“Nobody knows anything” is how screenwriter William Goldman describes how the Hollywood studio system works. “Nobody knows what’s coming next” would be an apt motto for the film industry at large, as well as the many aspects of the booming, burgeoning city of cinema called Chicago. Big-budget movies and television are shooting in Chicago at a rate not seen since the glory days of the 1990s, the same economics that are crunching the film industry are making it possible for so much more small, strange or lovely new work to make its way into the world, and gifted artists are staying in Chicago for all the reasons we’re sure you’re still in Chicago.
There’s a much larger pool of talent in Chicago than a list of fifty can do more than indicate. While last year’s debut list was more about the behind-the-scenes players, this year we’re focusing just on artists. And there are many ways we’re defining the word “artist” in our choices. In pulling together this pool of creative people, we looked for paragons in whom we could all find inspiration—whether it’s zen everyman Bill Murray, or indelibly young filmmakers you haven’t heard of yet—people who do the Chicago name proud, whether on the big screen, on cable or online. Many of these individuals take part of the larger weave of how films get made—“below-the-line” as the jargon goes—and others are exemplars of the multi-hyphenate talents who seem to be around every corner, protean prodigies who aren’t juggling multiple careers, but living them as full, admirable, even enviable creative lives.
Chicago is a storytelling city, and we’ve let the Film 50 tell a few about who they are and what they do. It’s like a busy, buzzing party where you’re content to listen in on other conversations with a strong drink in your hand, nodding your head in agreement more times than you realize. It’s an indication what a great film town this is when everyone’s ready to talk about how they love to work in Chicago, and how grateful they are to be part of an ever-expanding, ever-more-prolific community at large. Here’s betting that these conversations are only the tip of the ice cream. These people know something. (Ray Pride)
Film 50 was written by Ray Pride, with additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke
All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Lagunitas Brewing Company.
Steve James’ explorations of the heart and humanity of Chicago continue to bloom, this year including the digital restoration of 1994’s longitudinal documentary classic “Hoop Dreams,” which premiered at Sundance 2014 alongside his documentary adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir, “Life Itself.” At those screenings and at the Chicago premiere, grown writers were reduced to tear-stained wretches at the rambunctious celebration of a long life lived well. But the film doesn’t just celebrate a life at the movies, it explores what possibilities an unpretentious city like our metropolis offers the attentive mind, as well as many other passings, including the long tradition of colorful Chicago journalists passing tales down from generation to generation. Bio.
Who wants to be a Chicagoan? If the definition of “Chicagoan” is Bill Murray, pretty much everyone in sight. Chicago style is sometimes defined as not playing by anyone else’s rules, and the mercurial Murray is definitely making it up as he goes along. While popping up around the planet in unexpected places, like loft parties in Scandinavia and behind a bar in Austin or surprising strangers in New York’s Union Park, like a gently antic “Where’s Waldo?” in the real world, Murray makes for a kindlier icon for our fair city than, say, Al Capone? In screen appearances, especially from the time of Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” onward, Murray starts from behavior, then just becomes: he does nothing, and less. And speaking of less: Murray works without representation and reportedly still maintains a 1-800 number where filmmakers can leave their pitch. He might even get back to them. Of his latest returned call, “St. Vincent,” Murray has joked that he got the role because the filmmakers couldn’t get Jack Nicholson. But who needs Jack when you’ve got Bill? “St. Vincent” may function partly as an awards ploy for the ever-canny Weinstein Company—can’t Bill Murray have a nomination for simply being Bill Murray already?—but we’re grateful for any vehicle for our very own maximal minimalist. Plus? He supports the Cubs. “Bill Murray Stories”
Let’s talk work ethic. Longtime Chicago independent director-producer-editor-actor-improviser Joe Swanberg, thirty-three, credited with a minimum of sixteen completed features, says his only immediate goals are to finish “Digging for Fire,” a love story between a husband and wife played by Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt (with a return appearance by Anna Kendrick) and a screenplay for Fox Searchlight. But his underlying ambition, to make the notion of community literal by populating his films not only with friends, filmmakers and actors with whom he’s developed a working relationship is simple: “I want to work with good people and make films I’m proud of. That seems very achievable these days, so I’m just going with the flow and keeping my antenna up.” His desire to stay in Chicago, he says, increases each year, to “have a life here that feels relatively disconnected from the industry. I’m spending more time in LA these days, which I like, but it’s always for a week or two at a time and I’m always ready to get back to my life here.” Beyond his own output, Swanberg produced Frank V. Ross’ newest film, “Bloomin’ Mud Shuffle,” in postproduction, as well as producing “Queen of Earth,” the latest film by Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Philip”), shooting in New York right now. “Those are both filmmakers whose work I love, and I’m excited to be in a position to help them make more great films.” Northwestern prof Spencer Parsons introduced Swanberg to an NU grad named Harrison Atkins, and he’s going to help him get “Lace Crater,” his first feature, made. But Swanberg is also looking to older generations, including joining a production company, Forager Film, with Eddie Linker and Peter Gilbert (“Hoop Dreams,” “At The Death House Door”). But that’s not all for the man who made much of 2014’s “Happy Christmas” within the confines of his own home: Joe’s wife Kris is midway through production of a feature called “Unexpected,” co-written with Megan Mercier of the Neo-Futurists. Website. Production philosophy.
Lana and Andy Wachowski
Emerging from their personal epic “Cloud Atlas” with their ambition intact and heads held high, the Ravenswood-HQ’d Wachowski siblings return to studio-financed science fiction with “Jupiter Ascending,” which opens early in 2015. The trailer for upcoming “Jupiter Ascending” boasts as many explosions at post-dusk blue-sky Chicago as a dozen other epics; Entertainment Weekly correspondent Chris Lee rumored via Twitter in mid-September that it’s a “space opera” akin to “The Wizard of Oz.” (“The Wizard of Oz,” but with explosions on the Chicago horizon!) While there have been references to Chicago in almost all of their work, “Jupiter Ascending” is the first to be set and shot in Chicago, with a record number of detonations across the city. And “Sense8,” an ambitious, ten-episode, globe-girdling science-fiction series has been commissioned by Netflix for a 2015 run, with Lana and Andy sharing showrunner duties with J. Michael Straczynski (“Thor,” “World War Z”). “Jupiter Ascending” trailer.
Steven A. Jones
“I’ve been an independent producer since we made ‘Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer’ in 1985,” says one of Chicago’s most highly regarded and respected independent feature producers. Best known for his frequent collaborations with John McNaughton (including “Wild Things” and the yet-to-be-released “The Harvest”), Jones has numerous projects in the works, including two with McNaughton, “The King of Counterfeit” and “Sweet.” He’s also producer-in-residence at DePaul. “It means keeping a lookout for scripts and filmmakers requiring guidance through the process of making a feature film by someone with an experienced eye and ear. Me!” he says. “What makes it all worth it is doing the work with talented people and witnessing the finished result. Although it is a struggle to stay busy in Chicago, we have crews and actors who are the equals of anyone anywhere else, and we don’t lack for great ideas, only consistent sources of funding.” Bio.
An unsolicited comment on Deborah Stratman’s estimable body of work came from filmmaker Jennifer Reeder, who calls her “a dear friend, and in my opinion, the most important experimental filmmaker on the planet.” Other measures of esteem for the UIC teacher’s expansive range of art and films, which she describes as being about “landscapes and systems,” include Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, a Creative Capital award, and in 2014, an Alpert Award in film/video, a MacDowell Colony residency and a post-production residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts. In late September, her nonfiction short, “Hacked Circuit,” a thrillingly sophisticated document about the world of Foley sound artists, sound and surveillance, captured in a single, continuous fifteen-minute take, drawing from imagery from Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation,” was shortlisted for the documentary Cinema Eye Honors. 2013 activities included a MoMA mid-career retrospective, screening twenty-seven films. Stratman studied under James Benning at CalArts, and her credits include cinematography on Thom Andersen’s newly restored “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” (2003) one of the great exemplars of the essay film. Stratman’s current work includes two untitled shorts, one shot in the Yukon Territory and another in Brazil and Jordan, as well as a feature-length experimental essay film called “The Illinois Parables,” which incorporates “mythic histories of violence, atomic breakthrough, pre-teen telekinesis, failed utopias and vigilante justice.” Chicago, Stratman says, impresses her for “the great movies folks are making and how savvy and dedicated the audiences are.” Website. Bio.
Yet another of Chicago’s unassuming but essential talents is editor Aaron Wickenden. Wickenden’s credit as editor or co-editor rests on many remarkable local projects, including “The Interrupters,” “At the Death House Door,” “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” as well as documentary photography on “Andrew Bird: Fever Year.” His upcoming directorial debut, the documentary “Almost There” (co-directed with Dan Rybicky), is an eight-year project in which the filmmakers’ relationships with their subject, a disadvantaged elderly Northwest Indiana outsider artist, shifts from moment to moment. Elegant and understated, “Almost There” shares a knack for structure and for rhythms within scenes that mark Wickenden’s work with others. Among many other projects, Wickenden is editing a documentary about the great liberal-conservative adversaries Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, from the directors of “20 Feet From Stardom” and “It Came From Memphis.” Bio.
If Cinespace is the game-changing venue for major studio film and television production in Chicago, then Joe Chappelle is the reigning hometown hero. The Northwestern grad honed his skills in advertising and as a director of horror films in the nineties, but for the last decade or so, he’s become one of the industry’s A-list director-producers, most notably as co-executive producer of HBO’s “The Wire” before becoming an executive producer of “Chicago Fire,” a gig that brought his work home to the town he’s lived in since graduation. Though he’s known for big-budget network and HBO gigs these days, he’s still got an eye on the low-budget independent film culture. He executive-produced last year’s “The Cold and the Quiet,” his wife Colleen Griffen’s directorial debut, which was filmed in their Evanston home and starred their children Maura and Matthew.
Screenwriter Steve Conrad grew up in Florida, but he says once he came to Chicago for school, he knew he had found his place. “The rush I felt landing in an important city stayed with me. I learned to make films at Chicago Filmmakers co-op when I was in my late teens. Now I often write about the speed at which you have to move here to get along.” Why Chicago if you’re working for a business that’s located in Los Angeles? “Limitless stories, happening in each neighborhood, every day.” Conrad, whose earlier scripts include “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the Chicago-set “The Weather Man” and Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” is writing a John Belushi biopic, a Chicago subject, to be sure, but mostly set in New York, for himself to direct. But in Chicago, “the film world’s small enough to allow friendships to form through work. The people I work with in Los Angeles are colleagues largely and not quite friends exactly. The group here—Steve Jones, Tom Glynn, Jeff Deiter, Jerry Tran to name a few—they’re people I love working with but hanging out with, too, passing the days with. We’ve been through a lot together, many times, it makes things deeper and more fun.”
Peter Gilbert’s collaborations on films like “Hoop Dreams” (1994) may have left him with a reputation as a documentary shooter, but the range of his ambitions is broader than that, currently teaching as a full professor in the Masters Documentary Film Program at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina, as well as raising the money and producing independent films with friends like Joe Swanberg, for whom he and his friend Eddie Linker financed 2014’s “Happy Christmas.” Swanberg, Linker and Gilbert have an ongoing production company, Forager Film, which is involved in Joe’s “Digging for Fire” as well as his wife, Kris’ currently-shooting “Unexpected.” “All of them are small films and it is really exciting. I love this model of making films!” he says. “I feel that it is very similar to what I experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s while I was in New York. I believe it is a renaissance period for film and digital media.” Presently working on two documentaries, Gilbert remains a member of Kartemquin films: “They are and will always be my filmmaking home and an important part of my life.” He’s also been asked to serve on the screening committee for the docs for the Directors’ Guild, as well as the Academy’s documentary committee. “I’ve been a member of the Chicago film community for over thirty-five years,” he says. “I’ve seen it have extreme ups and downs but it has always stayed vibrant and bounces back. We are an amazing, inventive, storytelling community. We are not a second or third city, but our own unique community that will always stand out on our own and create wonderful meaningful films and media.” Bio.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.