Arye Michael Bender as Octavio Coleman in The Institute (2013)

Wriggling Down the Rabbit Hole Again With ‘The Esquire’, the Follow-up to ‘The Institute’

Arye Michael Bender reprises his role as defrocked '70s guru Octavio Coleman in the upcoming part spin-off, part sequel, part prequel and completely mind-bending film, The Esquire.

Arye Michael Bender is about to get meta.

Over the course of my 40-minute conversation with the actor life imitates art, art imitates life, and the two become indistinguishable. Twice I lose the thread on our exchange so significantly that he starts interviewing me. Once, I volunteer personal information about my childhood that I don’t often talk about.

Our exchange slips from absurd to insightful, magical to farcical, authentic to outrageous several times over.

This kind of tilt-a-whirl discourse is not too different from my experiences with authentic spiritual leaders over the years, but that’s the point. Arye (pronounced “R-E-A”) Michael Bender played Octavio Coleman, a defrocked ’70s guru who served as the villain in the quasi-documentary, The Institute. The 2013 film documented a mind-bending transmedia experience (part art installation / part alternative reality game / part immersive experiment) that ran for three years in San Francisco. It engaged some 10,000 participants to take part in the game. That initial storyline revolved around a missing girl, a Scientology-esque cult headed by Coleman, and a militant culture jamming resistance that aimed to expose him.

In a voice like logs burning in a campfire — warm, comforting, a little dangerous — Bender tells me: “I lived the role.”

It’s the voice you’d expect from a ’70s guru, perhaps offering guided meditation instructions for accessing your inner orgone. Bender looks and acts a bit like a cross between the man in the Dos Equis’ ad campaign, “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, and Bob Beck. His character is simultaneously composite and caricature of the guru (elements of Beck, L. Ron Hubbard, Tim Leary) in a bizarre combination that would be in place in a Pynchon novel. It’s a balance few actors could pull off without falling into farce, but Bender seems to do it flawlessly.

“I knew quite a number of swamis. I knew Timothy Leary. I met L. Ron Hubbard after he was hounded out of Scientology,” Bender confides, “So, that is what I channeled for the role.”

When Bender first responded to a Craigslist ad looking for an actor to play Coleman in the original game, he arrived at the audition already in character. He walked up to the front desk and announced, “The Esquire is here.” Asserting that kind of ownership over the role in the audition not only helped him land the part, but also defined it in a way that the role became his own. This sort of quality helped move his limited appearance in the game into a centerpiece for two films.

The film itself evokes strange events and secular mystical experiences in its wake. Since its conclusion, an event that played out like a seminar and thematically merged cult and resistance as yin-yang forces in our existence, the game has inspired its own cultish following. In addition to the documentary, an ever expanding creative multiverse has unfolded with games, art projects, tattoos, secret societies and, most recently, a fictionalized pseudo-sequel to keep the narrative going.

I first wrote about The Institute for PopMatters a little over a year ago (“Neither Here Nor There: ‘The Institute’, the Game, and the Thread to Elsewhere”). After it published, I received emails from participants looking for clues to the game. Though it had publicly concluded a couple years earlier, my article became regarded by some as a key to deciphering its meaning. Others felt that the article was laying the groundwork for another game. I received requests for information on the follow up. My online presence, including my LinkedIn profile, was deconstructed and discussed in reddit forums. The coup de grâce of this attention was a thread discussing whether or not I was even real in the first place — bits of my bio, resume, and personal history served as evidence to disprove my existence — with the consensus that I was a character in the game.

It was a Sartre-like spin on the famous Mark Twain quip, “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”, as here both my essence and my existence were being called into account.

As a result, when I connect with Bender to discuss his reprisal of Coleman in the upcoming fictional film The Esquire, I expect such reality bending, which extends all the way to how the film is defined. It evades definition. I also connect with Spencer McCall, the filmmaker who made The Institute and wrote and directed the follow up.

“It is not a sequel,” McCall tells me by phone, “Not really. It is more of a spin-off.”

Then, with a pause, he conceits: “Okay, it is part spin-off, part sequel, part prequel. We started with the assumption that the film is about a real cult, not a game. It is a narrative feature. Documentary films don’t usually have sequels, so I suppose, it is more of a spin off.”

McCall’s effort to label both films is in keeping with the laws of this universe where nothing is ever completely as it seems. Firm definitions are allusive. Even the term ARG (Alternate Reality Game) is not a comfortable fit for the game’s creators. It may look, feel, and appear like one, but it is distinct from its ARG kin. Most ARGs seek to engage an audience into an immersive experience that connects them to a product universe. Think Dark Knight or Halo, which both had two of the more popular live action games, providing fan participants supported protagonists in the narrative, so long as they exited through the gift shop, if you will.

The very fact that the game did not have a product tie-in made it something wholly different from the outset, which is where the dedication of its participants and their unwillingness to let go seems to come from. From inception, the event was intended only to provide experience. It was intended to jar participants from their everyday lives and reinstate a sense of wonder and magic as one might from childhood. It was successful.

Bender and McCall didn’t meet until The Institute was making rounds on the festival circuit.

“Even though I was in the film, I didn’t get to work with him when it was being made. I thought it was a brilliant film and I thought Spencer was a brilliant man, but after the film made the rounds I thought that was going to be it,” Bender explains, “We did several interviews and events together. After a Q&A session, I mentioned, ‘you know, I think there is a lot more that can be said about Octavio.’”

McCall was intrigued, but had been planning a separate project. He was planning a feature length project, something that had a bit of the nonchalance flavor — a story within a story motif — but that was distinctly independent. If he could take the material in a new direction, though, it would be worth exploring.

Initially, Bender presented something “absolutely outlandish” involving Coleman being a character that is created in lab; he’s an amalgamation of L. Ron Hubbard, Bob Beck and Aleister Crowley. This Coleman-ish mesh was prepared to lead the next generation by combining and preserving their DNA with his own. The aging Esquire observes his life — strange, otherworldly adventures — through a handheld globe.

“He needed a spine to the story,” Bender comments, “something that could anchor it.”

At this point, they’d grown pretty close and McCall suggested something Bender had shared in confidence as the backbone of their story. “Ayre had been estranged from his son for years,” McCall explains, “but The Institute had provided an avenue for them to reconnect after so many years.”

“I had been a tech at ABC, but after being awakened through LSD, I realized that I couldn’t live that life with full authenticity. As a result, I did not have a relationship with my son for years,” Bender elaborates. “I always regretted that,” he continues, “My son saw the film. He was intrigued. He and I reconnected. He respects what I am doing now. He came into town for a couple weeks. We had dinner together and connected on a truly human level.”

That became Coleman’s back story. After embarking on a spiritual journey similar to Bender and hundreds of flower children of the era — the Esquire turned away from the drugs that left him disconnected from his son. In the film, Coleman is more duplicitous about reconnecting with his son than his real life counterpart, acting as a maestro orchestrating events to bring his son in contact rather than simply reaching out. His fictional son, Riley, is a filmmaker. Coleman commissions him to make a film documenting his astounding life, all the while moving Riley closer to meeting his maker.

According to McCall, the thematic result is a sort of combination of Bowfinger (1999) and Big Fish (2003). On the surface this makes sense, both films have cult status in their own right, each strike a similar vibe as The Institute, but there’s a deeper significance that resonates in these examples and speaks to the whole of the project.

Bowfinger (199), a clever satire penned by Steve Martin, pokes fun at celebrity culture and our obsession with cinema. Bobby Bowfinger (also played by Steve Martin) is a struggling producer trying to shoot his first B film. To have it distributed, Bowfinger must cast action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) to be the lead. Ramsey refuses, forcing Bowfinger to orchestrate a series of increasingly implausible scenarios to film Ramsey in scenes from the script without his knowledge. Ramsey, believing the events are real, lapses into a state of extreme paranoia and goes into hiding.

From there the implausibility only increases as Bowfinger unwittingly recruits Ramsey’s brother, Jiff (also played by Eddie Murphy) in order to shoot the remainder of the film. When his true identity is revealed, Jiff is enlisted to bring his brother out of hiding to finish the film.

Released a year after The Truman Show (1998), Bowfinger channeled the zeitgeist of late ‘90s reality-bending with Martin’s signature zaniness and aoverall absurdity. As with The Institute, Bowfinger also features a Scientology-esque cult that in Martin’s words is more of a “pastiche” than a specific group.

Big Fish is Tim Burton’s most sentimental film and curiously also his most colorful. It strikes the fantastical cord of most of his oeuvre, but substitutes the muted colors and gray wash for bright, vivid colors. While Ed Wood (1994) would be a more likely candidate to pair with Bowfinger, it is Big Fish that offers a father and son plot that centers on how identity is formed by the stories we tell.

Big Fish is the story of Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/ Albert Finney) and Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), estranged father and son. As he grew up, Will has heard his father tell the same tall tales repeatedly. They are stories of witches and giants, werewolves and Siamese twins; ghost towns, circuses, haunted houses, true love, and war.

Ed Bloom is defined by tales of folksy Americana woven into the life and memories of a traveling salesman with far more wonder, whimsy and mystery than straight facts. Fact, fantasy and fabrication, reality and dream, childhood and fatherhood are all intertwined.

As Will grows and starts a family of his own, he longs for the reality behind the fabrications. The truth that forged his father and subsequently led to his own origins. When his father is on his deathbed, Will returns home for one last attempt to know his father.

Burton’s vision is always fantastical, but his theme throughout Big Fish might be his most personal that we capture reality best through the fantastique. In the end, Will succumbs to his father’s belief and inherits the story.

No matter how many times I see it, I always cry at the end of Big Fish. The father and son story has universal qualities, but my father is Ed Bloom. He was a professional storyteller for years. There’s little difference between his onstage persona and his everyday self in the same way that you can picture Bloom spinning a yarn while visiting the home of a potential customer. And, while I subscribed to my father’s narrative far longer than Will is able to hang in there, a tension between that fantasy and reality did emerge.

In the end, as with Will and Bender’s own son, I reached a point where I could integrate my father’s story into my own.

I tell Bender something to this effect.

“That is the only thing Coleman wants in his life is to meet and connect with his estranged son,” he says, bringing it back to the film.

Both Big Fish and Bowfinger share a deeper connection that reverberates throughout both The Institute documentary and alternate reality game. That is, fictional elements that tally into authentic moments. Ed Bloom’s stories reflect the real individual; Bowfinger’s machinations result in a successful film and launch his career as a B-movie director. The Institute meant something to many of its participants, a significance that transcended the game, which speaks to its following years after it has concluded.