By Ray Pride
There’s a delicate and beautiful dance in Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s “Almost There,” a seven-years-in-the-making engagement with an elderly Northwest Indiana outsider artist, Peter Anton (whose work was shown at Chicago’s Intuit Gallery in 2010). The movie transforms before our eyes, as it did for the filmmakers, a dance between a willful subject and filmmakers who intend not to stray too close but ultimately can’t help themselves. Anton lives not only in poverty, but also in squalor, in a falling-down house left him by his parents, and the ethical question of how involved the filmmakers ought to be, in light of his circumstances, grows uneasy. “I’m not your subject,” Anton bursts out at one point, “I thought you were my friend.” “Almost There” has its Chicago debut at Siskel this week, and I’ll write more about its innerworldly kick when the Kartemquin-ITVS co-production is released theatrically.
I had several conversations and an email exchange with Rybicky and Wickenden about the film, and they chose to answer questions together. One of the most luminous, evocative choices made was to incorporate images not only of Anton amid his art inside his moldering dump, but of the surrounding landscape, often industrial, at all hours of day and night. “As we were making the film, we realized we were capturing all these very intense vérité scenes that were by turns chaotic, emotional, darkly funny and full of dialogue,” they tell me. “We had the sense that we’d need to give the audience something of a rest from the intensity of the narrative scenes, and the atmospheric photography seemed like a great way to do that.
“We were also excited about opening the film up to show the pulse of the region in which Peter has lived all his life,” they say. “Northwest Indiana is an important character in the film, and we wanted to show how Peter’s ‘almost there’ ethos was connected to his surroundings—but with an eye toward humor, as well as with a sensitivity to light and balanced compositions.”
Rybicky and Wickenden brought in another hand to capture this imagery. “We reached out to one of Chicago’s finest photographers, David Schalliol, a very environmentally attuned individual who seems to never sleep and is always willing to go out into any kind of weather and shoot at any time of the day or night. David has spent years obsessively taking pictures on the South Side of Chicago, and as fellow obsessives, and out of great respect for his commitment and aesthetic, we asked him if he would collaborate with us. Early on, Dan showed David the places we’d filmed in and near over the years, and David would go back and shoot both the environments we needed (like in front of Peter’s condemned home), as well as the areas around those environments. He provided us with a wealth of incredible material, and many of these still-moving tableaux (as we came to call them) express and help contextualize Peter’s story—geographically, seasonally and emotionally—throughout.”
How obsessive were these three? “Sometimes, we’d call David up and say, ‘It’s going to snow tonight at 3am and we would like you to shoot some of the storm for the scene where Peter is kicked out of his house during the blizzard. Can you do that?’ And David would go, time and time again, and again, and in different seasons. We wish we could put more of what he shot in the film because it’s so good.”
Schalliol used the same kind of camera as Rybicky and Wickenden, but he used “a specialized architectural lens that functions like the bellows in a 4×5 or 8×10 film camera by having tilt-shift capabilities that allow one to correct for aberrations in perspective.”
Their first screening was in Whiting, Indiana, in July 2014, for Kickstarter contributors and local supporters, including people in the film. The single-screen Hoosier Theatre is not only a local landmark, but a location in the film, where Anton had organized talent shows in the 1950s. “This venue was perfect for what we wanted to do—logistically, symbolically and otherwise. I mean, in some sense, Peter is a restored movie palace!” Rybicky says. “One of our favorite comments after that screening came from an artist and theater director named Dado, who is from Whiting. She told me she thought the film was really fresh, and she particularly loved seeing the area around where she grew up, and still lives, captured so well. She’d never seen a film do justice to what she sees everyday walking and driving around, and she looked forward to having others see it as well.”
“Almost There” shows Saturday, January 10 at 7:45pm and Sunday, January 11 at 3pm. Peter Anton, Rybicky and Wickenden will appear. The trailer is below.
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.