At the Chicago International Film Festival in October, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) announced local filmmaker Daniel Nearing as the first Independent Film Initiative (IFI) Filmmaker in Residence at the Chicago Film Office. As part of the yearlong residency, Nearing will direct an adaptation of the 1900 novel Sister Carrie, which will take place in Chicago, Paris, and Montreal.
Sister Carrie is the third installment in Nearing’s Chicago trilogy, following his breakthrough Chicago Heights in 2010 and last year’s critically acclaimed Hogtown. Like those films, Sister Carrie will be shot predominantly in black-and-white, explore race relations in Chicago, and feature African-Americans in central roles. But this time, Nearing says, gender relations will be the primary focus, specifically the mistreatment of women. Praising Sister Carrie as a “prefeminist” work, he confirms that “the film will be an indictment of the male gaze.”
Richard Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, says that choosing Nearing from a pool of 57 talented applicants was by no means an easy decision. Proposals came from filmmakers across all levels of experience, Moskal says, and though “a good half-dozen” would have qualified, Nearing’s proposal stood out for three major reasons: a strong script, an impressive track record, and healthy financial support.
“We realized that the $10,000 grant we were offering would not be sufficient to fund the entire project,” Moskal explains, “but in conjunction with the funding he’d already received, it seemed like he was ready to go at this point.”
In addition to a $10,000 cash grant, Nearing will receive several other incentives from the Chicago Film Office, including a package of industry discounts on equipment rentals and permits, meeting space at the Chicago Cultural Center, and advisory assistance from a team of industry professionals. He also will mentor five “production apprentices” as part of a paid training program for emerging filmmakers that will offer hands-on experience and valuable insight into what goes into making an independent feature.
Moskal and Nearing hope that the mentoring arm of the IFI will provide filmmaking expertise to the larger community, who can then use that guidance to make their own films and continue the cycle of local success.
“Because this is a first-year program, we wanted to go not with a safe choice, but with a choice that hit as many points of our expectations as possible,” Moskal says of Nearing. “We want Daniel to succeed so that the program succeeds, and so that we can offer this residency to other filmmakers in the future, because we see this as part of a larger initiative to support local filmmakers and the independent film community in ways that we never have before.”
Nearing is a native Canadian who has lived in Chicago since 2001 and is now an American citizen. After receiving an MFA in film at Toronto’s York University, Nearing accepted a professorship at Governors State University in University Park and founded the school’s MFA in Independent Film and Digital Imaging program.
Upon his arrival 15 years ago, Nearing says Chicago baffled and overwhelmed him. As he explains it, “Canadians don’t have the conflicts over race and the rich and the poor in quite the same measure that we experience it down here.” However, he is quick to add, “I love this city. I’ve grown to love it. I think it’s breathtakingly beautiful and complex, and that’s the kind of thing I want to celebrate in the films we’re making.”
When Nearing made Chicago Heights, he says he didn’t plan for the film to be the first in a trilogy. “I wanted to tell a richly American story,” he says, “so I took Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and found myself setting it in a black community. I couldn’t afford to make it as an authentic period piece, so I made it when and where I was.” Hogtown furthered the aesthetic that Nearing established in Chicago Heights—a black-and-white, nonlinear, and character-driven interpretation of the African-American experience in a “period-less” Chicago—and Sister Carrie will follow suit.
“When I look at the process of making a period piece,” Nearing continues, “I think about the existing canon of films that are set in that period, and they’re all white. And I can’t see myself doing that. I don’t want to make that movie.”
Nearing says that Sister Carrie will be “a biracial film, at the very least,” and also bilingual. The characters will speak in French and English, beginning with English in Chicago and ending with French in Paris. Nearing is committed to shooting in Paris as well.
“I think of Paris as a sister city to Chicago,” he says. “They’re both uniquely beautiful, but there are other parallels in the architecture and in the richness of the cultural experience of both places. The Chicago Theatre, if you look closely at the front of it, is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe. It’s meant to represent it.”
Though Nearing describes Sister Carrie as an “ambitious undertaking” in terms of shooting and funding, he also acknowledges that having the city’s support makes the process all the more exciting and meaningful.
“More than anything else,” Nearing insists, “it’s about having the weight of this great city behind us, and knowing that we’re in this together. That Chicago is behind us. That’s the greatest honor, I think.”
According to Moskal, Chicago’s filming boom—eight major television shows shot in the city full-time in 2016—is just getting started.
“The film industry is looking at Chicago from a very different perspective than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” Moskal notes, “which is to say that Chicago is a very hot destination for the industry overall.”
In addition to Hollywood-based series like NBC’s Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., Showtime’s Shameless, and FOX’s Empire, Moskal credits “local heroes,” like Chicago-based filmmakers Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Netflix’s Easy) and Steven Conrad (the upcoming Amazon series Patriot), for shining a different light on the city as not just a destination for the industry, but as a home.
“People are creatures of habit, and they want to go where success is likely,” Moskal elaborates. “The more successes that come of Chicago—or just the fact that there’s so much of the industry happening here, in film, in television, in streaming services—the more it changes Chicago’s profile and changes the minds of people who are in a position to fund and support other filmmakers.”
“That’s a place that we, as a film and production town, have never really been in before, not at this level,” he continues. “It’s an unprecedented and, frankly, exciting time.”
Moskal adds that the Chicago film scene feels “more sustainable, far more consistent, and also larger and less transient” than it has in decades, due in large part to the ubiquity of web-based content and streaming services. He also emphasizes the importance of incubating local talent.
“Many people see Chicago as a place of creative freedom, and maybe not as susceptible to some of the pressures in Los Angeles, where success is demanded of you immediately, and if it’s not achieved in the very first effort, you’re sunk,” Moskal says. “In Chicago, there’s more room for experimentation, more room to develop, and more acceptance of trial and error.”
He continues: “Chicago has been known as a farm team for the entertainment industry. And we’re looking forward to people saying, ‘Hey, I don’t have to leave. I can stay and succeed.’ That’s obviously a game-changing decision, for them and for the larger community.”
In turn, big-budget productions based in New York or LA help grow the local community, Moskal says, “in terms of talent and the number of vendors that set up shop here, and also in terms of facilities like Cinespace Film Studios or Chicago Studio City: large soundstages that can accommodate multiple productions at once.”
“It’s true that vendors are making a good living by supporting Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.,” Moskal attests. “But that also means they can then turn around and support independent production by offering lower rates and deals for local filmmakers, because they are smart enough to realize that the local community is just as important and perhaps even more important for the industry here in Chicago.”
Moskal hopes that this trickle-down of talent and resources will continue to support the IFI’s efforts in growing the number of locally produced films that tell diverse and compelling Chicago stories.
“That’s the kind of environment we’re trying to support and nurture,” Moskal says. “We want to see Chicago sustain this unprecedented growth, but we also want to make sure that the new voices in the local community are not in any way overlooked and supported equally as well.”