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Category Archives: Interviews

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: Robert Putka

My interview with Mad writer/director Robert Putka was published at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reproducing the article in its entirety below:

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The 2016 comedy/drama Mad is an auspicious, uncommonly sharp debut feature from the young Cleveland-based writer/director Robert Putka. The independently produced film, which centers on a mentally ill mother’s relationship with her two adult daughters (all three roles are played to perfection), deservedly traveled far and wide on the festival circuit last year and was picked up for distribution by The Orchard. Although it only screened once theatrically in Chicago, as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival, Mad has had the kind of strong word-of-mouth buzz that virtually ensures a healthy home viewership: it was enthusiastically recommended to me by fellow critics Jason Coffman and Daniel Nava and I was able to stream it at home just in time for it to make my list of my Top 50 Films of 2016. I recently interviewed Putka about the film via e-mail.

MGS: Mad has enjoyed a lot of critical and audience support since it premiered at Slamdance last year. I think part of the reason why is that you handle mental illness in a way that feels refreshingly honest and very different from how that topic is usually portrayed in American cinema (i.e., it’s not presented in a sensationalistic or romanticized way). You’ve discussed your own mother’s bouts with mental illness in interviews. Was it a cathartic experience for you to tackle this particular subject in your first feature and to what extent did you feel a responsibility to “get it right?”

RP: It’s been bizarrely enlightening and life changing for me, and not in the way you’d probably expect. Listening to, and seeing people’s reactions to the film was something of a wake-up call to me. People seem to think it’s horrifically dark and even “sociopathic” at times, but this is a film that contains none of the brutality we usually associate with film. No blood, no physical violence. I always felt it was actually tame… maybe too tame, and even a bit sanitized compared to my actual experience. I wrote from the gut and tried my hardest to tell this story in an entertaining way; so what you’re seeing is an honest, if not necessarily always flattering look at my own struggles as a child to a mother with emotional problems. Seeing how people processed that relative to their own experience made me realize that maybe I had some work to do of my own – to be more understanding, more accepting… less of a raw nerve. I’m still nowhere close to having “mended” my relationship, nor have I been able to completely let go of some of my own personal hangups, but I’m more aware of it now than ever. I guess subconsciously I longed for that, considering I pushed myself in that direction within the context of the narrative, as Connie (who represents my nastier tendencies) seems to find that same awareness near the end of the film… I think I just had another “a-ha” moment, and now I’m sweating and nauseous. This has been a year of hard-won emotional truths for me. If I felt any responsibility at all, it was to the ragged emotional core of these characters, and less about the circumstances that surround them. I didn’t want the emotional beats to feel false.

MGS: I love films that are successful at blending comedy and drama and I have the feeling you do too. I noticed in your Letterboxd review of Knocked Up that you described it as “walking a tonal tightrope,” which is a phrase one could easily apply to Mad as well. What is it about combining comedy and drama that appeals to you as a filmmaker, especially considering we live in a world where audiences expect their comedies to be funny and their dramas to be serious (and rarely the twain do meet)?

RP: OK, I love this question, and I love that you dug up my Letterboxd review of Knocked Up. I think maybe more than anything, I’m one of those people that always has to “do it the hard way” and take the road less traveled. Easy-success be damned, because I am full of self-loathing, I guess (and cliches, apparently). Finding comedy in drama, or drama in comedy is, I believe, such a feat, and it makes me sad when that goes unnoticed by cinephiles. Dramedy is the tone closest to that of life, right? And if you can reflect life in an entertaining way, then you’ve captured something special, I think. My near-militant championing of the dramedies of Apatow, Payne and Baumbach is a reaction to that. People are so very ready to anoint films with slick camera moves and in-your-face directorial flourishes as art, and I think I just saw a niche that I could fill because no one else has really been trying to fill it lately. I use the word “emotion” a lot, don’t I? I think some of my favorite films are the ones where they earn that emotional gravity, so I’m desperately chasing that in my own work. My hope is that earnestness in film will come back into style before people stop taking my calls, because my movies aren’t sexy-looking or sexy-feeling. OK, climbing down from my high horse now.

MGS: Another aspect of Mad that a lot of critics have honed in on is the absolute viciousness with which the sisters, Connie and Casey, insult each other. Movie characters aren’t usually quite so verbally nasty but this is, of course, how siblings often really interact. As a writer, where does your particular brand of acidic banter come from?

RP: I’ve noticed that people say a lot of nastily bizarre, mean stuff in the heat of the moment. Me included, obviously. When the emotions are amped up, people so readily bring out the knives, because it’s about “winning that moment” and hurting the other person as much as you’ve felt they’ve hurt you. It’s certainly not healthy, and I’d equate it to getting a quick fix that doesn’t do you any good in the long run. But I believe it’s human. I feel that with family, there’s a bit of elasticity there. Like, you can let loose and tear into them because they’re bonded to you for life – you’re in a cage match to the death with them, and even if you win, you still lose because you’re stuck right there with their rotting corpse, or vice versa. I’m not a misanthrope, though, I promise! It’s a loving, knowing kind of friction born out of familial closeness.

MGS: I once read that the Seinfeld writers had a rule that they wouldn’t allow their characters to hug each other or apologize. Did you have any similar strategies in place in order to avoid sentimentality?

RP: I’m terrified of sentimentality. Emotion is good, but being over-sentimental is bad. I’m always afraid of dipping into schmaltz since the line between the two is very, very thin, and if you’re not careful you can lose a handle on it. I try to feel it out by staying true to the moment, and I rely a lot on my actors to know when something is too much or not enough. My actors helped me out a lot by holding themselves to a standard of honesty and naturalism. If anything, they really encouraged me to be comfortable with a certain level of warmth, that while in the script, was something that my directorial instincts were trying to bury out of fear of doing a hack job.

MGS: Both of your lead actresses do an incredible job. I noticed that you’ve worked with Eilis Cahill extensively in your previous short films but that you were working with Jennifer Lafleur for the first time. Was it a challenge to work closely with two collaborators with whom you have differing degrees of familiarity, especially considering your methods involve improvisation?

RP: I actually worked with both prior! Eilis to a lengthier degree, but Jen knew how I worked and was game. All the actors were game, and I’m so thankful they made this movie with me. My directorial inclination is to find a balance between making sure the actors are comfortable and feel inspired, but also retaining the dialogue that I fall in love with writing (for better and worse). I find that a lot of the emotional beats are more open to interpretation by the actors – those really need to be “felt,” so I’m OK being a bit looser with those moments, and I was rewarded with raw performances that I probably couldn’t pull if we went verbatim – which has a lot to do with my relative inexperience still as a writer/director.  The comic dialogue, while also being open on-set to ad-libbing, needs to be a little more exacting with the timing being very important to the individual success of the line at hand. Luckily my actors, all of them, were able to roll with what I was asking of them. I’m sure it was frustrating at times, but we’re all really just searching for some form of “the truth,” whatever that felt like in the moment.

MGS: What can you tell me about any future projects you may have on the horizon?

RP: I’ve got a pet project that I’ve been putting together slowly for the last year now, trying to cast and find the money. It’s a step up in budget, and in my wildest dreams it’s the “breakout” film that every writer/director is in search of.  I’ve also been really lucky to have a door open to me at a pretty cool TV network – now, actually capitalizing on that amazing opportunity by selling something has proven difficult. But I’ve always been in a sort-of “war of attrition” with this industry as a whole. This considering I shouldn’t even be where I am as a kid from Cleveland who never went to film school or had any sort of connections to speak of, so I’ll keep plugging away at it and hopefully something will materialize… eventually. I’m also starting to write and direct for hire, which like most things in my life, I’ve stumble-bumbled into like the dope I’ve proven to be time and time again. But send care packages if you’re reading this, because I’m still very near-broke.

Mad is currently available to stream on Netflix and various On Demand platforms. 


Filmmaker Interview: Anna Biller

My interview with Anna Biller was published by Time Out Chicago yesterday. I am producing the unedited version, containing minor variations, below. I was especially glad to have the chance to ask Ms. Biller about the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud on The Love Witch. I thought her response to this question was particularly insightful and moving. Too many critics, including me, have been guilty of only discussing Ms. Biller’s formally formidable film within the context of “exploitation cinema.”

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I reviewed Anna Biller’s The Love Witch when it first opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center last year and called it the year’s “most singular independent feature.” Many of the screenings were sold out so the Siskel has thankfully brought it back for another weeklong run beginning today. The timing is perfect: Biller was recently named the winner of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle’s first annual “Trailblazer” award for “pushing the boundaries of the medium in terms of form and content.” (She has also been nominated for two other awards, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design, the winners of which will be revealed on Sunday evening.) I recently spoke to Biller via e-mail about her unique movie, her influences and her penchant for shooting on film.

MGS: Chicago has a passionate cinephile community and many of the first-run 35mm screenings of The Love Witch were sold out. What is it about 35mm that appeals to you and would you be interested in shooting digitally in the future?

AB: The first movie I ever made was on video, but I wasn’t crazy about the images I was capturing. Shortly after that I purchased a Super 8mm sound camera at a garage sale. Once I started using film, it seemed there was a magic in everything I captured. It was like a fairy tale in which I had a magical camera that made everything it filmed beautiful or interesting. And it is magic – the magic of light hitting film stock. Nothing else looks like it. Part of what I love about film is how it looks when you hit it with a lot of light. Films loves whites. Art directors always stay away from white, since they know white looks horrible on video. But I use white satin even — I flaunt my use of white. Black and white films were so gorgeous with their range of whites and blacks. With film you can even shoot into the sun. Video loves darks, but you can’t get blacks on video either. Video is a world where the colors you see are towards the middle of the spectrum, and everything gets greyed down, or else looks too bright and acid with a lot of light. I love color, and not color mixed down with a lot of grey or acid-fake, so I’ll use film as long as it’s available.

MGS: I’ve spoken with people who saw the trailer for The Love Witch and assumed it was an Austin Powers-style parody. I had to convince them that, while there are some satirical elements, the character psychology is such that it works on the level of realistic drama — and even tragedy. Why did you want to blend comedy and drama in this way and is it frustrating to find yourself encountering misconceptions about the tone of the film?

AB: It never ever occurred to me that people would see the film as a parody, not at any time while I was writing or filming it. Satire is another thing; satire is a literary device. I do satirize gender relations in the film, and the comedy comes from those situations. But parody relies on a pact with the audience, in which you share a winking knowledge that what you are looking at is in some way hilarious, old-fashioned, silly, debased. It’s an attitude, above all else. People don’t see that attitude in the film, so they call it a “deadpan” parody. It never occurs to them that the winking tone is missing because what they’re watching isn’t parody. I set out to make a drama, a tragedy, and I did in-depth research into narcissistic personality disorder, witchcraft practices, and gender relations. Above all, I took the story from my own life. The style is just how I like to shoot films. It’s not a reference to anything else, and certainly not a parody of anything else. It’s just a series of techniques that no one uses anymore. But they’re perfectly good techniques, and they’re the best techniques with which to tell my story. Audiences who watch a lot of classic movies don’t have those misconceptions.

MGS: Most reviews discuss The Love Witch as an homage to exploitation movies but your influences seem incredibly diverse. I was happy to see you mention Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, for instance, in an interview; I instantly felt a connection between what you were doing and his overall sense of formal rigor and the notion of a female protagonist obsessed with romantic love. Could you elaborate on how specifically Dreyer has influenced you?

AB: The movie is not an homage to exploitation films. It’s the story of a woman’s struggles told from the inside. My influences are mostly classic Hollywood cinema, and classic foreign cinema. I mentioned Gertrud because it’s a film about a woman looking for true love, and not being able to find it because of the spiritual limitations of the men who love her. It’s exactly the same story as The Love Witch in that regard. I am very moved by Dreyer’s mature polemical stories about love and faith and female martyrdom, and his films are also formally breathtaking. Dreyer’s films were already considered old-fashioned by the time he made Gertrud in the ‘60s, but I find his stark, mythic form of storytelling timeless and urgent. I love his stillness, his pageant-like proscenium framing, the way he has characters speak to one another without facing each other. I tried that in a long scene in The Love Witch, a scene in bed, which I thought worked quite well. I was also floored by the scene in Gertrud where a man reads a long tribute to the poet at a banquet, explaining the excellence of his love poetry. It’s the type of scene that is anathema for most viewers, but I am very excited by movies in which you have to sit through thematic speeches in real time. That scene inspired a similar scene in The Love Witch where the witches are lecturing a couple of young girls in the burlesque club.

MGS: The first Victorian Tea Room scene is particularly complex and provocative because the characters explicitly debate gender roles: Elaine talks about wanting to find her “Prince Charming” and Trish accuses her of being “brainwashed by the patriarchy.” I think a scene like this is tricky because viewers want to feel like they should be “siding” with one character over the other. When you construct a difficult scene like this are you wanting viewers to empathize with both characters simultaneously?

AB: I think that in this scene, most of the audience is going to relate more to Trish. I knew a lot of the audience would be horrified at what Elaine was saying, and I wanted to give them an emotional anchor in Trish. But the point was to set up a polemic. Elaine and Trish are both strongly of the opinion that their worldview is right. But then we come back to the tea room later in the story, and Trish’s worldview, which had seemed like the sane one at the beginning, is not working for her, but Elaine’s is working for her. So I wanted people to think about that. I wanted them to think about how men reward women for conforming to their rules, and punish other women for not conforming.

MGS: Hey Anna, what’s your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie?

AB: I think it’s probably Vertigo. Either that, or The Birds.

For ticket info and showtimes for The Love Witch‘s return theatrical engagement, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


WCCRH Episode 16: The Year in Review

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In episode 16 of the White City Cinema Radio Hour, I welcome my Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle brethren Jason Coffman (The Daily Grindhouse) and Daniel Nava (Chicago Cinema Circuit) back to the program to discuss the year in film. In this 85-minute “super-sized episode,” we each talk up our top five favorite films of the year as well as engage in a lively discussion of encouraging and discouraging cinematic trends and the most underrated and overrated movies of 2016. This episode was recorded in front of a live studio audience while beer and homemade peanut-butter cookies were consumed!

 

The episode can be streamed for free on the Transistor Chicago 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.


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