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Adam Nemett began writing THE INSTRUMENT while spending the summer of his 20th birthday backpacking through the mountains of Shikoku, Japan.  Nemett, an award-winning graduate of Princeton University’s prestigious Creative Writing department, initially intended THE INSTRUMENT to take the form of a novel.  When the heavy emphasis on music and dance made the story more conducive to the multi-sensory medium of film, Nemett began adapting a screenplay in the Summer of 2001, and completed it during a Fiction Workshop taught by prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates, in Spring 2002.

Rather than invent wholly fictional characters from scratch and then find actors and actresses to assume these roles, Nemett attempted to base the seven student characters on the actual people who might play these parts.  The plan was to do several takes of each scene as scripted. But many of the scenes would also be performed improvisationally, with the likelihood that the scripted and improvised versions would be edited together to achieve a certain naturalness and spontaneity.

While formulating his core group of actors and writing a flexible script around their personalities, there was also the matter of constructing the primary sets for THE INSTRUMENT, namely, the 30’ X 30’ sanctuary and ritual elements supposedly created by fictional character, Arthur Zarek. 


In order to do this, Adam and his father, Barry Nemett, organized a semester-long course at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), generally regarded as one of the top three fine arts schools in the country. Together, they hand-picked a group of 25 visual artists, from various visual arts disciplines, to collaborate on the production design of the film, all under the auspices of a credit course called “Art & The Instrument”. 

To foster the collaborative spirit of the project, and to better explain the different facets of the project, several Princeton-based members of the cast and crew traveled to Baltimore throughout the semester to lead the classes.  Essentially, the construction of the space depended on two main aspects: fleshing out the fictional character that was supposed to have created the space, and further developing his seven ritual ceremonies.



The character of Arthur Zarek, our semi-fictional visionary, was essentially a conglomeration of four real-life personalities:

In Memory

Richard Kalter




In the Spring of 2002, 25 visual artists gathered at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), one of the top visual arts colleges in the nation, to create the sacred space and ritual elements used in THE INSTRUMENT.  They were given no production sketches or rules to follow. The process was entirely spontaneous and collaborative -- the room came together bit by bit, with multiple artists often working on the same space of wall, the same costume, or the same electronic musical instrument.

This method of production design – the maximum amount of artistry with the minimum amount of expense – exemplifies the sort of improvisational spirit explicitly dictated by budgetary constraints.  THE INSTRUMENT is a feature film completed on a production budget of $9,000. Such a small budget meant that certain choices were made in order to keep costs down.  While some of these choices were indeed founded in practical constraints, the script, the manner of filming, and various other elements of production were structured in such a way as to use these seeming limitations to an artistic advantage. 

Since the production did not have the budget to pay for room and board, the entire production cast and crew (nearly 30 of them) lived in the director’s house for the month of June, sleeping ten to a room at times.  While the living arrangements were, in a sense, less than ideal, the intensely concentrated atmosphere actually mimicked the plot of the film – a diverse group of people thrown together for one month with one common goal -- and thus, aided in developing the culture necessary for the cast and crew to play their roles effectively. 

Evenings at the Nemett house were not filled with relaxation.  Everyone was engaged in some aspect of production at nearly all times – the costume designers constructed ritual garb in the den, the musical directors were composing and recording drum loops in the kitchen, actors practiced choreography in a vacant bedroom, all to ensure successful performance of a ritual scheduled to be shot the next afternoon.  In the most real sense, we were all actually experiencing the same process being fictionally presented in THE INSTRUMENT’s screenplay.  The line between fiction and reality became wholly blurred. It was quite a ride.

Since the actors were very often engaged in the same process of preparation for ritual performance as was scripted, the cast was asked to refer to each other by character names for the entirety of the month.  This way, the camera operators could shoot constantly and capture serendipitous moments of method acting.  Indeed, many of these golden unscripted moments did end up in the final cut.

After a two-year edit, the final cut represents a creative collaboration between professors and students at two of America’s premiere institutions of higher learning. In addition to the feature film, THE INSTRUMENT has spawned a novel (“Verity’s Million”) and a critical analysis (“Unlocking The Instrument: A Critical Companion to the Film”).


Production Design by Barry Nemett

Art Direction: James Gillispie, Adam Nemett, and Arthur Zarek

with artwork by:

Jason Bartsch Mixed media; General Fine Arts (GFA)
Melissa Bierer Painting
Ryan Brown Painting
Anna Davis Wood Sculpture, Fibers (GFA)
Alyssa Dennis Drawing
James Gillispie Geometric abstract painting; Sculpture
Rashawn Griffin Mixed media; Installation art; Sculpture
Stephen Hebert Sculpture; woodwork
Anel Henning Graphic Design
Julie Libersat Painting; 3D Constructions
Amber Miller General Sculptural Studies (GSS)
Drew Moody Painting
Alex Morton Fibers; Metal Sculpture; Mixed media
Courtney Puckett Painting
Jen Rattigan GFA
Arturo Romo Painting; Ceramics
Sarah Wertzberger Painting
Scott Wilder Sound Art
Chung Yi Environmental Design
Liz Zacharia Painting
Nisa Zwagil Painting; Mixed media installation

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