“It was a great time,” says filmmaker Jim Sikora, recalling the 90s punk scene he hopes to re-create in his new feature, I’ll Die Tomorrow. “Chicago was the cheapest date. There was such immediacy to the music. Everything on Touch and Go at that time was just brilliant. . . . I’ll Die Tomorrow is a distillation of all these things. It’s why I’ve wanted to do it for so long.”
This Saturday, Sikora hopes to open up a portal to the past when he stages and shoots a live performance for the movie at the Viaduct Theater. Actor Michael Shannon, best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road, will front a band that includes members of Pegboy. (David Yow of the Jesus Lizard will perform with the band for another set not to be included in the movie.) Tickets are $20, and audience members are asked to dress as 90s punks. “It’s a fund-raiser, it’s a film shoot, it’s a party, it’s a performance,” Sikora explains. “Hopefully this will get the ball rolling.”
He’s been trying to get it rolling for a decade already. Originally titled “Torment Street,” the movie will star Shannon as the terminally ill Wayne Sloan, once a front man for a 90s punk band and now the world-weary kept man of a Chicago socialite. Getting into his 1972 Delta 88 convertible, Wayne is carjacked by a young woman who’s fleeing her drug-dealer boyfriend, and she and Wayne wind up on a picaresque nocturnal journey through Chicago and northwest Indiana.
Sikora, 46, spent his early childhood in Logan Square but then moved out to McHenry County with his family in the early 70s. Inspired by the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen and the short films of Tom Palazzolo, which he’d seen on Channel 11, he began making his own Super-8 films in high school. (When his clay animation efforts came back overexposed—he hadn’t realized the light meter on the camera was broken—he hand-tinted them with india ink.) Sikora hoped to enroll in film school, but after his family’s farm went under, he had to settle for the College of Lake County. He dropped out after a single semester, joined the army, and shipped out to Nuremberg, his Super-8 camera in tow.
In Nuremberg he and friends from his unit hung out at cafes frequented by punks and skinheads. “These places were officially off-limits,” Sikora says. “They were considered subversive and anti-American. A lot of GIs would go there and get into fights.” Drool, his first fully realized film, showed one of these punks shooting speed in Zeppelin Field, once a rally site for the Nazi party, and according to Sikora, the short’s debut screening at a local music hall ignited some tempers. “I wasn’t trying to make a political statement,” he says. “But I realized the power of movies to galvanize people and create dialogue, even if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sikora finished his military service in Virginia, then enrolled in Columbia College on the G.I. Bill in 1985. One of the first friends he made in Chicago was Dave Riley, bassist for Big Black, who turned him on to Naked Raygun and Urge Overkill and later the Jesus Lizard. After dropping out of Columbia, Sikora took odd jobs to finance a succession of scrappy underground films like Stagefright Chameleon (1988) and Bring Me the Head of Geraldo Rivera (1989). Most of them were about musicians, barflies, and hustlers, all scheming for a break and usually coming up short.
I’ll Die Tomorrow is hardly Sikora’s first project to overlap with the Chicago music scene. Yow has acted in three of Sikora’s features, and John Haggerty, guitarist for Pegboy and Naked Raygun, has appeared in two. Rock and Roll Punk (1998) featured Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Firehose, who also turned up in My Char-Broiled Burger With Brewer (2000). Sikora’s first two features were scored by Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and Laughing Hyenas drummer Jim Kimball. In addition to his own films, Sikora has shot concerts by and directed music videos for Pegboy, Jesus Lizard, Eleventh Dream Day, Screaming Trees, Firehose, Tar, and more recently the local teen band Purple Apple.
Sikora met Shannon in the early 90s at the L&L Tavern. “I was like, ‘Look at that face—this guy should be an actor,'” Sikora says. Only later did he learn that Shannon was an actor—an ensemble member at A Red Orchid Theatre. After seeing Shannon in the premiere of Tracy Letts’s Bug at A Red Orchid in 2000, Sikora decided he was the man to play Wayne Sloan.
“When he first approached me I was too young to play the part,” says Shannon. Now he’s 35, just the right age, and his star has risen considerably in the past decade. Shannon isn’t sweating the long development period for I’ll Die Tomorrow. “To make a movie come into existence, you’ve got to whip up a tornado,” he says. “It’s not a natural thing that just happens, like baking a cake. There’s not many people that can do that. Jim’s proven time and time again that he’s capable of it. He’s had this hiatus for a while, which is a little inexplicable considering how much promise he showed earlier.”
According to Sikora, he’s spent the last decade “just trying to stay afloat” and “doing everything from videography to house painting to messenger work.” Yet he hasn’t been idle as a filmmaker. In 2006 he adapted for the screen A Red Orchid’s production of Brett Neveu’s play The Earl; he’s still looking for a distributor for the film, which premiered at the Gene Siskel Film Center in 2007. Film editor Tim Barron is currently cutting The Critics, an adaptation of a 1998 play by Adam Langer that Sikora shot ten years ago with the original Chicago Dramatists cast. (Langer profiled Sikora for the Reader in 1996.) Last winter Sikora worked with Nile Southern, son of screenwriter Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, The Loved One, Easy Rider), to edit the video projections for Prop Thtr’s adaptation of the John Ford classic The Informer, and he recently traveled to Texas to interview filmmaker Richard Linklater for Dad Strangelove, Nile’s forthcoming documentary about his father.
Sikora still needs to raise money for I’ll Die Tomorrow, which he hopes to produce on a bigger scale than his usual five-figure budget would allow—though even if he can, it’s bound to be a much lower-profile shoot than most of Shannon’s current projects. Shannon says that’s OK with him. “I’m not trying to make a million dollars. I’m much more interested in doing things that inspire me, whether it’s a play in the basement of Cafe Voltaire or a movie. It’s not like I wildly enjoy making low-budget films. They’re insanely difficult to make. Every time I do one I say, ‘Maybe I won’t do that again.’ But I’m always so happy with the outcome that I do it again.”