One of the first great DIY films of the contemporary Chicago moviemaking era, director John McNaughton’s near-nihilist “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” stands tall as a study of budgetary efficiency, urban topography and rootless dread. Shot with the barest of budgets in the shortest of time in 1985 around Chicago’s not-yet-gentrified Wicker Park and East Village environs, “Henry” wallows without apology in perhaps the ultimate, most profane taboo in American art—the idea that there can be such a thing as absolute evil that cannot be psychoanalyzed, cannot be stopped. McNaughton’s career includes other high points like the ribald “Wild Things” and the larky Chicago procedural “Mad Dog & Glory,” but he hadn’t directed a feature in more than a decade before 2013’s “The Harvest,” a psychological horror entry starring Michael Shannon. But that doesn’t mean McNaughton hasn’t tried to get other work onto the big screen. Among a roster of projects, he’s currently working on “The King of Counterfeit,” a project he developed with Bill Murray. He’s also attached to “The Way Some People Die,” the first in a franchise based on the novels of Ross Macdonald. A television series based on Dmitry Samarov’s book, “Hack” is also in the offing. And Chicago remains his home. “I live in Chicago but rarely work here,” McNaughton says. “I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York over the years, and returned to Chicago in the later years of my parents’ lives as I was their only child and wished to be near them.” But as for being a “Chicago filmmaker”? “I do not embrace the title Chicago filmmaker,” he says. “Over the course of my career I have worked for Universal Pictures, Sony-Columbia, CBS, NBC, ABC, HBO, Showtime and so on. Chicago is more or less a refuge and a hiding place I return to when I’m not working, except of course in winter, when I try if at all possible to be someplace warm.”
The Academy Award-nominated Michael Shannon epitomizes the ideal of the “Chicago actor,” even though he gets his mail in Brooklyn these days. With his career soaring, thanks to starring roles in “Boardwalk Empire” and the latest Superman film, he still makes ample time for the place he got his start: Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre, where he returns to star in shows every couple years, and is often back for opening night when he’s not on stage. In the same vein, as a movie actor he carves out significant time for lower budget indie films, like the work of Jeff Nichols, for whom he’s acted in each of the director’s four films (including “Midnight Special,” in post-production for a 2015 release) and Chicago’s own John McNaughton, who cast him in “The Harvest.” It’s little wonder that he’s routinely the first name mentioned when chatting about dream casts among Chicago’s burgeoning group of indie filmmakers.
Thirty-four-year-old writer-director Stephen Cone is quietly, diligently at work completing his seventh feature, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” while two smaller films, “This Afternoon” and “The Mystery of Life” will premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival and Chicago Filmmakers, respectively. Cone’s work is deceptively simple, with recurring personal themes about religion, sexuality and performance. “I’m a queer preacher’s kid from the South,” he says of his influences. “I’m interested in sex, death and spirituality, and in how our domestic lives, and the dreams contained within, shape us. I guess one thing follows another.” Cone is also an actor, and produced and co-starred in critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s debut medium-length feature “Ellie Lumme.” Like so many others, Cone enthuses about his collaborators and the Chicago film community. “My primary producers, Laura Klein and Shane Simmons, we encourage each other as we work on other projects. And then the actors in this city. I love them so much, and we all encourage each other, and each relationship is like its own fingerprint.” But why this city, why Chicago since moving here in 2004 from the Carolinas? “People here just wanna make good stuff, for the most part. That’s the best thing about Chicago. That desire isn’t enough to build a community, of course, but it seems like the active talent is starting to catch up with the hunger. I’m cautiously optimistic. There are certainly the makings of a Chicago New Wave, even if it’s not clear yet when that will come into its fullest fruition.” Cone says he doesn’t make money from filmmaking, relying on freelance work, teaching and acting occasionally, which leads him to a keen insight: “Since the story of Los Angeles seems to be that nothing is shot there anymore, maybe it’s possible the term ‘regional’ will become meaningless, and work will become work.” Website. Vimeo. Twitter.
Gordon Quinn remains a vital force behind the scenes at the increasingly prolific Kartemquin Films, as executive director Justine Nagan supervises fifteen projects in progress and six to be released this year. (Nagan and Quinn are executive producers on all of Kartemquin’s productions.) “It was almost fifty years ago when we decided to make Chicago Kartemquin’s home,” Quinn reflects. “We’ve found it to be a wonderfully supportive and creative place as we moved from 16mm to videotape to digital and now on to new platforms like the web and social media. Collaboration comes naturally to the Chicago media community and we are thrilled to be a part of it.” Quinn’s current projects include a web series “’63 Boycott,” a film and website that aims to reunite participants of Chicago’s biggest ever civil rights march. Bio.
While Chicago’s Kartemquin Films is known as a documentary powerhouse, there’s more than one nonfiction mainstay. Media Process Group, headed for its thirtieth anniversary in 2015, has weathered ups and downs as economics and production methods have changed, according to producer-director Bob Hercules. A key change he notes is general interest in quality nonfiction. “I used to joke that when I went to a party and explained that I was a documentary filmmaker, people’s eyes would glaze over,” he says. “But it’s totally the opposite now.” Hercules considers 2006’s “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” as the house’s most meaningful film, the story of an Auschwitz survivor and Mengele victim who decides to forgive the Nazi perpetrators and criticism that followed. Hercules and his business partner and director of photography Keith Walker produced then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2007 pre-Presidential announcement video, which led to many videos for the Obama campaign. “Of course, there’s always tremendous potential here,” Hercules says, “since we have such talent and there are an endless array of stories in Chicago. The Chicago film community is very collaborative and supportive. Especially the documentary community. We all share resources and often work on each other’s films, without a sense of competition.” Hercules esteems his with Kartemquin Films, calling them “a unique organization” for supporting and mentoring young filmmakers. “They were the people I looked up to when I moved here and starting making docs in 1984.” MPG also shoot several shows for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, including “Super Soul Sunday,” as well as shows like “60 Minutes,” HBO’s “Real Sports” and ESPN’s “30 for 30.” Current productions on a busy slate include “Maya Angelou: The People’s Poet,” co-directed with Rita Coburn Whack for PBS’ American Masters, for which Hercules also made “Bill T. Jones: A Good Man” and “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” as well as “The School Project,” co-executive produced with Kartemquin’s Gordon Quinn, a six-part web series on critical issues surrounding the Chicago Public Schools, that also incorporates the talents of other Chicago doc powerhouses, including Kartemquin Films, Siskel/Jacobs Productions, Kindling Group, Free Spirit Media and funding from the MacArthur Foundation. Bio.
“I did not go to proper film school. I am not a proper filmmaker,” says Jennifer Reeder, a resident of the Chicago area for two decades. Amy Beste, programming Reeder’s shorts at the Siskel Film Center’s Conversations at the Edge in September, aptly describes Reeder’s bold work as “pop-noir films [that] explore women’s experiences in breakups, breakdowns, and new beginnings.” Reeder sees her craft coming from other places. “My background as a dancer and visual artist are hugely influential. I think of directing as choreography. So much can be communicated with action and gesture over dialogue. And I am a stickler for art direction: props, wardrobe and set design and so on matter and are used, in my filmmaking process, to support the primary narrative.” Among her recent work, “A Million Miles Away” is on the festival circuit, where it’s won prizes at Chicago Underground, Ann Arbor, Oberhausen and Vienna Shorts. Another short, the Chicago-set “Blood Below The Skin” is in post-production, and “As With Knives and Skin,” the feature script she wants to produce next is a finalist for funding from Creative Capital as well as possible inclusion in the 2015 Screenwriter’s Lab at the Sundance Institute. Teaching BFA and MFA students at UIC, Reeder says, makes her a better artist. “I did not go to grad school to be a teacher, but now I am a teacher and I think a pretty decent one. The learning is mutual though: I’m inspired by my students. They have a lot to teach me as well. My approach is pretty open and personal. I offer up what I know will work, and I really love teaching—that enthusiasm is usually contagious in my classroom. It’s a win-win.” A relatively recent move to Indiana has influenced her work as well. “The texture of my films is not urban. It’s not Chicago. It’s much more Northwest Indiana, which is still nearly spitting distance from downtown, and in fact closer than any Illinois-based suburb. It’s slow and awkward out here… like my films.” But Reeder still appreciates Chicago’s “vibrant community of filmmakers and film fans.” She says, “there’s room here for everyone from the super-avant-garde to the super-conventional, everything from Tom Palazzolo to ‘Transformers’!” Bio. Vimeo. Twitter.
Longtime Chicago film-scene fixture Gabe Klinger’s debut feature, “Double Play,” a conversation between Richard Linklater and experimental filmmaker James Benning to establish the links between their visionary credentials, has played more than fifty festivals, opens at Siskel in mid-October, and won a Golden Lion at Venice. “Aside from the Lion in Venice last year, no awards,” Klinger jokes. “It’s not every day that you get a Lion, though!” Before returning to Chicago, where he bought a house in Logan Square in 2011, Klinger “basically ran the show” at MoMA’s International Festival of Film Preservation. “It was fine to do once but a desk job is a desk job, you know what I mean? I’ve done those before and after a while, no matter where you are, they all feel the same.” Klinger says he’s in a transitional period, “migrating from writer-programmer-teacher to filmmaker.” His projects include a Chicago story set in 1969 and a narrative feature set in Athens starts shooting in December, executive produced by Jim Jarmusch and co-written by Larry Gross (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”). In 2013, Klinger also co-edited the essential monograph of all-American filmmaker Joe Dante, and is collaborating on a forthcoming volume with film scholars Tom Gunning and Bernard Eisenschitz, “a highly subjective take on early cinema, looking at the films as their own contained works of art divorced from their contexts.” So Chicago’s the place? “My parents live in Chicago, some of my closest friends are here. I’m here for the long haul.” Twitter. “Double Play” on iTunes.
Veteran Chicago documentarian Ruth Leitman describes herself in her Twitter bio as “feminist content maker,” a moniker justified by her work of the past two decades. “Hard Earned,” her current project, as one of the five filmmakers of the six-part series that Kartemquin is producing for Al-Jazeera America, is set for a 2015 broadcast. Her dynamic protagonist, Emilia, is an Italian-American immigrant from the South Side who has waited tables for thirty-five years. “When I met her,” Leitman says, “I felt like I’d known her my whole life. She’s a tough, take-no-crap, beautifully strong, resilient woman and someone who goes through a great transformation in self-discovery during the series.” Her most recent film, “Tony & Janina’s American Wedding” had gotten support from Kartemquin’s Gordon Quinn, Steve James and other filmmakers along the way, but “Hard Earned” was a fully funded project from the start. “That was certainly a first for me! In the process all five of us directors were able to find the characters that worked best for our own individual style of filmmaking. On our first day of filming, I realized that what I saw behind the lens was so reminiscent of one of the teen girls from my very first film, ‘Wildwood, NJ,’ but what she might be like as a grownup after thirty-five years of the hard-knock life. Emilia resonates as a longtime friend, who’s known you and your family forever who happens to be that waitress at your favorite place.” As for other work, Leitman says, there’s “too much actually, but that’s how I am.” A full-time faculty member in documentary at Columbia College Chicago’s Cinema Art + Science, she says she’s “deeply engaged with my students and their aspirations as media artists.” Fans of “Lipstick & Dynamite,” Leitman’s pungent 2005 documentary about “the original ladies” of professional wrestling, should anticipate her 1950s period film, “The Pin-Down Girl,” based on fifteen years of research. And two other documentaries are being developed as fiction television series, one of which is set in Chicago. Leitman has also embraced an unexpected second life for “Wildwood, NJ,” as a viral YouTube video. “Instead of creating a new plan for it, I follow how and where the audience takes it and repurposes it. This has been a really interesting study and journey for me as a media artist.” As for the Chicago film industry, she says that its vitality “rests upon the comprehensive education of media artists at institutions like Columbia College, the unprecedented hard work and legacy of [institutions like] Kartemquin Films, the rich history of Chicago authorship, the theater community and our experienced film industry. It works because it’s part of a long, rich, storied legacy and not simply part of a tax incentivization program.” Website. Twitter. Vimeo.
Julie Keck and Jessica King
King is A Fink, the goofy name of Julie Keck and Jessica King’s joint venture, comes not from the comic strip “The Wizard Of Id,” but from high school when a friend teased King for being “extra finky” and wrote the words on a napkin. Web series comprise the bulk of the work, at the site tellofilms.com, encompassing writing, directing, developing, producing, and distributing web series. Separately, Keck manages social media for PBSMediaShift and a few other clients. King works as an adjunct professor at DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. “We take on different tasks,” King says, “with Julie working primarily on development and pre-production, then promotion and social media on the back end. I work primarily during production as a shooter and director and then oversee the post-production. We do this both for our own projects, which we also write, and for projects tello takes on to allow aspiring lesbian screenwriters to practice their craft and get their work out in the world.” Summer 2014 saw production of three original web series with three different young writers for tellofilms, “a grueling and super fun summer” that will be rolled out in the next few months, including “Rent Controlled,” which the duo co-directed. “We’re dedicated to our niche,” King says. “I was just on a panel the other day at Reeling with a lesbian filmmaker who told the entire audience to stop making gay content because it’s just not marketable in Hollywood. In contrast, we’re dedicated to making authentic lesbian content that represents and respects our audience. Because we are a subscription site, we don’t have to worry about view counts and demographics in the same way people who are trying to break into Hollywood do. We can put our audience first, and they appreciate that.” Another core difference? “We pay filmmakers for their work and connect them directly with an audience who is hungry for representation of all kinds. If filmmakers distribute their series through our site, we have a very generous revenue-sharing model and a very dedicated and loyal audience that’s excited to check out their work.” Longterm, they hope to keep building tellofilms, as well as creating books in their “Fink School for Humans’ series, which began with the, well, charming “Social Media Charm School.” Other upcoming series: “a dance show that focuses on the intricacies of being a queer dancer in an already fervently heteronormative community” as well as “a drama that asks, ‘What do freedom and identity look like in a surveillance state?’” The team also champion younger queer writers, encouraging them to “write and shoot their own web series as a way of seeing how their work plays on film as well as getting their work out in the world. So many writers shy away from getting into the production mix, and we think that needs to change. Writers are often sentenced to a waiting game, holding out hope that someone will read their scripts, see it perfectly in their head, and bankroll it. One way to get in the door is to produce your own scripts and show others that your words work on the screen as well as they do on the page.” Website. Bios. Twitter. Vimeo. Tellofilms.
Lori Felker’s witty short work is as recognizable as any Chicago filmmaker’s work, often starting from dry satire of different modes of production, from training films to infomercials. But that’s not the prize-winning UIC visiting assistant professor’s only identity in Chicago film. Felker worked with the Chicago Underground Film Festival for many years, including co-programmer and festival coordinator for two years, and as a projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film Center for seven years. She’s also worked as cinematographer for other artists, including a short by Jerzy Rose that played at Telluride. She’s finishing a feature-length doc on VON LMO, a New York “artist-musician-alien,” “a film about conviction, ego, memory, eccentricity and individuality, disguised as a rock n roll documentary.” She has several shorts in mind for 2015. “One involves two people and a ton of cats and the other is an autobiographical drama-comedy about falling on your face,” as well as a collaboration with a former grad student on Venus flytraps in North Carolina. “I like to approach cinema from every possible aspect and people let me do that here,” she says of the Chicago scene. “I’ve only been encouraged to be a cinematographer, to make video installations, to be on a celluloid society board, to project, to act, to teach, to program, to watch and talk. Even if I’m not particularly good any of those things, I get to try it. People want to play here. And we can afford to play in Chicago. I feel comfortable in just about every situation I’ve tried out. That’s how I approach looking at cinema, not through a narrow telescope, but by holding a prism up to the light and twisting and rotating it in my hands. I’m interested in using frameworks (like cinema) to learn how to think about and interact with the world.” Website. Bio. Vimeo.
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.