December 11, 2018

Mark Utters ‘I Am in Here’

Man speaks his mind through film

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

The upcoming film ‘I Am in Here,’ is written by and stars Mark Utter, a native Vermonter who can’t speak because of a neurological condition and instead uses a form of alternative communication. (Graphic courtesy of NorthLand Design and Construction)

Mark Utter has always been a man with a lot to say.

He’s just never had a way to say it.

Utter, 46, was born with a neurological condition that prevents him from speaking and causes a disconnect between his thoughts and body movements.

“He’s highly cognitive inside, but it’s hard for him to communicate with his body,” said Emily Anderson of VSA Vermont, the state organization on arts and disability.

Utter was introduced to an alternative form of communication 15 years ago, in which he is able to type his thoughts one letter at a time with the help of Anderson, who lightly touches his elbow during the process.

“It kind of grounds him and it helps him focus his energy so he’s able to do this task of typing,” Anderson said of the facilitated communication process.

But Utter had little use for the cumbersome and time-consuming process until he realized he could use it to express himself creatively.

“He wanted to tell his story, and he thought (VSA Vermont’s) Awareness Theater would be a great venue for it,” said Anderson. “But in the course of this project moving along and taking its own form, he realized he wanted to make a movie.”

Eight years and many screenplay iterations later, “I Am in Here” is ready for production.

Part live action, part surrealistic animation, “I Am in Here” is a fictional day in the life of Utter as he negotiates his way through a series of communication barriers that most people take for granted. Described by Utter as a “docudrama with hues of tragicomedy mixed in,” the film will star Utter as himself and Paul Schnabel as “Exact Mark,” his alter ego who serves as the physical embodiment of his unexpressed thoughts.

Filmmaker Jim Heltz of Green Mountain Video in Williston, who will serve with Anderson as the film’s co-director, said Utter’s writing is marked by a rare poeticism.

“When he writes, and not just his scripts, but when you’re speaking to him and communicating back and forth, what comes out of him is poetry,” Heltz said. “Just our everyday conversations … how he writes a phrase has a certain poetry to it.”

The filmmakers have completed a 4-minute promotional video for “I Am in Here” that will be screened on Thursday, June 14 at 7 p.m. at the Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington, as part of “An Evening of Letters with Mark Utter.” The event, which has a $20 cover charge, will also feature a Q-and-A session with Utter and a book reading by cab driver/writer Jernigan Pontiac.

Proceeds from the event will be put toward the project’s Kickstarter goal of $25,000 for production and post-production costs. As of June 11, just over $14,000 has been raised.

Heltz said he hopes to begin the six-day shoot this summer and finish the editing process in the fall. He said he expects the finished film to be about 30 minutes long.

Anderson commented that despite the fact that she is credited as producer and co-director and Heltz as editor and co-director, Utter is the driving force behind the production.

“He’s the one running this project,” Anderson said. “He’s finding his way in the world and developing more and more skills as he goes, which is really fascinating to see.”

Utter, with concise poeticism, summarized his feelings about the project in an email to the Observer.

“The opportunity to make this film has changed my life and will do so for many more,” he wrote.

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