"Who is the Hatman?"
- Dr. Cal Hutting (portrayed by Jeffrey Sherry)
The Nature of Hatman was the first real film I made. Not a video, not a webseries, but a film. In terms of genre, it occupies a specific space that to this day I have not seen many other people attempt or come close to. It was something of a factual mockumentar. Half of it was real and half of it was pure inspired bullshit. The premise is that I, an intrepid filmmaker with journalistic instincts, decided to take way too deep of a dive into the lore behind an inconsequential cheat code in a video game from the 1994 video game Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. This part is true. If, when playing that game, you enter the cheat code "HATMAN," the game enters into a wifeframe setting that replaces everything with a crude pixelly stick figure of a man wearing a hat. The joke was that this is an insignificant little piece of nothing of any real journalistic value but that I plowed forward anyway with the intention of making an overly long documentary about this one thing nobody should care about. On paper, reading that now sounds like something that wouldn't work, but I assure you it actually did work.
For the sake of this documentary, I tracked down the very real developers of this very real game and uncovered a very real backstory behind this cheat code that was far more interesting than I had expected or hoped for. These developers gave me a lot to work with, and the backstory was rather wholesome and compelling as it offered a nostalgic behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it was like to work in video games at a time when they were still rather novel and new and uncharted. That these developers, who had all gone on to do very different things (including John Spinale who was doing some very big-brain work with OnLive prior to its acquisition by Sony, Steve Briggs and Other World Computing, and so on and so forth) but still seemed to have fond memories of the much earlier days of their careers when they were working on a common Pitfall project. So, I kept this part in tact, and included actual quotes from emails with them, and documented my process of acquiring that information. Then I made the rest up. And I got really weird with it.
I made Hatman a real person and gave him sort of a Bigfoot mythos (there I go with Bigfoot again) and then I eventually track him down and tackle and interrogate him in a prairie. I also gave one of the real-life American developers a British accent in one of the voiceovers for no reason, which I love that I did.
You know what? I am going to pat myself on the back for this one, even now. Even the trailer is really good. Just a total banger. Great story, wonderful actors, good music, decent editing, fresh concept. I even got Jesse Heiman, "the world's greatest extra" to appear in a cameo. It just really worked.
I premiered it at Milwaukee's now-defunct "Alchemist Theatre" to a sold-out crowd.
It was the greatest night of my life. I considered it the most fulfilling conclusion to my high school experience possible. My best friends, my family, and most of my favorite teachers (who for the most part appeared as actors in the film as well) showed up and for reasons I still don't understand there was an open bar. Everybody had a great time. Many of my classmates who liked the cut of my jib (some very much did not) also showed up, but none of us were old enough to drink at that point so it was primarily the teachers who got to enjoy the open bar perk.
I had to pay a $100 reservation fee for the entire theater which I thought was a huge bargain. When the drinks started flowing I thought "fuck, I'm going to have to pay for that, but whatever." I committed to paying whatever it cost, because I wanted nothing to ruin the night. I assumed it would be a pretty penny, though.
At the end of the night I asked the bartender (and owner of the theater) what the damage was and, inexplicably, he handed me $40 and said that was the profit. The math didn't make sense and it still doesn't and I am confident the theater lost money that night but that the owner (A.K. were his initials) did the kindest white lie because he didn't want to harsh my buzz. I remember looking him in the eyes and telling him point-blank that it had been the greatest night of my life, and he got teary-eyed. I was quite surprised, and he said that hearing that and having been a part of it made him a little "misty." That is something I will never forget. It sounds fabricated but that's how it went.
The Alchemist Theater remains a very significant part of my life story and I was heartbroken when it went out of business. Such a shame. Magic lived inside that place.
I am sure you can imagine how that would give a kid delusions of grandeur. In hindsight, I'm not even sure it was healthy, because it made me think "Okay then, I've got it. This was a trial run and now that it is confirmed that I have the X factor if I just keep doing what I'm doing this will work out for me and this is what my life will be like." I mean, I had a lot of hits in high school. I really did. I had a hugely inflated ego but I also kind of had a reason for it at that time. I think because I was an unusual kid who lived in a highly traditionally conservative village who didn't really give a shit what people thought of me, some of my teachers thought of me like I was punk rock and they really built me up and supported me in my endeavors. I am sure they would be disappointed if they were reminded of me and informed that I have proven to be a bit of a failure to launch. On the day of my premiere I was on Cloud 9. It was bliss, and the notion that I would someday write about it at the end of my 20s from a garden unit apartment in between breaks from my soul-crushing, mind-numbing job of over six years working as a lowly dispatcher for a trash disposal company would have never entered my mind because I wouldn't have allowed it to. It would have depressed me, deeply, and I would have shown it the door because I was 100% convinced I was going to break the mold and be a star of some sort and bypass the 9-5 "real life" routine entirely. That was not to be. I had a lot of hard lessons still to learn. Having talent alone was not going to be enough. I should have stayed in college and taken it more seriously and I should have tried harder to meet and know new people.
It's somewhat saccharine to recall this whole project and it gives me mixed feelings to declare that this movie is still what I consider my greatest creative accomplishment, since it came out over a decade ago before I was even an adult. I had many rejections, hard hits, heartbreaks, and disappointments ahead of me that I certainly wasn't emotionally prepared for as I sat on that stage as a beanpole boy introducing a movie a packed theater.
In short, what I accomplished with this one is the high I have been chasing since. Not only that but having rewatched it recently I can confirm it still holds up remarkably well for something made by a kid in a high school.
I submitted it to many film festivals and it got rejected from every one. While I still sing its praises, I will again allow that it wasn't up the standard of a film festival. But I mean, what should one expect from a 17 year old? By those standards it was very good. If I made this now, it would not be a good thing. But making it at 17 was impressive and I stand by it.
The only regrets I have for this project stem from the questions that still plague me about why I didn't do more with it. One of the most baffling choices I ever made was to make this thing a bizarre 57 minutes long. That's not a short and that's not a feature. That's nothing. It fits no category which in turn renders it a stateless project. I could have and should have added an extra half hour. There was definitely enough to work with to do so.
I also felt like I had damn-near invented a genre. I would never be so arrogant as to claim such a thing now, but I won't pretend that I didn't have a point when I thought that at age 17. I should have done more with this genre-bending thing I did with this. I should have worked very hard to define it and polish it and make it my own unique thing. I didn't do that, exactly, and that is my loss.
But it does not behoove me to dwell on my regrets of the past. I have spent too long doing so. I prefer to just look back at The Nature of Hatman with uncomplicated fondness. I earned that for myself.
You used to be able to watch this on Amazon on demand or buy it on DVD but due to corporate hooey stemming from Amazon's ravenous devouring of CreateSpace, where I used to publish my projects and make them available for sale, you no longer can and I am powerless to change that. Believe me, I have tried. It dismays me because I liked having this one still available but I have no motivation to make it available again now that Amazon killed it. The DVD was also good. Had great menus and special features (full movie AND trailer!) and top-notch cover art as well, despite there being a spelling error in the very first sentence on it. The 3D rendering of a gormless Hatman that I commissioned from my friend Matt Muzzy really ties it all together.
Hatman with five o'clock shadow is still funny too, though I have definitely come a long way as an illustrator. I think I made that freehand using a mouse in GIMP, though, so it could have been way worse.
I myself have but one physical copy of it and no access to the original file, which has given this one DVD an outsized sense of value to me because if anything happened to it Hatman would be lost forever.
As I have been reminded by more than a few of my friends, the character of "The Hatman" has become in vogue in recent years as a meme. Nowadays, The Hatman refers to a fictional demonic entity you supposedly encounter when you are sleep deprived. I've even heard tell of a sinister turn that has seen Hatman become center to a new TikTok trend where people get high on Benadryl to try and see him. That character has existed for a while and I touch on it in my movie with a tangent about my falling out with a paranormal investigator who refuses to appear because I don't take Hatman seriously enough. Before the recent resurgence of this iteration, which has seen multiple new documentaries made and TikToks made, my movie dominated Google search results when you googled "Hatman." Not so anymore, and anything linked to my film is buried deep, deep, deep in the annals of the internet. This is frustrating because it would be nice if I could capitalize on it a little bit and introduce the Gen Zers to a film I still stand by, but I also would want no association with anything involving tweens OD'ing on Benadryl. If nothing else, though, I at least have another example of ironclad proof that I was 10 years too early to a trend. I think some people would refer to this as, ahem, me being "ahead of my time."
I have very briefly, in a flight of fancy lasting maybe 9 hours before wearing off, toyed with revisiting this thing...but, no. Not doing it. Not now. I thought about doing a shot by shot remake or something with expanded story to include the new version of Hatman that is topical right now, but I just have no desire to make a concerted effort to ask people to watch something I made so long ago, in any form. The past is past. I caught magic once and I am going to leave it that way.