“My productivity is directly related to my reliance on collaboration; that’s where I find the why and the how,” says prolific young director-producer Alex Thompson. “My ambition is to be a part of a new wave of filmmakers who are emulating Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet. The difference is I’m not currently a studio-backed auteur. I’m constantly coming up against budgetary limitations, and finding solutions to them is a part of my job too, in addition to directing. The job and the art today come with challenges most of my idols weren’t grappling with, but it’s those challenges that drive me and excite me. My productivity comes from a desire to grow with every project, and to be ready when opportunities arise.” Thompson has produced a pilot, “Drive Slow,” as well as a feature, “Our Father,” and his first two shorts, “Calumet” and “Irene & Marie,” are on Amazon Instant. This summer he directed the feature “Saint Frances.” Thompson is working on financing for a larger-budget political thriller, “Jack Be Nimble,” which has Jean Smart, Larry Pine and Austin Pendleton attached. Along with a small raft of productions, Thompson will direct an improvised feature in San Francisco with Bradley Grant Smith, Kelly O’Sullivan and his grandmother. But Chicago is his bread-and-butter. “Ultimately, every big project feels like a relationship; you can stay in a place and cultivate those relationships or you can move off and find others. I’m enjoying that cultivation.”
Joe Chappelle left “Chicago Fire” in 2017 after six years, turning to write and direct an indie political thriller, produced by his partner (and wife) Colleen Griffen. “An Acceptable Loss,” with Tika Sumpter and Jamie Lee Curtis. Chappelle then turned to a new series for ABC and Epix, “Godfather of Harlem,” starring Forest Whitaker. “Working on a television series full time, while it can be rewarding, requires a sacrifice in terms of time spent with your partner and children. When not working, I do my best to make up for that deficit.” Of Chicago, Chappelle says, “For all its faults, there is an energy here that I thrive on. Chicago is my home and I want to work here as much as I can. The architecture is stunning and the people are the best. My years working in the city on the Dick Wolf ‘Chicago’ shows was a dream come true, and I specifically wrote ‘An Acceptable Loss’ with Evanston, where I live, in mind. While I’m excited to shoot ‘Godfather of Harlem’ in New York, I look forward to working in Chicago once more. I am optimistic about the prospects for the film community because of the tremendous growth since ‘Chicago Fire’ first came to town. We have a terrific production infrastructure that did not exist in 2010: great actors, great crews, great production facilities. Our top talent is not automatically going to Los Angeles anymore. Chicago offers tremendous opportunities, and those opportunities will only continue to grow.”
Kera Mackenzie and Drew Mausert-Mooney
Collaborators Kera Mackenzie and Drew Mausert-Mooney make films and videos, but also supply a platform, ACRE TV, for filmmakers. They split their practice, which they describe as having “an affinity for riffing with cinematic forms,” between the films and videos they make and live televisual work, typically broadcast on ACRE TV, the artist-made livestreaming network they co-direct and co-founded. A two-month live show, “The Set Speaks,” saw seven groups of Chicago-based artists in a studio at Mana Contemporary—each produce a four-camera, live-switched weeklong, 168-hour piece. Their experimental 16mm documentary, “Path of Ghosts,” shot in Tennessee “threatens to be” about expertise, vision, botany and “everyday life in the imperial U.S.A.” “Our day jobs have, like it or not, a big influence on our artistic work,” Mackenzie says. “For the last six years, Andrew helped run the production side of a livestream video company he started with a friend, directing and switching livestreams for organizations in the Midwest. Live shows entail the coordination of many people around a single moment in time. When you’ve done it enough with the same people, the coordination takes less time, the collaboration is more elegant, and the productions are better.” Kera is a teacher, “and the same thing is true in the classroom,” she relates. “It can feel like a small miracle getting students to focus their attention on a piece of work in a moment of time, or get everyone in sync when shooting. The work of organizing people around time is fascinating to watch because one can be good at it or bad at it, succeed or fail, and get better with practice. It also seems like a central concern in building political power.” Arts funding concerns them: “Our ruling class continues to show their cruelty with state arts funding over the last five years. Nearly every artist and filmmaker in Chicago has to work at multiple careers. It’s hard to imagine what the Chicago film and art scene would look like with a humane level of funding.”
Twenty-eight-year-old director Austin Vesely jumps from music videos, including Chance the Rapper’s “Everybody’s Something” and “Juice,” to his first feature, “Slice.” Shown at a handful of theaters on the evening September 10 and dropped on iTunes only a few hours later, “Slice” benefited from innovative distribution by powerhouse boutique distributor A24, known for “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird.” The Joliet-set million-dollar-plus pizza-themed horror also has its star going for it: Vesely’s friend and collaborator since 2011, Chance. “You know this is a crazy scenario, right? This is madness!” Vesely told the Tribune before “Slice” debuted. At 4:02am after “Slice” made its way into the digital realm, Vesely tweeted, “I don’t know how it’s possible that life is this cool.”
Liz Kaar’s “Stranded by the State,” a web series about the Illinois budget crisis, was turned into a miniseries while she continued editing for Kartemquin Films, including Gordon Quinn’s “’63 Boycott” and Maria Finitzo’s “Dilemma of Desire,” about the equality of female pleasure. “I’m deeply in love with documentary,” Kaar says, “but I’ve jumped across the stream to narrative, and am in the midst of directing my first feature.” The genesis of “The Turkey,” she says, “was my recent engagement and our plan to have a kid in the near future—which I found to be exciting and terrifying. So I did the natural thing with my ball of anxieties and wrote a weirdo comedy about a young couple who are pretty kind-of sure they want a baby and plan a ‘last hurrah’ friendsgiving before getting knocked up, but her overbearing Midwestern family shows up unexpectedly, making them question if they want to start that family after all. It’s weird. It’s fun. It’s a good sign that I’m still laughing in the edit room. The screenwriting and documentary editing process is similar, the same technique of building scenes and structure… and failing and then trying again. Same highs and lows. Same amount of coffee and potato chips.”
Nellie Kluz is a keen watcher. In Filmmaker’s 2017 “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” Vadim Rizov wrote astutely that “her handheld camera gains benignly curious, non-prying access to events happening largely in public space.” Her recent films include “Must See,” observing religious and tourist pilgrimages and the haunting “Serpents and Doves,” a highlight of Chicago Underground 2018, witnessing a Christian passion play in Arkansas. Chicago real estate industry workers are the subjects of a work-in-progress. “As a transplant from the East Coast, the Midwest still feels slightly exotic and strange, which is good for my sense of possibility,” the Boston University graduate says. “My approach is to look for visual clues about belief systems or cultural fantasies that are hard to see. A lot of my recent work has dealt with religion and tourism, places where people try to transcend the everyday, but I’m looking at mechanisms and behind-the-scenes work that goes into those escape systems. My interest in making videos is so much about the opportunity to be a firsthand observer, going into spaces and situations where I’m an outsider and see what happens. I shoot and edit my own videos and all the footage I collect feels autobiographical. I’m going for a style that’s open-ended enough to let viewers make up their own minds about what’s happening, because even though I was present in a situation I filmed, I could obviously never see or know everything about it, there’s too much detail. When I’m editing my footage I have fun and try to add in all the things I enjoy about cinema: jokes, juxtapositions, moments using color, texture and shapes. A lot of times, clues about what’s happening fall away as I focus on what’s most interesting to me and what most resonates in the footage, because that’s the material that will hold up best.” Kluz works at SAIC as the advisor to their student radio and TV stations, “which is a cool mentorship opportunity.” She’s also one of the programmers at the Nightingale Cinema. “I often work solo, so it’s so nice to be part of a team. I have a good community here and I am getting my stuff done.” Kluz admires the persistence of filmmakers and artists she knows, but she adds, “It would be fun to have more famous actors and movie stars living here to lend some extra glamor.”
“I’m not the most prolific creator,” filmmaker Jim Vendiola says. “My mind has always been a restless place, so I have this unwieldy mental, digital and handwritten vault of conceptual fragments, false starts and minutiae. Rarely do things fit into a three-act structure and rarely do I want them to. So I spend a lot of time figuring out how best to deliver a given story, while incorporating weird little flourishes that I don’t see a lot in other films.” Vendiola’s work is both highly stylized and casually transgressive. “As a feminist and male ally, one reason I gravitate toward female characters is an interest in subverting genre conventions that have been historically defined by men,” he says. “My CUFF Audience Award-winner, ‘Violets,’ was a psychological horror film about two creepy, murderous, and probably incestuous sisters.” Vendiola says viewers sometimes criticized the need for the sisters to kill a man, “as if it weren’t intrinsic to the genre.” He also found “Fifty Shades of Grey” running “completely counter to the tenet of affirmative consent within the actual BDSM community, while simultaneously sounding a lot like the ethos of industry men called out in the Me Too movement. Stuff like that informed my kinky lesbian romance, ‘Library Hours,‘ which bids adieu to an underwhelming husband by having his death catalyze a shibari-laden love affair between his surviving widow and his ex-wife from an earlier marriage. I want to make erotica with stylistic and narrative purpose, beyond its inherent sexiness. Empathy over exploitation.” Vendiola feels Chicago’s right for his work. “There’s a rising-tide-lifts-all boats mentality here. The work is a little weirder, prouder, and more inventive here, too. There’s a ton of commercial work here, but just as many niche things.”
“I left Chicago when I was eighteen and spent seventeen years in Los Angeles before coming back,” says James Choi, director, producer and the engine behind DePaul’s microbudget feature track. “I don’t know what the film community was like in 1993, but opportunities have changed for film workers due to the advancement of technology and of course, the formation of Cinespace.” Besides filmmaking, Choi teaches film full-time at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts. “I worked as a manager of writers and directors for a time while I was in L.A. and teaching young filmmakers feels similar to managing writer-directors, but without all the baggage!” Since moving back to Chicago, Choi has produced six feature films in eight years, two of which he directed, as well as shorts. His most recent directorial micro-feature, “Empty Space,” made with a mini-crew, played around the world, including theatrically in South Korea. Choi produced the latest feature directed by Alex Thompson, and has completed a doc on Brazilian artist Denise Milan’s work and her moving arts education program in in Sao Paulo’s Heliopolis. His next feature is a cross-cultural narrative, “All Things Considered,” set in Chicago and South Korea. “I’m a firm believer in the power of film as an art form for change and influence on our society and culture,” he says, “so to work with young students and the new generation of filmmakers as we move into the digital era of filmmaking is so satisfying. You can be a filmmaker anywhere in the world. Chicago, as a city, provides an amazing canvas for the many stories that need to be told.” Choi sees the film community constantly changing, “due to the fact people don’t stay. They leave for New York or L.A., so the community always feels disjointed and individualistic. Filmmaking is the ultimate form of collaboration and so if we come together as a collective—musicians, post techs, crews, writers, directors, talent—and focus on the objective to simply create and tell stories, not only will the art, but the film community will flourish, too. Joe Swanberg brought into light the possibilities of low-budget filmmaking ten years ago. With the infrastructure we have in place now, I truly believe there is no better place than Chicago to be a filmmaker in this digital age.”
Molly Hewitt is in post-production on her directorial debut, the stylized comedy “Holy Trinity,” after years of writing and planning, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, Full Spectrum Features and Forager Film. “It’s about a dominatrix who huffs an aerosol can and develops the ability to speak to the dead. It’s a highly stylized dramatic comedy that explores how magic, sexuality and spirituality are intrinsically intertwined.” Hewitt plays Trinity, and “most of the characters are playing themselves and are based on healers, performers and other Chicagoans I have had the pleasure of meeting during my time living here.” Hewitt continues work under the alias “Glamhag.” “The work is a conglomeration of many elements such as drag, performance, prop making and video work. I get a lot of inspiration from pop culture, I like to be gross and messy, covering myself with goo or food, and I use it as an opportunity to explore my desires. Over the summer, I shot a short in collaboration with comedian Sarah Squirm about two pregnant women. Very inspired by ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ but if Rosemary had a buddy and they both opted into it.” Healing practices inform her work. “I want to ultimately create work that helps people heal. I have noticed a trend of artists, specifically queer artists, who also have healing practices and that is because creativity and art making is a divine healing practice, one to heal others and yourself with. Chicago cosmically seems to be where I am supposed to be. The fact that I have made a queer-as-hell low-budget film about a sex worker who can speak to the dead makes me excited for the Chicago film scene. We are seeing radical content made here. The world is thirsty for it.”
Chicago bristles with filmmakers who are multi-hyphenates as much by necessity as choice, but actor-writer-producer-educator-poet McKenzie Chinn is a standout. “Olympia,” a feature she wrote, produced and starred in had its world premiere in September at the LA Film Festival, and debuts locally at Chicago International Film Festival. Chinn also produced and directed her first music video this summer, for Chicago hip-hop artist Mykele Deville, and is currently developing a Chicago-based inspired-by-fact feature with author Kevin Coval, set in the city’s recent past. “As a multi-disciplinary artist, working as an actor and a poet, each of my artistic mediums influences the other. I work consistently as an actor both on stage and on camera.” Chinn co-stars in the short “Masculine/Masculine,” directed by “Brown Girls” co-creator Sam Bailey, which also made its premiere at the LA Film Festival. “I’m most interested in telling the stories that feature and matter to the communities and identities that I’m a part of,” Chinn says. “That means POC stories, women’s stories, millennial stories and Chicago stories. Chicago is the place that has made the artist that I am. It’s vibrant, innovative, hardworking, generous and most importantly it’s real—as troubled and ugly as it is glorious and beautiful. I want to be as audacious an artist as the city I rep. Also, my tribe is here, and there’s absolutely no way I could have accomplished what I have thus far without the strength and love of this community. That support is unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere. The day may come when a project or opportunity takes me someplace else, but even then Chicago will always be home base, and the center of my artistic orbit.” Her work as one of the three members of the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective experiments with lyrical, narrative and hip-hop poetry with original music and soundscape to create spoken word performances, including work with WBEZ, Museum of Contemporary Art and the Smart Museum. “I am also doing an increasing amount of work with youth artists, having coached poetry, led workshops, and taught acting at The Goodman Theatre, She Crew, and other programs for teen-aged performers and writers.” So what’s missing from the Chicago scene? “Isn’t the answer always money? I want it to be way, way easier for young filmmakers to come by the resources, guidance and funding they need to make high-level work. The city is working to make Chicago a more and more attractive place for big studios and networks to shoot, creating more jobs for people in the industry and allowing them to make a living here instead of moving to L.A. That’s awesome. But the city should also invest in more programs that help local filmmakers, especially young ones, make strong work independent of studios and networks, so that we can have more space and greater opportunity to define ourselves as artists.” Still, she says, “It feels more possible than ever to make the work we envision. With a little imagination and a lot of truth, storytellers are increasingly able to make a few resources go a long way. The best part is that we don’t have to wait to be invited to share our story. The internet is developing new platforms for our work, including teams like Open TV, who have done so much to encourage filmmaking by young POC in Chicago. I’m optimistic because my generation is constantly pushing the boundaries of this art form, bending it into new shapes, finding new audiences and challenging established ones, and uplifting stories that, until now, have been ignored and dismissed by gatekeepers who are realizing that now they’ve got to keep up with us if they want to stay relevant.”
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.