Among the unassuming flier on a downtown Spokane bulletin board, a bright yellow piece of paper stands out from the others. The big, blocky font at the top reads, “Missing: Augustus Gladstone.”
A man stares out blankly from the flier, wearing a perplexing expression that suggests he might not want to be found. According to the flier, Gladstone is bald but wears a blond wig, and he was last seen in Portland in 2011. If that isn’t enough to catch your attention, there’s one last intriguing piece of information on the missing man: “Believes he is immortal.”
Augustus Gladstone is only a character, but his creator, Robyn Miller, speaks of him as if he’s a flesh and blood human.
“He’s trying to deal with his immortality,” Miller said. “In his mind, he’s trying to come to terms with it, in the same way we’re trying to come to terms with our mortality.”
Miller, best known as the co-founder of the local video game design company Cyan Worlds, has written and directed a feature film called “The Immortal Augustus Gladstone,” a fictional documentary chronicling a deeply strange yet endearing man who claims to be a 150-year-old vampire.
He’s not your typical bloodsucker. Augustus is an eccentric, spritely fellow, and he conceals his discolored skin with a thick coat of harsh theatrical makeup, his hands with black wool gloves and his baldness with that odd, out-of-fashion wig. He’s filled with casual, off-hand revelations – he attended the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, for instance, and was personally given a Campbell’s Soup can dipped in paint by Andy Warhol – which are further softened by his genteel South Carolina drawl.
He’s the kind of guy you might strike up a conversation with on the bus, or while waiting in line at the pharmacy, and then immediately write off as a nutcase spouting nonsense. But Augustus is staunch in his convictions: Believe him or not, he is immortal.
“We are taking Augustus seriously, and we’re taking him at face value,” Miller said. “When he says, ‘This is happening,’ we wanted to respect him. But the movie never clearly says one thing or another. It leaves it up to you to decide.”
Miller also plays Augustus in the film, but he’s unrecognizable beneath the makeup and vocal affectations. (Augustus is credited as himself at the end of the movie, which only furthers the illusion that he’s a real guy.) He created an elaborate backstory for the character, pages and pages of bizarre details: Augustus was born in 1856, he grew up on a Southern plantation, he had a close friendship with 19th-century French aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou. And, yes, he’s a vampire, although he walks around in the daylight and doesn’t kill anybody for blood.
Augustus refuses to discuss certain aspects of his life – how he humanely acquires blood for consumption, for instance, or his strange relationships with several troubled young men – and Miller’s own description of the character’s past is littered with maybes. Augustus Gladstone remains a mystery, even to his creator.
“The Immortal Augustus Gladstone” was shot over the course of four weeks, with the actors improvising their dialogue from loose outlines that Miller had written for each scene. Although Augustus lives in Portland (and some footage was shot there), most of the movie was filmed in Spokane, and you’ll no doubt recognize landmarks – the Garland Theater, for instance, or the underpass near Railroad Alley – as Augustus plods around town.
One of Augustus’ main hangouts is the Hamilton Street mainstay Donut Parade, and Miller said he and his crew filmed during regular business hours and even interviewed employees who pretended to know Augustus. “We just went into the Donut Parade, and we put a sign up that said, ‘If you’re in the Donut Parade, you’re going to be in this movie,’” Miller said, “and everybody was cool with that.”
The movie’s most prominent setting, however, is the now-defunct Otis Hotel, where Augustus lives illegally. He’s converted one of the Otis’ empty rooms into his own quirky domicile, filling it with vintage furniture, retro TV sets, colorful knickknacks and keepsakes from his supposedly never-ending life. Using thrift store kitsch and left-behind furniture that still litters the hotel (as well as permission from the building owner), Miller created a new and unusual world inside one of Spokane’s most famous abandoned locales.
Although “The Immortal Augustus Gladstone” is a fictional narrative constructed to resemble a documentary (Miller is clear that it’s not a “mockumentary,” which would imply that the film is a flat-out comedy), nonfiction elements do creep in: There are real, unrehearsed on-street interviews in the film, and the camera operators and interviewers following Augustus are portrayed by Miller’s own film crew.
And if the lines between reality and fiction weren’t blurred enough, Miller made a series of videos in character as Augustus and uploaded them to YouTube while he was editing the film. “I can show you the hotel that I live in,” Miller-as-Gladstone says in a video titled “Tour of My House,” which was posted July 15, 2011, and has nearly 30,000 views. “I guess the owners don’t know I live here – I know they don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t let me live here.”
The comments on this particular video left by viewers – only some of whom are clearly aware of the ruse – range from confusion to amusement to horror: “OK, this man is really creepy.” “You are inscrutable, Augustus.” “His hair is perfectly coiffed.”
None of these responses is totally unreasonable.
So, who is Augustus Gladstone? Perhaps the most tantalizing aspect of Miller’s movie is that we never get a precise answer.
“When you leave the film, hopefully you have some assumptions broken down,” Miller said, “and not just those about Augustus but about people in general. If that happens, I think that’d be really cool.”
Augustus’ own story could be the product of delusion, or it could be an outright lie, but there’s always the creeping possibility that he’s telling the truth. He’s an enigma, welcoming a listening audience while safeguarding the more sinister implications of his existence, and perhaps he’s more like us than we’d like to believe.
“If I was just a normal person walkin’ around, I wouldn’t believe that,” Augustus says in the film. “I’d think it was crazy. When you’re immortal, you ain’t ever gonna end, and that’s not a comforting fact.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter