The Graffiti Artist’s Promise
Santiago Rizzo made his debut film, ‘Quest,’ to honor the middle-school coach and teacher who refused to give up on him.
By Mick LaSalle
Photography by Patrick Tehan
It happens, but not very often—a movie that shows you something you might never have known about, that opens up a pocket of human experience in a way that’s moving and illuminating. Currently on the film festival circuit is Quest, director Santiago Rizzo’s lightly fictionalized drama about his own harrowing childhood. By the time Rizzo, ’03, started his freshman year at Stanford, he had seen more of the dark side of human nature than most of us encounter in a lifetime.
“I lived by the Ashby BART station,” recalls Rizzo, ’03. “Now Berkeley is an affluent place, but when I was growing up, it was not.” His parents divorced when he was 5, and his mother remarried. That’s when his nightmare began.
“My stepfather was nice to my mother,” Rizzo says, “but he was a monster to me.” When his mother wasn’t around, his stepfather beat him. But when Santiago told his mother what was happening, she didn’t believe him.
“That was the hardest blow,” he says. “My stepfather was very manipulative. He would threaten me, and out of fear, I used to tell people the bruises were from soccer practice. The times I did tell my mom he hit me, I would get beaten when she went to work.”
Police officers came by the house often — his younger brother would call them whenever Santiago was getting abused. But his brother was so terrified of their stepfather that he couldn’t say anything when the officers arrived, and the stepfather’s version of events prevailed. “I had a lot of resentment toward authority because they did not protect me,” Rizzo says.
He started spending more and more time on the street. “The street felt safer than my home,” Rizzo says. Starting when he was 8 years old, he would go to the nearby gas station to wash windows for tips, and he slept at his friends’ houses as often as he could.
“I learned how to charm my friends’ parents so they would keep me around,” he says. “I had a code word I would tell one friend’s mother on the phone and I could head straight over there.”
One day, tired of getting beaten, he pulled a knife on his stepfather. “He was a good seven feet away, and I just wanted him to know that he needed to stop,” Rizzo recalls. “He walked right by me and called the police.”
Rizzo was only 12 years old. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and spent the night in juvenile hall. “I remember getting strip-searched. It was the scaredest I’d ever been as a child, alone in a cell and sweating like a man. I’d never smelled that kind of smell coming out of my body. It was like a skunk’s smell.” He eventually went to a foster home, where he spent several weeks.
Around that time, Rizzo became a graffiti artist, which only got him into more trouble. His tag, SEEP, was soon all over the East Bay. By the time he was 13 and attending Willard Middle School, he was tagging dozens of times a day — whenever he was on the bus, whenever he saw a clean surface.
“When I was a kid, nobody believed I was SEEP,” he says. “I ended up wanting recognition, and the way I got it was through petty crime and graffiti.” Tagging became an addiction. “It was a rush, a dopamine hit — a way for me to be seen. It was also a way for me to be defiant toward the world when the world wasn’t particularly kind to me.”
‘Instead of punishing me or throwing me out of the house, he offered me $1,000 to get straight A’s that semester.’
The boy was on a destructive path. And then he met Tim Moellering, a teacher and the after-school activities coordinator at Willard. He was also the school’s football coach.
He had just finished talking to Rizzo’s homeroom class about the sports program when the assertive seventh-grader followed him out of the room and posed a question: Was he too small to be on the football team? To his surprise, the coach said no. “I was extremely athletic,” Rizzo says. “I played linebacker. Tim would tell me that though I was the smallest and most annoying, I made the team because I was the most aggressive player on the field.”
Rizzo had plenty of problems, including fighting and getting suspended. But Moellering — who believed there was no such thing as a bad kid, only a bad situation — saw his potential. He set out to earn Rizzo’s trust by showing the boy that he trusted him. Moellering asked Rizzo to tally the money collected at the school dance. He tasked him with mopping the basketball court. He noticed that Rizzo consistently worked harder than anyone else.
But change came slowly. “I was very skeptical of any adult,” Rizzo says. “I was probably meaner to Tim than anybody he’d ever met. Yet he still did not judge me.”
Moellering started allowing Rizzo to stay at his house when he had nowhere else to go. When he was 14, right before Rizzo entered high school, he moved in for good.
But Rizzo’s struggles didn’t simply end. Early in his friendship with Moellering, he had earned a reputation for selling marijuana. At one point, someone broke into Moellering’s house and stole a quarter pound of Rizzo’s stash. “Instead of punishing me or throwing me out of the house, he offered me $1,000 to get straight A’s that semester,” Rizzo says. It worked.
“Because Tim had such respect and such compassion, and didn’t preach but asked me questions, it was impossible not to listen to him. When someone is so honest in front of you, you can push it away, you can get defensive, but at some point you’re going to get reflective. When I got Tim’s love and recognition, I didn’t need the graffiti anymore,” Rizzo says.
Rizzo started putting energy into school. He became student body president in his junior year at Berkeley High, and he focused on having a future and getting into a good college. He first encountered Stanford in 1998, when he was one of the 22 students accepted into the competitive Stanford Youth Environmental Science Program, founded by Michael McCullough, ’88, MS ’88, and Ana Rowena McCullough, ’95, JD ’99. Michael McCullough remembers Rizzo as being “a nice kid, smart and resourceful.” He also recalls how hard Rizzo worked.
In his six weeks on campus, Rizzo fell in love with the university. Months later, he was accepted. “That program and then Stanford really helped my confidence and helped me realize I have something to offer,” he says.
At Stanford, Rizzo majored in economics. “I wanted to make money,” he says frankly. “I didn’t want to be poor — I grew up poor.” He minored in psychology and was a few courses short of a second minor in drama. The latter proved handy. “Tim wanted to write a book about [our life together],” Rizzo says. “I said, ‘Why do that? We should write a screenplay.’ ”
The idea of turning their screenplay into a film was on Rizzo’s mind when he moved to New York after graduation. He worked in finance, first as a stock analyst and later as the founder and managing director of Outlier Capital Management, an alternative-energy hedge fund.
“I was saving money,” Rizzo says. “One year, I made almost a million dollars, but I was sleeping in a studio above an Indian restaurant. I was very frugal.”
In 2010, seven years after Rizzo left California, he packed up his New York apartment and headed for Berkeley to care for Moellering, who was battling pancreatic cancer. It turned out to be Moellering’s final year. He died on January 18, 2011, at age 53.
“I was sitting with him alone, holding his hand, during his final breath — and when he took it, I whispered in his ear that I would make this movie for him,” Rizzo says.
Keeping that promise has come at a cost. Rizzo had to go back into the pain of his childhood — a pain that he had previously buried in work. To raise money for making Quest, he sold the house he and Moellering had bought together in 2010.
“I gave up my savings, and I don’t know if I can go back to Wall Street or my career as I had it,” Rizzo says. “But I have a beautiful piece of art that I hope gets into the world.”
And it is getting out there. At the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, Quest sold out its two screenings within 48 hours, and a third screening was added. It was also screened at the Austin Film Festival and slated for the Napa Valley and Fort Lauderdale festivals in November. Rizzo’s film depicts his home situation and his life on the street, leading up to the day that he moved in with Moellering.
For Rizzo, making Quest was about passing on to others what Moellering gave him. “I wanted to share Tim’s love,” he says. “I wanted to inspire other kids to trust in their struggle and to know they’re not alone — that often the child who is most disturbed and the most intense has the most potential, if he or she can channel his or her energy in the right direction.” •
Film critic Mick LaSalle has written for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1985 and is the author of three books. He is also a lecturer with Stanford Continuing Studies.