Rivers typically symbolize journeys, the passage of time and space. For director D.P. Carlson, the Chicago River was central to his two-year struggle to complete a 65-minute film: Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River. It’s an engaging and thoughtful study of local film culture as told by people in the industry. Carlson did numerous interviews–all while floating on the river.
He surveyed prominent Chicago-born directors who work in mainstream studio features (Andrew Davis, Michael Mann, John Landis, Harold Ramis); filmmakers who shuttle between independent and studio work (John McNaughton, Steven A. Jones, Stuart Gordon); seminal cinematographer (Days of Heaven) and director (Medium Cool) Haskell Wexler, the godfather of Chicago’s independent film movement; and idiosyncratic, unconventional independents (Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal, Loretta Smith, Louis Antonelli, Zeinabu Davis, Katy Maguire, Heather McAdams, Tom Palazzolo, Jim Sikora), all of whom relate tales of struggle and accomplishment. Filming the directors against embankments and tree lines, drifting under bridges, Carlson used the settings to invoke personal recollections of how the city shaped their lives and art.
The type of boat depended on the filmmaker. Indies got smaller, self-operated crafts like canoes and paddleboats (the one exception being the brash, freewheeling Sikora, who zipped around on a speedboat). McAdams and her husband and partner, Chris Ligon, maneuver a canoe against a white, snow-covered backdrop. Hollywood directors got official city craft–a fireboat for Davis, a Water Department tugboat for Landis, a geological survey boat for McNaughton.
Though Carlson weaves in film clips and interviews with some prominent Chicagoans (Mayor Richard Daley acquits himself well, talking intelligently about the city as a character), this is fundamentally a movie about making movies. “What I was struck by is the extent to which what the filmmakers were saying corresponded to my own sensibility,” Carlson says. “Louis Antonelli says on the canoe, ‘When I shoot somebody, I feel like they’re a part of me–I own them.’ I understand what they’re saying.”
Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River originated in a barroom conversation Carlson had three years ago with a friend, filmmaker David Agosto, about how no one had ever fully realized the cinematic potential of the Chicago River. A gonzo video production they planned to make about the waterway never materialized, but the idea lingered in Carlson’s mind.
A couple months later, in the winter of 1996, Carlson was waiting to hear about a job on the set of Chain Reaction, a big-budget action film directed by Davis. One day, caught in traffic, Carlson had an epiphany: “If I can’t be involved in Andy Davis’s film, I’ll put him in mine,” he wrote in a journal he kept of the project. Getting Davis was key–he would legitimize the project and get the attention of others. Carlson bribed a bellboy at the Four Seasons, where Davis was staying, to post his business cards on the director’s door. No doubt impressed by Carlson’s relentlessness, Davis signed on.
The experience was a lesson in the vicissitudes of low-budget independent filmmaking. During a night shoot with McNaughton (“Because that’s when his films take place,” Carlson says), a gaffer hit the underside of a low bridge near 18th Street and promptly fell into the drink. McNaughton was ready with a life preserver, but a lighting technician pulled the guy out. He was fine, except he’d been holding the stills camera. For some aerial shots, Carlson talked his way onto the WBBM TV news helicopter, recorded what he thought was some beautiful footage, and then found out 56 of the 58 minutes were unusable because the feed to the station was off-line.
“Davis said at one point, ‘In this business, persistence is more important than talent. A lot of people have talent, but they don’t have the drive or juice to follow through,'” Carlson says. “I thought about that a lot.”
Carlson, who’s 30, is finishing an original script and trying to decide the fate of a long-in-the-works documentary on Chicago blues. If anything, the close interaction with his colleagues has crystallized his own goals and artistic ideas. “I just realized making this film that I want to do my own films,” he says. “I’m not concerned with getting too distracted at what other people around me are doing. I like the fact that we live in an interesting city and we’re not always talking about the industry.”
Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River screens at 8 this Saturday at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Carlson and some of the filmmakers interviewed will attend a postscreening question-and-answer session. Photographs by Jessica Feith chronicling the locations, setups, and interviews during the production will be exhibited in the lobby. Admission is $7. Call 312-443-3737 for information. The film will also be shown on Saturday, November 28, at 5 and 7 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington (312-346-3278); both of those screenings are free. –Patrick Z. McGavin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): D.P. Carlson photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.