The locally shot drama Rogers Park, which opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a weeklong run, achieves a commendable sense of intimacy in its portrait of two middle-aged couples facing personal crises. It also conveys what it’s like to live in the title neighborhood, celebrating the diversity of Rogers Park and the variety of careers that are available to people there. The principal characters are a failed novelist working as a librarian (Jonny Mars); his longtime girlfriend (Christine Horn), who works in an alderman’s office; the novelist’s sister (Sara Sevigny), who runs a preschool; and the sister’s husband (Antoine McKay), a former musician who now sells real estate. As I wrote when the film screened last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival, both couples are biracial, but writer Carlos Treviño and director Kyle Henry wisely avoid making this an issue, focusing instead on the characters’ interpersonal tensions.
Rogers Park takes place over the course of a year, and one of its pleasures is watching how the characters evolve during this period. When I spoke with Henry last week about the film, he explained that the characters’ evolution reflects his own experience of middle age as well as his discoveries in collaborating on the script with Treviño and the cast. We also delved into Henry’s working methods and creative influences.
Are you a native Chicagoan?
No. I moved here in 2010. I still feel relatively new here in Chicago. I was born in Houston and lived most of my life in Texas. Immediately before coming here, I was living in Austin for about a decade.
I ask because Rogers Park has such a local, inside feel. It’s interesting that you describe yourself as something of an outsider.
Compared to some of my friends who are real old-timers here, I do. I mean, this is a huge city with an incredibly complicated history, and it’s been great living here and learning about it. Maybe that comes from my documentary filmmaking roots, that learning process. I always make work about the world that’s nearest to me and around me. Rogers Park has been the only neighborhood I’ve lived in since coming to Chicago. I think I learned how special it was through meeting and interacting with people in other neighborhoods in Chicago and learning about how their neighborhoods were different from Rogers Park.
Was that inspiration behind the film?
No, the impetus for the film was me going through middle life. The writer, Carlos Treviño, is actually my life partner too, and we were unsatisfied with contemporary films that deal with this second coming-of-age. The filmmakers that I really love from the past had examples of films that I felt dealt with this period of life, but I wanted to see something [current] that was more akin to my own experience. Through making the film, it became lensed through Carlos’s ideas and also [those of] the four actors who we’d originally cast through a workshopping of the film over the course of a year. It became their film too, through their research that they did and through the insights they provided in improvisations. It’s sort of a group portrait of midlife crisis set in Rogers Park.
How long did you improvise with the actors before you shot the movie?
On and off over the course of a year. The initial workshop was for a long week, and then we would reconvene about every three months, sometimes for as little as a few days, sometimes for four or five days. Carlos would have new pages for the script at each meeting, we would read those pages, and then we would improv material, either from the script or by generating ideas about where the story could go. Mostly it was test out twists and turns, to see what their impact would be. Then we had a reading of a draft of the full, complete script at our home for a group of about 30 people and got their feedback before diving into the final draft.
How long did shooting take?
The shoot was originally 18 days and then, over the course of a year, we did another eight days of pickup shots. So for a lot of the stuff that shows the actors “in the seasons,” I would fly the actors back—the ones who didn’t live in Chicago—to shoot those scenes.
Your collaborative process, not to mention the finished film, reminds me of what the British director Mike Leigh has done over the decades. I thought particularly of Secrets and Lies (1996). Was he an influence?
Oh yeah. He’s one of my heroes. Leigh, [John] Cassavetes, and, to a lesser extent, Paul Mazursky are people for whom the boundary between documentary and fiction is blurred. What I was trying to do was create an environment where the best performances could take place and where I felt like a witness to them. I just wanted to make it as real as I possibly could. So, in many cases, I wouldn’t look at a monitor on set. I would sit near the camera and be an audience for the actors.
Were there any particular qualities you were looking for in the actors? For instance, were you looking for people who were very strong with improvisation?
Carlos and I originally discussed, before casting the film, the kinds of personality types that we were looking for. The casting was race- and gender-blind. We didn’t know if we’d end up with a gay couple and a straight couple, two gay couples. We didn’t know what ethnicity any of the actors would be. We just wanted actors who would play well [together] but who would give a sense of contrasting personalities. We did know—but I didn’t share this with the actors—that one couple would break up over the course of the film and that the other couple, who initially looked like a hot mess, would find firmer footing.
So, the actors would do “bio brainstorming.” They would talk about people who were meaningful in their lives. Then, from there, I would pick two or three to have a composite of something that both of us could keep in mind. I sent them out to meet professionals in the industries that their characters worked in, shadow those people for half a day, then come back to tell me what they saw. All that data would be typed up and passed along to Carlos. That’s why all of the actors receive a credit for “additional research.” As for the dialogue, the majority of it is the product of Carlos’s imagination. I would say there might be only one scene where we lifted dialogue from some of our improvisations.
Did you and the actors encounter any big surprises in the research phase?
The whole issue of real estate in Chicago and the way that agents get in over their heads, all of that was surprising. The plotline that developed for one of the characters [who sells real estate] came out of nowhere! Also, I don’t think Carlos and I realized we were making a film about good and bad communication skills in couples. You know, whether a couple stays together or falls apart has a lot to do with learning skills about how to communicate. That came out of the improvisations, just witnessing over and over again actors ginning up amazing conflict from feeling unheard or victimized and then lashing out as a defensive mechanism. Those patterns felt real, like things I’d gone through in my own life, and I wanted to make sure that they were included in the film.
I was surprised by the candor in the conversations about sex that arose in Rogers Park. The characters draw on their sexual histories in arguments in a way that’s common in life but rare in movies. Was that something you and Carlos wanted to explore from the outset or did that develop in the brainstorming process?
I think that’s built into Carlos’s and my DNA. Carlos helped cowrite a film that I did before called Fourplay, which is four tales of sexual intimacy, and I explicitly set out with that film to expand notions of how sex could be portrayed as a transformative act. One of the shorts that he wrote was an absurd, NC-17-rated, over-the-top slapstick comedy that takes place in a men’s bathroom in Florida. I think, with this film, we didn’t want to make the issues front and center, but we wanted them to be key. I think they are a big part of midlife, sort of figuring out what works and doesn’t work anymore for you. And I’ve known a lot of couples that have either stayed together or fallen apart over sex or money. I wanted to explore those kinds of resentments that those two issues bring up in the life of a couple. So, how explicit it got or what the nature of the relationships would be—I mean, I didn’t want to go into NC-17 territory again, because I’d already done that. I just wanted some stuff to be talked about that we don’t always get to see.
It’s nice that the characters possess a degree of self-awareness about these things and that, over the course of the film, they deepen that awareness.
I think all of them have some blind spots, though. We all would love to think that we’re self-aware. But then that brick hits us upside the head and reminds us that “Oh, shit! I’ve got this huge, gaping blind spot! I did the thing again that I thought I was aware of.” Midlife is often talked about as this time of the return of the repressed. The things you thought you got over in your 20s and 30s come back again in your 40s, and it’s like, “Really? I thought I was over this! I thought I’d found this clever way of working through it.” But often you’ve got more work to do.
I like that the characters are continuing to work on themselves even at the end of the movie. They’re all works in progress.
That was something I struggled with a lot, getting the end right. We actually reshot the whole ending of the film. We had shot one ending of it, and when I got in the editing room, I found it didn’t feel true to my own experiences. In one year of the life of a human being, you’re going to travel a certain distance down the road, but you’re not going to have that tidy closure. We are all works in progress. So, Carlos rewrote the ending and we came up with this way that I think is, hopefully, more truthful to how things go during this period of life.