Director Harley Cokeliss has spent the last 36 years in London, but he keeps coming back to Chicago. Raised in Humboldt Park, Albany Park, and Skokie, he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1966 with a degree in psychology. Though he considered film schools in New York and LA, he thought going overseas would be romantic, so he applied to, and was accepted at, the London Film School. “The notion of being in ‘Swinging London,'” he says, “was just too exciting to turn down.”

Cokeliss, who’d often snuck into the Blue Note and other Chicago clubs as a teen, returned home in 1970 to make Chicago Blues. An independent television documentary about Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and other blues and jazz legends, the film was picked up by the BBC and led to a full-time job in London producing and directing arts and science documentaries. “Suddenly, at the age of 25,” he says, “I had the opportunity to produce and direct films for network television.”

He came home again in 1975 to shoot the documentary feature Chicago Streets with cinematographer Chris Menges, who would go on to win Oscars for his work on The Killing Fields and The Mission. Initially intended as a study of the now defunct City News Bureau–Chicago’s legendary boot camp for reporters–the film soon broadened in scope to include the gritty urban turf that the journalists worked. “We started covering the streets,” says Cokeliss, “going to the scenes of murders, fires, and armed robberies, so it really became a cinema verite documentary about the streets of Chicago.”

In 1976 he made his first fictional feature, the children’s film The Battle of Billy’s Pond. “In school you learn the basic vocabulary of film, i.e., documentaries,” he says. “Then you look at fiction; that was always attractive to me, using cinema to tell stories, so it was a natural progression.”

One day in 1979, while working on That Summer, a coming-of-age movie for Columbia Pictures, he visited a couple of his crew members who were moonlighting on The Empire Strikes Back’s second unit at London’s Elstree Studios. A few days later he got a call from one of the producers, who offered him the position of studio second unit director on the film. Since then he’s directed big Hollywood projects such as the Burt Reynolds action flick Malone, science fiction and fantasy films like the 1988 horror thriller The Dream Demon, and episodes of the popular TV shows Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. He even had a cameo as a medieval warrior in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness.

Along the way he’s made three more films for kids. His latest, An Angel for May, stars Tom Wilkinson. Adapted from the book by Melvin Burgess, it tells the story of a young boy in present-day Yorkshire who accidentally travels back in time to World War II and befriends an emotionally scarred girl.

Cokeliss says he gets great satisfaction from children’s film because kids process information so quickly. “You can’t bore them, because if you dawdle in your storytelling, they’re walking out, they’re changing channels. They are a very demanding audience.”

But he admits there’s something missing from his resumé. “I still haven’t made my Chicago film,” he says–he wants to make a fictional feature that captures the heart of Chicago the way his two early documentaries did. “I still have places I want to go and scenes I want to do there, to make a film that captures the neighborhoods and the texture of the city.”

An Angel for May screens at 10:45 AM on Wednesday, October 30, at City North 14, 2600 N. Western, and at 11 AM on Sunday, November 3, at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton, as part of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Tickets are $6; call 773-281-2166 or 773-281-9075. See Section Two for a complete festival schedule.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Courtesy Portman Film.