Documentarian Margaret Byrne’s “Raising Bertie” elapses across five years in the largely African-American North Carolina farming community of Bertie County, following the lives of three young men growing into adulthood. A short preview shown in spring 2014 demonstrated a vibrant visual style, capturing events with vivid immediacy. Fundraising continues for post-production and outreach as a rough cut is assembled, and one of the first filmmaking grants from the Southern Documentary Fund was awarded at the end of September. Byrne’s a Chicago native who moved back to the city three years ago after a decade in New York. “I knew I could give my daughter a better life, but I thought I would be sacrificing the career I had worked so hard for. What I discovered was that Chicago was exactly where I wanted to be and exactly where I wanted to make films. New York taught me to be a bad-ass, and walk fast, but the Chicago film community has embraced me, supported me and given me a place to make the films I’ve been determined to create.” Byrne plans to shoot her first fiction feature, “The Pharmacist,” in Chicago in fall 2015. “I’m committed to working exclusively with Chicago talent, crew and vendors,” she says. “For the unforeseeable future, I plan to make all my films in Chicago.” Website. Twitter.
“I’m a bit of a weird hybrid,” filmmaker Kyle Henry says, “as I have a concurrent career as feature film editor (fifteen and counting), mostly documentaries,” as well as an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Radio/TV/Film department. “My work is hybridized and syncretic, so I’m excited to be working in a department [at NU] that is so simpatico with exploring this impulse to blur boundaries.” Philosophically, “I strive to reveal what’s hidden,” Henry says. “I like shining a light into dark spaces and seeing what is there and what it says about myself and others. I like challenging assumptions, both my own and an audience’s, hopefully creating conversation and dialogue. I think academia, when it’s firing on all cylinders, does the same thing, daring to question and probe. I challenge my students and they challenge me to engage on this level. It keeps the knife sharp.” His most recent feature, the bracing “Fourplay,” takes on sex full-frontally. “I was just sick and tired of how lame and formulaic sexual intimacy was being represented in both television and cinema,” he says, “the complete lack of variety of experiences and genres sex explored when compared to the stories and situations I know exist. The bathroom slapstick sex farce section set in Tampa married the profane with the sacred in a way that I was quite pleased with and really forced an audience to live through something that they either could accept or reject. I’m sure no one saw anything like it at Sundance or Cannes before or since.” Henry workshopped a feature about two couples going through midlife crises in Rogers Park that he hopes to shoot in 2015, as well as an Emily Dickinson biopic. “I’m juggling a lot, we’ll see what sticks.” He’s optimistic about Chicago as well. “You have to have smart, caring and talented matchmakers to bring people together to make community, and Chicago right now reminds me a lot of Austin, where I lived previously. Chicago has people who are searching, who are willing to take risks, and who are also willing to support each other in the process.” Bio. Vimeo.
Eugene Sun Park
Eugene Sun Park is a writer, director and producer, “so I always have way too many things going on at once.” He’s also an essayist on the state of film production, and his articulate polemics are of an order filmmaking can use more of, and not just in Chicago. His most recent entries “Your Movie Is Worth Nothing. Literally.” and “Why Does It Cost So Much To Make A Short Film?” are a rare kind of plainspoken goodness from someone in the trenches, which aspiring (and practicing filmmakers) can learn from. “Essay writing helps me reach and build an audience,” Park says, “and not just for my films, but for me as a filmmaker and producer. It’s also a way for me to work out ideas and figure out what I’m doing as a filmmaker and producer. I’m always studying how successful indie filmmakers get things done, and I try to learn from those who are smarter, more experienced, and more accomplished than I am. So my essays tend to be less about the art of filmmaking, and more about the business of filmmaking. I’m not talking about ‘selling out’ or anything like that. I’m just talking about the simple reality that there is a glut of content out there, and in order to distinguish yourself and your work, you need to have a plan beyond ‘I’ll be discovered at Sundance.’ This is not an executable plan; it’s like pinning your career hopes entirely on winning the lottery.” As a producer-writer, Park is in preproduction on a short drama about Japanese internment, but it’s a multiyear effort to be accompanied by an educational program with other shorts, and interactive website and teaching resources. As a writer-director, he’s completing “Self-Deportation: The Untold Tale of a Marginal Woman,” a fiscally sponsored project of Chicago Filmmakers, also supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency. (The glimpses in its Indiegogo fundraising trailer are both poppy and haunting.) His production company, Full Spectrum Features will also release a DVD series, “‘Chicagoland Shorts,’ pretty much anything outside mainstream media culture. My aim is to celebrate and promote the diversity of local filmmaking talent and to give these shorts a life. Too many great short films just end up on people’s hard drives, lost to the world forever. Or they end up in the morass of an online platform, which is almost the same as being lost forever.” And Park believes this is a city to celebrate as well. “Sure, there are great opportunities in LA and New York, but there’s also a thriving arts community here in Chicago. The attitude is ‘we’re in this together’ rather than cutthroat competitiveness. I love that there are so many people who want to create a thriving filmmaking scene that’s based right here in this amazing city.” Website. Blog.
“There are so many mammoth issues in this broken world,” documentary-maker Ky Dickens says. Of her eclectic range of stirring work, the North Park resident says, “The only thing that binds them are my personal experiences. Filmmaking has been a way for me to answer injustices and questions that I confront in my own life. ‘Fish out of Water’ was my attempt to reconcile faith and sexuality, ‘Sole Survivor’ was an effort to understand my own survivor’s guilt, ‘Zero Weeks,’ my current project—is about the maternity leave crisis in America and how we’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for women. Our policies are archaic and unconscionable compared to almost every other country in the world.” Documentary, she says, “is a great way for me to throw my arms around both personal and national queries and debates.” She enthuses, “I really believe that Chicago is the greatest city in the world. It’s vibrant, diverse and eager but also thoughtful and grounded. Cultural icons are created here: Oprah, Tina Fey, Kanye West, Gene Siskel, Fred Armisen, the Obamas. So many people! And you can afford to be an artist here. You can pursue innovation, writing, filmmaking, passion projects, wild ideas, all without having to work four jobs. And people are gracious and friendly, not fake-friendly, but truly warm. I like being centrally located, on the third coast, because you’re only a three-hour flight from anywhere in the country.” She adds, “But this is the ‘indie city.’ You will not find harder working people than in Chicago. [Film people] love the work for the work’s sake. I really think it’s about the product, not the image. I love that about Chicago. Most people in the industry are humble, curious and hungry. That’s a killer combination.” Bio. Twitter.
Versatile filmmaker Seth McClellan’s work includes the feature documentary, “King in Chicago,” a feature documentary about the Chicago Freedom Movement, which played at festivals and on PBS, and “Chicago Heights,” which he co-produced, an experimental feature based on Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” that Roger Ebert listed as one of the best art films of 2010. His latest, “Creative Writing,” is a fictional feature set in a community college creative-writing class that erupts into conflict over racism, among other things, and debuts at the Gene Siskel Film Center in October. McClellan brings all his skills into play, including playing the main role. “Most filmmakers write a screenplay and then figure out how to cast it, where to shoot and so on,” he says. “I took a look at what I knew I had access to and created a story using the most authentic resources I had. I knew I could shoot at a college—I teach film and video—and had a great group of students that trusted me and were all dealing with interesting things personally. Race, gender, and class are all tied up in the stories that we tell.” Of his multiple roles in his latest enterprise, he reflects, “A director organizes the performance of the actor, but both search for the most vulnerable and truthful moments.” He’s one to embrace the title of “Chicago filmmaker,” too. “Absolutely. It’s what I am. New York and Los Angeles are awesome, but Chicago’s film community is authentic and in a way those places can’t be.” Bio.
While Chicago’s comics scene teems with talent, not enough artists have brought their view of the world to movies or television. Emerging multi-hyphenate Lyra Hill, who has worked as a projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film Center, could well be on her way to being a post-comics pioneer. The twenty-six-year-old artist writes that her School of The Art Institute years were spent studying “painting, drawing, sculpture, fibers, printmaking, bookmaking, film, video, sound, and comics,” and she’s applying those talents in multiple ways, including self-published comics, making “small-gauge” experimental films and organizing “performative comix readings.” She also acted in Jerzy Rose’s latest feature, “Crimes Against Humanity.” “As an experimental filmmaker obsessed with analog media,” she says, Chicago “is one of the best places in the world to be. There are theaters playing exclusively underground, or occasionally underground, works in most regions of the city. There is a friendly and well-connected community of geeks who are dying to help you figure out how to make your own weird shit. While I was at SAIC, I was able to train on machines almost exclusively found in film laboratories. SAIC is one of a handful of schools in the world with this equipment. I love Chicago.” Vimeo
Sound in movies is something an audience shouldn’t notice but should instead be subtly seduced by: the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson once wrote, “what is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.” UIC-trained Paul Dickinson has a background in music and sound for installations, but has turned his talents toward film. While his most recent work with other artists encompasses what he describes as “extended duration field recording in wilderness environments,” he’s worked with narrative filmmaker Jennifer Reeder as her production sound mixer. “That means that the number one priority is to get clean dialogue,” he says, “Number two, make it sound believable in the space that the actors’ bodies inhabit; and number three, pick up any location sound effects and ambient atmospheres that will aid the storytelling process. On these projects, I especially enjoy any opportunities on set to explore the interactions between bodies and space, and how that can help to subtly underscore the things that aren’t being overtly stated in the dialogue: sonic elements like a dancer’s bare feet rubbing on the floor, or the cavernous hallways in a high school carrying the reverb of a girl’s choir, which the sound designer can then later fold into the mix as needed to enhance the storyline.” Bio. Soundcloud.
Hannibal Buress is one of the most visible of Chicago comedians taking advantage of the endless appetite of television in its myriad permutations and online outlets for fresh material. (We could just as well point at the likes of T. J. Miller, Kyle Kinane and Kumail Nanjiani). Chicago’s always been a hotbed of comic talent that will move on to greener paydays, but the thirty-one-year-old Chicago native is one of the most visible laugh-makers who makes all media his playground. His appearances on “Broad City,” in its second season on Comedy Central, the third season of the Eric André Show on adult swim, the Funny or Die “Oddball Festival” as well as punchy guest stints on Conan and other talk shows. Buress has come a long way since making Variety’s 2010 “Ten Comics to Watch” list, and Chicago is sure to provide more contenders to watch in the years to come. Website.
Mary Fishman’s route to her first documentary, “Band of Sisters,” about the little-known role of nuns in American history, wound through several careers. “Ever since high school I had dreamed off and on about making movies,” she admits, but “I just didn’t think it was possible. Instead I became an architect and city planner, which I loved, mainly for the creativity it required and the joy at seeing good projects through. But after ten years I was frustrated, because I didn’t feel I was contributing enough to the common good, and I hoped that filmmaking would be the answer. So while working for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development as an architect/planner, I started taking filmmaking classes at night and on the weekends, first at Columbia College and then at Chicago Filmmakers. What really helped was meeting established documentary filmmakers. Through a friend at City Hall, I met David Simpson, a producer-director and editor at Kartemquin, who generously agreed to be an advisor for my film. I learned a lot from the camera and sound people I worked with, and from my editor and composer. Mostly I learned by doing. And I found that my prior professional experience was a help. Architects are a lot like directors: you have to have a vision, and to be good at getting other talented people to work with you to bring it to life. You also have to be comfortable with the messiness of creation, not to get discouraged by not having all the answers at the beginning.” Eventually, Fishman joined the board of Chicago Filmmakers. “Chicago Filmmakers took me seriously. I went to their filmmaker meet-ups and seminars. They were the fiscal sponsor for my film, which helped me to be able to raise funds, and they had a work in progress screening for me. I ran the gamut of the things they had to offer, and after ten years of involvement at CF I completed a film that became very successful. I was a poster child for what Chicago Filmmakers can do for you, so the board invited me to join. I think they were impressed with my grassroots fundraising and self-distribution experience. My being an architect and city planner has also been helpful during the process of redeveloping an old fire station for our new home.” But beyond elemental passion, the subject of Fishman’s documentary drove her. “My goal for any film would be something that would have a deeper message. I want to do things that are uplifting. I had been educated by sisters in elementary school and high school, but I never really had thought of them as having lives apart from just being the teacher in the classroom. I started researching the 300-year history of nuns in the U.S. and was amazed at how much they’ve done to build this country, and dismayed at how little we know about it. The more I read, the angrier I became at the stereotypes of sisters as stern disciplinarians or as naïve and childlike. It wasn’t fair to them, and I wanted to give them their due. Their story is an essential part of Catholic history in the U.S., of women’s history, and of American history.” Fishman put as much of Chicago as she could into “Band of Sisters.” “My parents were born here and some of my happiest memories as a kid are of them taking us downtown,” she says. “My mother was so proud when I became an architect for the City, and thrilled when I had a meeting with Mayor Daley. I can go around downtown or in different neighborhoods and see specific buildings or developments that I had a part in. I have an idea for a film set in Chicago about planning, architecture and development. That would really be sticking with what I know!” Bio.
Tracy Baim stands out as another enterprising Chicagoan taking the skills from one notable career and translating them into filmmaking, including executive-producing two features, the Sharon Gless-starring “Hannah Free” (2009) and the modern-day, gay variation on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” entitled “Scrooge & Marley,” directed by Richard Knight Jr. and Peter Neville in 2012. Baim’s primary venture is journalism, as the longtime, prize-winning publisher of the nearly-three-decades old Windy City Media Group. “I absolutely see this as an extension of telling stories in print and online. My first big foray into film and digital shooting, was the website chicagogayhistory.org, where there are almost 200 one-hour video oral histories. I hired a shooter to do it, and that shooter ended up being my director on ‘Hannah Free’! Both fiction and nonfiction film provide ways to further tell the stories of journalism. ‘Hannah Free’ was fiction but loosely based on a famous 1980s lesbian case where two women were separated by the courts. I wish I could do even more with film, like I am able to do with print, but there is just a higher financial barrier.” Several new documentary projects are at the grant stage. Twitter.
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.