Truth may trump fiction in the world of writer-director Mark Williams, who just wrapped Not Totally Naked after a two-week shoot in Chittenden, Franklin and Washington counties. The 48-year-old Burlington resident's debut feature focuses on a teenage boy who is busted for pot and goes on to become a self-styled private eye with the fanciful élan of Dashiell Hammett's gumshoe Sam Spade. But the imaginary kid's misadventures are only slightly wilder than the real-life career arc of the man who dreamed them up.
The son of an American missionary, Williams lived in South Africa from age 10 to 18. "We were a radical Protestant evangelical sect within Churches of Christ," he explains. "We were anti-Pentecostal and anti-Roman Catholic. There was a long list of what we were against, because we felt no one else was saved."
Williams later became a fundamentalist minister himself, but grew disillusioned with that path and left the sect in 1990. Still committed to Christianity, he "bounced around" the religious spectrum, checking out Mennonites, American Baptists, Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God. (He currently worships in a "house church" with a four-person congregation.) Along the way, Williams married a Montréal woman and had two children, now both in their early twenties. The family moved from Florida to Vermont two decades ago to be closer to his wife's Québec-based parents.
Williams became a licensed psychotherapist in 1994 and has taught various subjects at the Community College of Vermont. Thanks to an administrative mix-up, one of them was a course about documentaries, even though he knew little about that topic at the beginning of the semester.
Three years ago Williams launched a Christian discussion group for young people called Boat -- a nod to Noah's Ark. Other participants morphed into a rock band that rehearsed at the Jubilee Gospel Church on Intervale Avenue. Boat soon sank, however, and Williams began channeling his hallelujah spirit into a visual art form. In 2003, with no previous filmmaking experience, he decided to shoot a 10-minute short depicting a Nativity play that was enacted in his garage. That effort was followed by an impressive literary output: five screenplays in the course of one year. The first script Williams chose to develop is Not Totally Naked, a "dramedy" that combines several genres: noir mystery, coming-of-age tale, spiritual saga and musical.
A couple of years ago, Williams witnessed a sudden doubling of his regular clients. This financial windfall, along with a credit card, covered the production phase of his indie picture's $25,000 budget. "A nightclub scene we shot at FlynnSpace cost $1000 a minute," he reports. "It had to look like a 1950s Bogart movie, with people wearing gloves, hats and white dinner jackets. We had 10 couples dancing to a live band, Soularium."
Christine Stone, the vocalist with this rhythm-and-blues combo, composed two songs for the sequence and appears in the film as a femme fatale named Eva. She hires Tom (Galen Blodgett), the fledgling detective, to spy on her presumably philandering husband (Jason Lorber). Tom enlists his best friends (Michael Stridsberg and Stevie Schubart) -- respectively, a nerd who doesn't believe in God and a punk rocker susceptible to the lure of voodoo and shamanism.
Such beliefs are anathema to Williams, even though his own theology is checkered. "I tell people there's a fundamentalist inside me, a liberal Christian inside me, an ecumenical inside me and even an atheist inside me," he says.
Perhaps it was the psychotherapist inside him that gave his make-believe protagonist Tom a troubled family, including a "multi-divorced" mother (Blodgett's actual mom, Grace Kiley). Williams' own clan -- son Jonathan, daughter Lizzie, wife Frances and dog Merlot -- got its cinematic due as well. "My brother Timothy came all the way from Florida, and he plays a fake shaman," says Williams. The filmmaker himself portrays -- what else? -- the leader of a spirituality class.
Williams is about to edit the footage. He's also trying to sell his $6800 Panasonic high-definition digital video camera on eBay. His bank account has been drained by the project, but financial constraints be damned. He is already planning to enter the film in various festivals, and envisioning his next movie: The Red Bridge, about a Bosnian solider who wants to apologize for participating in a gang rape. That's a subject likely to raise a few evangelical eyebrows.
Williams suspects his father, who still lives in South Africa, would consider even Not Totally Naked sinful, though "it's really just a G-rated story with a couple of cuss words and people running around in their underwear."