Chicago is the heart and soul of comedian, actor and writer-producer Dewayne Perkins. Starting out in Chicago, he says, “my focus wasn’t dictated by big flashy opportunity, but simply on trying to become the best artist I could be.” While working for the moment in Los Angeles, as a producer on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and as a consulting producer on the upcoming new version of “Saved by the Bell,” and writing on “The Amber Ruffin Show,” Perkins says that “Chicago is almost always a character in all of the work because it was so essential to my growth as an artist.” Perkins is co-writing “The Blackening” with “Girls Trip” screenwriter Tracy Oliver, based on the viral short. He’s also developing his first solo show, “How Being Black and Gay Made Me Better Than You,” which had its initial run here in December. Among press plaudits, Variety named Perkins one of the “10 Comedians to Watch in 2020.” What does Chicago need? “The biggest thing that is missing that will make the film community better for myself and those I work with is a truly transparent conversation and action-based plan on diversity in the workplace. There is simply not enough being done. Period.” Perkins is optimistic about himself and those he’s “blessed to surround myself with, and to use art as an extension of our lives.” But generally, he says, “I think the world is spiraling into a fiery apocalyptic end and truly nothing matters, hahahaha.”
“I’m being Lonnie Edwards,” the 2016 Film 50 Filmmaker of the Moment says of his recent work. “By the time someone else has figured out how to be that I will have evolved. Like art!” Edwards, whose work includes “An Atramentous Mind” (2017), “Sounds of Exodus: An Ode to the Great Migration” (2016) and the contentious collaboration “A Ferguson Story” (2016), is completing what he calls his final short. “I feel like my work is starting to align with a much bigger purpose. We’re living in a time like no other. I’ve never had a time in my life as an artist, as a filmmaker, as a Black man, where I’ve been pulled in so many directions emotionally. I’m deeply affected and moved by all that’s going on to the point where my work is not just an extension of me anymore. I look at my work as an opportunity to represent a perspective, my perspective, as a Black man in a world where we have to remind everyone that we deserve to be here and deserve to be treated with equality, just as everyone does. So for me, regardless of what I’m creating, I want it to exude parts of who I am and what I represent, a strong intelligent Black Chicagoan.” Edwards’ feature ambitions are in the psychological horror genre, with a heavy manga influence (including artist Junji Ito). “I want to use my experiences within this city to curate my work in a way that I’m the architect of something that has the essence of Chicago, the mood of the city but not necessarily romanticizing the city physically, if that makes sense. At this point of my life, especially with what’s going on in the world, it’s all about making quality work. The beauty of art is there’s no actual formula to it, there’s no good or bad. It just is. So I’m as optimistic as my mind allows me to be. My mind has to work a bit harder to be optimistic otherwise, particularly in regards to words that start with the letter ‘P’. As in ‘pandemic’ and ‘politics.’ Art in motion isn’t going anywhere. I’m a storyteller and storytelling has been here long before we were here, the Bible, and will be here long after we are gone. It’s an art form and art forms never die, they just evolve. Like we all should.”
“Stuck alone in my apartment, I reconnected with ghost images,” filmmaker Frédéric Moffet relates. “On the other hand, I can’t wait to go outside and freely shoot new material. One day soon, hopefully…” Moffet, chair of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at SAIC, has transmogrified his most recent project, “Horsey,” from a festival run that includes a Best of Fest award from Onion City, into other contexts, including looping in galleries or streaming online. “Like most people, the pandemic and stay-at-home order drew me into a self-reflective mood,” he says. “Cinema has been hit hard. Theaters shut down and are slow to reopen. There is a lot of anxiety about being in a large room without windows, sitting next to strangers.” But, he says, “My students always motivate me. Our conversations are intense. Like them, I turned to making in order to feel alive. I discovered unused footage in old hard drives, leftovers from projects unrealized. Cinema mutates. There will be a renaissance of intimate, DIY, personal, experimental cinema. (My favorite kind of moving-image work.) My students had to postpone or cancel their initial plans but they are not inactive. They have to create. There is urgency. Using whatever is available, they turn their attention to their own experience or comment on everything that is happening in the world around them. They shoot videos, secretly capturing the strange activities just outside their window; they search Google Earth to connect to their past; they draw animation about being bored at home, watching ‘Tiger King’; they sing to an empty Zoom interface; they put a mask on, grab their iPhone and take to the street to document anti-racist protests. This work is often raw, direct and unexpected. Restrictions can be stimulating.”
Shorts filmmaker Brandon Daley made a splash as an actor this year as elongated sight-and-sound gag “Tall Brandon” in Kris Rey’s “I Used To Go Here.” “I write cock jokes that will also make you cry,” he says of his sleek, deadpan comedies. “A lot of the best comedy people don’t care as much about formal aesthetics. Inversely, a lot of technically skilled filmmakers don’t care about comedy. There is a need, though, for something that bridges this gap; like an A24 version of ‘Billy Madison.’ There’s a short list of filmmakers doing this, and I like to think that I am one of them. My goal is to create comedies that appeal to both highbrow and lowbrow audiences simultaneously; work that values both thematic depth as well as good gags. I make movies that have incredibly dumb jokes everyone can laugh at, but that also have something deeper for those who want it.” “Technology Lake: Meditations on Death and Sex,” “pretty much an R-rated version of ‘Air Bud,’ made the 2019 festival circuit, and was released by Dust on their sci-fi short film channel this year.” He’s working on two feature scripts and a pilot, talking to production companies and collaborators to make the jump to long-form comedy storytelling. “I feel like there is no shortage of insane stories that constantly surround me, no matter how much I beg them to stop. It would be impossible for these things to not factor into my work. This year, I am going to direct my first feature, whether that be with a one-million-dollar budget or a $20,000 budget. That movie is going to play a bunch of film festivals and make a bunch of money, so that me and my squad are set.”
Filmmaker Clare Cooney says her self-employed career includes “a little of everything,” not limited to actor, director, editor, casting director, artistic director, writer and programmer for shorts channel Omeleto and at Elevated Films Chicago. “I really love all of it. I started off only intending to act, but either by necessity or out of interest, I’ve learned to do a bit of everything and I’m constantly developing new skills in this field, in front of and behind the camera.” Cooney’s first short, “Runner,” had a 2018 festival run, and since then her Chicago-made work has included directing a pilot and a hybrid short, which she edited and cast as well, as well as editing a web series, four shorts, two music videos and over a hundred actor reels. Her acting roles include Michael Smith’s “Rendezvous in Chicago,” for which she cast several roles—“although I did not cast myself!”—and “Chicago P.D.” She’s editing a short made during quarantine, and says that time also forced her to write more, including a pilot and a feature “that are finally coming together.” Cooney is also acting in, co-producing and serving as casting director of Smith’s 2021-slated “Relative.” Like many others, she sees a need to add a layer of money atop the Chicago scene. “Yes. Simply, money. And an eagerness and confidence to invest that money in Chicagoans. It feels like there are a lot of up-and-coming filmmakers who are hoping it’ll be their turn to shake the piggy bank, and the piggy bank always comes up short. Plenty of filmmakers, including myself, can feel strung out and underpaid, juggling multiple jobs, trying to find time to create art on the side. I’d like us to stop glamorizing the archetype of the starving artist—it’s a lot easier to make inspired work when you’re not starving and you feel your work is valued. Art creation shouldn’t only be for the most privileged among us, for those who can successfully fund their own films with the help of rich parents or a well-connected friend. If we want art to be created by a diversity of voices, there needs to be more support, financially and structurally, and there simply needs to be more Chicago-made work on a consistent basis.”
Writer-director-producer-critic Michael Smith, who teaches at Oakton Community College, Harper College and the College of Lake County, released “Rendezvous in Chicago,” his third feature, at the end of 2018 and set it on a year-long festival run; Midwestern distributor Cow Lamp Films took streaming rights and leased it to Amazon and Tubi. Smith produced Rob Christopher’s documentary “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago,” and his fourth feature in six years as writer-director will shoot in 2021. “I watch a lot of new and old movies every year, and write about them for Cine-File,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a pastiche artist or someone doing overt homages but I am a cinephile-filmmaker and I know my work is inseparable from the fact that I write about film and teach it for a living. In Chicago, you can be a full-time teacher, make independent films in your spare time and be friends with people who are plumbers and nurses. I also know the city of Chicago well, having lived here since 1993. I know what kind of people live in which neighborhoods and I write specifically with those characters and locations in mind.” Smith is optimistic about an audience for microbudget cinema. “The pandemic has hit independent filmmakers and independent venues the hardest so my optimism is predicated on the notion that we’ll ‘return to normal’ at some point.”
Shengze Zhu and Zhengfan Yang
Under the Burn the Film banner, Shengze Zhu and her partner, Zhengfan Yang, direct and also serve as producer for each other’s work since 2010. Their experimental work, drawing on nonfiction elements, black-and-white, duration and evolving concepts of streaming, draws notice around the world. Her third film, “Present.Perfect.” (2019) premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it received the Tiger Award. Zhu was producer for Yang’s films including “Distant” (2013) and “Where Are You Going” (2016). His short “Down There” (2018), premiered at Venice in the Orizzonti section, and screened at the New York Film Festival, Busan and AFI Fest. Yang has also served as cinematographer for two documentaries directed by Zhu, and is developing his second fiction feature, “The Stranger,” which received a Script & Project Development Support from the Hubert Bals Fund. “There is almost no financial support” in China for experimental and art-house work, Zhu told arts journalist Pamela Cohn. “We want to make films in the United States and other places, but China is still the place where I want to make most of my work. I’m so emotionally connected with that place and my experience of living in another country really gave me a different perspective in the way I look at China.”
Director-producer-writer-performer Harley Foos’ past couple years include music videos for local musicians, “who I’m also lucky to call my friends,” as well as producing shorts, one of which, “Black Pill,” world-premieres at Inside Out Toronto this month. “It’s a sci-fi piece about a depressed trans person living in a near-future techno-dystopia who orders mysterious pills from the internet in a last-ditch attempt to find meaning in their life,” Foos says. Collaboration is imperative, they say, while “my ability to simultaneously hold the logistic and creative makes me well suited to processes with less hyperspecialization. What I love about film is that it’s practically every art form rolled into one. I want to get my hands dirty in all those other mediums and organizing too! I’m changing the meaning of ‘creative producing.’” Foos has also worked with a community group, a collaborative radical media project with Little Village Solidarity Network for the past year. “We’re making videos about the for-profit migrant youth detention facilities run by Heartland Alliance in Chicago. I guess I’d call them experimental documentaries.” The project they’re most excited about is “Tha Park,” “a black comedy about three twelve-year-old skater boys desperately trying to impress each other and become men, and just looking to the absolute worst examples of adult masculinity. Working with low budgets has caused me to work in a different way out of necessity, but I’m trying to intentionally hone alternative ways of working.” And thinking, too. “I’ve always been a leftist but only recently started to understand how my politics can coalesce with my film work (even on projects that aren’t overtly political).” Optimistic or pessimistic? “Honestly, I’m not that optimistic. The American empire is crumbling. Which makes me optimistic in a very abstract way, but pessimistic for the short-term and the wellbeing of everyone I know and love.”
Hugh Schulze’s second feature, “Dreaming Grand Avenue,” a fantasia of the poetic dream life of Chicagoans, had its world premiere at the ChiTown Movies drive-in in September. (It was produced by Newcity’s Chicago Film Project.) “Early in my career, I had the good fortune of honing my skills as a copywriter and scriptwriter in advertising,” says Schulze. “After starting my own business in 2001, I’ve been able to pursue a number of creative interests including writing and directing films. The good fortune now is being able to work with inspiring and talented people in all areas of filmmaking.” He’s at work on two additional feature scripts. “In spite of ending many sentences with ‘in the middle of a pandemic,’ I am optimistic. Guillermo del Toro wrote an essay last year called ‘Radical Optimism.’ His fundamental argument was that at this time, radical optimism is the most subversive mindset one could have to effect change in the world. I think he’s right. With any luck, the release of ‘Dreaming Grand Avenue’ will connect me with collaborators who share my point of view. I honestly, though perhaps naively, believe, we can get this country back on the road to making itself the ideal of what we used to call, unironically, ‘a melting pot.’ Better together than apart. An alchemy of the human soul.”
“I describe my practice as artist, entrepreneur, educator and organizer,” says Jon Satrom, “or as an octopus spinning plates.” As a University of Chicago faculty member, he supervises the Media Art and Design minor of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, which “focuses on the rapid developments in media and design that have changed the character of contemporary life.” As an artist, “I make new media works that are typically performed live with elements consisting of software art (custom scripts and apps created for artistic or performative purposes), banal software bits (think your operating system or even Microsoft Office), video (linear, nonlinear, streams and real-time screen recordings), audio (noise, samples and synthesis), and experimental art games. The results are often kludgy, glitchy, messes of data—massaged and tickled into an audio/visual experience.” Satrom founded studiothread, a boutique Chicago-based digital studio that works with nonprofits and cause-based organizations, as well as netizen, a nonprofit organization that “infuses digital learning with civics, creativity and criticality.” His art “involves a lot of troubleshooting,” Satrom says. “It’s motivated by our contemporary condition of perpetual beta and forced obsolescence. It’s inspired by the cracks and fissures in the systems and tools we use every day. New media is at the core of our culture, and it’s inherently unstable. It’s ripe with bugs, patches, errors, fixes, hacks and glitches. These common obstacles are at the heart of my practice. Glitches are moments in time that break us from a particular flow—gifting us with the opportunity to consider the systems at play. Over the past twenty-odd years, I’ve been collecting, conjuring, capturing and leveraging glitches. For all of the problem solving my work requires, I refer to it as ‘creative problem creating.’” Chicago’s the place, he says. “I’ve been courted and wooed by other places over the years, but I keep coming back to the networks and relationships I’ve developed in Chicago. It’s a hub of thinkers, tinkerers, makers and doers.”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.