It was an honor to be profiled recently by Esthetic Lens magazine. I got to talk about the postponed RELATIVE shoot and what I’ve been up to during quarantine. You can check it out here.
It was an honor to be profiled recently by Esthetic Lens magazine. I got to talk about the postponed RELATIVE shoot and what I’ve been up to during quarantine. You can check it out here.
Interview with MOVING PARTS producer John Otterbacher
By Michael Glover Smith
MOVING PARTS is an auspicious debut feature for American writer/director Emilie Upczak. This potent social-realist drama, which deals with the smuggling of a young Chinese woman, Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian), to Trinidad and Tobago where she falls into a life of prostitution, admirably refuses to either exploit or exoticize its subject matter. Upczak will be on hand to discuss the film when it receives its local premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 3. Producer John Otterbacher will join her for the Q&A at that screening and will also appear for audience discussion on Tuesday, January 7. I recently spoke to Otterbacher at his Chicago studio where most of the post-production on the film was carried out.
Michael Glover Smith: How does a filmmaker from the Midwest end up producing a film about a Chinese woman living in the Caribbean?
John Otterbacher: In my late 30s I went back to film school to get an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Totally fell in love with the program, loved the people there. My partner in crime, day one of being in Vermont, was Emilie (Upczak). We just clicked. It was her thesis project to write this script. But I’d produced films before and I’m hanging out with Emilie and she’s like, “You’ve made movies. Can you help me make this movie?” So she put me on the project early as a producer and kind of tapped me for knowledge. And while we were in school, she applied for and got a grant in Trinidad, which was a large amount of the funding for this. Trinidad’s economy was up, they were trying to encourage filmmaking and art in the area, and she had lived in Trinidad: She ran the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. So, we graduate and within a year of her graduating, she makes the film. I wasn’t even there for the shoot but I helped with crewing up, equipment, story, budget, everything. And she had a plan for post-production; she was trying to take advantage of a tax credit in Puerto Rico. So post-production started there but it wasn’t working out. And I said, “let’s bring it here (to Chicago). I’ve got my team.” Every film I’ve been on, by necessity, I’ve had to take all the way through to delivery. Every film I’ve worked on has come through this space. You do it enough times and you feel confident. And I’ve got a good team of people who help me. With Emilie and I, there’s a trust thing. I think that’s one of the most important things about the director/producer relationship that gets overlooked. People think producers are about money. I’m not a money guy. I’m a “how do we get things done?” problem solver. How can we make the movie better? So that trust between the two of us is key. She came here and she worked with my editor, Jon Gollner, and sound designer, Kris Franzen. And we worked with another one of our VCFA classmates, Rafael Attias: He’s in Rhode Island but he’s from Venezuela. He’s amazing. He did the original score for the film.
MGS: Which is great, by the way.
JO: Thank you. We were very happy with it. He knows what that place sounds like, that part of the world. But he also added sound-design elements. He would bring elements to us and Chris would mix it. Chris is from the Midwest. He doesn’t know what Trinidad sounds like. But, between Emilie and Rafael, they were like, “You need these ‘peepers,’” these little frogs and different things. And they really build the world of the film for me.
MGS: I think the film does a good job of putting a human face on the issue of sex trafficking, which is something everyone has heard about but is something of an abstract concept for most people. Was that always the goal for you guys?
JO: Emilie, for a long time, was like, “This is not a sex trafficking movie.” She said, “This is a movie about a young woman who chooses to follow her brother to another country, for family reasons, and makes a series of bad choices influenced by dubious people.” And a lot of people talk about her being a prostitute. Prostitution isn’t sex trafficking. Well, they overlap, let’s say. I’m not an expert in that area. In Emilie’s opinion, she’s like, “This is a choice for some people. And I’m not saying Zhenzhen made good choices. She was in a difficult spot.” So that was something we constantly discussed because, for me, it was always a human trafficking film. I just thought that was, I don’t want to say “the angle,” because I don’t want to put it in a box, but you are always looking for ways to describe the film to people. We’re talking about a young woman who, initially, was smuggled; she paid someone to be moved.
MGS: And that person then demanded more money as soon as she arrived.
JO: Right, and that’s where smuggling and human trafficking very much overlap. For me it is a human trafficking movie. But, initially, Emilie wanted to tell the story and put a human face on something that most of us overlook. She didn’t want to paint Zhenzhen as this victim. I think that was really important to Emilie. You can see how someone makes a series of choices because of the situation they’re in. It’s not as simple as “These bad people went to this place and grabbed these people and brought them here as slaves.” It’s a series of choices and people taking advantage of people in bad spots combined that leads someone to this point. She definitely wanted Zhenzhen to be a real character and there were some points in the edit where there had been some storylines developed where it was more of a crime thriller. And we got feedback where people were like, “Oh, you should develop that more.” And we were like, “But we didn’t shoot that, really.” And so there was this strange pressure to make a crime thriller or a psychological thriller, which are genres that people understand – as opposed to this movie, which I think challenges people in a different way. And so, at the end of the day, Emilie felt strongly, “This is the story that I want to tell.”
MGS: Valerie Tian is great as Zhenzhen. She has this interesting quality of being very naturalistic while also having kind of a movie-star quality. She knows how to hold the screen. I know she’s a professional actress and I assume a lot of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Can you talk about the casting process and blending different performance styles?
JO: Casting, as you know, is critical. You have to make certain choices by necessity. Valerie was not a choice made out of necessity. Casting on a low-budget film is often: I’ve got to cast these characters and I’m going to have to use locals and people where this is not their full-time job but they’re enthusiastic. If you’re doing something authentic and you have a good relationship with the community, which Emilie did, people want to be involved. And then I need to bring in these people who are pros: Valerie and Kandyse (McClure) were both in that department. And the willingness of people to go to Trinidad – and I’m not sure if it was the allure of something exotic and different, which I’m sure helped – but actors, if they’re into something, get excited and are willing to do things that they wouldn’t do for a big studio film or T.V. show. So there was a great mix. I thought Valerie was great. This is not a knock on Valerie but, the first cut of the movie, I didn’t think that her performance was great. It’s interesting how performances can kind of come out in post-production. That’s where my hands, particularly on the creative side, were most in this film. That was really interesting to me. Because I do think now, I agree with you, her performance is the movie in a lot of ways.
MGS: Her facial expressions are always compelling.
JO: It did come out in the editing. The first pass: you just drop in the best-looking takes or the takes that are like, “We’ve got to get all the lines of dialogue in the film.” You follow the script; the script is your road map to the film. Then you get past the rough cut and you’re like, “Screw the script. The script doesn’t mean anything at this point. This is the footage we have.” We looked for what is the essence of her character. Sometimes the essence of the character is not necessarily in the best takes. You think it is but then it’s not. We certainly didn’t “create” her performance but post-production is a place where you can find the right performance for the film.
I conducted the following interview with Knives and Skin director Jennifer Reeder for Cine-File Chicago.
Interview with KNIVES AND SKIN director Jennifer Reeder
By Michael Glover Smith
Imagine a feminist take on the Hollywood teen comedies of the 1980s, one that examines how the trauma and grief engendered by a missing person’s case can reverberate through an entire society – strengthening the bonds between some characters while exacerbating the tensions between others. Now imagine that film being lit like a giallo and punctuated by a capella musical numbers. Can’t do it? That’s probably because KNIVES AND SKIN, the splendid second feature by writer/director Jennifer Reeder, doesn’t look or sound like anything you’ve seen before. The locally made film, produced by Newcity’s Chicago Film Project, has taken the festival world by storm ever since its World Premiere at the Berlinale at the beginning of 2019. KNIVES AND SKIN will begin streaming on VOD courtesy of IFC Midnight on December 6 and open at the Music Box Theatre for a theatrical run beginning, appropriately enough, a week later on Friday the 13th. I recently spoke to Jennifer in person about her cinematic and literary influences and her singular approach to editing, lighting and music.
MGS: I loved your film. Are you tired of the TWIN PEAKS comparisons yet?
JR: No, I’m not, I’m not! There are other comparisons that have not come up that I am very thankful for. But TWIN PEAKS is not one of them.
MGS: I think TWIN PEAKS is the greatest thing ever but your film is very different, stylistically and narratively. The comparison does seem valid in the sense that they both have central mysteries that serve as a narrative hook: In your case, the disappearance of Carolyn Harper allows you to go into all of these different homes and paint a portrait of an entire community. Was the concept of a missing girl always the point of origin for you?
JR: No, the starting point was actually wanting to write a story about a group of girls who had been very close when they were younger, like maybe in middle school, and had grown apart, and something happens to them that sort of forces them to be friends again, to come back together. I wanted to make a gentle, girl-power film, you know? I had made a bunch of short films leading up to this that were suggesting coming of age is a lifelong process, and sort of dealing with the lives of adolescent girls. There was often a dark element. But with KNIVES AND SKIN, I was driving back to Ohio to see my mother along this rural two-lane road – very typical of that area, or all of the Midwest, really – and sort of imagined these three goth-punk girls walking along that road – on their way to band practice, on their way to school, on their way home from school – and just knowing that there are kids in small towns all over the country who feel like misfits in their environment. They feel like misfits in their own skin but they actually look like misfits in their environment. I thought that was a great visual analogy for so many people who feel like they’re at a crossroads in life. So I started thinking about who those three girls are and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever. It’s such a typical moment in small towns: If someone, in particular a young person, goes missing, it gives the entire town an excuse to drop everything and refocus their lives – oftentimes in a way that transforms their lives, and everyone can exorcise their own psychosis and obsession through this other event. I feel like that general structure is what I liked about TWIN PEAKS: All those psychotic threads among the townspeople led back to Laura Palmer. But I was also influenced by RIVER’S EDGE, and that film did the opposite thing: That dead girl became a fissure through the lives of these young people but she was much more invisible than Laura Palmer. So it’s kind of fusing those two stories. But in terms of the world of David Lynch, I actually feel much more influenced by BLUE VELVET.
MGS: I thought about that while watching KNIVES AND SKIN.
JR: The kind of unraveling of another horrific mystery, and those two main characters trying to figure out what exactly has happened, and lots of other people are involved, and the mistrust in the town… Or even something like LOST HIGHWAY I feel has this really great way of suggesting these parallel worlds. For some people that can be a very frustrating experience but I really love how he creates this kind of plot-maze and oftentimes the plot is like a staircase that goes nowhere. It’s like a funhouse.
MGS: A puzzle with no ultimate solution.
JR: Correct. Some people don’t like it at all. I find it wickedly entertaining.
MGS: I thought about BLUE VELVET in terms of your production design. One thing Lynch does that I think is amazing, which you also do in a different and more female-centric way, is he makes films that are very culturally specific that are also universal and timeless. There are large sections of BLUE VELVET that feel like they could be taking place in the 1950s but then one little detail will snap you back into the present. Like Kyle MacLachlan’s earring will make you realize, “Oh, wait, we’re in the ‘80s.” Your film is similar because so much of it seems like it could be taking place in the ‘90s or the ‘80s or the ‘70s.
JR: I really tried to eliminate phones but there’s one scene where you realize they all have smart phones.
MGS: Right, when everyone gets the text from Carolyn. Well, it’s not very cinematic to see people spending a lot of time on their phones!
JR: Right. I did that on purpose. I wanted it to feel frozen in space and time. The ‘80s sensibility has a lot to do with my own autobiography but also the ‘80s were such a delicious time for teen films. So this is a film that sort of knows it’s a teen film. It has a kind of self-consciousness about it. And there’s something about ‘70s Italian horror, the colors of that, which felt really relevant. And then I think, certainly, there’s a kind of ‘80s club-kid fashion that exists among some of those girls.
MGS: A lot of high-school fashion is timeless: The letter-jackets, the cheerleader uniforms, the band uniforms…
JR: Correct. Yeah, and I wanted those characters to feel iconic or emblematic. Not so much like caricatures, although maybe when you’re first introduced to them you think you know them: You think you know who a cheerleader is, you think you know who a girl in the band is, you think you know who the jock is. But I also wanted for those expectations of those characters to unravel over the course of the film.
MGS: You were successful in that. Speaking of the ‘80s, I saw that someone recently compared KNIVES AND SKIN to Kathy Acker and that you were happy about that. I imagine Blood and Guts in High School must’ve been formative for you?
JR: Yeah, absolutely. It was super-cool to have a literary reference for the film. And, in that same tweet, Audra Lorde was mentioned. They’re very different writers but both, rest in peace, my queens. I feel like I’ve been deeply influenced by literature as much as by other films. And I think there have been so many female writers who have taken on the same subject matter as this film – a kind of abject approach to femininity or a kind of toppling of a patriarchy or dealing with gender and race in a very pointed way. People have asked me a lot about women and genre and “Isn’t this an interesting time for women in genre because so many women are taking it on or being handed opportunities to deal with genre?” But people forget that, in terms of literature, Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein.
MGS: As a teenager!
JR: Yes, exactly! Or Daphne DuMaurier, from Rebecca to The Birds to My Cousin Rachel and on and on. Or Patricia Highsmith. We could go on and on. There are so many women in literature who have dealt with such complex subject matter in terms of female identity.
MGS: And, in Acker’s case, female trauma.
JR: Female trauma, for sure. So that comparison, it just felt like that was exactly my audience. Not that I went into this thinking about Blood and Gutsor thinking specifically about Kathy Acker but I do feel like I have these kind of wicked angels on my shoulder when I go into telling certain stories. And Audra Lorde and Kathy Acker are both right there along with me.
MGS: Let’s talk about this film as a portrait of the Midwest. It feels very Midwestern but I couldn’t tell if you cared exactly where it was set. Is it Illinois? Is it Indiana? Is it Wisconsin? Is it Ohio? It could be any of those places.
JR: Correct. So many of the films that I’ve written – almost every single one of them – in my brain, the landscape is Ohio, which is where I grew up. However, I’ve been living at the border of Illinois and Indiana for longer than I lived in Ohio, actually. And I will never not write films about the Midwest even if it’s more of a city film rather than a rural film. There was a time when we thought about shooting this in Louisville, Kentucky. Someone who was interested in producing it was living in Louisville. And that seemed interesting to me but then it also occurred to me I know nothing about Louisville, Kentucky. And perhaps even setting it in Kentucky and thinking about it as being Southern Gothic rather than Midwestern Gothic, I didn’t really know what that world was. So I wanted to set it in a place where it’s unidentified. The high school is Big River High School and that doesn’t even identify the state that they’re in. And I don’t presume that the Midwest owns refineries or quarries, you know? But it also feels like that kind of landscape – the refinery, the quarry, a river running through a town – does feel Midwestern. And there’s something about the sort of awkwardness and stubbornness of the people in this film that also feels Midwestern. It also felt really important that this film is not a city film but yet it’s very inclusive in terms of the cast, which to me feels really authentic. Where I grew up in Ohio and where I live right now in the northwest tip of Indiana, both have small-town Midwestern sensibilities and they’re racially really diverse. I think there are a lot of films that are made for young people of color or with young people of color in front of the camera and they’re city films and I just think that that’s not completely accurate.
MGS: It feels like your attitude toward the town is ambivalent. The scene that resonated the most for me is the one where the kids go up on the roof. It made me think about where I’m from in North Carolina – because they’re all looking at this highway that leads out of town. And I’m thinking that some of them are going to leave and some of them are not. This town is a place where terrible things can happen and some people want to escape from that. Could you talk a little bit about your attitude toward the town?
JR: I was so happy to leave my hometown. There was a trail of scorched earth between there and here. But I do still write stories that take place in and around central Ohio so I do have a love for where I grew up but not in a nostalgic or sentimental way. That town is where I learned to be resilientto that town on some level, you know?
MGS: It made you who you are.
JR: It made me who I am. But what’s remarkable to me and what I injected into this film, and I don’t know how evident it is, are all the people who are my peers and even the peers of my older siblings who never left where they grew up and never wanted to leave where they grew up. So, the adults in KNIVES AND SKIN – there is the relationship between, we’ll call her the “pregnant mom,” and the clown dad, and when they are breaking up there’s a suggestion that they’ve known each other a long time. That they were actually maybe sweethearts in high school and have never left that town. And that’s just remarkable to me. I can understand growing up in Chicago, growing up in New York, growing up in L.A. and never leaving because those cities evolve on some level. I think that small towns don’t evolve. And the idea that you would yourself want to evolve but that you are literally running into your high-school friends at the grocery store just seems like a nightmare to me. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up. And when I go home to visit, I still have a cluster of friends I’ve known since elementary school who I love to see. A lot of them went away to college and came back and are doing remarkable things but they have the context of at least going away for a little while and bringing all of that evolution back to whatever they’re doing. So it’s ambivalent in the sense that I’m very happy I left, I’m very happy for the young people in this film who will leave, and I still have love for the people who didn’t leave even though that wasn’t the path for me.
MGS: The word “dreamlike” has been used to describe this film a lot, which I think is the result of the way you use lighting, color, music and, especially, dissolves. This is something I don’t think many people have remarked upon but your use of dissolves strikes me as one of your signature aesthetic moves. I’ve talked to a lot of editors who don’t like dissolves. They’ll say, “They look good on film but not on digital,” or “They look good in black-and-white but not in color.” But you use them relentlessly. What is the appeal for you?
JR: On the one hand, I love putting two ideas in the same frame. Literally, you can put two people or two ideas in the same frame. And especially with something like this where there’s this ensemble cast, it was a way for me to suggest simultaneity. And oftentimes I would shoot heads or tails knowing that there were moments I could dissolve, and that there would be this great way that I could transition from one scene to the next physically through that dissolve and I knew, “This is going to look great dissolved into that moment.” And my editor, Mike Olenik, has perfected the long cross-dissolve. He’s got a really tricky way where – it takes him a long time once we know where those dissolves are – but he rebuilds, frame by frame, those dissolves and will sort of key out faces or something like that so that faces maintain longer. If you want to do it, it’s not just slapping on that cross-dissolve filter and moving on with your lives. It’s really making a pointed decision and then maintaining the integrity of the heads and tails of both of those scenes and really being able to finesse it and nuance it. But, I say this all the time, I went to art school, I didn’t go to film school. So there’s something about that kind of layering and collaging within a specific frame that aesthetically I really like. But it’s not a split screen. I hate a split screen and I love a long cross-dissolve. I feel like Mike and I have gotten really good at figuring out what scenes need them and then how to physically finesse that material so that those cross-dissolves are quite special.
MGS: Your use of color is also extraordinary. I wanted to ask how you decide what colors to use because they can really change the whole emotional tone of a scene. I’m thinking specifically of the first scene in the English class, there’s this pink light shining on the sides of the students’ faces. I thought, “This is amazing because it’s totally unmotivated.” It’s not a realistic use of color but, in a way, I wish my high school had looked like that. Who decides on the pink? Is that a discussion you have with your cinematographer?
JR: So it’s me and Chris Rejano, who shot a bunch of my films in the past 5 or 6 years, and our gaffer, Louie Lukasik, who’s actually the head gaffer on CHICAGO PD. He doesn’t always get to drench scenes in hot pink. But I said that I wanted the lighting to feel extraordinary in the sense that I wanted the whole thing to be hovering above reality. So, yes, the local light had a tint and the local light oftentimes had an invisible source. I mean,you’re a filmmaker so you can say, “Where is that light coming from?” Then when we switch to the other angle, you say, “I don’t even see the source of that light.” But I think for an audience who’s not so filmmaking-savvy, it could just be enough to kind of off-balance, to provide a different sort of tension in a scene. Even though those pinks and purples are really lovely, just not knowing where that light is coming from, those moments create a kind of unbalance, a kind of dis-ease. And I wanted the film to feel really femme! So I was like, “It’s got to be pink and purple!” Even the yellows and cyans that we used are still sort of poppy and not so much these darker greens or darker blues in a Cronenberg sense. They still are kind of delightful. And we shot with these vintage anamorphic lenses and so we knew that those lenses would do these really special things to the soft edges of those lights. And being able to fill the whole frame sometimes with these pools of contrasting light sources would just elevate the emotional and visual atmosphere of the film. On the very first day of shooting we put a pink light in one of the kitchens and Louie came to me and said, “Is that too weird?” And I said, “Let’s just assume we’re going for weird. It’s never going to be too weird.” Then we did all the color grading in Warsaw, Poland, with a woman was so in love with the film because Polish cinema still tends to be sort of drained of color. So she really loved being able to color this film.
MGS: To do something she normally wouldn’t be able to do?
JR: Yeah. It’s definitely a film where “more is more,” and I had full creative freedom, and I just feel so thankful that it’s finding super-fans.
MGS: Let’s talk about the music. In addition to everything else you do with genre, the film is a true musical. I was delighted to hear all of those songs because it seemed like the lyrical content was expressing what was going on between the characters. I think “I’ll Melt With You” was when the two girls were each in their own bedrooms but kind of singing to each other. And “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was to me the real showstopper because you had kind of teased it in the dialogue so it was cathartic when it finally came. How did you decide which songs to use and were there any songs you wanted to use that you weren’t able to?
JR: Sure. A lot of the songs that are in there were some of the first choices: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Blue Monday.” Even the Icicle Works song at the end, “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream).” I was working with a company here, Groove Garden, to get the publishing rights because we knew that we would re-arrange them and re-perform them. I wanted all the songs, when I knew that they were going to be re-arranged as a kind of lamentation where we would really listen to the lyrics, that the lyrics had to have narrative content. It is, in a way, kind of a Greek chorus. So I had a list of songs but it wasn’t like any old list of ‘80s songs. I knew that it had to be something that, in its original form, was really infectious and poppy. But in its kind of eulogized form had to have a lot of pathos, a lot of melancholy, a lot of narrative weight. One of the first songs that was in the script that got jettisoned because we couldn’t get anybody to even answer an e-mail or phone call was Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” Which is a song that I really love and I knew that, slowed down, could be really spectacular. But we couldn’t get anybody to respond whatsoever. And I wanted to use “Don’t Change” by INXS, which is such a great, empowering anthem but it’s evidently really difficult to deal with posthumous estates. I wanted to use a Smiths song, “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” even though I don’t agree with Morrissey’s current politics. But it was going to be extremely expensive even just for the publishing rights. So we were like, “Okay, that’s a hard pass.” And the same thing with Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” – even though the Soft Cell version is a cover of the original – but that song is also extremely expensive. I love the “I’ll Melt With You” moment. That was always in the script – that they would dissolve into each other. And there’s a great scene in 1983’s VALLEY GIRL that also uses that song so it was kind of an ode to VALLEY GIRL. And then when I figured out how to deal with “Promises, Promises” – that sort of P.T. Anderson/MAGNOLIA moment where all of the characters sing together – that felt like a real revelation for me, if I could be like, “Oh, I did it!” Because I’ve loved that scene in that film for a long, long time and that also can be a real polarizing scene where I think that some people are like, “What was that?” Maybe even more so than the frogs in that film. But, for me, I always thought that was a really beautiful way to tie together this ensemble cast. So figuring out that song and who would sing it and – again, that’s all cross-dissolves – how I would shoot that and where people would be was complicated but I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the film.
I was recently interviewed by Annalise Kiser of the Strasburg Film Festival about RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO, which won the Best Comedy award at Strasburg one year ago this month (a condensed version of the interview appears on the SFF site). Check out this spoiler-free Q&A ahead of the film’s streaming premiere next week:
AK: What made you first begin pursuing film? Do you have a favorite movie?
MGS: I grew up in the ’80s and my childhood coincided with the VHS boom. I fell in love with movies at an early age and educated myself on film history at the video store – the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone were formative for me. My favorite movie now is Edward Yang’s A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY. It’s a four-hour epic about juvenile delinquents living in Taipei in the 1950s – think a Taiwanese REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
AK: RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO follows the beginning, middle, and ending of romantic relationships. Was there a reason for the choice of which character set was for each segment? Especially the first segment, with the rather unscrupulous couple being the start of a relationship?
MGS: Lots of relationships have dubious beginnings! I thought of the film as depicting the arc of a single relationship – but using three different couples to explore each relationship “phase.” I thought that would be kind of a novel way to structure a movie.
AK: Was there a reason for the first couple’s conversation to be explicitly about men approaching women in bars and “negging” them?
MGS: Yes! I wanted to explore gender dynamics in the Me-Too era in a comedic way in this opening segment. I thought it would be funny to have a guy who thinks he’s slick offer to buy a woman a drink but insist he doesn’t want to sleep with her. All the while he’s trying to pretend he knows more about literature (her area of expertise) than he actually does. She calls him on his bullshit by challenging him to a game of “Strip Literary Trivia.”
AK: The second couple talk in a lot of non sequiturs about Chicago and how it is a place they love very much. The other two skits hardly mention being in Chicago; why in the center?
MGS: The second story was the last one that I wrote and I wanted it to serve as a bridge between the other two stories. I knew that the first and last stories would deal with heterosexual couples and take place primarily indoors – so I thought it would be a refreshing change of pace if the second story focused on a gay couple and took place entirely outdoors. We shot that scene in my neighborhood, Rogers Park, so I know those streets and that beach very well. It seemed logical to me that those characters would talk about their love of the neighborhood and the city.
AK: The second couple discuss how indoor cats watch the world go by from their perches, but don’t interact directly. Would that be a metaphor for film?
MGS: That’s exactly right. As film viewers, we are all “indoor cats” looking out the window. Hitchcock uses the same metaphor in REAR WINDOW.
AK: When Julie begins to address the audience, I wonder if you had something specific in mind you were saying with it?
MGS: I think voyeurism is an interesting subject in film because sight is the primary sense we use to experience movies. Any time you make a film about someone “spying” it automatically becomes a multi-layered experience because the character is a surrogate for the viewer. Voyeurism is a theme in all three of the RENDEZVOUS vignettes but I decided to make it explicit in the third one. I thought it would be funny if a character in the story started to fall in love with the viewer.
AK: What was set life like, working with the actors and crew?
MGS: We had a great cast and great crew. We shot the whole thing in 8 days, which is very fast for a feature film, so pre-production and rehearsal were very important. The film was produced by a female filmmaking collective, Women of the Now, and the crew was mostly female. There was a very lovely, cooperative energy on set.
AK: What makes you want to make a certain movie?
MGS: I just accumulate ideas over time and, once enough of those ideas start to connect up with each other in my brain, I start writing.
AK: Do you know where you want to head with your career? Indie movies, hollywood ones, television, something else, etc?
MGS: I love Chicago and I imagine that I will stay where I am and continue to make films independently.
AK: What sort of reactions do you hope for from your audience?
MGS: I want RENDEZVOUS to provoke laughter but also cause people to think about their own lives and relationships. In the past year, the film has screened publicly 28 times in 9 states and I have been very happy with the audience response.
AK: What is a question you haven’t been asked but wish someone would ask you?
MGS: Why does the Pentagon have five sides?
I conducted the following interview with Pedro Costa for Cine-File Chicago. His latest film, VITALINA VARELA, screens three times at the Chicago International Film Festival: Monday, October 21 at 6pm, Tuesday, October 22 at 5:45pm and Friday, October 25 at 2:45pm.
Pedro Costa has been one of the world’s most important filmmakers for the past quarter of a century. His latest, VITALINA VARELA, is, perhaps surprisingly, his first film to win the top award at a major film festival (Locarno). This deserved honor, coupled with theatrical distribution from the enterprising Grasshopper Films in the U.S., has the potential to bring his work to a wider audience than ever before. Over the course of his career, Costa’s unique, poetic style of filmmaking has evolved from working with full screenplays and professional actors (Isaach De Bankole and Edith Scob appear in 1994’s CASA DE LAVA) to casting non-professionals to portray some version of themselves (notably Cape Verdean immigrants living in working-class neighborhoods in Lisbon — including Fontainhas, the systematic destruction of which was captured in the director’s 2000 masterpiece IN VANDA’S ROOM). Along the way there have been side trips into documentary filmmaking proper (WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? and CHANGE NOTHING both document the working lives of artists Costa admires: filmmaking team Straub/Huillet and chanteuse/actress Jeanne Balibar, respectively).
VITALINA VARELA, however, feels like something of an apotheosis for Costa — his work in its purest form. Taking its title from the protagonist (and the actress who plays her), VITALINA VARELA is the darkest and most beautiful film he has yet made. No one knows how to light and frame images like Costa; where most directors film daytime interiors by framing actors against windows, and thus shooting into the light, Costa nearly always frames his subjects against walls in dark, cave-like interiors, allowing them to be illuminated only by the light entering from windows on the room’s opposite side. Of course, the resulting painterly images would be nothing if Costa’s cinematographic eye wasn’t focused on compelling subjects. Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the year’s most remarkable screen presence. I conducted the following interview with Costa about the film via e-mail.
MGS: VITALINA VARELA is the darkest movie you’ve made. Almost every shot is either a nighttime exterior or a daytime interior that’s shot in a dark location. Can you speak about why you’ve moved increasingly in this direction?
PC: Vitalina had spent all her life under a grueling sun, working the land in the mountains of the Island of Santiago, Cape Verde. She married her first love, Joaquim, a boy from the same village, of Figueira das Naus. Like most Cape Verdean young men, Joaquim left his country, in 1977, with the promise of work as a bricklayer. Like all Cape Verdean girls, Vitalina remained, waiting and longing for a happy life. With his first money saved, Joaquim buys a brick and plate shack in the neighborhood of Cova da Moura, in the suburbs of Lisbon. He writes one or two letters to Vitalina, and calls her promising a plane ticket to come join him in Portugal. In 35 years, Joaquim will only return to Cape Verde twice. During his first stay, Joaquim and Vitalina begin building a house near the chapel of their home village. During his second, as soon as he arrives, he claims he must see a cousin in the north and takes the first plane back to Lisbon. This was the last time Vitalina saw him. Every other night he’s seen wandering and stumbling in the dark alleyways of Cova da Moura. Rumor has it that he stabbed a fellow mason in a fight over some shady business. He misses work, his colleagues lose his trail, they knock on his door, but he never answers. He dies on June 23rd, 2013 and is buried the on 27th. Vitalina arrives in Portugal 3 days later. Nobody knows her in the neighborhood, no one comforts her, everyone turns a suspicious eye. These are the facts. And this is where the film begins. Vitalina spends countless days and nights locked in Joaquim’s shack. She barely survives the pain and the nightmares.
MGS: Vitalina expresses a lot of different emotions in the film — grief, sorrow, disappointment, anger. What did she bring to the writing process and how did you shape that? I’m especially curious about some of the more poetic things she says – like when she criticizes her husband for chasing street women “like a lamb that escaped the barn.”
PC: I’m lucky to have the best scriptwriters. Of course, I keep an order to all things, I make my own suggestions, sometimes I add detail, I associate and crisscross a bit, but mainly, my job is to concentrate, to get it tighter and tighter. The film began to take shape as I started visiting Vitalina in the neighbourhood of Cova da Moura and talking with her every day. We had long talks. When I realized the amount of pain and grief that Vitalina was enduring, I thought that the film would be impossible. I told her it might not work. She kept saying: “If there’s love, things will work out!” I kept telling her: “But your words will be in the film, they will be the film!” She kept saying: “You must!’ We talked every day: she told me about herself and her runaway husband Joaquim, about her peasant life in Cape Verde and her immigrant life in Lisbon… In the beginning was the word, and the word was Vitalina.
MGS: I understand the priest Ventura plays is based on a real person but in the chapel scenes it was impossible for me not to think about THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. Was Bresson an influence in your depiction of a lonely priest who has lost his flock?
PC: “What a wonder that one can give what one doesn’t possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands.” It’s impossible not to think of Bresson, it’s unforgettable. Like the young priest of Ambricourt, Ventura is paying all the debts and bills of his immigrant parishioners with his shaky, empty hands. Like him, Ventura is a weak, exhausted, drunken, downcast priest. But there’s also something in him of the healthy, strong preacher of STARS IN MY CROWN. I feel that Ventura has also a sparkle of the humor and wit that belong to that miracle man played by Joel McCrea.
MGS: When I interviewed you about HORSE MONEY, you described the closing shots of Ventura looking at knives in a display window as his character “coming out of that long nightmare reinvigorated. He’s ready for action and he needs a weapon.” Can one say the same thing about Vitalina at the end of this film?
PC: We all know that people like Vitalina or Ventura or Vanda are condemned. When their boat leaves the harbour, the minute their plane takes off the ground, they are doomed. Since the day they are born. And maybe they’ve been condemned long before that. Just plain guilty. I can’t give much to my Cape Verdean friends. I can’t give them loads of money, I can’t give them a bright future, I can’t give them hope. But maybe there’s everything to gain from our work in cinema. Cinema can set the record straight and, somehow, those who have been wronged will be avenged. A sweet miracle, indeed. Ventura quotes Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Our country is in heaven”. And he adds: “But fear can also enter heaven”.
The following interview I conducted with producer/writer Elsa Rassbach appeared at Time Out Chicago today:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.