Chicago-bred Jack Dunphy, one of Filmmaker magazine’s 2015 “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” has worked with the most provocative movie makers of multiple generations, including animating his former New School professor Caveh Zahedi’s “Bob Dylan Hates Me” (Sundance 2016) and co-producing and co-writing Nathan Silver’s blissfully punishing drama about cults, “Stinking Heaven.” He looked toward opportunities in New York, he told Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay, after being a “total fuck-up” at Columbia College. On his own, his twisted animated loss-of-virginity tale, “Serenity,” debuted at Sundance 2015. “I try to be as emotionally raw as possible in my work. I avoid cleverness at all costs. I cannibalize my own life for material and use animation to express things I can’t any other way,” Dunphy says of his approach. “’Stinking Heaven’ was made quickly and was largely improvised. Any given day on set looked like an acting class being taught by Satan. I think that was the correct way to make that movie, but I have since learned that I prefer to go about filmmaking in a more formal manner, i.e. having a script to work off, while still leaving room for anarchy. I’m at a place where I feel l have a handle on what my aesthetic and style is. I’m still honing it, though.” Dunphy’s latest endeavors include co-directing a semi-autobiographical feature with Silver, ‘The Pervert.” “I also acted in this movie called ‘Assholes,’ directed by Peter Vack. I’m still not sure what that one’s about, but I do know I’m very, very naked in it.” Like many, Dunphy finds Chicago is still underrepresented in film and on television. “Then again, it’s difficult to capture whatever it is that makes Chicago the wonderful hellhole it is. You can grab a shot in front of the fucking Bean, but that doesn’t convey anything except place. There’s a specific, beer-soaked Midwestern melancholy that defines this city and the people that populate it. It’s a tonal thing. It was important for me to film my first feature in the city that raised me, but I have no idea if I’ll do it again. It seems like the film scene here is growing, but in a sort of horizontal way. As for the city itself, I have no idea what it will look like in ten years. We’re running out of neighborhoods to ruin.” “Serenity.” Filmmaker “25 New Faces Of Independent Film” profile.
Director of photography Chris Rejano has one of the most eclectic resumes in town, ranging from documentary to television to low-budget work, including “Signature Move,” the latest feature from Jennifer Reeder, for whom he’s been shooting for several years. “I love making films with Chris!” Reeder says. “On set, we’re two halves of the same force. A lot of our communication is nonverbal.” Rejano says, “I’m very lucky to have worked with directors that I share common ideas or aesthetics with, Jennifer Reeder in particular. We have a very common background and share a language of filmmaking that cuts straight through.” On any project, he says, “I hope that I can continue to stay true to my reasons for doing any of this and that is to help tell stories.” Much of the past year, Rejano has crewed up as a camera operator on some of the locally produced series. “The beauty of this,” Rejano says, “is that I was exposed to different shooting styles by different DPs, and with each experience I learn something new. This is crucial, because cinematography is such an ever-evolving art.” But, he adds, “the big project for me this year was ‘Signature Move’ with Jennifer. After five or six short films together, you have to move on to feature-length and we did, without a hitch.” Rejano says his and Reeder’s year may not yet be done. “We’ll try and sneak one more short piece in, and then we begin prepping for the feature film that Jennifer will direct next year.” Chicago, he says, is always inspiring. “I grew up outside of Detroit, went to college in Chicago. Friends that I grew up with are as blue collar as they come. People that I have met here in the film industry are also as blue collar as they come. I feel like it’s always been a home to independent film, which is where I cut my teeth, working long hours for low pay on movies that may never be seen. But you have to believe that when you take on a project you’re doing it for the right reasons. Chicago has allowed me the good fortune of being able to make a living, as well as the freedom to make films for all the right reasons.” Website.
Veteran cinematographer Dana Kupper, whose credits include Steve James’ “Stevie” and diverse Kartemquin projects including Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” Maria Finitzo’s “In the Game” and James’ “Life Itself,” has expanded her reach to international projects in Japan, Singapore and London. She traveled to Saudi Arabia as an Arts Envoy for the U.S. State Department where she met fellow filmmakers in the Kingdom. “There are some really exciting things going on over there, even though they don’t have movie theaters. Content on YouTube is extremely popular, and they are producing work at a very high level. They don’t give tourist visas, so it was a part of the world that I never thought I would be able to experience, and as a woman, it was especially enlightening.” She and her husband Dennis Frank have also produced videos for Chicago Public School’s Office of Social and Emotional Learning, with the belief that they can bring positive change to public education. (Subjects include “Understanding Students with Trauma” and “Suspension Reduction and Restorative Justice.”) DePaul University hired Kupper as a full-time faculty member, where she hopes to help expand their curriculum for Documentary Filmmaking BFA and MFA programs. “There is so much dynamic energy around documentary filmmaking now, the categories are blurring, and the boundaries are being pushed. Talking with my students does my heart good, they are so jazzed about their docs, and being out in the world, telling stories, working toward understanding. The passion is alive!” And especially in Chicago, she says. “I don’t think it is a coincidence that Chicago has such a thriving documentary community. The things that get docs made are part of who we are as Chicagoans, things like the courage to challenge authority, the way we band together with like-minded creators, a sincere curiosity about the human condition, and a willingness to work hard and not quit. Documentary filmmaking is accessible because you can make a film with only a few people, but you need your community, your peeps, for the hard struggle of making a film. There can be very dark moments when making a doc, from moral quandaries to crippling artistic doubt. But feeling that you can reach out to people who understand, truly understand, can be a lifesaver.” Bio.
Veteran filmmaker Seth Henrikson stepped away from his thriving Odd Machine production house to complete his first narrative feature, “Pottersville,” starring Michael Shannon, Judy Greer, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks and Ian McShane. Henrikson first directed Shannon in his award-winning short “Zamboni Man” (2004), and now Shannon stars as an upstate New York businessman who’s mistaken for Bigfoot after a drunken romp in a gorilla costume. “I love the craft of filmmaking. I am a huge fan of both the old school and new school, technically,” Henrikson says. “I’ve been working in stop-motion animation more and more. It’s been interesting in how it has influenced the way I look at all image-making. Stop-motion work typically means that we are making a great deal of the sets, props, characters, by hand. This approach has opened my mind to creating imagery in new ways. Ultimately, all filmmaking is about creating illusions. Exploring all these techniques has expanded my perspective on how to tell stories and create imagery.” He considers himself lucky to work in the city. “Staying in Chicago has allowed me to build a commercial production company, Odd Machine, which has a 10,000-square-foot studio and a postproduction facility downtown. We have amazingly creative artists, great people that we work with [including Nick Offerman and James Mann]. All of these assets have been invaluable to furthering my growth as a director. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do that in L.A. or New York. I love being in Chicago. There’s a great production community with a solid infrastructure of resources and vendors that continues to grow. The tax credit has proven to be a great incentive that has brought a lot of work into town. As long as the tax credit remains intact, Chicago will grow as a production center, and with time creative talents here will be more and more recognized which would be great.” Website.
Among the best recommendations I’ve heard for Lindsay Denniberg’s first feature, “Video Diary of a Lost Girl,” was another female filmmaker saying it gave her “serious chills.” “I like to make romantic comedies about female body horror,” Denniberg says. “I take a lot of influence from the romantic horror comedies of the late eighties-early nineties, like ‘My Demon Lover,’ ‘Rockula,’ ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ I play with animation and collage in all parts of the production, from building cartoonish miniature sets out of discarded materials, to editing with found footage for textures and effects. I like to work with my friends and fellow art weirdos to get that much needed early John Waters vibe. Plus, I’m just lucky that all my friends are super-talented! I also like to pretend I’m Dr. Frankenstein, and the movie I’m making is my little monster baby. It helps to roleplay as a mad scientist when directing, people just seem to trust you more.” She’s in post-production on her second feature, “Killer Makeover,” co-directed with longtime collaborator Chris Shields. The synopsis is intriguing: “’Killer Makeover’ is about a beauty school dropout who gets cursed by a witch so that anyone she puts makeup on dies. She ends up finding love and a paycheck as a mortician, but someone at the funeral home wants to use the curse for something more sinister than just an open casket.” “I’m currently editing, animating and building miniature sets in post-production. Everything is meticulous and handcrafted, so this film is due to hit film festival streets in 2017. I’m premiering a new short film in October, ‘Third Eye of Medusa,’ where I star as a witch that goes on a video vision quest to help a friend find her missing eyeball in exchange for her resurrecting the phallus of a dead lover. I made this film to experiment with new storytelling techniques, and to see if I could use video-witch-magic to open up a portal to another dimension.” The handcrafted aspect is important to Denniberg. “I feel like I’m teaching myself new techniques everyday when I’m editing and painting in my studio. One of my favorite things is to videotape the TV or computer screen and allow the distortions of light to become part of the composition. I started experimenting like this in my mermaid horror short, ‘Wet Skin’ in 2008, but every new film always brings with it a new way of trying to look at things through a different lens. I don’t know if I’ve made any breakthroughs, but my ultimate goal is to go inside the TV like in ‘Poltergeist’ and get some sweet shots. Time will tell.” And how do you define a Chicago filmmaker? “As a Chicago filmmaker, I like to volunteer some of my time working at Odd Obsession Movies. This has become a great hangout spot for fellow cinephiles and other local filmmakers and artists. I get to see a great cross section of Chicago’s film community there. And I’ve been able to recruit some great new cast and crew by just getting to know some of our regulars!” Website.
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.