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Category Archives: Chicago Movies

Filmmaker Interview: Frank V. Ross

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Elevated Films, the enterprising non-profit charity that supports film and local youth arts programs throughout Chicago by hosting film screenings at innovative venues, will hold its first screening of the year this Thursday, February 9: a FREE screening of Frank V. Ross’s seminal suburban-relationship drama TIGER TAIL IN BLUE (2012) will take place at Interior Define, a Chicago custom-sofa showroom in the heart of Lincoln Park from 7-9:30pm. Join filmmaker/actor Ross, and his co-star Rebecca Spence for a Q/A following the feature, along with beer from Half Acre Brewery, and snacks from Berco’s Popcorn and Dough Dough Bird Baking Company. Seating is limited but free tickets can be obtained in advance through eventbrite here. I recently interviewed Ross about the film for the occasion of this screening.

MGS: I love that your films have always been more character-driven than plot-driven. Was this a conscious decision when you started out or is it more the case that you’re just constructing movies in the only way you know how?

FVR: The way I learned how, is more like it. I try not to make many conscious decisions, most of the good ones have already been made. The only way to find something new is to rely on the unpredictability of people and just let that shape the story. I think of it like a furthering of the Marx Brothers structure, like yeah there’s an unfolding story in there… But who gives a shit? It’s the least important element of the film to me and I think most people. You don’t watch a Marx Brothers movie or ROCKY over and over ’cause you love the plot. It’s the little human things, the jokes, the songs that bring you back.

MGS: Your films are also very much about work and TIGER TAIL is no exception: there is great emphasis on Chris’ job as a waiter and Melody’s job as a schoolteacher. Why is it important for you to depict the work lives of your characters?

FVR: ‘Cause work is where we spend most of our time. We always need to be somewhere else. Ya gotta go to work almost every freakin’ day. It’s work. It’s in the way of your life and it’s your livelihood. It’s how we keep pace with the world, but all our complaints about it stem from there. I try not to focus on big moments in life ’cause they’re few, far between and well documented. Punching a clock and makin’ a poop are the things that shape a day.

MGS: All of your films are about relationships but TIGER TAIL IN BLUE is the first one to tackle marriage. What was compelling to you about the dynamic of a married couple struggling to find time to see one another?

FVR: That goes back to work, doesn’t it? The big moment, the titular moment, is a married couple stealing some time and having a donut together. It’s a personal thing for sure. My wife and I worked contradicting schedules more than ten years and it was a strain. I thought it was a good structure for a lower-middle class love story. They are best friends, they are crazy about each other but work is in the way. Now that I’m thinking about, it’s about values too, isn’t it?

MGS: Rebecca Spence is phenomenal in this movie in an unusual dual role as Melody, Chris’ wife, and Brandy, his co-worker. What was the logic behind casting her as two different characters in a film otherwise characterized by its realism? Would the same actress have played both roles if you hadn’t cast Spence?

FVR: One, she’s phenomenal sunrise to sunset. Two’s there’s a bit of a catch. I wrote it for her. She was in one scene of my previous film and months later we bumped into each other, literally. The idea came to me then and there almost fully formed. (Cinematographer Mike) Gibisser came up with the color shift between the two stories and we treated the whole one actress/two roles thing like a joke. A set up and punch joke, not some huge revelation. It’s best not to be too precious with cleverness. Rebecca playing both roles ends up emphasizing a certain type of attention guys need that isn’t sexual. Weird, right? I dunno, maybe it’s something different to other people.

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Filmmaker Interview: Melika Bass

Melika Bass is arguably the most important filmmaker working in Chicago today. Her mesmerizing short and medium-length movies have screened at prominent festivals around the globe over the past decade, although she is probably still best known for directing the music video for Sigur Ros’ “Vardeldur.” This should change now that three of her best films, Songs from the ShedShoals and Waking Things, are available to stream on Fandor. Her work—dark, enigmatic, exquisitely atmospheric—hybridizes experimental and narrative elements to create troubling, mythic worlds in which characters engaged in repetitious behavior seem curiously lost in time. She is also an acclaimed installation artist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute. On Thursday, April 6, she will exhibit new work at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Conversations at the Edge program. I recently had a lengthy chat with Bass about her work, influences and upbringing.

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MGS: Songs from the Shed, Waking Things and Shoals were all shot in the Midwest, and when you show landscapes in those films, the land looks very flat and Midwestern. But, because I know you’re from the South and because I’m from there too, your films have always struck me as being very Southern in terms of what I’d call their “psychic landscapes” – almost as if you’re transposing a Southern Gothic sensibility onto the Midwest.

MB: I think there’s something about this idea of a landscape or a place having a charge to it, so that the textures, the sort of shadowy potential of a place, what could have happened there – this idea of dread or shame and the tension of those things are all being abstracted. And they come from a kind of layered Southern Gothic sensibility. I’m definitely somebody who has a mixed relationship to natural landscape: Waking Things and Shoals are pretty rural or pastoral but that sense of pastoral with “creepy crawlies” underneath, you know? (laughs) It’s Southern but it’s also a certain kind of Americana.

MGS: It’s haunted. It reminds me of Faulkner who was interested in the ghosts of the past even though they’re not literal ghosts. That’s the way your films are.

MB: Yeah, and I think too this idea of a certain vegetable darkness, which I like. I think of it as like when you turn a rock over: it’s sort of cold and wet and maybe there are worms and surprises underneath. It’s a rock-turning sensibility. That’s in there too.

MGS: That makes me think of David Lynch – the opening of Blue Velvet with the beetles underneath the grass and the idea of “what lies beneath” that that conjures up. “Vegetable darkness” is an incredible phrase!

MB: Yeah, and I actually think cinema and being a filmmaker is a perfect way to play in this too because it’s all about illusion, right? For me, it’s about this relationship to reality and fantasy and this pull between abstraction and something really familiar – and how disorienting that can be. So, for me, the idea is treating things in a really imagistic way that’s not written in dialogue, at least not in these three films, as much as it is by these imagistic situations or stories or worlds that are then charged with a lot of sonic detail and a lot of slowness as a way to say, “Okay, here’s the surface of something but don’t you sense XYZ beneath it?” And then hopefully giving people the framework to kind of spin off in their minds what those things could be.

MGS: Is it fair to say your work is not really concerned with narrative?

MB: I think it is, actually. I mean, not in a conventional way and not in a way that addresses certain kinds of psychological realism and the traditions of certain forms and conventions of theater or literature. But I hope it triggers a kind of cognition or a kind of efforting to create narrative out of fragments. So, in that sense, I think it’s really concerned with narrative because all the ellipses are there. And I spend – and the people that I work with spend – a lot of time and attention to detail so that details are supposed to be holding and speaking a lot in terms of “Where is this place?,” “What could be going on?,” “Why are they there?,” Why are they acting this way?” “World building” is maybe a little much as a phrase but I think there’s a lot of that going on. And these details of place, or the really specific casting I’m doing – certain kinds of archetypal figures or certain kinds of behaviors and energies – these things, for me at least, are connecting to some really specific ideas. They’re just not fleshed out in a way that’s super-causal.

MGS: That’s what I mean when I say “narrative”: cause and effect.

MB: But there’s event and there’s behavior and there’s character.

MGS: And there’s location. You talked about the rural quality of Waking Things and Shoals. In Songs from the Shed, there’s a weird hybrid of rural and urban. It’s like you’re creating a cinematic space that doesn’t exist in reality but that makes perfect sense onscreen.

MB: That was one of the narrative possibilities there; that it was a kind of future and maybe it was post-disaster, so that things were somewhere on the edge of being urban, with nature taking over, or a kind of depletion of resources. So these people are protecting themselves or cocooning. Waking Things is the most explicit, but in all of these films there’s this sort of makeshift family or alternative “found family,” cult, whatever – and I realized I was making the same film over and over at some point – that somehow there’s a kind of xenophobia to that as well. It’s not overt. It’s most overt in Waking Things. But there’s this kind of strange isolationism and self-reliance, etc.

MGS: And sense of imprisonment.

MB: Yeah, but towards an idea of survival or perseverance. I think, for me, it’s almost like there’s this kind of anthropological fiction or fantasy going on with each one of the films – and this is part of breaking the causal chain of narrative too – that it becomes some sort of site where you only have a few relics that remain and you’re like, “How do these go together?,” the sort of narrativizing that I know happens in archaeology. You have very scant elements.

MGS: You have to put the bones together.

MB: Yeah. “What did happen here?” “Who are these people?” I’m often trying to decode, in real life, a lot of things about humans. (laughs) And so I guess it makes sense that the films are coded in fictional ways on a lot of levels.

MGS: The idea of entrapment vs. freedom is present in all your films but it’s something you really elaborate on in Shoals with the asylum-like setting. What attracts you to this theme?

MB: I think dependence and interdependence and co-dependence within support systems, the dynamics of that, whether it’s family or chosen, are often pretty contradictory. There’s something very archetypal in the films about the older male figures and the younger characters who are too big to be children but are sort of being treated like children, who at moments are breaking out of that but then coming back to this role that’s been delineated and that they’ve all chosen to continue perpetuating. In some ways there’s a lot of overt psychologizing in that. And I think there’s also in some ways a fable-like quality to the films that takes that dynamic and links it to a lot of really dark fables that are about the same thing. You could look at some Grimm Fairy Tales and see similar dynamics.

MGS: Do you feel that the world you live in is a dark and sinister place or do you just enjoy creating that world up there on the screen? (laughs)

MB: People that see the films or installations that don’t know me and then meet me are often surprised that I’m wacky or shy and not super-dark and scary. You know, it’s nice to have the privilege to make art and put things elsewhere that may be inside you that don’t dominate you in everyday life. So there’s that. I also actually think that the experience of creating durational tension and an atmosphere of dread is pleasurable to experience. There is something cathartic about it and there is something where, if you go through it in a sort of simulated way and you survive then somehow you feel more… It’s a sort of trial run for actual problems or disasters. It’s also looking at a kind of loose ethics of authority figures. In a larger way, I do wonder about the governing systems behind a lot of things. What are the systems that we create, that are social, what are they doing? What are the systems and values and meaning that we give to our lives? What are these sort of repeated rituals or behaviors? Do those create values? Do those come out of something? What are the things that we just perpetuate without thinking about what they mean? And the darkness or the tension, yeah, it’s there. There’s other stuff there too! I would totally make a rom-com.

MGS: Your films do relate to genre, especially horror movies.

MB: And some melodrama!

MGS: Yeah. Songs from the Shed is also a kind of musical. Where did you discover that incredible song, “Land of Heart’s Desire”?

MB: I went to undergrad at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and at one point they were having a library sale downtown at the local municipal branch and I was trying to be cool – about ’95 or so – with the vinyl records. So I bought three that day including this box set, with limp string tied around it to keep it closed, it was of this woman named Dame Maggie Teyte singing light operetta and opera and folk songs. I remember knowing immediately the vocal treatment through all of those musical genres was going to be super-weird. Maybe I should say I grew up singing in choirs. I started at four-years-old, went to choir camp, singing lessons. I grew up with both my parents in singing groups that performed. There was a lot of religious and folk singing in my family. Even when I moved here in my early 20s, I was in choirs, which I didn’t tell anyone about because it’s not cool. But I missed it as an experience. So I’ve always been interested in music. I encountered that song in that box set. And then there’s this whole niche-y thing with opera and divas where they have their day, like ballerinas. They have this really slim couple of years where they can rule and then after that they’re really lucky if they can…

MGS: It’s like being an athlete.

MB: Yeah, exactly. So she was a British opera singer who made her reputation in light operetta, mostly. And she had this kind of stylized way of singing that was not fully trained out of her. So the song that she’s singing, “Land of Heart’s Desire,” is not super-famous. But the song is about nostalgia and longing for the land of your family, which in this case would’ve been Ireland. I love the distortion on the record, when she hit those high notes, it sort of breaks, almost. I love that in texture sometimes where it’s pushing against the edge of legibility. It’s really expressive. But I liked this idea of someone who’s an overgrown child who seems to be at home but it’s obviously a set; through the repetition of certain behaviors, or light, or material, it’s a simulated environment. And he’s obviously trying to break away but he’s coming back, so adding in the song makes him a kind of science experiment, responding in this Pavlovian way. That’s what the use of the song is about. But it actually connects to this whole other idea around who people are and what culture they belong to. There’s this feeling of – back to this idea of xenophobia or the making of your own culture and Americana – there is something about maybe having family from Appalachia and being Southern, maybe shooting a film in Wisconsin (Shoals) that actually, as it turns out, was shot in a place where there historically were a lot of cults because people bought land and did whatever they wanted there and made their own rules. There is something quintessentially American about having a lot of romantic nostalgia for “your homeland,” which is a very contradictory cultural thing, identifying yourself with something, in this case, very Irish sounding.

MGS: I’m glad you mentioned repetition. In Shoals, you have women being instructed to do tasks that seem meaningless. In the other films we see people obsessively peeling and chopping potatoes, which makes me think of Jeanne Dielman, the ultimate cinematic statement about repetition.

MB: Yeah, and gender.

MGS: Is Akerman an influence?

MB: Yeah, I find her films really honest.

MGS: I also see a lot of Bresson in your work, especially the close-ups of hands working. Your sense of fragmented composition reminds me of A Man Escaped and Mouchette.

MB: Yeah, the Nanty character in Shed is partially based on Mouchette. In the new films I’m working on she’s evolving from that.

MGS: Her hair color is evolving!

MB: Her hair color is evolving. A lot is going on with her. Time is passing. But my shorthand joke is that she’s moving from Mouchette to Vagabond in the course of a decade, which seems right. Those two poles are nice – and realistic.

MGS: What kind of relationship do you have with Sarah Stambaugh as an actress? Do you have a pact that she’s going to play this Nanty character forever?

MB: Sarah is amazing. She’s just a natural performer for the camera. She’s interesting and compelling in every day life but she’s also one of these people that, when you put her in front of the camera, something becomes atomized that is only in the image. I talked her into it the first time in 2006 and then, in 2010 or ’11, I warned her I was thinking of doing more. There’s a feature script actually, that this character is the protagonist of that’s set primarily in North Carolina. It starts here and then goes there. So I was talking to her about that over the years and I saved her costume from Shed. Leone Reeves did this amazing distressing work for that film; the white jacket and jeans, she cooked on her stovetop with different spices, so it smelled really gross. It had food in it but it looked amazing. So I saved all of that in my basement and then had to air it out (years later) for Sarah. And she put it on, which was nice. So, she’s been up for it. Every chapter of the project (The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast), things have changed for the character. With the last shoot, this past summer, the character is talking in conversation with other humans. She would play multiple roles in the feature, some of which would talk and some of which wouldn’t. So there’s this kaleidoscopic character that’s split in different ways but in the same body.

MGS: You’ve introduced dialogue gradually into your work over time. In Songs from the Shed, you represent dialogue with title cards, as in a silent film.

MB: And part of that is because I love sound work. I love doing really detailed sound work and the three films all have, with the exception of the monologuing patriarch scenes or the singing scenes, those were shot synch, but everything else was done by hand. That’s constructed soundtrack. There’s tons of detail and foley and field recordings and stuff and I worked really closely with Mat Jinks and Lou Mallozzi on all three of these films, to build the sound.

MGS: Let’s talk about this monologuing patriarch character. (laughs)

MB: How many of them are there?

MGS: He’s bald regardless of who’s playing him!

MB: True. The bald thing is not required…but it happened.

MGS: Matthew Goulish has a great voice. I think, between Waking Things and your installation The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast, he talks more than all your other characters combined. He’s part of Every house has a door, the performing arts group you collaborated with on Waking Things. Was that your first time working with professional actors?

MB: I think so, yeah. Waking Things was a commission from Every house has a door to work with their performers to make a film that was in response to a live show they were doing called Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never. It was two Croation performers: Selma Banich, who I did the Sigur Ros music video (Vardeldur) with, who’s primarily a movement-based performance artist, and Mislav Cavajda, who’s a renowned theater actor; and Stephen Fiehn, who’s an American performance artist now in New York, Matthew, and Lin Hixson, the director of the group. Matthew is a writer and performer. He’s wonderful to work with because he’s very theatrical but he understands his relationship with the camera really well and he’s capable of so much nuance. So, in addition to things being “theatrical,” he can also do really small, beautiful things. So he’s just really inspiring to work with.

MGS: Is he the reason why you started using more dialogue in your films?

MB: One of the things about how I’m working with language has to do with my family. I have a lot of ministers and teachers in the family. So there’s a lot of talking and a lot of writing and a lot of discussion. For whatever reason I’ve always been really attuned to it as something really performative and also something that, even though it’s often about clarity or persuasion – again the surface level of things – there are often lots of layers of meaning or suggestion. So I think about, “Oh, I think I want my characters to speak,” or “Oh, if I’m interested in human behavior, people actually do talk – to each other and to a public.” And because there’s this observational/behavioral thing then in working with other humans – the fascination sort of drives you to make something – I then want to have characters whose M.O. is a certain verbosity, right? And a kind of contrast between their physicality and their speaking – not necessarily in a cynical way, in a complicating way, in part because that seems realistic to me. Those are “public servant” jobs. So there is this sense of “We go to work and we do this for people.” Then there’s a sense of another kind of behavior, something much more private. And there is an interesting divide there.

To get back to your question: I saw Matthew Goulish and Bryan Saner, who are both in the Latest Sun project, in Goat Island’s piece, The Lastmaker, at the MCA in 2007; there were these monologues given by both Matthew and Bryan. And I just remember realizing, “Oh, there’s something oratory here. It’s not conversational.” With Bryan especially, it had a kind of religious reverence to the language and the cadence. It felt really familiar. And with Matthew, there was a wry wordplay and love of contradiction. So, I just wrote in the program “Minister Film with…” and I just wrote their names and put it away. As I got to know them over the years, I realized that they both have very different religious backgrounds. So I thought it was going to be a really autobiographical project about my religious family but I realized I was more interested in this process of rehearsal that’s super-collaborative where I have really specific ideas about things I want but I’m also, as an extension of being into behavior – and doing these portraits and installations – I actually want people to bring something from their lives. So it ends up being this biographical fiction where the material that’s generated is this hybrid of anecdotes, memories from all of us, staged in a very constructed fictional context.

MGS: I’m glad you brought up your family without me even asking! You talked about the divide between hearing sermons in church vs. hearing those same voices at home. What was that like for you as a kid, growing up in that culture?

MB: At different points I had about 12 ministers in the family – so grandparents, parents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, and first cousins now. If you go beyond the first-cousin layer, the numbers go up. It’s my mother’s family, my father’s family, my stepfather’s family, my stepmother’s family.

MGS: Different denominations or the same?

MB: They’re all Southern Presbyterian except for one really awesome Methodist, who we love, of course. Because my parents divorced when I was a kid, and they both remarried, I didn’t grow up with my Dad every day though I saw him often, so I didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday. But my mother is also a preacher’s kid and my Dad married my stepmother at the time, who was a minister. So, at one point, that was two ministers who I would go visit. My mother married my stepdad who wasn’t a minister but who had been to seminary and had briefly been a minister and then he went on to teach political science. And his mother was a Presbyterian missionary in China. And two of his siblings and two of their spouses went to seminary. My dad’s brother became a minister. And then my mother’s parents: her dad, my granddad who was a minister, was a huge part of my childhood so I was around them a lot. So, even though it wasn’t a daily or weekly thing, whenever I saw family it was, and is, there. It’s interesting: it’s family culture more than my individual experience as a preacher’s kid exactly. One of my jokes is: you should see what it was like at Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving dinner because it’s like, “Who’s going to do the prayer before we eat? Who’s going to bless the meal?” I remember distinctly, I don’t know how young I was, but I was aware immediately when I was a kid that it was like, “This is not just a prayer. It’s a bit of a performance because we’re all experts in this particular sacred art.” It’s a very unusual job and it’s a very lonely job, I think. It’s hard to be a part of a social community if you’re a minister because people might not feel totally comfortable…

MGS: Kind of like being a cop, in a way?

MB: Or a shrink or something. Can you relax around them? Can they relax around you? It was something that I noticed. It’s also about writing a paper every week and the anxiety of that. Even though the text you’re working with is very set, there is this challenge of the job where “you have to make something relevant and meaningful of this.”

MGS: Did you ever consider going into the family business?

MB: Yeah. There’s a joke that it’s my fallback career. You can go at any age or at an advanced age. And I’ve done a fair amount over the years of, you know, liturgical dancing, reading the liturgy, starting at 12 and then into my 20s. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and that was another way for me to process all that stuff.

MGS: And then you shifted to cinema (laughs)?

MB: Yeah, I did. There’s also this kind of devotional slowness that goes on in the films. And I think, for me, making installations is maybe the most direct relationship with that: how to stage a space so that it invites people to devote their attention in this very frontal way.


Filmmaker Interview: Seth McClellan

My interview with Little Wound’s Warriors director Seth McClellan was published at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reproducing the article in its entirety below:

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Little Wound’s Warriors, the latest film from Chicago-based director Seth McClellan (King in Chicago, Creative Writing), is a powerful documentary about the Lakota Sioux residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota. It focuses primarily on the students at Little Wound High School as they come to terms with rampant poverty, alcoholism and a recent suicide epidemic. The film, which alternates between interview scenes with these resilient young people and stunningly beautiful footage of their natural surroundings, ultimately expresses hope for the future as these subjects seek to reclaim their heritage and, as McClellan notes, recreate “their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity.” Little Wound’s Warriors screens this Saturday, January 21, at the Gene Siskel Film Center with McCLellan present for an audience Q&A.

MGS: The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the Badlands of South Dakota, far from your Chicago stomping grounds. How did you first hear about this remarkable place and become involved in making a documentary film about it?

SM: When I was a little boy my family visited Badlands National Park, which is directly north of Pine Ridge, and I remember even as a small child being blown away by the beauty of the land. There is something about the landscape that I find incredibly beautiful in its starkness and overall composition. My old and great friend Mark Hetzel ended up working on the reservation through Teach For America, he teaches at Little Wound the local high school featured in the film, and we had discussed some of the challenges his students faced and started to talk about how we might document those issues. I’m very lucky now to have had the chance to have extended conversations with so many members of the local community and hike and film the Badlands in the midst of winter.

MGS: It was troubling to learn about the teen suicide epidemic on the reservation. It’s discussed simultaneously as if it were a recent phenomenon and also the inevitable result of an entire generation of people “inheriting trauma” from their ancestors. What do you see as the root causes of this epidemic and what steps have the local residents taken to prevent it from happening again?

SM: Genocide is the root cause of all the problems. Along with the outright slaughter of natives by the US government and other groups, the US also stole their land and forced them onto reservations where they then were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing traditional ceremonies. A generation of kids were taken from there parents and placed in Christian boarding schools. Imagine if most of your friends and family are killed by a foreign power and then you are forbidden from speaking English, talking about the Constitution, celebrating fourth of July or Christmas or watching Star Wars, and then your kids are taken from you. At the same time the foreign power makes available a powerful new drug that you have no experience with, alcohol in this case. How would any community handle that? The destruction and disruption of cultural and personal narratives destroy communities. Think about how violating the election of Trump feels to many people and then magnify that a thousand times. We are bound to each other through our shared sets of values, traditions, and the “story” of who we are. When a community loses that, they flounder. You see the same problems with all the murders in Chicago. It’s rootless young men killing each other. Young men who have no sense of being part of a larger narrative and tradition that values and needs them.

What’s really exciting and hopeful and what the film’s main focus turned out to be is how high school students on the Reservation are reengaging with there language and ceremonies. They are young Lakota Warriors practicing a distinct way of life. Redefining and recreating their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity. The film tries to celebrate that.

MGS: One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way the story is told only through the interview subjects (and not through scripted narration, on screen text, etc.). Was it your intention to allow the Native American subjects to tell their story in their own words without forcing your “outsider’s perspective” onto it?

SM: I find narrators pretty heavy-handed and intrusive most of the time. For better or worse as a documentarian, I am much more interested in what the people immersed in a context have to say than I am in imposing “voice of god” techniques that create more of a sense of order in a story.

MGS: The interview subjects span a great range of ages and life experiences, which allows for a wide variety of intellectual and emotional responses. How exactly do you go about “casting” a film like this? What do you look for in an interview subject?

SM: We conducted about twenty hours of interviews and I sifted through them trying to find the most truthful and insightful voices and statements and then looked for ways to weave those voices and ideas together. The most important thing to me is that the interview subjects speak from the heart and hopefully reveal something about themselves and what it means to be human in their experience. We definitely wanted to focus on the experience of the high school students, but having older voices in there helps tell a larger and more dynamic story.

MGS: I love how the film alternates between interviews and stunning landscape photography — it feels very “composed” in a musical sense. What was your guiding philosophy in the editing room in terms of how to shape all of this material?

SM: The films original title was Little Wound Winter Love Songs and I was thinking of its structure much more in musical terms than a traditional narrative. I wanted it to feel more like these young people were singing a song than telling a story. As we edited, it evolved into something somewhat more linear than I had originally intended but the musicality of the editing certainly remains.

MGS: Have you had a chance yet to screen the film in Kyle, South Dakota and, if so, what has the reaction been like?

SM: We screen in February in Kyle, but all of the interview subjects and some community members had a chance to watch the film and offer feedback before we finalized the edit. It was very important that the film feel representative and truthful to the actual community and not just “poverty tourism.”

For more information about the Little Wound’s Warriors screening, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Jack C. Newell

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago is the following interview with Jack C. Newell.

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Jack C. Newell is the program director at the recently launched Harold Ramis Film School at Second City and an award-winning filmmaker whose most recent feature, the locally shot romantic comedy
Open Tables, will be available to watch via iTunes beginning Friday, December 2. I recently spoke to Jack about the film, improvisation, food and amnesia.

MGS: Open Tables is frequently referred to as an “improv comedy.” Tell me about your process: Did you have a treatment that you worked from or did you write a script based on improv exercises with the actors?

JN: On the spectrum of the completely written film where you don’t change a single word on set to “We’re just gonna make it all up,” we hit different points along that entire spectrum. There is a script—it’s like 60 pages. The section in France was all written but we got there and then threw it all out. Is that scripted or is it improvised? I don’t know. Sometimes, like in the dinner party where they’re talking about having three-ways, literally the text in the script is: “They make jokes about three-ways.” One line. And it goes on for three or four minutes. Hannah and Dean, the guy with no memory—that’s almost completely scripted because I had to make sure he said the exact same thing. And then T.J. [Jagodowski]’s scenes, the four-way couple scenes—all improvised. The other thing we did was that I wrote and we shot all of the stories that are told at the dinner party before we shot the dinner party. And then I gave transcripts of the scenes to the people who are telling the stories. So Kate [Duffy] and Keith [Kupferer], the couple that tells the story of Hannah and Dean, they are the only ones that had seen and read that part of the film. So we told the story twice: once to get real reactions—because Colleen [Doyle] and Desmin [Borges] and Caroline [Neff] are all incredibly witty—and then we would do it again if we missed a moment or if someone found a discovery then we could elaborate on that. We did it all the different ways you possibly could. And we shot over nine months. We had forty production days, which is crazy.

MGS: The word improv to me has a negative connotation in terms of cinema. When I hear that word I think that means a film will be sloppy. But your film is cinematographically very sound; the overhead shots of the plates give it a structural elegance.

JN: It’s very formal. The improv thing is so fucked up. I really hate it. I agree with everything you’re saying. I think mumblecore ruined it. Improv or scripted, all that matters in the end is “Is it good? Is it successful or not successful? Does it make you feel something or not?” A lot of people say, “improv is like jazz,” because they think jazz is about making shit up but that’s not what jazz is. What makes jazz work, and how it fits into continuing the language of jazz, is people constantly calling back to other songs; they go here and it’s like, “Oh, I see what you did there. Or I thought you were going to go there but you went over here.” And that is actually the better definition of improvisation. There are jazz standards like “Sunny Side of the Street” or “Summertime” or whatever…

MGS: Or Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” which starts with the familiar melody and then takes off.

JN: Exactly—15 minutes long. He elaborates and then he comes back. These songs are: “This is the song. But it’s still jazz because what we’re going to do is have some fun in the middle.” And that’s how I think about improvisation and how that can work with cinema: What is the jazz standard that we’re playing here? In a scene with T.J. and Desmin and Colleen and Linda [Orr], the four-way scene, that was like—a lot of time I would just give them the beginning line of a scene or the last line of a scene and they would either play towards the line or away from the line.

MGS: What is it about the act of congregating to eat that’s conducive to good cinema?

JN: That’s a good question. When people go out to eat and they have good food, one of the things that happens is people get transported. You can take a bite of something and food has this incredible ability to elicit memories. So does smell. Smell maybe more than taste, you know? Film is very dreamy and the borders of it are not super-rigid. So the associations you can get through food, and what that creates in terms of conversation, I feel like connect to cinema pretty well because you can very easily in an edit be transported to Paris or wherever and it’s not weird.

MGS: Let’s talk about the subplot of the amnesiac. That will be the most memorable part of the film for a lot of viewers because it’s so funny. How did you come up with that storyline and what does it mean to you?

JN: That one means a lot to me. Here’s the story of how I got this idea: When I was 11, my dad had an aneurysm. I went into the hospital room and he didn’t know who I was. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty big moment. He recovered from that somewhat and then he passed away. He was older. We had a good relationship and he knew who I was. But I definitely had that moment when I walked in and he was like, “Who are you?” That’s hardcore, you know? There was a Radiolab podcast and they did a story on Transient Global Amnesia (TGA). It’s a real thing. I had some fun with it in the film but I basically did it right: You lose your memory and then you kind of get it back. But the thing is you get it back a lot quicker than I (show). You would never go three months. It’s more like in a day you get it back. You just get stuck in a loop. I heard that and I was like, “That’s really fucking interesting. I like that because of my history with my dad.” And then my friend had just gotten divorced and he was telling me about all these dates he was going on. We were having tacos and he was telling me about another first date and I kind of got confused. I was like, “Is this Sarah or is this, you know, Tracy?” And he was like, “No, this is Donna.” I feel like I heard the same story; he took these people on the same first dates. I was just kind of like, “Whoa, I have this idea: What if this person kept going on a first date forever?” That idea could be a movie in itself. So I write it and I’m like “Dave [Pasquesi] would be perfect for this part.” He can do it, he’s an improviser, he’s an amazing actor. It’s a hard part; if done poorly, it could not work. He’s not remembering and that’s not the easiest thing in the world to play. So I write it and I email it to him one night and he emails me back: “Oh, I didn’t tell you. I had TGA.” I emailed him back and I said, “No, you must’ve forgotten.” Ha, ha, ha. ’Cause I thought he was joking ’cause improvisers are always fucking joking, right? And he doesn’t email me back. I had to go pick up [my wife] from a comedy show. So I went and picked her up and Dave was there, oddly. I don’t see Dave that often. And I’m like, “Hey man, so your email?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I had TGA. I was in L.A. doing yoga. I called my wife and said ‘I just got out of yoga and I’m going to the store.’” He hung up his phone, walked two steps, picked up his phone, called his wife and said “Hey, I just got out of yoga and I’m going to the store.” And his wife was like, “Dave, what the fuck is wrong with you?” But he went to the doctor and they’re like, “We don’t know what causes TGA. It’s this weird thing. It may be stress.” But he had it. Super fucking weird. So he was my actor and adviser.

Learn more about Open Tables via the film’s official website.


WCCRH Episode 15: CIFF 2016 and SHITCAGO

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Episode 15 of the White City Cinema Radio Hour is now online! It features an extended dialogue between me and Chicago Film Critics Association members Ian Simmons (Kicking the Seat) and David J. Fowlie (Keeping It Reel) about the lineup of the recently concluded Chicago International Film Festival. We discuss the state of the festival in general and each talk up our two “best bets” for the 2016 edition. I then welcome Chicago-based writer/director Nick Alonzo, who discusses his no-budget feature Shitcago, which recently became available to stream for free online via Emphasis Entertainment. You can listen to the episode on the Transistor Chicago website.


CIFCC First Annual Showcase of Films

The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, an organization I co-founded earlier this year, will be putting on its first annual showcase of films on Saturday, November 5 and Sunday, November 6 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and the Wilmette Theatre in downtown Wilmette. Filmmakers will be present for live Q&As following all three screenings. Any of my students who attend these screenings will earn extra credit points (see the extra-credit page of your course website for more info). Detailed information about the films, venues and showtimes can be found below. Hope to see you there!

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The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents the Chicago premiere of James Redford’s new documentary, RESILIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF STRESS & THE SCIENCE OF HOPE.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2016 AT 8:00 PM

THE GENE SISKEL FILM CENTER, CHICAGO

In conjunction with the Third Annual International Resilience Summit (Nov. 2-3), the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle is proud to present the Chicago premiere of RESILIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF STRESS & THE SCIENCE OF HOPE. Director James Redford will appear in person to discuss the film.

RESILIENCE documents the birth of a new movement among pediatricians, therapists, educators and communities who are using cutting-edge brain science to disrupt cycles of violence, addiction and disease. RESILIENCE delves into the science, treatment and prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a leading cause of medical diseases ranging from heart disease and cancer to substance abuse and depression. For more information about the film and to watch the trailer, please visit: kpjrfilms.co/resilience/

James Redford is a filmmaker and activist whose work includes the HBO documentaries, TOXIC HOT SEAT and THE BIG PICTURE: RETHINKING DYSLEXIA. He is the Chairman of The Redford Center, a non-profit film production company he co-founded with his father, Robert Redford, devoted to making documentaries that inspire positive change.

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The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents THIRST.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 2016 AT 5:00 PM

THE WILMETTE THEATRE

1122 Central Avenue, Wilmette, IL

THIRST (SED) is a claustrophobic thriller and an impressive debut for Chicago-based Ecuadorian writer/director Joe Houlberg. “The story concerns a young blind woman who vacations at a country home with her cousin and their two boyfriends. The house, a colonial mansion where the cousins spent summers in their childhood, seems to bring out carnal desires in the foursome and effectively functions as a fifth central character. Featuring ambiguous flashback inserts and an evocative use of image and sound to convey the sensory experiences of the blind heroine, this haunting mood piece establishes Houlberg as a filmmaker to watch” (Michael Smith, Time Out Chicago). In Spanish with English subtitles.

Followed by a live Q&A with Joe Houlberg moderated by CIFCC member Jason Coffman.

transformers

The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents THE ART OF THE VIDEO ESSAY, curated by Kevin B. Lee.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 2016 AT 8:00 PM

THE WILMETTE THEATRE

1122 Central Avenue, Wilmette, IL

The New York Times called Chicago-based critic and CIFCC member Kevin B. Lee the “king of the video essay.” He is Chief Video Essayist at Fandor and his award-winning, TRANSFORMERS: THE PREMAKE, was named one of the best documentaries of 2014 by Sight & Sound.

Video essays—a relatively new form of criticism—came to prominence online in the early 2000s and provocatively comment on cinema by using the language of the very medium they analyze. Most video essays consist of clips from films that have been cleverly edited together and accompanied by voice-over narration in order to make points about cinema that writing alone can’t convey. THE ART OF THE VIDEO ESSAY is a 70-minute program curated by Lee, consisting of short video essays made by leading film critics from around the world.

Followed by a live Q&A with Kevin B. Lee moderated by CIFCC member Daniel Nava!

The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to giving voice to independent films and diversity within the film industry. Our CIFCC Showcase series is bringing several new or overlooked movies to area theaters this fall.

For more information about us, please visit: chicagoindiecritics.org


The Third Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival

I am excited to announce that, after the success of the last two Oakton Pop-Up Film Festivals in 2014 and 2015, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. again. The screenings of this year’s four acclaimed independent American films, spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, November 1 through Friday, November 4. The first three screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Humanities professors, including yours truly. The screenings are all FREE and open to the public. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

The full schedule:

Thao’s Library (Elizabeth Van Meter, 2015, 88 minutes)
Tuesday, November 1 at 2:00pm

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Winner of the Audience hoice Award at Geena Davis’ inaugural Bentonville Film Festival, this extraordinary movie depicts the unlikely friendship between two women: NYC-based actress Elizabeth Van Meter, grieving in the wake of the suicide of her younger sister (famed child aviator Vicki Van Meter), and Thanh Thao Huynh, a Vietnamese woman whose body has been ravaged by exposure to Agent Orange. One day, Van Meter saw a photograph of Thao by chance and learned that this young woman had created a makeshift library for the children in her small village. Van Meter reached out to Thao, and the two set out to build a permanent library, the journey of which is documented in this poignant, poetic and ultimately cathartic debut feature. Co-sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Studies program.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Elizabeth Van Meter conducted by Kathleen Carot.

Bloomin Mud Shuffle (Frank V. Ross, 2015, 75 minutes)
Wednesday, November 2 at 12:30pm

James Ransone (The Wire) and Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) star in this bittersweet “anti-romantic comedy” about aimless 30-somethings living in the suburbs of Chicago. Lonnie’s life hasn’t changed much in the 16 years since he graduated high school. Still painting houses, still drinking too much, still hanging out with the same old friends. As far as he can see, his only hope for the future lies in taking his physical relationship with coworker Monica to the next level. Written and directed by “mumblecore” veteran Ross (Audrey the Trainwreck). “Ross is so in tune with his characters that they never seem written or contrived… Ross’ directorial adroitness suggests a mature auteurism that is extremely rare in American lo-fi, micro-budget cinema.” – Don Simpson, Smells Like Screen Spirit
Followed by a live Q&A with director Frank V. Ross conducted by Michael Smith.

A F**kload of Scotch Tape (Julian Grant, 2012, 94 minutes)
Thursday, November 3 at 2:00pm

A musical neo-noir drama where a patsy is set up to take the fall for a kidnapping that leads to murder. When the money he is paid is stolen, he embarks on a rampage of revenge. Things go from bad to perverse as Benji (Graham Jenkins) must fight his way through father figures, hookers with no hearts, marauding men and the hopelessly lost. All singing, all-fighting – FLOST is a throwback to the crime films of yesteryear mixed with the music of Kevin Quain. Based on the writings of pulp-fiction writer Jed Ayres, FLOST mashes up film noir, musical drama and hard-hitting social injustice. Not for the faint of heart or humor. “Truly one-of-a-kind, a film that is destined to generate a substantial amount of buzz with indie film fanatics looking for something original, something outside of the proverbial box.” – Todd Rigney, Beyond Hollywood
Followed by a live Q&A with director Julian Grant conducted by Therese Grisham.

Buzzard (Joel Potrykus, 2014, 97 minutes)
Friday, November 4 at 12:30pm

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This pitch-black comedy from regional Michigan filmmaker Joel Potrykus (The Alchemist Cookbook) has been accurately described as “Office Space on Crack” (Indiewire). Paranoia forces small-time scam artist Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) to flee his hometown and hide out in a dangerous Detroit. With nothing but a pocket full of bogus checks, his Power Glove, and a bad temper, the horror metal slacker lashes out. “Potrykus has fashioned a vigorous and strangely compelling character study, a sustained burst of punk-rock ferocity, and one of the most original American films to emerge in some time.”- Calum Marsh, Village Voice

This film festival is sponsored by the Oakton Community College Educational Foundation and its generous donors.


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