Local Boys Make Movie

Is Steve Diller and Michael Caplan’s second independent feature film coming soon to a theater near you? They hope so. The two Chicago-based filmmakers recently finished shooting on a bare-bones budget, and at the moment they’re overseeing the editing of a rough cut that’s expected to be finished in about four weeks and trying to raise more money for postproduction sound editing and musical underscoring, among other things. Then begins the crucial task of selling the film to a Hollywood distributor.

The filmmakers, both in their mid-30s, toiled for several years in less creative and glamorous jobs: Caplan produced corporate and educational videos, and Diller worked in market research. But both have college degrees in film (Caplan an MFA, Diller a bachelor’s), both have produced and directed narrative shorts, and they recently produced their first full-length film, currently in postproduction. (A few years ago Diller also coproduced something called America’s Deadliest Home Video, starring Danny Bonaduce.)

Their second film–tentatively titled Objects, but “we’re leaning strongly toward” changing the name to Peoria Babylon, says Diller–is about two good friends, Jon and Candy, who own Peoria’s “most prestigious and only art gallery.” When business goes into a slump, the two devise a scheme to attract the attention of the international art world that winds up backfiring and leaves them at the mercy of a notorious gangster. In Diller’s story, Jon also happens to be gay and in love with an art student. The homosexual angle gave the filmmakers a chance to have some fun: in their vision of gay life in Peoria, there’s only one gay bar, a mere 20 homosexuals in the town, and the gay bar’s denizens dress up in different “costumes” each evening, appearing as drag queens one night only to return as guppies or in leather the next.

With a story they liked, Caplan and Diller drew up a business plan to pitch to investors. Their research indicated that recent low-budget films with some gay aspect had typically grossed between $500,000 and $5 million at the box office, while a few surprise exceptions such as The Crying Game had raked in more than $60 million. Based on the examples of the more modest, lower-grossing independent features, the two filmmakers estimated their project would cost around $375,000 to produce and could generate around $2.5 million at the box office.

It took Caplan and Diller about nine months to raise the initial $150,000 for preproduction and location filming. They first contacted potential investors known to be generous funders of local theater and other cultural institutions. But they quickly discovered that arts donors mostly didn’t know how to respond to their overtures. “They were uncomfortable with the idea of investing in a film,” remembers Caplan. “They weren’t sure whether it was an arts project they would be backing or a business deal.” Some of the people they approached also were skeptical because of their limited experience.

So the two went out of their way to give their project an aura of importance. Last March they hosted a reception where the two stars of Objects–David Drake, who recently wrote and starred in the off-Broadway play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, and Ann Cusack–performed a scene from the film that the filmmakers hoped would capture the interest of the guests, all investors in local arts organizations. But they were discouraged by the outcome of their soiree. “It didn’t work very well,” says Diller, who is still waiting for checks from a few of the guests who expressed an interest in backing the project. In the end, after making their pitch to well over 100 other people, Caplan and Diller wound up with about 25 investors; only four had previous connections with local arts organizations. Notes Diller: “Most of the people who put up money were non-arts-oriented entrepreneurs.”

With a cast of nine principal actors and about 150 extras, Objects was shot at 22 different locations in only 23 days. The story is set in Peoria, but was filmed entirely in and around Chicago to keep costs as low as possible. The former home of the Interplay theater company at 1935 S. Halsted, for example, became an art museum in Peoria. Pilsen “turned out to have enough of the feeling of Peoria for most of our purposes,” explains Diller. He says the toughest part of filming was the time-consuming process of lighting and dressing the sets while still trying to stick to the shooting schedule: “To get the 40s feeling we wanted for the film, we had to use some pretty elaborate lighting.” He says the final product, shot in Super 16, will have the look and pace of a 1940s screwball comedy. Diller says his inspiration as a director comes from Mel Brooks and Pedro Almodovar.

Caplan believes the art-house film crowd and the gay and lesbian community are natural target audiences for the film, which should wind up with a running time of about 105 minutes. Both Diller and Caplan say they may take the finished product to the west coast themselves to make the all-important sale to distributors as early as this fall. They also have not ruled out going the film festival route.

Kushner’s Coup

Steppenwolf Theatre appears to have a hit on its hands in Tony Kushner’s Slavs! That could bode well for the reception of the playwright’s much more ambitious and almost-six-hours-longer Angels in America, scheduled to open in late September across the street at the Royal George. Much speculation has focused on whether Chicagoans will buy into Angels’s blunt discussions of homosexuality and AIDS. Slavs!, with a running time of 80 minutes, does include explicit talk about lesbianism and sex. Earlier this week Steppenwolf announced a second extension of Slavs!, through July 31. The production, directed by Eric Simonson, opened a week late on June 18 to generally positive notices, though Steppenwolf executives indicated there was no mad rush to buy tickets in the play’s first couple of weeks. But strong word of mouth apparently has fueled an interest in the production, and by early July even midweek performances of Slavs! were filling to near capacity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.