In some ways Chicago moviemakers have it easier than their peers in New York or LA. The film industry here is driven by TV commercials and location shoots for Hollywood features (like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Ron Howard’s The Dilemma, and Michael Bay’s Transformers 3, to name a few recent examples). The long lulls between these big-budget gigs give local artists access to a deep talent pool of actors and crew members hungry for work. With a diverse and mostly underexposed urban landscape, accessible rural scenery, and bargain-basement location expenses, Chicago offers production values that are hard to beat.
But finding the money to finance a movie in the first place is another story. Not many stars with the clout to attract a substantial budget are willing to spend enough time in Chicago to make a local shoot viable. The city has few production companies with the muscle to green-light a major feature and lacks a mature culture of independent movie investors. And once a filmmaker has his project in the can, he faces an even bigger hurdle getting exposure for it outside the limelight of the national media centers.
That should be where Chicago’s oldest and biggest film festival comes in. But if you talk to local filmmakers, most will tell you the Chicago International Film Festival is more international than it is Chicago. The festival offers an attractive showcase for foreign movies and prestige indies, often cherry-picked from A-list festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto. Dozens of films are made here every year, but only a few are honored with a hometown debut at CIFF.
This year the festival presents a number of Chicago projects as part of its ongoing “Illinois[e]makers” series. There are the feature documentaries Louder Than a Bomb and Tony & Janina’s American Wedding (both of which are reviewed in our festival guide). There are Carmen Marron’s inspirational dance drama Go for It! and Julian Grant’s zombie thriller The Defiled, and the eclectic shorts program “Illinois[e]makers.”
Oddly, three of the dramas chosen by CIFF to represent the city—Todd Looby’s short Son of None, Bob Meyer’s feature Drunkboat, and Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave’s feature Polish Bar—aren’t strictly local in nature. The makers of Drunkboat and Polish Bar used to live here but have since moved away, returning only to shoot their films. And the director of Son of None won a coveted slot at CIFF by journeying to sub-Saharan Africa.
Berkowitz and Redgrave, former roommates and classmates at the School of the Art Institute, made a name for themselves with the dramatic feature Straightman (2000), which they wrote together and which Berkowitz directed. The two also starred in the film, as fictional roommates whose relationship is strained when one falls in love with the other. Soon after Straightman was completed, the team began writing Polish Bar, drawing on Berkowitz’s experiences in the early 90s as a rebellious Connecticut youth drawn to New York’s metal and hard rock scene.
Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) plays the protagonist, Reuben, who works in his uncle’s Chicago jewelry store, moonlights as a DJ at a Polish strip club, and slings a little coke to bankroll the turntable rig he’s building. Reuben rebels against his religious family but still samples melodies from traditional Jewish songs, a practice not always appreciated on the dance floor. He thinks he can juggle both worlds, but his drug dealing gets out of hand just as he’s reluctantly hosting his ultraorthodox cousin.
Polish Bar took years to get off the ground, even after Redgrave and Berkowitz landed a production deal with producer Effie Brown (Real Women Have Curves) and moved to LA in 2006. Last year Brown managed to cobble together a budget of less than $1.5 million from NBA player Jermaine O’Neal, then with the Miami Heat, and Cynthia Stafford, who started the film company Queen Nefertari Productions after winning $112 million in the California state lottery. In addition to Piazza, the cast includes Richard Belzer, Golden Brooks, Judd Hirsch, Meat Loaf, and Chingy. Local DJs Major Taylor (the film’s primary composer) and Flip both make cameos and supply some of Reuben’s beats.
Coming back to Chicago for the February 2009 shoot—whose locations included the Capitol Club in Portage Park and Enclave in River North—was a heady experience for Berkowitz. “When you come from microbudget films, and you come on set and see three blocks’ worth of trucks and Teamsters, you feel like you’re making your first film,” he says. “It’s like getting on a plane to go skydiving for the first time and saying you’re not scared.”
As a Morton Grove teenager in the 1960s, Bob Meyer bought a boat that he never managed to sail, an experience he and cowriter Randy Buescher turned into the 1985 play Drunkboat. Now, after a five-year development process, Meyer has turned the play into his debut film. The teenage protagonist (Jacob Zachar of the TV series Greek) is tempted by an unscrupulous boat merchant (John Goodman) to purchase a most unseaworthy vessel and, needing an adult to sign the title, turns to his uncle (John Malkovich), a Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic.
Both Meyer and Malkovich have lived in France for years, and Malkovich was the first person to sign on to the project, lining up Anthony Tomaska back in Chicago as executive producer. “People had sent me scripts over the years, but nothing that caught my attention,” says Tomaska, who produced a couple films before launching the monster stage hit Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding and founding the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. “Then Malkovich calls and says, ‘There’s somebody I’d like you to meet, and there’s a terrific script I’d like you to read.'”
Tomaska secured most of the undisclosed budget of Drunkboat through his Magnificent Mile Productions, tapping mostly local investors, but additional funds were raised through Malkovich’s production company, Mr. Mudd. Principal photography took place in 2005, both in Chicago and on the block in Morton Grove where Meyer grew up. Home movies from Meyer’s youth serve as Malkovich’s flashbacks throughout the film. “There were a lot of people who had input,” says producer Steven A. Jones of the editing process. “Tony and his camp, Mr. Mudd and their people. The process took a lot longer than normal to get the best film they could out of it.” Seven Arts Pictures, an independent distributor based in London, has acquired international rights, though the producers are still seeking a domestic distributor.
Unlike the expats above, Todd Looby still lives in Chicago, but he shot his CIFF entry, Son of None, during a two-week trip to Liberia last December. His wife, Monica Desmond, had just been named director of communications and development for the nonprofit Mission Honduras International, and Looby was hired to shoot a six-part, 53-minute promotional video for the organization titled of Children of Hope: The Story of Liberia Mission.
At first Looby planned to create a side project about child soldiers, but ultimately he settled on seven-year-old Joshua, a student at the Mission Liberia school, as the subject for his own film. “He has some sort of magnetic presence,” Looby says. “You see him and you can’t look away. My first interaction with him, he didn’t say anything, he just came up and put his arms around me.” In Son of None, a 15-minute mix of dramatic scenes and documentary footage, the boy plays an orphan of the Liberian civil war, also named Joshua, who’s trying to make the transition from his impoverished rural village to a Catholic boarding school. The real Joshua probably has at least one living parent, says Looby, though it’s hard to be sure because families avoid revealing themselves to school officials so that their children can continue receiving aid.
Joshua grew up speaking only his tribal language, and in the film he struggles to learn English, Liberia’s national language. Shy and awkward among the older, bigger children, he shows compassion for a huge spider they find in a pond and, ultimately, a baby goat he finds in the school’s church. “Kids who are poor, who come from bad conditions, you see their willingness to help others who are in a worse situation,” explains Looby. “They’re infinitely better than, say, American kids, at helping those that are more vulnerable.”
Looby and Desmond’s first child is due October 11, the same day Son of None premieres at the festival. “We may name him ‘Joshua’ if it’s a boy,” Looby says.
All screenings are at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois. Tickets are $13, $10 for Cinema/Chicago members, and $5 for weekday screenings before 5 PM. For more info see chicagofilmfestival.com.