwashed humans and a character who could escape the brainwashing by eating lots and lots of acid. This character was a stringy-haired, cracked-out derelict who referred to himself as the Phantom Hillbilly… and thus a legacy was born.
The ping-pong, lo-fi zaniness of the Hillbilly's repertoire since that fateful year doesn't initially reflect the trappings of an official film degree, but a closer inspection reveals a careful knowledge of light, sound, and perspective. Though his funniest films involve the Hillbilly running his mouth off or otherwise spazzing out (Real Job Interview, A Day in the Life), the films where the Hillbilly persona doesn't appear are perhaps the more impressive for their demonstration of sheer craft. The Y Files, a remarkable spoof of The X Files (considering its almost complete lack of budget), features agents Smolder and Scoliosis investigating a secretive corporate entity that seems to be producing mass-marketed food products that literally attack people. And Portland Vice, produced in collaboration with local supergroup Cinema Queso, is a hilarious parody of Miami Vice that finds undercover cops Tubbs and Crocket infiltrating a cocaine ring and winding up in an insane shoot-out. Wells stayed entirely behind the camera for Vice, with nary an appearance on screen (at least that I could spot), and the resulting collaboration is his most polished work, a testament to the power of working with others.
"Once people have done it for a long time, like Cinema Queso and I, ego becomes less and less of a problem," Wells told me. "You realize if you have an ego, you're going to do more work."
Though Wells' personality and body of work is fiercely unique, he's actually part of a thriving underground community of cinematic artists--Cinema Queso, Stars Can't Dead, and Empty Noggin Productions, to name a few--who respect each other, hang out together, and help each other at every opportunity. Unlike Los Angeles, where the film industry is a bloody feeding frenzy, the Portland film world is a kind of family, a supportive collective of artists that, to Wells, has huge collaborative potential.
"My dream would be if I and such entities as Cinema Queso or Star Can't Dead were to pool our creative talents and create a sketch comedy show. Let's face it--a sketch comedy show requires considerably more output than we're able to do right now, and since we all seem the be on the humor tip, it seems we could work in our own different grooves, and then just put them all together."
Utterly without compare, the Phantom Hillbilly possesses the combination of offbeat personality and comic timing that would easily transfer into the SNL-style sketch comedy world--and yet his vision of bringing his fellow filmmakers together is remarkably unselfish, and unabashedly Portland: Wild creative talent accentuated by a deep compassion for, and a passion to work with, one's fellow local artists. This week, on Thursday May 26, Acme will present a Phantom Hillbilly Movie Marathon, a public screening of his works. Come, and be profoundly entertained, but come also to further city relations--to associate with a secret, gap-toothed, goofball ambassador of the place where you live.