Frank V. Ross
Frank V. Ross is one of Chicago filmmaking’s best-kept secrets but could become one of the city’s shining virtues. With seven wry, nearly low-budget features under his belt, including “Audrey the Trainwreck” (2010), Ross anatomizes modern relationships in a working-class world. There are teasing parallels to filmmaker forebears like shaggy-dog storyteller Robert Altman, and even shaggier French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (whose work, Ross says, he’s not familiar with). His films have had sporadic release around the country, and 2012’s “Tiger Tail In Blue” received a nomination as “Best Picture Not Playing Near You” at the Independent Feature Project’s Gotham Awards. Ross’ newest, “Bloomin Mud Shuffle,” was produced by Joe Swanberg last fall, and finished in July. Self-deprecatingly, he says he’s “waiting to hear from the powers that be about what happens next.” The thirtysomething filmmaker has built a routine for himself: “Yes, I’m still waiting tables at night in Westmont. The whole process has become normal: wake up early, write, vacuum, nap, go to work.” He’s writing a new script, also set in the Chicago suburbs he knows. “But there’s still so many things I don’t know about making movies, because of the process (run full speed, eyes closed), that I’m still learning. Making films I want to make with a different infrastructure is really exciting.” And he’s also wry about being called a “Chicago filmmaker.” “When you talk to people on the East or West Coast, to them you’re affectionately a ‘Chicago Guy,’” he reflects. “I like the sound of that. Even if you move to New York or L.A. you’re always a ‘Chicago Guy.’ I think it means you’re cool, but I’m not sure. I live in the suburbs.” Website.
The substantial talent pool of Chicago’s theater scene could supply the raw material for a full-on local film movement, but is it already in play? Among the accomplished multi-hyphenates making it happen are playwright-screenwriter and Northwestern professor Thomas Bradshaw, whom one colleague described as “the most disgusting and profound and funny playwright I know.” After recognition for his writing from the New Yorker and the New York Times, among many others, Bradshaw’s “Mary” debuted as a commission at the Goodman in 2011. The satire on race, sex and AIDS honored his title as “Best Provocative Playwright” from the Village Voice when the Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss called the play “an equal-opportunity insult machine” and perhaps “a complete and total hoax.” “I’ve been teaching and writing plays for much longer than I’ve been a screenwriter,” he says, but “all of these things are now integral to my existence.” Bradshaw is developing an hour-long drama for Oprah’s Harpo Films and HBO, and he’s adapting his play “The Bereaved” for his feature directorial debut, as well as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a miniseries. Of teaching, he says, “Being a professor forces me to keep track of new trends in playwriting, film and television.” Bradshaw’s wife is from Chicago, so he knew the city before moving here to teach. But as a local writer, he says he admires the “flurry of creative activity on the local film scene.” He adds, “I think more and more people are going to start coming to Chicago for the sole purpose of being filmmakers. That says a lot about the Chicago film community.” Bio.
“I’m seven years in on programming, I’m ten years in on making,” confident young filmmaker Amir George answered to a few simple questions. We’ll let him tell the story: “I’m the heart of the Chicago film community. At best a national delegate. It’s an everyday effort. I started working in film because I was in love with it. I went to film school for a li’l while, I learned the fundamentals there. I wanted to write, then I wanted to direct, then I wanted to produce. I learned being a filmmaker is being able to do all those things. I came from the school of Ronn Pitts. All I ever wanted to do was make. But it always was like, what’s going to happen after I make? How am I going to show these movies and get them seen? I created Cinema Culture as a way to get into programming. I learned the programming styles of [Chicago veterans] Patrick Friel and Michael W. Phillips Jr., then I worked toward my own. Film programming in this city can be a real pretentious thing. I had to work around that as well as within it. Cinema Culture became a programming platform that worked with film festivals, and served as an alternative to them. I emphasize to my peers the importance of taking control of your work, and not letting a festival dictate your exposure. CC puts on programs that allow makers to make new work. Touring programs have drawn more attention to the work being made in the city, from people all over the world. I got peeps involved. It’s really about heightening a film exhibition experience. Being a cinema advocate is about pushing the art of cinema forward. Thinking about ways to do that and putting it to action. I’m building a culture of appreciation around an art form that some people don’t have respect for. Cinema Culture is a resource for active filmmakers. Most of the work we show is experimental with a few narratives and documentaries, programs are created around the work that comes in. I also cofounded Black Radical Imagination, a touring screening series, with L.A.-based curator Erin Christovale. That program came out of conversations about contemporary black images on screen and how we can shift the current perceptions of films being made by people of color. The screenings I’m programming, the movies I’m making, it’s all experience design. I’m making a lot of shorts right now. Some of them are online. I’m working toward the features. ‘Decadent Asylum,’ an eight-part fairy tale is my latest project. I’m twenty-seven, and working with youth has influenced my craftsmanship greatly. I’m showing younger people how to make movies. The next generation of auteurs, that’s important. You learn more through teaching. Cinema and the art of filmmaking is still so young. I’m all about maximizing potential.” Website. Vimeo. Twitter.
Jerzy Rose and Halle Butler
In a prolific run of eccentrically comedic shorts and features, including the recent “Crimes Against Humanity,” and “En Plein Air,” a short that premiered at Telluride in September, collaborators Jerzy Rose and Halle Butler have taken on different roles. “Jerzy and I write together,” Butler says. “We co-wrote ‘Crimes’, and we co-wrote ‘En Plein Air.’ It was a pretty even split, but Jerzy focuses more on story, and I focus more on dialogue. I’m writing the script for our new feature with one of our regular actors, Mike Lopez, which is really fun, because he’s writing scenes he’ll eventually perform.” (Rose calls Butler his “de facto lproducer” as well.) Rose classifies his current output as “somewhat pervy and mean-spirited comedies set in unusual academic environments. This description holds true for the next film I hope to make as well.” Chicago, he says, “isn’t really intrinsic to my work beyond the fact that all of my friends live here. But that’s important, since my movies are cast entirely with my friends—mostly experimental filmmakers, animators, visual artists and writers who aren’t really actors but have big personalities and look good on camera.” While Rose directs, Butler does “makeup, lunch, store-runs, street permits, art direction, a little bit of everything. We debrief after the shoots—so it still feels very much like collaboration, even with the task division. I’m involved with the editing, too.” Butler is on her second novel manuscript as her first, “Jillian” awaits February publication by Curbside Splendor, and like many Chicago filmmakers, despite not considering herself an actor, she’s wound up in front of the camera, including a turn as Amelia Earhart in Rose’s 2011 “Some Girls Never Learn.” Rose moved to Chicago to attend SAIC for ceramics and glass-blowing, but found independent narrative filmmaking more to his liking. Of the next feature being written by Butler and Lopez, he says, “I’ll probably need to rob a lot of church bake sales to finance it.” Among a range of other collaborations, Rose acted in local filmmaker Tommy Heffron’s newest movies, and photographed veteran animator Jim Trainor’s first live-action feature. Website. Rose’s Vimeo. Excerpt from Butler’s novel, “Jillian.” Butler’s Twitter.
“There really is heart in this land,” the affable Dan Rybicky says. “Chicago is a socially conscious city filled with strong communities, and the documentary community in this city is especially vibrant and thriving, both artistically and academically. I mean, I think and hope that ‘Life Itself’ wins the Academy Award this year, a Chicago film if there ever was one.” An associate professor at Columbia overseeing their documentary program, Rybicky comes from a colorful background that includes playwriting, photographing and working as an assistant to Martin Scorsese and John Sayles. His confident feature debut, “Almost There,” co-directed with Aaron Wickenden, premieres later this year. An eight-year journey with a Northwest Indiana outsider artist, their documentary subtly shifts perspective on its subject, the filmmakers’ relationship to him, and the beaten-down landscape he inhabits. “People support projects not for profit or fame but because they believe in the work, and in working period. Which reminds me, Studs Terkel was in Chicago, and I love Studs Terkel.” Rybicky is quick to note the affordability of the city, but also the technical resources here. “We have some of the finest post facilities, including Another Country, who did our sound mix, and Nolo Digital, who did our color correction.” Rybicky’s next project is a profile of photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Bio. Twitter.
“I’ve been flirting with this notion that we’re all appropriation artists,” Logan Square native Nelson Carvajal says. “Take social media. Every day people cull content from all over the web and they ‘publish’ it on a profile page, for a niche audience (aka their friend list). It’s quite stunning. To me, the video essay form is the natural next stage for ‘film writing.’ I appropriate moving images and music to try and shed some light on a film or set of films or a particular director. If a ninety-second mash-up I make strikes a chord with a national audience (and quite a few have), film writers are quick to label it as just a ‘supercut.’ But the fact is that I meticulously crafted that video piece with a relentless, sometimes mad fervor.” He cites the influence of Godard and Chris Marker, as well as Kevin B. Lee, “Chicago cine-essayists, chest-pounding and all.” Carvajal says his work is “as much an essay film as a fifteen-minute academic-type video essay that will probably have voiceover narration spelling out every idea.” Carvajal’s day job is production. “Production gigs are curious experiences. When I’m doing a corporate video for a client, I take it from start to finish. Then there are times where I’m another brick in the wall, like when I worked on ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ and on reshoots for ‘Divergent.’ Hell, I didn’t even see ‘Divergent,’” he says, laughing. “I really have no interest in seeing it. It just paid some bills. The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from working on big movies is that there’s a dangerously real possibility of falling into a low totem pole position and staying there until you’re like fifty. Fuck that. I’m out here to shake some bushes and do my thing. There is always work. The challenge is balancing the time between creating your work and putting in the time at work so that you’re able to pay the rent. Chicago is the greatest city. Period. I want to be remembered as a Chicago filmmaker once I’m dead. Several of my video essays have been featured in national media like the New York Times, Esquire and Entertainment Weekly. Any time one of those writers refers to the fact that I’m from Chicago really fills me with pride. I’m carving myself a niche role in the film-TV-web industry, am turning the right heads and I can still catch a Cubs game on a sunny day.” Website. Vimeo. Twitter.
“When I was a kid, I loved drawing, creating characters, writing short stories and playing with toys,” twenty-six-year-old Suffolk, England-born filmmaker Robert Carnilius says. “It let me experiment with storytelling and established my love for stories in many forms.” Carnilius’ latest short, “Jaspa’ Jenkins” is part of the fiftieth Chicago International Film Festival, and was a 2014 Student Academy Award finalist. “I’m an emotional storyteller,” he says. “I deal with social issues that either move me or are issues that I’ve dealt with. My first short, ‘Stay Positive,’ was about a young Latino male overcoming his fear and ignorance surrounding HIV, and ‘Jaspa’ Jenkins’ deals with how self-hate is taught and learned, especially in media. As a black gay man, self-hate is something I struggled with. As cheesy as it sounds, tapping into my own fears and insecurities has been great fuel!” Carnilius recently received a grant from the Chicago Digital Media Production fund for an animated, comedic web series dealing with teen issues, slated for a 2015 release. As for inspiration, he says that he spends “a lot of time watching the great content people post on YouTube. I’m constantly inspired by what people with and without film backgrounds are creating and how they interact with viewers in the age of social media. I’m also driven toward equality and justice. I like to educate, entertain and inspire with my work and since I don’t always have time to volunteer for the many causes I stand for, I like to think I’m giving back in my own way, mixing art and activism.” Chicago’s been good to Carnilius, too: “I really love the diversity of stories and filmmakers coming out of Chicago. The majority of my mentors and teachers have been female filmmakers and my peers come from many backgrounds. Diversity is a necessary ingredient of life and filmmaking is no exception.” Website. Twitter.
Maria Finitzo has had a rich career as a documentarian, producing and directing social issue documentaries for more than twenty-five years, with awards including two George Foster Peabody Awards, for the 1994 PBS science series, “The New Explorers,” and 2007’s “Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita.” A 2007 Sundance Documentary Fellow, Finitzo received grants from both the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council for her work-in-progress “In The Game,” a look at women’s sports and what she describes as “the broader questions of inclusion and exclusion, fairness and tradition, principle and compromise.” A second work-in-progress is “Encounters With The Other,” a look at the lives of Bolivia’s lowland Tsimané people as they struggle in the modern world. She followed her 2008 writing MFA from Northwestern with her short “Life Lessons,” her first fiction film. “My transition from documentary filmmaking to fiction film is a natural evolution of my interest in storytelling,” Finitzo says. “Documentary work has given me a great foundation from which to explore fiction stories and has helped me as a screenwriter as well. Time is always important when following a story. Initial impressions are just that, initial. And it takes time to really understand the dynamics of a story and sometimes even to recognize just exactly what the story is. Oftentimes, we start out following a story without really knowing where it will go.” But Finitzo knows where she will stay: “Chicago is a great place to be a filmmaker. There’s a growing and talented group of artists who are making great work, where established filmmakers genuinely want to help new and emerging filmmakers.” Bio. Website.
Calumet Heights-born rapper Common isn’t just “a still-relevant elder statesman,” as he’s described by Mark Bazer in Chicago magazine’s October cover story. The forty-two-year-old “conscious artist” is also an intriguing screen presence, in projects that include Joe Carnahan’s 2006 “Smokin’ Aces,” “American Gangster,” “Terminator: Salvation,” “Now You See Me” and, now, the fourth season of AMC’s western, “Hell on Wheels.” But he’s playing another important role that public visibility allows a performer: giving back to your community. Working as an activist with his own foundation, Common Ground, Common hopes to inspire others to learn the many ways of music and performance that will allow them to extend their careers beyond rhymes and simple charisma. Common Ground Foundation.
Jim Trainor’s hand-drawn 16mm animated shorts have always held a menacing charm, working in a loose line capturing animals like bats and insects or primitive humans that resist anthropomorphism and tend toward what he calls, simply, “existential horror.” “I tell people over and over that my animals really are just animals, they are not stand-ins for humans,” he writes, “but nobody believes me.” Trainor teaches hand-drawn animation at SAIC, as well as a history of animation course. “I love my job, and the city itself; but honestly I can’t think of a way to apply them to any statement about my work,” he says. Starting with a 2010 Alpert Award (“from Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame”), Trainor launched into a dialogue-free live-action feature, “The Pink Egg,” using actresses and actors to enact the life-cycles of wasps and bees. “They’re not dressed up in bug costumes, exactly, just leotards with the slightest suggestion of insect-ness. The bigger theme is evolution, how the complex social insects like bees evolved from solitary parasitic wasps, but on a more immediate level the movie is just funny and sinister, a bizarre alternate world.” There’s more post-production to come, but Trainor is already ready for his next feature, “a caveman movie, very heavy on dialog this time, a sort of prehistoric Eric Rohmer film. Hope that doesn’t sound too horrible.” 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.