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Category Archives: Interviews

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.

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RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO on WGN Radio’s Patti Vasquez Show

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My fearless producer Layne Marie Williams and I were on WGN Radio’s Patti Vasquez Show last night to talk all about the Chicago Premiere of RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO at the Gene Siskel Film Center! The interview segment begins at the 38:40 mark and runs all the way until the end of the program. This is a fun, freewheeling listen. Check it out here.

If you haven’t bought tickets yet, they are selling like hotcakes! The Friday and Saturday shows, in particular, should sell out in advance so please get ’em while you still can at the Siskel’s website here.


LOVE ACTUALLY on the White City Cinema Radio Hour Podcast

I’m happy to report I’ve resurrected my White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast (after a 2-year hiatus!) in order to present a very special Christmas-themed episode. I welcome Cine-File Chicago critic Scott Pfeiffer and schoolteacher Karolyn Steele-Pfeiffer to help me break down Richard Curtis’ great – but very polarizing – rom-com LOVE ACTUALLY. Check it out here.

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RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO on WGN Radio’s No Coast Cinema!

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It was an absolute pleasure to return to WGN Radio’s great No Coast Cinema show to discuss RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO with the great actors Clare Cooney, Nina Ganet and Rashaad Hall. I think this is a super-fun listen. We discuss the film with hosts Tom Hush and Conor Cornelius. Listen online here.


Talking CIFF on the Cine-File Podcast

On October’s Cine-Cast, the Cine-File Chicago podcast, I discuss with critics Ben Sachs and Kyle Cubr the Chicago International Film Festival titles I’m most excited to see – including Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Jia Zhangke’s ASH IS PUREST WHITE, Kent Jones’ DIANE, Christian Petzold’s TRANSIT and an Experimental Shorts Program featuring Melika Bass, Deborah Stratman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. What I don’t say, because Cine-File is all about advocacy, is that I think this is the single weakest CIFF lineup in the 23 years that I’ve been attending. Among the prominent titles missing from this year’s fest are new works by Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Godard, Frederick Wiseman (especially sad given MONROVIA, INDIANA’s Midwestern connection), Lav Diaz, Jafar Panahi, Lee Chang-Dong, Jennifer Kent, Hong Sang-Soo (despite the fact that there were two films to choose from and Lee is a School of the Art Institute alum), Wang Bing, Alex Ross Perry and Bi Gan. The last of these omissions, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, which had its World Premiere at Cannes and also screened at Toronto and New York, is particularly regrettable as it features a lengthy dream sequence shot in 3D that is supposedly comparable to the astonishing virtuosic long take in Bi Gan’s first film KAILI BLUES. The AMC River East multiplex where CIFF takes place is equipped with 3D projectors and festival director Michael Kutza, stepping down after this year, has gone on record as saying he likes to show 3D films. Because LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is a Chinese art film, however, it can now only be programmed for a local theatrical screening, if at all, at a theater without a 3D projector (e.g., the Siskel Center, the Music Box, Facets, etc.). This means that, unfortunately, Chicago cinephiles will never have the chance to see this film the way that its director intended.


Interview with Middle Coast Film Festival Director Jess Levandoski

My interview with Jess Levandoski appeared at Time Out Chicago yesterday. I’m reproducing it here in its entirety.
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After four successful years in Bloomington, Indiana, the fifth annual Middle Coast Film Festival will move to Lincoln Square’s Davis Theatre later this month. The event promises local movie fans “loads of films, awesome parties and endless possibilities” between Friday, September 21 and Sunday, September 23. We recently spoke to festival director Jess Levandoski about what attendees can expect.

What exactly is the Middle Coast Film Fest? How would you describe its identity and mission?

Middle Coast’s goal is to provide an inclusive, uplifting, and affirming community to filmmakers and audience members alike. In other words, we like to say we’ve created a jerk-free zone. We want this festival to be the event in Chicago where filmmakers can let their hair down and just show us films that elicit emotions. This isn’t a fest where you’ll get a distribution deal, it’s a fest where you’ll get to have real talk about your projects and where audiences feel empowered to really connect with you. We want to build a huge family! Send us all your misfits and loners, you’ve got a spot right here next to the rest of us.

You’ve had four successful years in Bloomington already. What necessitated the move to Chicago and did you find it daunting to put on a film festival in a city that already has so many?

As the founder and director of the festival, I moved, so it had to move with me! We built a great fest in Bloomington, and it really is a special town, but we hit a limit with what we could do there (and plus all the staff members moved away) so I’m so thrilled to have the new home base in Chicago! And as far as the saturation level of fests here in Chicago, that just means there are that many cool people in the area, you know? Plenty of room at the table, and if there’s not, I know we can just add more seats.

You’ve said that you want to “take over Lincoln Square” for the weekend of the festival. What do you see as the relationship between the festival and the neighborhood?

When I was looking into venues, I searched high and low for the perfect neighborhood to place it in. I needed to find a venue that didn’t already have a film fest every other weekend, I needed a spot that had a strong arts community and folks who enjoy doing stuff. The area of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood and North Center was perfect for it—you can find single family homes and apartment dwellers, young professionals and families, loads of diversity. It’s not all completely gentrified yet and there’s room for growth. So finding the newly renovated Davis Theater with the gorgeous full service bar and restaurant, the Carbon Arc, attached to it was a real eureka moment for me. It felt like a home for the fest when I walked in. It’s run by an awesome group of dudes who want to see a film fest be anchored there, so their support has been a key to our success so far. We’ve partnered with both Wintrust Bank and the Dank Haus Cultural Center to expand the footprint of the festival, so our closing night party will be on the rooftop terrace that overlooks the city and it will just be this perfect ending to our first year in the neighborhood. I just have a great feeling about it!

Tell me about the lineup. I know you can’t pick favorites but what are some of the highlights that you might recommend to a first-time Middle Coast attendee?

We open Friday September 21, at 2pm with our first block of shorts called “PEOPLE ARE AWESOME.” The first 100 badge holders through the door get a free swag bag. That’s pretty cute, huh? Free stuff! We will also have live music on the sidewalk, mountains of Lacroix water and fun vendor booths, including an advice booth from our sponsor Hello Tushy, where you can get honest advice from a real asshole (Hello Tushy is a bidet company. See what we did there?). Friday night also hosts our anniversary screening of The Birdcage, presented in partnership with Wussy Mag. We’ll have costume lewks contest hosted by Chicago’s own Lucy Stoole and Kat Sass. Saturday we open the doors of the Davis to run programming in all three theaters, including a big surprise film. Our lounge in the Carbon Arc will be open all day, as well as our vendors and podcasting areas.

Our big headliner Saturday night is a Chicago premiere, The New Romantic, written and directed by Carly Stone and starring Jessica Barden (Netflix’s It’s the End of the F*cking World!). I’ve been describing it as “If Hunter S. Thompson wrote Pretty Woman.”

You’ve also scheduled some panel discussions. Who’s going to be on them and what will the discussion topics be?

Friday we have a panel called “Script to Screen & Everything In Between!,” which is just our cute way of saying our panelists are going to spill the tea about productions they’ve worked on where shit has gone way wrong, but with style and grace and lots of Google docs and begging for help they made it work. It’s gonna be spicy.

Saturday we have a panel called “Coastal Connections,” which is a discussion with the LA Women’s Film Collective and Chicago’s Women of the Now. Our panelists will discuss the challenges they face and the action steps for femme identifying filmmakers to think about and walk away with. We need more representation in the film world and they’re going to ignite the audience to walk away with ways to achieve that goal.

For more information visit the Middle Coast Film Festival’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Michael Curtis Johnson


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