Summer, 2010. A camera captures suburban Michigan through the windshield of a slowly moving automobile. Titles appear on the screen, hovering above a dirty dashboard and rusted windshield wipers as a dramatic score (credited to Maestro Mohammad Nejad) plays in the background.
CTOM LLC PRESENTS
A ZERO BUDGET MOVIE PRODUCTION
A CTOM FILM
STARRING LAUREN CULLUM
A battered old minivan pulls up to a brick house and its driver exits. Apparently, he’s supposed to be a TV newscaster, barking orders at the camera crew off-screen. He almost looks directly into the camera, telling the unseen crew which shots to get, as a man wearing headphones steps into frame and nods vigorously. The acting is stiff and unnatural, and the composition is unlike any I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood film.
Lucy’s Law was directed, written, shot, and edited by an auteur who calls himself Tom Charley, but his fans know him as cTom. The film has all the hallmarks of outsider cinema, earning comparisons to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and the work of Neil Breen. The director definitely has a message, but it’s hard to tell exactly what that message might be. Is he Islamophobic or anti-Semitic, or both? Is his film an expose of Pizzagate-style child sex trafficking and the corrupt American criminal justice system that enables it? These are all possibilities, but the film isn’t really coherent enough to convey any of that with any certainty.
The plot revolves around Lucy Baylor, who was kidnapped on her way to school when she was 11, and then spent the next two decades living as a member of her captor’s family, eventually having his children. The backstory can be described as Flowers In The Attic by way of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but its countless flashbacks and courtroom monologues prevent the viewer from ever getting a real sense of what might be going on.
The star of Lucy’s Law is Lauren Cullum, an environmental lawyer living in Edinburgh. At the time of filming, Lauren was in New York, pursuing a career in acting. She came across a casting call for the movie online and agreed to take the part for $900. The film was shot in the suburbs outside of Detroit, and Lauren’s involvement lasted all of three days.
“Honestly, it was awful,” Lauren says over Facebook Messenger (she declined a formal interview). “He overworked us, didn’t pay us, and acted like a crazy person.”
There are a few commonalities among the stories that cTom’s actors tell: He doesn’t show anyone the complete script. He doesn’t let his actors deviate from the lines as they’re written. And throughout the shoot, he constantly changes his email address and phone number. To this day, Lauren has no idea what cTom’s real name might be.
According to Lauren, on the ride to the airport for her flight home, cTom told her he didn’t have the money he promised her for the shoot. “I said I wouldn’t get out of the car until he paid,” she says, so “he drove off with me still in this car. He refused to drop me off at the airport, which resulted in me calling the police while still in the car with him.”
What followed was the kind of madcap comic action you’d wish cTom would incorporate into his films: “He kept circling the airport with two cop cars following us, and me crying on the phone with the cops.”
cTom eventually pulled over so she could make her flight. “The cops asked me a few questions, but I didn’t stick around because I needed to catch my flight and I just wanted to get out of there. I’m not really sure what happened with him and the police.”
At some point cTom did mail her a check for $900, “but it bounced. And I had to pay the fee for it bouncing.”
Aside from the bounced check, Lauren says that she hasn’t heard anything about the film or cTom since she finished shooting Lucy’s Law in 2010. “I didn’t even realize the film was ever finalized,” she tells me. I feel bad that I have to be the one to break the news to her that the film is available both on DVD and Amazon’s streaming platform. “I haven't seen it,” she says, “but I'm assuming I'd feel pretty embarrassed if it came out how I imagine it did.”
Patrick Sarniak has a few acting credits to his name, including the lead role of Herzog in cTom’s film Who Killed Aliyah? The IMDB summary is worth quoting in full, typos and all:
While investigating the disappearance of teen Aliyah , investigator Herzog comes across her photo on the Internet. This photo leads him to the Black Brothers Movie Studio. Using Dostoevsky type deductive logic, Herzog discovers that the lives of the Studio Boss and that of his own are intertwined with the life of Aliyah. There are several side stories. All the shenanigans that happen behind the Blue Doors of the Movie Studio will keep you amused. This is a Detective Story. Theme is Crime and Punishment. It is definitely a Suspenseful Drama.
“His mind works differently than the normal mind for thinking of things, and how to make the plot run,” Patrick says of the director. “He’s got that more of a Kubrick appeal.”
Patrick describes cTom as a particularly “strict” director. “He didn’t want method acting, at all. He basically wanted everything read word-for-word that was in the script.” This makes sense, because one defining characteristic of cTom’s work is that all the dialogue sounds like it was written by someone with little grasp of the English language.
“I think he’s Pakistani,” Patrick tells me. “I think he might’ve mentioned it. I don’t remember, but I think he’s Pakistani.”
Indeed, Patrick thinks that a lot of what makes cTom’s movies seem odd might be chalked up to cultural differences. “He wanted to put this Bollywood song and dance routine in every movie,” he says. “No matter what the movie was about, somebody had to sing a song, or they had to do a dance, or something that was odd, to make the formula work for Bollywood. And I thought to myself that that was kind of odd, so I told him, you know, a song and dance, in this movie, I don’t know if it will work for it.”
In the end, Sarniak is proud of Who Killed Aliyah?, which he sees as an expose on child pornography. “I did it to show the bad part of an industry that basically affects everyone, and is hidden from everyone’s view.” He feels “honorable,” he says, “that at least something was done to try and sway people from going down that bad road.”
He’s less sure of the portrayal of the porn studio exec whose over-the-top Jewishness is a thread that runs through the entire film. “He had this, like antisemitist (sic) thing that was in there,” Patrick says.
I asked Patrick if he thought the film was anti-Semitic. “I thought about that,” he says. “But Alex Kushner,” the actor who starred in the film, is Jewish. “If he’s doing it, he must think that there’s something more artistic to the value, or there’s a point that needs to be made here.”
“I think he might have passed away,” said Alex Kushner, the star of Who Killed Aliyah?, when I asked him about cTom. “He made this movie six years ago, and was in very poor health. Sixty-six, diabetic, he wasn’t on a respirator but he was fairly close to it, and he had other kinds of serious illness as well. I thought he was obese. So truthfully, I don’t think he’s alive.”
All in all, Alex says that his experience working with cTom was a good one, although he will admit that the film has “issues.”
“I took time to learn my lines, but he didn’t have a problem with people reading off a script. To me, that’s horrible. That’s not acting. It just made a mockery out of it.”
I wonder if Alex could tell me what the message of the movie was.
“Well, I’m Jewish, and this didn’t really bother me. But it was about Orthodox Jews who were very, very bad men. And I didn’t have a problem with that, because they do that with Italians [in movies] all the time. They go to church on Sunday, they’re very religious, they’re good friends with the priest and the Pope, and then they go back to killing people on Monday. And of course, this isn’t just the Jews and Italians, it goes across all different kinds of races.”
If the depiction of Jewish characters wasn’t a problem for him, other aspects of the production were. “I didn’t really like” that there were underage girls on the set, he says. “I wanted them to be over the age of 18, but other people on the set stuck up for him and said it makes it more dramatic that way, when you have younger girls. Now, there wasn’t even any touching, no sexual harassment of any kind. Nobody said anything derogatory or anything. So there was not that issue.”
Alex says that the film is not without its fans.
“Friends of mine said it was good,” he says. “I don’t think they were comparing it to regular Hollywood movies. I think it was just fun to watch. There’s a difference. I could watch a home movie that my relatives made and I could really enjoy it, but it’s obviously not a Hollywood movie.”
The stories continue like this: the more actors I speak to, the weirder cTom gets. There’s Katelyn Coffey, the 13-year-old star of Who Killed Aliyah?, who auditioned for the part in a Wendy’s: “He didn’t want my parents around a lot of the time, so he’d always try to kick them out,” she says. “And it was just kind of awkward sometimes. And he didn’t really seem to know what he was doing.”
And there’s Kerry Bentivolio, a former Republican congressman from Michigan’s 11th district. Kerry’s convinced that I’m doing opposition research for the Democratic Party. He’s a little sensitive about the film that he starred in, The President Goes to Heaven, ever since one of his political opponents obtained the movie and used it for an attack ad.
“When I ran for office” in 2012, Kerry says, “they said I was a 9/11 truther because I was in the movie.” Kerry has his own ideas about what cTom is up to. “He’s making movies and basically he doesn’t pay anybody. He does these jokester-type, ridiculous movies, and he gives them to his friend, the editor, and then the editor gives him a bill, and he submits the bill to the state of Michigan, and the state of Michigan pays him to make that movie. And then he goes to India, and he shows those movies in India at 10 cents a ticket.”
Andrew Dawe-Collins, the star of Song of the Blind Girl, says that cTom isn’t motivated by making a profit as much as making a statement. This film is about a veteran of the war in Iraq who is suffering from extreme PTSD. “But later on in the script,” Andrew says, “you also found out that he was part of the CIA.”
The director “really doesn’t like Americans very much,” he believes. “America is the evil force in the world, and they do all this covert stuff and they affect all these people, and they never have to pay for any of the things that they do. So it had a decidedly anti-American theme to it.”
I ask Andrew if he’s heard from cTom recently. “I did get a call from CNN about him,” he says. A reporter was trying to track down the man behind Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Islamic short film that provoked violent demonstrations (and its share of Fatwas) worldwide in 2012. It was a good guess, but that film was actually made by an Egyptian filmmaker living in California named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Andrew scoffs at the suggestion that cTom could’ve made a film that would incite mobs to riot, or earn him a Fatwa from Hezbollah.
“If [Song of the Blind Girl] was any good at all, and anybody who was an American saw it, they’d be offended by the film and the anti-American message that the film is giving out. Luckily, it’s so bad nobody saw it.”
In addition to producing, writing, directing, and editing four feature films, cTom is a prolific author. He doesn’t seem to know how to correctly set up his author page on Amazon, so it’s hard to know exactly how many books he’s written, but my best guess is that the number is at least three dozen. In addition to adaptations of all his movies, he’s published a number of novels, including Pedophile Priest, the description of which sounds a lot like the contemporary QAnon conspiracy theory (in this case, cTom was on the cutting edge: his pedophile book was published in 2014). He’s also published his own study bible, which he calls the True Believers’ International Version. The man is prolific.
cTom’s productions are so inept, and the themes that he repeatedly strikes so strange, that his films are unlike anything else. The plots of his various movies all revolve around the same obsessions: Middle East terrorism, anti-Semitism, sex trafficking, and drug abuse. They’re transmissions from another reality, hopelessly broken yet incredibly compelling. Watching a cTom movie is as close as you’ll ever get to mainlining the worldview of the angriest denizens of 4chan.
As I was wrapping this story up, I discovered the website of the American International Film Festival, a strictly small-time contest for Michigan filmmakers (Song of the Blind Girl won the award for Best Feature in 2011). The website has been defunct since at least 2014, but using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was delighted to find a group picture of a several film festival attendees, including a man who I suspected could be cTom. I sent the picture to Andrew and Patrick, both of whom confirmed that my suspicion was correct.
Seven people are standing in the lobby of a theater. A large, brown man is positioned in the center, with his hand on another guy’s shoulder. A number of women stand on either side of the men. The picture is posed, but not professionally so—nobody here seems comfortable in front of the camera. They’re all smiling. It looks like a bunch of people who took the day off work, perhaps called a babysitter, and headed to Ann Arbor for an all-too-rare outing. It looks like they’ve just experienced that special joy that can only be had when you’ve put countless hours into your own amateur film and you’ve finally seen it screened, for the first time, in an actual movie house.
The photo isn’t captioned, but the names of each of its subjects are contained in the filename. To the left of the man are Eden, Kim, and Christian. To the man’s right are Irma, Elizabeth, and Daphine. Standing in the middle, towering over everybody else, is the subject of this story. I still don’t know his real name, but at last, I’ve seen his face. He’s smiling. He’s listed, simply, as “Director.”
—Joseph L. Flatley is an author and journalist living in Pittsburgh. His writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Verge, Pando Daily, CounterPunch, and Washington Babylon. His forthcoming book, Satan Goes to the Conspiracy Convention: Manchurian Candidates, Recovered Memories, and the Dark Side of Conspiracy Culture, will be published in November 2018. He can be contacted through his website.