Who Shot It? An Interview with the Director of Who Did It? The Story Behind The Clue Mystery Game

WhoDidIt-ClueVCR-Poster copyOne of the hallmarks of the 1980s was the growth of home entertainment options — whether it was television, movies, music or gaming, there was an explosion of options in the marketplace. As the videotape gained in popularity, it didn’t take the other forms of entertainment long to utilize it. First the musicians started releasing home videos of concerts, but then the real strange thing happened: the board game industry turned an eye toward the VHS market.

One of the most popular of the VHS games was created by Parker Brothers and was a new version of the game Clue. In the video version, a group of actors were hired for a live action scripted mystery, which players navigated by fast forwarding or rewinding to specific parts of the tape in the fashion of a “choose your own adventure” style book. The most interesting aspect of this game for us, though, is the fact that both the Clue VCR Mystery Game (1985) and it’s sequel Clue II: Murder In Disguise (1987) were produced locally, shot in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, respectively, with a cast and crew of New Englanders.

Now some 30 or so years later, local filmmakers Tim Labonte and Victor Franko have tracked down the cast and crew for their own retrospective documentary, Who Did It? The Story Behind The Clue VCR Mystery Game. Who Did It… is truly an interesting look back at both a successful experiment in home entertainment as well as an interesting, but now overlooked, medium in gaming. Their documentary brings back memories of struggling through what at the time seemed like an overly complex game. Many, including myself, simply gave up on the game and watched the weird story bits. This documentary answers many lingering questions about the game itself and provides an understanding of the game’s background since we not only get interviews with the people who made the video, but with those who envisioned bringing the popular game to this new medium to begin with.

I had a lot of questions about the documentary and its making so I was excited to interrogate … I mean interview the documentary’s producer, editor and co-director, Tim Labonte.

Joshua Gravel: What brought you to this topic for a documentary?

Tim Labonte: A few years ago my friend Frank Durant gave me a call asking if I could edit an Indigogo trailer for this project he was trying to get going. At this time, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and crowdfunding was a very new idea. I’m sure you remember — with too many ‘success stories’ maybe? He told me about this Clue VCR Game he would play and watch as a kid. I had no idea what he was talking about. But he told me how when he was working as an extra on Underdog he recognized Walter Covell, the gentlemen who played Colonel Mustard, and got to talk with him. And he found out that Parker Brothers, being a local company, actually filmed and produced the game video locally, which was a risk not using NY or LA. Frank got inspired, then proceeded to track down the actors, producers, director and creator of the game and tried to use the Indigogo to raise money to bring them all together to the first RI Comic Con. He wanted to do a panel and a session playing the game, and the money would go toward travel and hotel for the Clue VCR crew and I would film the event. So I was intrigued right away. I found the film online and used it to produce a campaign video. In the end I think we made $25.

Fast-forward a year later. Frank recruited me to work on some sketch comedy, and after a meeting we were walking outside and I asked, “What’s going on with Clue?” He said, “Nothing. We made no money to get everyone together.” I said, “You have their addresses. Why don’t we go to them?” He called me a week later. Everyone was on board and we had our travel dates. We packed the car and drove to Maine, New Hampshire, Upper Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island — it was a blast. We filmed in two weekends. Ed Buffman, the director, is in Pennsylvania so he Skyped with Frank and had a friend film the conversation and send us the footage.

JG: Had you played the game?

TL: I had never even heard of the game when Frank brought the project forward. Literally after the phone call, I went on eBay and found a still shrink-wrapped copy for 30 bucks. I was born in ’84, so I was 1 when the game was released. Nintendo (The VCR Game’s killer) was my game, but I told friends about Clue and everyone was game to hang out and play it when it arrived. I transferred the tape to DVD (I think I’m the only one of my friends that still has VCRs) and went to my buddy’s house. We gave up during the instructions and ended up just watching the movie. I could not follow the instructions at all, which I learned happened all the time. Even to the actors!

JG: As the Clue game was 30 years old, were there any troubles finding those involved?

TL: I think Frank did a lot of Facebook and white pages, taking a chance the person on the other line was Miss Scarlet or Mrs. White. I remember begging to include the sequel “Murder in Disguise” in the documentary. The man who played the instructor Didit the Butler in Clue I passed away shortly after the game’s completion. For the sequel they brought in another Inspector Pry, played by Peter Kovner. Frank found two Peter Kovners and left messages. The Peter we wanted returned the call! But a lot of it was the connections and friendships the cast maintained over the years. You find one, they give you a number, then they give you a number, then you’ve found everyone.

JG: Was there an attempt to revisit the locations for the documentary?

TL: We drove by the Clue I mansion in Wenham, Mass! Gorgeous place — I wanted to see it, and it wasn’t too far from one of the interviews. Frank did call and try to film in there. The family still owned it, and the kids remember them filming. But they wanted insurance and all this stuff if Frank and I were to, I don’t know, knock over a vase or whatnot. So we decided it really wasn’t that important. It’s actually up for sale now if you have $5,500,000 lying around.

Belcourt Castle in Newport, RI, where Clue II was filmed we didn’t go because we had already decided not to use the first location. But take your family this summer!

JG: Where there any major hurdles in the production?

TL: So when Clue II was in production in Newport, WBZ in Boston brought their show Evening Magazine to do a story. I only knew about this story because some Clue VCR fan sites has stills, audio and a description of the entire spot. They had behind the scenes video of making the film! Frank and I both e-mailed the websites — and nothing.

There’s this site called TheArtofMurder.com, seriously, the ultimate Clue collector’s paradise of information. I was very surprised how big of a fan base there was for Clue, especially in England where it’s called Cluedo. I went to the forums on there with no luck as well. I then messaged someone I knew who had it on the board, and they responded, letting me know when they’d get the footage to me when they get back from out of town. That cherry on the top the documentary needed!

That person disappeared. I would write to him every couple months, even to the point offering to send my VHS/DVD recorder, blank discs and money to ship back, but nothing. Frank and I then contacted WBZ, they said they gave all the archives to WGBH. We contacted WGBH, they said they got rid of them. Defeated after the year of searching, I posted online that the film will be released in March, unfortunately without the Evening Magazine story. While exporting the film, Michael Dell’Orto (Monsieur Brunette) messages me on Facebook, “The Evening Magazine spot? I have that in my closet!” He sent me the footage right away. It was Christmas. I worked it into the final film and announced the June 9 release date.

JG: I know the doc screened at the RI Comic Con, did you do other festivals?

TL: This is where I need to do a shout out for Steven Perry, the founder of RI Comic Con. Frank is good friends with him, and he’s the one they gave us a little money for travel and food to produce the film. He then let us show it at the 2nd RI Comic Con. In the meantime I had been hired at WaterFire Providence at the start of the 2013 season. I don’t know how on earth I finished the first cut. I remember taking days off and my fiancé, Amanda, was transcribing the phone interviews for me. I exported the movie at 7am, then went to the Comic Con screening for 2pm.

A few months later my good friend Nathanael Tronerud was very generous and composed the music for us. He took each character and wrote a piece around them. The different themes he wrote I was able to place all through the film. With music now, I submitted to the SENE Film Festival last year. It was such an awesome night — I really consider that the premiere. We had a room full of people, and some amazing question and answers. Then we took home an Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary! The whole plan with the film was to release it publicly with no financial gain. So it’s really for anyone who wants to sit back and feel nostalgic for half an hour. We had a lot of fun making it.

But I am now contacting Cable Access stations to air it and blogs to link it. We’ve also been submitting to New England Festivals and Comic Con Fests. Because the Clue VCR Game is so rich with local film and game history, it’s such a particular audience and niche, we feel they would place better here in the area or the audience that most likely played and remember the game.

JG: What upcoming projects do you have?

TL: I’m shooting and editing a web series called Magicland for my friend Jenn Dlugos now, between the day job schtickery of course. I just made animations/music videos for Danny Weinkauf of They Might Be Giants, and Marc with a C and his project Claire and the Potatoes. I’ve been working with Al Gomes of Big Noise and this October we’ll be a making a music video for The Young Presidents with Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin (many dreams have been coming true, believe me). I have three more documentaries I want to pursue. I’ve talked with the people involved with the subjects I want to cover, but it’s still too early to tell or give any official information. I do video and media work for a school, so just waiting for the school year to end and clear my head and get back in the game.

For more information about Who Did It? The Story Of The Clue VCR Game check out https://www.facebook.com/WhoDidItClueVCR or http://standstillpictures.com. Trust me this is well worth seeking out and will be of interest to vhs and Clue enthusiasts everywhere.

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