Category Archives: Chicago Movies

RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Available Now on VOD!

I am pleased to announce that, thanks to our enterprising distributor Cow Lamp Films, RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO is now available to stream! You can rent the film or make a digital purchase via Amazon Prime or you can watch it FREE via Tubi TV (no registration required but an ad will pop up every 18 minutes). Please share these links with those you love and, if moved to do so, leave a review on Amazon.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Rendezvous-Chicago-Clare-Cooney/dp/B07Z5HTYJ2/

Tubi: https://tubitv.com/movies/500690/rendezvous_in_chicago?

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ROY’S WORLD Producer’s Statement

Over the past few years I have been quietly helping my friend, the uber-talented filmmaker Rob Christopher (PAUSE OF THE CLOCK), produce the documentary ROY’S WORLD: BARRY GIFFORD’S CHICAGO. It is the only film I have produced that I didn’t also direct and, because my contributions have not been of the creative variety (my role was strictly limited to helping Rob overcome the various financial and logistical hurdles that every independent filmmaker faces), I can honestly say that I think it is a masterpiece. My sole reasons for agreeing to work on the film were 1) I am a great admirer of Barry Gifford (WILD AT HEART) as a writer and 2) I knew that Rob would be creating a true work of cinema, one whose aesthetic value would demand that it be seen on a large screen in order to be appreciated, in stark contrast to most of the works of “talking heads”-video journalism that pass for documentaries these days. When Rob first explained the concept of ROY’S WORLD to me, I instantly grasped that, like Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, he was crafting a non-fiction film that would have multiple structures in place simultaneously and that the result would work on about five different levels.

Now that I have finally seen it, I can confirm it is possible to enjoy the movie on its most basic level: as a fascinating and detailed portrait of a vanished Chicago from the era immediately after World War II through the early years of Richard J. Daley’s political machine. But dig a little deeper and it’s possible to see that it also functions as an overarching depiction of one boy’s coming-of-age story during that time; an illustration of a series of separate stories brilliantly performed by a trio of well-known actors (Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor); an essay on how a writer uses the circumstances of his upbringing as the raw material for creating narrative fiction; and an experimental work that combines archival footage with animated sequences, and audio of actors’ voices and excerpts from an interview with Barry with an original score by master vibraphonist Jason Adesiewicz, to create a rich tapestry of image and sound. It is, in the truest sense, a “jazz movie,” one whose contrapuntal rhythms and ironic juxtapositions I hope will charm and haunt you as profoundly as they have me.

News of the World Premiere of ROY’S WORLD will be announced soon. In the meantime, you can watch the trailer below:


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE Blu-ray / Talking Sci-Fi in Wilmette

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Emphasis Entertainment’s Deluxe Blu-ray of Mercury in Retrograde, which has a street date of August 30, is now available to pre-order from online retailers – including Amazon! Special features on the disc include:

Audio commentary with writer/director Michael Smith producer/actor Shane Simmons and producer Kevin Wright.

Ratatouille with Roxane (14 min) – Actress Roxane Mesquida hosts an impromptu cooking show in which she shows how to make authentic French ratatouille.

Behind the Scenes (3 min) – Writer/director Michael Smith and cast members Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons and Najarra Townsend discuss the plot and themes of Mercury in Retrograde from the set of the film

Theatrical Trailer (3 min)

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Also, this Wednesday, July 31st at 7:00 pm, I will be giving a special Adult Summer Reading Club-themed talk at the Wilmette Public Library on the history of science-fiction movies. The talk will be augmented by clips of classic and important contemporary sci-fi — beginning with George Melies’ 1902 landmark A Trip to the Moon and ending with Jonathan Glazer’s Scarlet Johansson-starring Under the Skin from 2014. If you’re in the greater Chicago area, I hope to see you there! More info can be found on the WPL website here.


Interview with THE KILLING FLOOR Producer Elsa Rassbach

The following interview I conducted with producer/writer Elsa Rassbach appeared at Time Out Chicago today:

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One of the most important cinematic events taking place in Chicago this year is the Logan Center’s preview screening of the 4K restoration of The Killing Floor. The locally made film, which originally aired on PBS in 1984 before screening at prestigious festivals like Sundance and Cannes, tells the true story of a poor black Southerner, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), who migrates from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century to work in a slaughterhouse. Upon arrival, he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious Race Riot of 1919. It’s an important history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. The screening will take place on July 27 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the riot and will be followed by a panel discussion with the film’s producer and co-writer Elsa Rassbach as well as community and labor activists. We spoke with Rassbach in advance of the screening.

Tell me about your background as an artist and activist and the production company you founded that produced The Killing Floor. How did you end up making an independent film about this important chapter in Chicago history?

Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity—the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible—people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.

Leslie Lee was already an Obie Award-winning playwright when you engaged him to write the screenplay but what made you feel that Bill Duke, a terrific director who at that point had only directed television episodes, was the right person to helm this project?

Before I met Bill, I had worked closely with playwright Ron Milner and then with Leslie Lee on the script. Of the several directors I considered, Bill had the clearest and deepest understanding of what we wanted to achieve with the screenplay. I felt he had a visceral relationship with the characters. Beyond his experience directing action-packed television episodes, such as Hill Street Blues, Bill is also an alumnus of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, which is known for producing plays about complex, sometimes disturbing, and often ignored aspects of the black experience and the American experience. Leslie Lee later became the company’s executive director. And many of the fine actors in the film had also been involved in the Negro Ensemble Company, including Moses Gunn, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Henderson, and Mary Alice. I felt that Bill was right for this project, and he even surpassed my expectations. He was able to handle the complex logistics of the film, which among other things involved shooting in a real killing floor where cattle were still being slaughtered in Chicago. He was also able to hold to the emotional core of this complex material throughout, directing fine, subtle and compelling performances that give the twists and turns of the story authenticity and dramatic power.

When I interviewed Duke a few years ago, he mentioned that Harold Washington was elected at the same time shooting on the film began, which felt auspicious for the production. Can you talk a little about what the atmosphere was like in Chicago, politically and otherwise, at that time?

I was so absorbed in producing the film that I was not out and about much in Chicago. But I was quite astounded and grateful at how much support we received to make this film. It was support that we desperately needed, because we really did not have enough money to do what we were trying to do. People who had worked on Harold Washington’s election campaign organized hundreds of volunteers who were willing to be extras in the film, and a steelworkers local on the South Side led by Ed Sadlowski did the same. Per an agreement with the Chicago entertainment unions, virtually everyone who had a paid job on the film deferred half of normal guild or union wages to make the production feasible on our scant budget. Not only the entire cast, but also the lighting crew, the makeup and hair stylists, and the Teamster drivers, among others, deferred half their wages, and we on the production staff did the same. In 1983, the workers at the Lincoln Meat Corporation in Chicago, where we shot the killing floor scenes, were mainly southern blacks or Poles just like the killing floor workers in 1919. They volunteered for many hours to teach our actors the ropes of working in a slaughterhouse. It was two and a half years since Ronald Reagan had taken office as President. People were already feeling the impact of the plans to decimate the American labor movement, and to some supporting the film was one way of pushing back.

The screening at the Logan Center will take place on the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Race Riot. Do you see any parallels between the era depicted in your film and the present day? Are there lessons in the film that you feel are particularly relevant to contemporary viewers?

I don’t know about lessons, but The Killing Floor explores an era that does have some important parallels to our own time. U.S. unions had been pretty much crushed in the 1890s. The film is set twenty-five years later, during and after World War I, when people were still searching for a way to reorganize and develop some bargaining power—for the sake of human dignity and democracy as well as to improve material conditions. When people do not have their own strong organizations bringing them together in a spirit of solidarity, competition for “the crumbs” begins. In the battle for scant resources, people can easily be set against each other, and racism mounts. Following the severe attacks on the labor movement that began in the McCarthy Era and have intensified in the 1980s until this day, we are now experiencing a truly frightening rise in racism reminiscent of 1919 . This is happening not only in the U.S., but also in Europe, where migrants and refugees from the Global South are competing for resources in northern cities. It is important to realize that while the protagonists in The Killing Floor were not able to prevail in their struggle for solidarity in 1919, their work sowed the seeds for important victories only 15 years later, in the 1930s, when benefits and reforms were won that we still enjoy today. Now we are in a time when we have a long way to go to rebuild the strength of the people’s organizations. Both courage and patience are called for.

The Killing Floor screens at the Logan Center for the Arts on July 27 at 7pm. Admission is free.


LA Premiere, Special Edition Blu-ray for MERCURY IN RETROGRADE

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I’m very happy to announce that my 2017 feature MERCURY IN RETROGRADE will receive its Los Angeles Theatrical Premiere at Rooftop Cinema Club in Hollywood on the evening of Wednesday, August 7. I will be there with stars Roxane Mesquida and Shane Simmons and producer Kevin Wright for a post-screening Q&A. This event will shortly be followed by a Special Edition Blu-ray release of the film by Emphasis Entertainment. You can purchase tickets for the screening at the Rooftop Cinema Club screening on the website of the venue and learn more details about the special features on the Blu-ray in a story at Screen Magazine.


NYC Premieres of MERCURY IN RETROGRADE and RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO at Spectacle Theater

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I couldn’t be happier to announce that the NYC Premieres of my most recent features, Mercury in Retrograde and Rendezvous in Chicago, will take place at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn on the evening of Saturday, May 25! I’m a big fan of the programming at Spectacle and am honored that they wanted to show my work. Producer Kevin Wright will join me for the MERCURY Q&A and actor Rashaad Hall (Andy) will join me for the RENDEZVOUS Q&A. Tickets are on sale now and I expect both shows to sell out. Hope to see all my NYC-area friends there!


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Wins Audience Choice in Tallahassee!

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I am pleased to announce that RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO has won the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Tallahassee Film Festival! This was our fourth award in eight festival screenings and I couldn’t have been happier about the response at this superbly programmed fest that is so close to my heart!

Our next screening will be at Chicago Filmmakers on Saturday, May 4 at 7:00 PM, which will be followed by a Q&A with yours truly moderated by critic David J. Fowlie. I will also be dropping announcements soon about our Michigan and New York City premieres – so stay tuned!


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