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Tag Archives: Seth McClellan

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.

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Odds and Ends: Creative Writing and Land Ho!

Creative Writing (Seth McClellan, USA, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 7.1

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Now here’s something novel: Chicago-area mass-communications professor Seth McClellan directed this loosely fictionalized drama, his impressive feature debut, based on a racially charged confrontation that happened in one of his creative writing classes. In a fascinating experiment that must have been cathartic for all involved, McClellan had the real-life principals (including himself) both contribute to the screenplay and play versions of themselves. Through a series of jazzy and dynamically intercut scenes, Creative Writing follows the individual lives of a small group of students: Tracy (Tracy Ewert) dreams of being a famous writer, Arlene (Arlene Torres) kills time by playing video games, Stephen (Stephen Styles) works for a realty company while also working towards his degree, and Mike (Michael Davis) has to contend with an Alzheimer’s-addled father (Dennis McNamara). The various stories converge when Mike, who is white, is mugged by an African American, an event that prompts the misguided young man to write and read aloud in class a racist short story in which he imagines exacting revenge. The cast of mostly non-professional actors do a uniformly fine job of giving naturalistic performances but McLellan, a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild who resembles a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, also wisely reserves the heavyweight dramatic moments for himself. Made on a shoestring budget but nicely shot in black-and-white digital, this is tough, provocative, honest and intelligent stuff.

Creative Writing screens three times at the Siskel Center between October 24 and October 30. Members of the cast and crew will be present for all screenings. Exact showtimes and ticket info can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

Land Ho! (Aaron Katz/Martha Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – Music Box / Rating: 8.3

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I don’t want to oversell it — because the virtues of this low-key comedy are modest by design — but I enjoyed the hell out of every one of Land Ho!‘s breezy 94 minutes and left the theater wondering why I can’t see a new indie movie like this every week. This is the first film I’ve encountered from either of its two chief architects, Aaron Katz and Martha Stevens (a pair of American independents who have previously only worked separately), but it certainly won’t be the last. What’s perhaps most surprising here, in a movie full of pleasant surprises, is just how well these young writer/directors nail the poignant plight of senior citizens: the premise is that two elderly, recently retired former brothers-in-law, Kentuckian Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Australian Colin (Paul Eenhorn), take a spontaneous vacation to Iceland in order to “get their groove back.” The film pleasantly coasts by on the effortless charm of the two leads, whose personalities appropriately contrast with one another: Mitch is a gregarious old perv who smokes weed and regales anyone who will listen with dirty jokes and useless banter about Hollywood starlets; Colin is moodier and more introspective, still licking his wounds from a recent divorce. While descriptions of their interactions might sound like the worst kind formulaic Hollywood claptrap (e.g., Last Vegas), Katz and Stephens ingeniously refuse, at every turn, to bow to cliche. Neither of these dudes “learn anything” or “change” during their week-long sojourn, which makes the whole thing feel amusingly and gratifyingly life-like. Another plus: the ethereally beautiful landscapes of Iceland.

Following its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run,
Land Ho! will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 4th.


Filmmaker Interview: Seth McClellan

Opening this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run is Chicago Heights, an unusually ambitious, locally made independent feature that transplants the interlocking stories of Sherwood Anderson’s classic early 20th century novel Winesburg, Ohio to a south Chicago suburb in the present day. One of my colleagues at Triton College, Seth McClellan, worked on the film as co-producer. I recently had the chance to speak with him about it:

MGS: I was really excited about seeing Chicago Heights because Winesburg, Ohio is one of my favorite novels. Whose idea was it to adapt the book and how did you become involved with the project?

SM: Dan Nearing, our director, adapted the book with his friend, Canadian author Rudy Thauberger, and had been thinking about making it for years. Dan had also been planning a documentary about Sherwood Anderson, who was one of the more influential writers in the first part of the twentieth century. As often happens in filmmaking, the project where things most come together is the one you go forward with and the stars aligned for the narrative adaptation. I’ve always been a huge fan of the book. I remember reading it as a teenager and being blown away and jumped at the chance to work on the film.

MGS: Knowing in advance that the film has a predominantly African-American cast, I assumed that a lot of license would be taken with the source material but I was impressed at how faithful it ended up being. What was the reasoning behind this unique cultural juxtaposition?

SM: I think it says something about the universalism of the human experience and that great art is applicable in almost any context. One of the challenges of indie filmmaking, because you don’t have money, is figuring out what resources you have and then figuring out how to use those resources most effectively. Parts of Chicago Heights and the south suburbs are visually stunning in the way that the past and an intangible sense of loss echo through them. Also, something about the contemporary low-income, suburban African-American experience dovetails with the hopes and dreams of rural America 100 years ago. That desire for change and feeling trapped by your situation. Of course, these feeling transcend just those limited demographics and speak to all of us too, and that’s why I think the film resonates.

MGS: The black and white cinematography is very striking. I’m assuming it was shot digitally but the images have a very crisp, high-contrast quality that I don’t often associate with that format. How was this look achieved?

SM: Sanghoon Lee, our cinematgoraoher and producer, and Dan Nearing, the writer and director, spent about 6 months with the Sony PMW-EX1 experimenting with settings. The EX1 is the first relatively affordable CineAlta camera and one of its greatest strengths is the ability to create “picture profiles” which lets you save internal tinkering with saturation and gamma and a bunch of technical stuff that I don’t understand very well. This allowed the creation of crisp, and high contrast compositions that are unusual for video and really drive the fractured, internal-memory feel of story. The HDCAM version that plays at the Siskel Center is much better quality than the DVD – it’s quite stunning on the big screen.

MGS: Another prominent aspect of the film is the original score, in which song lyrics comment on the narrative in a way that’s very bold and direct. At times it’s not unlike an actual musical. I noticed the composer is credited as Minister Raymond Dunlap. Who is he?

SM: Minister Raymond Dunlap is a local musician and man of faith that co-producer, Keisha Dyson, contacted. He created some terrific music, much of it on the fly. The way the music directly comments and reinforces parts of the narrative is the kind of thing that doesn’t sound like it will work but somehow does. I think because throughout the film there are undercurrents of magical realism and shifts in time and place, we somehow connect deeply to the music even though it might initially seem too on-the-nose at times.

MGS: I read that you were also involved in the casting of the film. Can you share any interesting stories about discovering any of the talent?

SM: The most remarkable thing about casting this film is that part of an audition makes it into the final film. We already knew what the look of the film was and what kind of camera settings we were using, so we lit and shot the auditions with those considerations. The scene where Elizabeth Walker breaks down to Dr. Reefy worked best in the close-up from the actual audition. It cut together seamlessly. I don’t know of another feature film that has done this.

MGS: I noticed a character in the film is named Kim Ki-duk. Is this an homage to the great Korean director of the same name?

SM: Yes – our producer and cinematographer, Sanghoon Lee, is South Korean and he and the director put a character named that in this film to honor the great director.

MGS: I’m offering extra credit to any of my students who attend the upcoming Siskel Center screenings. Is there anything specifically you’d like for them to take away from their viewing of the movie?

SM: The strongest responses come from people who have also read the book. I think being familiar with the book helps you understand what the film is saying about hidden anguish, memory and the roles we play in one anothers lives. Also, those students who want to be film makers should realize this film cost about $1,000 to make and got a great review from Roger Ebert. You can make your movie if you work hard and don’t give up. Don’t let not having money be an excuse for inaction. Make films.

Chicago Heights Rating: 5.8

You can learn more about Chicago Heights at the film’s official website.

You can read Roger Ebert’s review online here.