By Brandie Rae Madrid
Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson walk onto a film set, but it’s no joke. It’s “Hogtown,” partaking of both classic and experimental movie traditions. Showing at Black Harvest Film Festival, it’s the second in a trilogy of quiet, mostly black-and-white films about isolation within a larger community by writer-director Daniel Nearing. After moving to Chicago from Canada in 2001, Nearing wrote for television and worked as a documentary filmmaker for hire before deciding that his “real heart is in writing something very personal.” Over a cup of coffee, he talked about his newest film and learning to face the things that scare you the most.
Tell me about your background.
I started a novel in 1995 called “Hogtown.” Hogtown is a nickname for Toronto. All Canadians know Toronto as Hogtown. But it’s also a nickname for Chicago. When I moved here—I came here to take a job—I had a screenplay for “Winesburg, Ohio,” an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s great American novel that I had under option up in Canada. Another company had optioned it, and they didn’t get it off the ground. When I came here, I was looking for a film to make. And we weren’t going to be able to make the faithful period adaptation of this beautiful book, so we made it contemporary and we shot it where we were as well as when we were. The contemporary scenes [for “Chicago Heights”] were shot in exurban Chicago, in a largely black community, and it worked out really well. The film ended up screening around the world, played in smaller festivals around the world. And then we came home. And it screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center in the Black Harvest Film Festival. Somebody there passed the film along to Roger Ebert, and he really liked it.
I love working in black-and-white. I love telling very, very personal stories that are kind of literary at the same time. And when I adapted, I brought a lot of myself to it. There’s a young man who’s dealing with a very frail mother throughout the text, and that’s what I continue to go through with my real mother. When I started to look for the next film, I realized I had this novel that I started that was very personal. It’s a collection of short stories with a bunch of different characters. It seemed like a very natural next step. So I transposed a novel that I started in Toronto to Chicago. The characters in the book—Ernest Hemingway lived and worked in Toronto when he was nineteen at the Toronto Star News. He started out as an intern. And he came back to Oak Park. So it was really easy to take that character and move him here.
And everything else—Canada has no experience of slavery, mostly because of geography. And bringing it here meant introducing those topics. It enriched the story so much. It gave it so much more gravity, so much more drama. It became a multilingual, multiethnic ensemble—I call it a period-less piece. At the beginning of the film it says, “Circa 1919,” and when I say circa, I mean a hundred years. So that you’re looking at the contemporary architecture, and the message is [translated from French] “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” If you were to talk to Father Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina about whether or not Chicago has changed much since the race riots of 1919, he would tell you, “Absolutely not.” We have made a lot of progress, but there is so much more that still needs to be done in the West and the South Sides of this city in terms of progress on issues.
So because you lived here you wanted to merge the two locations?
Realistically, working with a microbudget—which is what we are doing—we needed to work in the environment we had access to. Chicago scared me when I first moved here. It’s an overwhelming place, but I’ve come to love it. So I really want to celebrate the richness of this city. When I say microbudget, if you were to make the film that we made and had the money to make it, we’re talking $5 million or more, in my opinion. We had a couple hundred people dedicate their time. The locations that we got are priceless—we shot in the oldest church in Chicago, the only one that survived the Great Fire. We shot in Indiana in the jail where they made the John Dillinger movie that Johnny Depp was in, “Public Enemies.” [The studio] went in and redid that entire jail so that it would be a period effect, and we were able to shoot in there for free or next to nothing. All around the city we had people donating spaces and just facilitating things. The thing is, I think if we had had money, I don’t think we could have made it. If we had had producers who were financing a project like this, there is absolutely no way they would see its potential. For example, I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I approached a distributor about the film. And he looked at it, and he goes, “If you don’t have Denzel in your film, or you don’t have Will Smith, you can’t have a black lead that isn’t one of those two guys and expect to go anywhere.” It’s not a wake-up call to me—I’m going to make the film I love to make, and I hope you can tell how much time all these people invested in what, to me, turned out really beautifully. I think that they are willing to overlook the absence of a budget and they’re willing to overlook especially its nonlinear nature. It’s an experimental film, and I think you kind of hope your audience will do that to a certain extent.
Have you had that sort of reaction to the film elsewhere?
Well, I’ve had that experience at multiple film markets. I’ve been to the American Film Market [in Santa Monica, California], and I’ve been to the European Film Market [in Berlin]. And when I share this stuff, they go, “Oh, really interesting.” In Berlin, I met with someone who saw the potential, she set up the meeting with me, we sat down together in a hotel bar, she looked at my materials, and she said, “Is that black-and-white? I can’t do anything with black-and-white.” But that is not true. I think we are moving into this really interesting era. There’s a new [Polish] film called “Ida.” It’s doing extremely well. And Noah Baumbach made “Frances Ha.” They shot it in color and then drained it to black-and-white. And there’s also this anachronistic movement in contemporary cinema, too, where Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” was shot in a four-by-three aspect ratio. Every now and then the screen would expand. And I saw a film at Cannes that almost won the Palme d’Or. It was one of the highest-regarded films, called “Mommy.” So there are 3,000 people in the theater watching this film. It’s a one-to-one aspect ratio, so it’s like you’re watching a Polaroid. It’s about this juvenile delinquent, and in the middle of the movie, he grabs the edges of the screen—this is like an hour and twenty minutes in—and he pushes it open and he lets happiness into his life. And then slowly the screen compresses almost unnoticeably until he’s boxed in again. That stuff I think is really, really interesting. Everyone thinks it has to be widescreen, but I think [different formats] open us up to different ways of thinking and they bring us back to an older way of seeing things.
To me, black-and-white—there’s something more effective and more beautiful about it than color. I use color in my films, but when I use it, I call it “ecstatic” color. The moment demands it. We are shooting in black-and-white. We are not desaturating a color image. We are actually configuring our camera to shoot black-and-white. And every now and then I’ll say, “Switch to the color profile because this moment with this particular person needs to be a portrait frame.” I wanted to have a lot more portrait frames in “Hogtown” than I did, but I wanted to have every single character to have that one moment in your life that defines you as a human being. If an artist were to capture that moment, where would you be? How would you be represented? We saw a darker side of some characters in these portrait frames and also some more moments that you would think would be incredibly subtle also are really, really telling. Things that you think are strikingly ordinary are actually the things that tell you the most about an individual.
How does “Hogtown” fit into the trilogy you’ve envisioned?
“Hogtown” is the middle piece. So it started with “Chicago Heights”—an exploration of exurban, or rural America. More than anything, kind of freely, the three films we’re talking about are about isolation. Ensemble films about the experience of isolation in different contexts. So we’ve got a period-less piece with “Chicago Heights” that looks at isolation in rural America. Then we’ve got in “Hogtown,” the observation of the American experience through the city. Rahm Emanuel has called Chicago the most American of American cities. I think it is. It’s the representative American metropolis. So what we’re doing is exploring the experience of race and isolation through individual experiences, the collective experiences of Chicagoans in 1919 and yet it is period-less. In the third film, I want to go to Paris. I wrote most of “Hogtown” in Paris. I had a six-week period where I was on sabbatical and I was able to write. That film started with a conversation I had in Cannes about a man named Albert Kahn. Kahn was a very rich man in 1910 or so who was Jewish and had experienced being kicked out of his own country. The Dreyfuss Affair and everything was going on. He used his money to bankroll expeditions of photographers around the world to take the first color photographs. So I was excited about this character of Kahn because I work in black-and-white, and he introduced the world to ecstatic color in some sense. So you’ve got Kahn who’s sort of circumnavigating the globe with photography. And 10 kilometers across Paris, you’ve got a writer named Marcel Proust. And Proust was called the first neuroscientist because he drilled down into the human imagination. He drilled down into the memory folded inside the memory folded inside the memory. So I’m seeing these two individuals going in completely different directions. One inward, one outward. And then there’s a philosopher named Henri Bergson who connects the two of them. Bergson married Proust’s cousin. Proust was the best man at his wedding. And Bergson was a very close friend and teacher of Albert Kahn. To make a long story short, it’s the experience of isolation in a period-less global context.
What has your experience been as a white man directing films that show at black film festivals?
When I was casting “Chicago Heights” and putting together the crew, an African-American gentleman in his fifties met with me and asked, “What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are trying to tell this story?” And my response was, “Take the screenplay, if you don’t mind, and read it. And tell me if you think there is something misdirected about this or something that I’m doing wrong.” And he read it and he liked it so much that he wanted to be in the film. He doesn’t have a speaking part, but he’s a central character with a non-speaking role. People ask, “Why are you making a black film?” and I was once advised that I should just say, “Because I thought it would be really cool.” Which is true. I think there is something about the African-American experience in the United States that is so richly iconic. There is so much happening within the struggle of the African-American community that to me is richer. I am tired of watching movies about white people. It gets a little tedious. So that’s the other reason. This is a multi-racial film.“Chicago Heights” was largely black. [In “Hogtown,”] you’ve got an Asian-American character who speaks Mandarin in the film. You’ve got the Latino character and obviously the white characters as well. It indicts everybody. There is a kind of selfishness that pervades—a self-protective shell that these people put themselves in. It transcends race. But I think it’s really important that we explore it through different racial contexts and that it’s not just the white perception of the experience of life that we focus on all the time.
Both of your films are pretty quiet—there’s some monologue, there’s some dialogue. But there’s a lot of poetry on the screen, text on the screen, and some voiceovers. How did you decide on the format?
The first film had intertitles and a more traditional narrator voiced the film. This time around, I thought about going back to that same voice. And then I got the idea of text for a lot of different reasons, but the thing that leaps out for me right now is that it allows everything else to be quiet. For example, the beginning of the film is in a snowstorm, the Snowpocalypse. And because we have nothing but text there, the score really rises. But in the background sound, you hear the hoof-clap of horses and the El train. The El train roars through this film. It obliterates everything. And if you have a voice competing with that… It allows you to think for yourself. It allows for the soundscape of the film to be elevated. And it’s more of a literary experience. I’d love to see films do it more. I have no problem watching subtitled films. This is different. It’s meant to be part of the narrative design.
The whole film of “Hogtown” is very literary, also with lots of film allusions—especially that moment where there are all those cutouts of Charlie Chaplin and Roger Ebert.
They’re all Chicagoans. You know what’s interesting is we got a beautiful courthouse out in the middle of nowhere. We tried to recruit all the extras to fill the gallery. We got enough to fill half the jury and a couple of people for the gallery. So necessity is the mother of invention and so I created what I was calling a Sgt. Pepper’s gallery of Chicagoans. Michael Jordan and Daley and Roger Ebert, Carl Sandburg, everybody that I could think of. And I prefer it. I think it’s really cool.
What have your biggest challenges been?
The biggest challenge I guess is to have the courage to be completely honest. When I watch some of this film, it’s like confessionals. These characters are manifestations of me—a lot of them. I saw a science-fiction writer when I was twelve or thirteen. I heard him speak once, and I remember exactly what he said—it was Harlan Ellison. He said, “If you really want to be a writer, you have to deal with the things that scare the shit out of you. Deal with the things that when you approach them, in your gut, in your head, you just want to run screaming.” I thought, “Whoa.” That was a really powerful thing to say, and it really registered. So that might inform the darker side of what I do. And I’ve never been in therapy. This film is kind of proof of that. But it’s also been therapeutic to express so much of my experience that I could not have in a conversation with somebody I don’t know. That’s the greatest challenge—to be willing to lay yourself out there. And that’s when it also feels the most rewarding. Because you think about it and you go, “I would rather have made this film than make any ten or twenty million.” You could not give me enough money to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with doing something that’s just honest and forthright and can make decisions that aren’t bounded by anyone’s sense of what’s appropriate or what’s commercial or what’s dramatically structured in ways that honor conventions of films we’ve seen. There are so many films like that. We judge everything by those standards, and it’s wrong.
I think you just answered this, but what are some of the best moments that you’ve encountered as a writer and director? What are some things that have worked really well for you?
You’re making me think of when we made “Chicago Heights,” and there are many, many moments in “Hogtown” like this where you frame up on a character. Whenever you set up a shot when you’re making a film, you get the cinematographer to press in. They do something called the pre-focus. So we’re going to go all the way into your eyes, and we’re going to get your eyes in focus, and then we’re going to pull back. And then no matter what happens, if a frame stays static, you can do anything you want and you’ll stay in focus. So there are many occasions where my cinematographer is collecting my pre-focus, and I’m like, “Wait. That’s it. Stay there and get the actor to get into character.” So you’ll have these quiet moments where you’re not even in the scene. You haven’t started. There’s something strikingly beautiful or powerful just about the composition and the character in a very,very quiet moment. I do think we get the essence of isolation and loneliness and longing by stopping and celebrating those kinds of moments.
“Hogtown” screens at the Black Harvest Film Festival at Siskel on Friday, August 22, 8pm and Monday, August 25 at 8:15pm. Nearing, actor Herman Wilkins, and selected cast and crew members will appear.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.