Filmmaker’s promise to his mentor resulted in ‘Quest’

Dash Mihok, left, portrays Tim, a compassionate and humble teacher and mentor to the defiant and abused Mills, played by Greg Kasyan in Santiago Rizzo’s “Quest.” The film will screen at Slamdance.
Courtesy of Cinematic Red |

One of the reasons filmmaker Santiago Rizzo made his Slamdance narrative feature “Quest” was to fulfill a promise to his life-changing mentor and friend, Tim Moellering.

Moellering was a humble Berkeley, California middle school teacher and football coach who took Rizzo under his wing and helped him cope with his stepfather’s abuse.

“Quest” is based on Rizzo and Moellering’s life together.

“Tim and I wrote the script together, and before he died I promised that I would make this movie for him,” Rizzo said during an interview. “I never intended to direct the movie, but I went to L.A. and got nonstop rejections. So I sold the house that Tim and I bought and directed and made the film myself.”

The second reason Rizzo made “Quest,” which will screen Monday, Jan. 22, and Wednesday, Jan. 24, at Treasure Mountain Inn, was to honor Moellering, who lost his life to cancer in 2011.

“He was a humble and beautiful man who didn’t judge,” Rizzo said. “He was a tall white man who understood his privilege in society and was humble as a result of it. And hundreds of people loved him.”

Moellering’s positive impact on local youth caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who wrote him a letter, Rizzo said.

“The city of Berkeley also built a baseball field that cost several million dollars in his honor,” he said. “I mean, he was amazing.”

Rizzo was an abused delinquent who acted out his pain with graffiti and other anti-social behavior, he confessed.

“I lived this very difficult childhood,” he said. “I grew up with that abuse and it was a tiny sliver of what I dealt with as a child. I was judged at how I reacted to the situation because I wasn’t acting the way society said I should, but then again, my stepfather wasn’t acting the way society wanted him to either.”

With the help of Moellering, Rizzo, who lashed out at any opportunity, was able to find peace with himself and the abuse, and “Quest” shows both of their journeys through the process.

“I wanted to show the kid’s defiance and pain,” Rizzo said. “I wanted to show the reason why he acts this way is because he’s being abused.”

He also wanted to show the challenge Moellering went through for helping Rizzo.

“I wanted to address the way the school looked at him for helping a troubled child,” Rizzo said. “It’s hard these days for an adult male to help a boy with need, especially with the accusations of pedophilia in the news today. But I wanted to show his unwavering commitment. He knew he was doing the right thing and didn’t care what anyone thought because he had integrity.”

The purpose of the film is also to share Moellering’s spirit of compassion and empathy, Rizzo said.

“We need more of that because there is too much ego and status in the world now,” he said. “Abuse is something beyond ethnicity, race, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds and class, and we need how to figure out how to deal with that in order for us to heal the world.”

Rizzo and Moellering began writing the script in 2003 after Rizzo graduated from Stanford.

“Tim’s friends suggested he write a story about us,” Rizzo said. “I was pursuing acting as a way to cope with my insecurities, and suggested we write a script and make a movie instead.”

Moellering wrote the first draft and Rizzo added the graffiti scenes.

“It was more about the kid and not Tim, because he was too humble to make it about himself,” Rizzo said. “After Tim died, I brought on writer Darren Anderson, who graduated from Columbia University, and we rewrote the script to make it more about Tim, because I wanted to make sure it highlighted the compassionate human being Tim was in the face of my defiance.”

The film features Greg Kasyan as Mills, who portrays Rizzo’s character, and Dash Mihok as the character Tim.

“We casted those two because they both had a lot of humanity,” Rizzo said. “While Greg wasn’t as tough as me as a kid, because he didn’t grow up like I did, his heart does comes out.”

Mihok embodied Moellering’s characteristics.

“Dash also has a lot of humanity as well and portrayed Tim as the humble, soft-spoken man he was,” Rizzo said.

Even the costumes and sets during Moellering’s scenes created a humble environment.

“In fact, the clothes we put on Dash were Tim’s clothes,” Rizzo said. “He wore boring clothes, but he was incredibly powerful with humility.”

Golden Globe Award nominee Lou Diamond Phillips portrays Gus, the abusive stepfather.

“Lou is a beast of an actor, and he looks like my stepfather, Rizzo said. “He played a manipulative monster and it was like he knew who my stepfather was.“

“Quest” has already won a number of awards at the Napa Valley, Mill Valley, Oldenburg and Berkeley Video & Film festivals.

“I found that audiences are hungry for authenticity,” Rizzo said. “The audiences who have seen this film has given it standing ovations, because I think they feel it at a heart level.”

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