Opening this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run is Chicago Heights, an unusually ambitious, locally made independent feature that transplants the interlocking stories of Sherwood Anderson’s classic early 20th century novel Winesburg, Ohio to a south Chicago suburb in the present day. One of my colleagues at Triton College, Seth McClellan, worked on the film as co-producer. I recently had the chance to speak with him about it:
MGS: I was really excited about seeing Chicago Heights because Winesburg, Ohio is one of my favorite novels. Whose idea was it to adapt the book and how did you become involved with the project?
SM: Dan Nearing, our director, adapted the book with his friend, Canadian author Rudy Thauberger, and had been thinking about making it for years. Dan had also been planning a documentary about Sherwood Anderson, who was one of the more influential writers in the first part of the twentieth century. As often happens in filmmaking, the project where things most come together is the one you go forward with and the stars aligned for the narrative adaptation. I’ve always been a huge fan of the book. I remember reading it as a teenager and being blown away and jumped at the chance to work on the film.
MGS: Knowing in advance that the film has a predominantly African-American cast, I assumed that a lot of license would be taken with the source material but I was impressed at how faithful it ended up being. What was the reasoning behind this unique cultural juxtaposition?
SM: I think it says something about the universalism of the human experience and that great art is applicable in almost any context. One of the challenges of indie filmmaking, because you don’t have money, is figuring out what resources you have and then figuring out how to use those resources most effectively. Parts of Chicago Heights and the south suburbs are visually stunning in the way that the past and an intangible sense of loss echo through them. Also, something about the contemporary low-income, suburban African-American experience dovetails with the hopes and dreams of rural America 100 years ago. That desire for change and feeling trapped by your situation. Of course, these feeling transcend just those limited demographics and speak to all of us too, and that’s why I think the film resonates.
MGS: The black and white cinematography is very striking. I’m assuming it was shot digitally but the images have a very crisp, high-contrast quality that I don’t often associate with that format. How was this look achieved?
SM: Sanghoon Lee, our cinematgoraoher and producer, and Dan Nearing, the writer and director, spent about 6 months with the Sony PMW-EX1 experimenting with settings. The EX1 is the first relatively affordable CineAlta camera and one of its greatest strengths is the ability to create “picture profiles” which lets you save internal tinkering with saturation and gamma and a bunch of technical stuff that I don’t understand very well. This allowed the creation of crisp, and high contrast compositions that are unusual for video and really drive the fractured, internal-memory feel of story. The HDCAM version that plays at the Siskel Center is much better quality than the DVD – it’s quite stunning on the big screen.
MGS: Another prominent aspect of the film is the original score, in which song lyrics comment on the narrative in a way that’s very bold and direct. At times it’s not unlike an actual musical. I noticed the composer is credited as Minister Raymond Dunlap. Who is he?
SM: Minister Raymond Dunlap is a local musician and man of faith that co-producer, Keisha Dyson, contacted. He created some terrific music, much of it on the fly. The way the music directly comments and reinforces parts of the narrative is the kind of thing that doesn’t sound like it will work but somehow does. I think because throughout the film there are undercurrents of magical realism and shifts in time and place, we somehow connect deeply to the music even though it might initially seem too on-the-nose at times.
MGS: I read that you were also involved in the casting of the film. Can you share any interesting stories about discovering any of the talent?
SM: The most remarkable thing about casting this film is that part of an audition makes it into the final film. We already knew what the look of the film was and what kind of camera settings we were using, so we lit and shot the auditions with those considerations. The scene where Elizabeth Walker breaks down to Dr. Reefy worked best in the close-up from the actual audition. It cut together seamlessly. I don’t know of another feature film that has done this.
MGS: I noticed a character in the film is named Kim Ki-duk. Is this an homage to the great Korean director of the same name?
SM: Yes – our producer and cinematographer, Sanghoon Lee, is South Korean and he and the director put a character named that in this film to honor the great director.
MGS: I’m offering extra credit to any of my students who attend the upcoming Siskel Center screenings. Is there anything specifically you’d like for them to take away from their viewing of the movie?
SM: The strongest responses come from people who have also read the book. I think being familiar with the book helps you understand what the film is saying about hidden anguish, memory and the roles we play in one anothers lives. Also, those students who want to be film makers should realize this film cost about $1,000 to make and got a great review from Roger Ebert. You can make your movie if you work hard and don’t give up. Don’t let not having money be an excuse for inaction. Make films.
Chicago Heights Rating: 5.8
You can learn more about Chicago Heights at the film’s official website.
You can read Roger Ebert’s review online here.