By Adam Langer
The characters in Jim Sikora’s films are lowlifes. They’re losers leading nowhere lives, trying to drown their sorrows in glasses of Old Style. They’re small-time criminals who dream big. They’re brooding, quiet loners, staring out windows and at television screens, gazing blankly into bowls of stale pretzels and potato chips. They argue violently with their loved ones, but keep returning because they have nowhere else to go.
Meet Sikora in a bar and there’s a chance you might confuse him with a character in one of his films. He has a solemn, pensive demeanor, a John Wayne squint in his eye, and a brusque way of speaking to strangers. There he is by himself, sitting on a stool in a Lakeview bar, off in his own world, listening to an obscure Motown tune on the jukebox, polishing off another flat beer.
Sikora often seems dour or intransigent. But when the subject turns to movies you’ll see a completely different side of him, an innocent naivete and an incomparable determination, which may have kept him from becoming just another beleaguered face at the end of the bar, dreaming about what he could have done.
“I’m kind of worried, man,” Sikora says. We’re sitting in Parrots, a bar at Halsted and Wellington. After more than a decade of cranking out low-budget films in Super-8, Sikora’s now completing Bullet on a Wire, his first full-length feature and the first movie he’s made on 16-millimeter. At the same time he’s in preproduction for a film that he’ll shoot this summer on digital video called Rock ‘n’ Roll Punk. It’s about a garage band in Elgin. The script is by Joe Carducci, the founder of SST Records and the head of Provisional Films, a video distribution company.
Still, Sikora’s down on himself. “I mean, here I am in my fucking early 30s and Orson Welles did Citizen Kane when he was 24. Spike Lee did She’s Gotta Have It when he was 29 or 30. Bertolucci, man, he did Before the Revolution when he was fucking 21 or 22.
“But what the hell, I just need to keep working,” he says. “I just gotta keep going, making movies. It’s my life, man.”
Sikora’s a strange mix of the surly, temperamental artist and wide-eyed child, absolutely thrilled to be making films. There are times you’ll call him up and he’ll be real curt: “Sorry. Bad time, man.” Then a couple of days later he’ll call you back and be so effusive that you can’t get him off the phone. “Hey man, one more thing, one more thing, let me tell you who I found out was a hermaphrodite . . . ” You cut him slack because you know he’s not being some pretentious art fuck; he’s just being himself.
Everyone I’ve ever met in the Chicago film community has an opinion on Jim Sikora. Usually a strong one. Usually coupled with some illuminating anecdote.
“Yeah, that was a tough shoot, but we had a worse experience on a Sikora film.”
“Oh yeah? Sikora? Moody guy, man. Talented, but a moody bastard.”
“I think his dialogue is shit, his characters are shit, and I heard he’s lucky that his entire crew didn’t quit on him.”
Mention Sikora’s name to artist Tony Fitzpatrick, who appeared in one of Sikora’s films, and he laughs. “Oh yeah, Jim Sikora. Great filmmaker, man. Tell him he owes me money.”
Sikora stands in the middle of the Liar’s Club, a tavern on Fullerton just west of Clybourn. Its black-and-crimson interior makes the place look like a cross between a neighborhood bar and a Shriners’ convention. Sikora’s picked the spot as one location for Bullet on a Wire. With the aid of lighting and a few well-placed seedy-looking characters, he’s turned this bar into, well, an authentic bar. People are discussing drink mixes. You can hear the tinny music playing on the shitty jukebox. You can smell the smoke and the alcohol.
The film’s about a sociopathic telemarketer named Raymond, who, through a twisted chain of events, causes a troubled young woman named Tanya to murder her abusive stepfather. Raymond’s sister and Tanya’s shrink is played by Paula Killen. Tanya’s opportunistic boyfriend, who tries to sell Tanya’s story to a tabloid TV show, is played by David Yow, front man for the rock band the Jesus Lizard.
Sikora’s preparing to shoot the opening scene of the movie, and things are already way behind schedule. He’s mapped out a series of intricate dolly shots to highlight the atmosphere of the bar and follow actor Jeff Strong–who plays Raymond–entering, getting a beer, checking out a woman, going to the john, and then getting flummoxed because the woman leaves before he has a chance to talk to her. But time is running short. They’re supposed to be out of here before the bar opens at five; it’s already two, and nothing’s been shot yet.
For Sikora, everything’s going far too slowly. He always seems to get frustrated when the reality of working with other people conflicts with how he imagined things in his head. Sikora barks out, “Get the camera off the fucking dolly,” and grabs the camera from his director of photography, deciding to shoot the whole scene himself, hand-held.
“Working with other people is an arduous task,” Sikora would tell me later, “but I think I’m up to it.”
With his goatee and cocky swagger, Sikora looks a bit like pitcher Jack McDowell, clean-cut but with an air of punk rebel about him–the angry young man with a chip on his shoulder. He has an eccentric way that every so often makes you look at him and wonder. One moment he’s laughing; the next he’s gazing at an imaginary point in space, working something out in his head; the next he’s bitching somebody out. No matter who you are, on the set of a Sikora film you stand a good chance of getting bitched out, even if you’re working for free, as you would have to be to get on the set of a Sikora film. The word today is that some tech people are already sick of Sikora’s bossiness and had to be talked out of bailing. If Sikora knows about it, it hasn’t fazed him.
His sense of urgency results in his making unrealistic demands on the crew. But it’s probably the thing that gets his movies made. This is his dream, and he won’t let anyone disturb it.
“Come on, come on,” Sikora is saying. “Let’s rehearse it. Let’s run through it.”
“Let’s run through it,” Sikora repeats, hoisting the camera up on his shoulder and following the action.
“Pretend sound, pretend speed,” calls out a friend who stopped by and wound up being tapped as the assistant director for the day. “Call it, Jimmy.”
“Action!” Sikora shouts.
New York underground filmmaker Richard Kern is doing a cameo as the bartender, and he’s making small talk with a couple of customers. Suddenly, Ed, a ratty David Yow in a burnt orange leather jacket, scoops up his change and bolts out the door without paying his tab.
“Hey,” Kern shouts, but it’s too late. “Goddamn it.”
“You didn’t see that coming?” asks a woman seated at the bar. She’s wearing a thrift shop dress and has the look of an extra in a 1940s Hollywood canteen movie.
“Yes I did,” Kern says. “I told that weasel to have his money on the bar, so he had nickels and dimes all over down there. I thought I’d hear him scoop them all back up, but he’s a pro. You got to give him that.”
“I didn’t think Ed would be that stupid,” the woman says.
Enter Raymond, a man with a shaved head and a pointed stare. He approaches the bar.
“Old Style. Bottle,” he says. He pays for his beer and goes past the camera, all the while with the same intense facial expression.
Kern leans in to the woman and nods over to Raymond.
“That’s the guy I was telling you about. He’s just started coming in this week.”
“Cut,” Sikora calls, and they rehearse it again. Unlike on some of his previous films, there are a lot of folks working here, but they could be in Kathmandu for all the attention Sikora is paying them. One eye gazing through the camera, he’s rehearsing the shot, walking through it, leading his actors with one hand and holding the camera with the other, as if this were just another home movie.
The crew is eating chili out of Styrofoam cups. Someone has boosted the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love?” on the hi-fi. A couple of production assistants are hunting around for black tape to redirect some of the lights. Sikora is leaning over to Strong, whispering. Suddenly, he turns around.
“Someone cut that music. Please!” he shouts.
The Bee Gees are snuffed out.
“All right, are you gonna take this one, Jim?” asks the assistant director.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sikora says and then adds softly, “Yeah. Yeah. Let’s take this one.”
“All right, we’re gonna take this one!” yells the assistant director. “Places. And roll sound.”
“Sound speed,” the sound man shouts.
“Cut, cut!” Sikora grumbles. “We ran out of juice.”
Sikora looks at his director of photography snarfing down chili and chuckles. It’s a chuckle of resignation, the chuckle of a competent seaman who feels that he may have put his trust in an unreliable captain.
“This is guerrilla filmmaking at its best,” he says.
A production assistant runs in with a new battery pack, and Sikora smiles. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, man,” he says.
One of the highest compliments you can pay Jim Sikora is that he doesn’t seem to eat lunch. In the small town of Chicago cinema, hundreds of films are discussed every day, but few get made. Lots of lunch is consumed, though. And while this isn’t LA, subtract a few zeroes from the budgets and the indie scene here is pretty much the same. You get folks chowing down at Carlucci or even Wishbone, talking about three-picture deals, attaching stars to projects, trying to get into Sundance, throwing around movie lingo.
Sikora doesn’t have the phone thing together either. He hasn’t mastered the “How ya doin’ buddy? How’s it hangin’ pal?” patter. Sometimes when you call him, you can hear him taking a whiz. And when he’s done talking, you’re just as likely to get a click as a “good-bye.”
Sikora has a way with words straight out of a 50s B-movie. When he’s asking for a ride, he’ll ask if you’ve “got wheels.” He doesn’t discuss cinema; he talks “pictures.” Ask him if you can bring your girlfriend to one of his screenings, and he’ll say, “Sure, man. Sure, bring the old lady.”
Even if he hasn’t had a good lunch lately, he’s always got just enough money to make another film. What a Hollywood producer can spend on a day’s allowance of Evian, Sikora can use to produce an entire feature. And when there’s no distributor to hype his work, he’s done it himself, renting out the Music Box and the Three Penny to show films by himself and others as the “Kings of Super-8.” When a planned showing of Walls in the City at the Congress Theater went awry a couple of years back, Sikora brought in a TV and showed it on video, beckoning everyone to huddle around the screen while he poured shots of tequila.
“Jim’s never had great manners, but he’s got amazing tenacity,” says Paula Killen, who’s appeared in a number of Sikora’s films. “I bet you there’s not a person who’s worked with Jim who doesn’t believe that he’s going somewhere, even if it’s to hell in a handbasket.” Killen met Sikora when they were both working as telemarketers for the Goodman Theatre, and, the way she tells it, he kept badgering her until she agreed to work on one of his films. “He could be another Cassavetes if he wanted to. I really believe that.”
Sikora was born in Chicago in 1963. His folks got divorced when he was five and, though he doesn’t talk much about his childhood, he says a lot of memories are brought back by Haskell Wexler’s documentary-style classic Medium Cool, which portrays the ’68 Democratic convention through the eyes of an alienated young boy who moves to Chicago with his mother and is frequently left to his own devices. As a boy Sikora moved from place to place with his mom and stepdad, a Vietnam vet and army regular, spending time in Germany and in the northern suburbs out near Waukegan. The seminal experience of his childhood, though, was an afternoon spent with his father, whom he saw infrequently.
“Jim’s mom and I got divorced when he was about five,” recalls Sikora’s father, James Lato, who for a time did audiovisual work for ABC and currently lives on a farm in Wisconsin, where he harvests and distributes honey. “It was just shortly after that that 2001: A Space Odyssey was playing at the Michael Todd downtown, and I thought Jim might be interested in seeing this film. He was a kid, but I took a chance. For the first ten minutes, where Kubrick’s exploring the origin of man, he was sitting there and he was fidgeting a little bit. And I thought, if he gets too fidgety I’ll just take him out of here.
“But then there’s that scene where early man realizes a tool, where he takes a bone and crushes a skull and throws it in the air and it becomes a spaceship, and I distinctly recall Jim sitting back in his seat and not moving for the rest of the film. Just glued to the screen. Just glued to it. In fact, I had to look over a couple of times because he was just so transfixed. He told me some years later that he wanted to make films after he saw that film.”
Like many children of the 60s and 70s, Sikora took up a Super-8 camera and started shooting movies as a hobby. He recalls hauling rocks and dirt and sand through his house to build sets on his desk in his room, much to the chagrin of the folks. He also tried experiments, creating moving mosaics by painting on film with india ink. The experiments continued at Richmond-Burton High School in McHenry County, where Sikora, a film buff and basketball player, fancied himself a young James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. He talked like a city kid and smoked weed a lot, and though the name of Dean’s character, James Stark, wasn’t that close to Sikora, it was close enough for him. “There’s that whole scene where Dean goes to high school, and he steps on the school seal, and someone sees him and says, “Hey man,”‘ recalls Sikora. “That’s how I felt in high school. It was like being in the 50s.”
Art cinemas were tough to find in McHenry, so when he wasn’t lighting up or shooting hoops or working part-time doing a paper route or construction to make money to buy film, Sikora was watching classic films on a black-and-white TV, back in the days when WTTW was showing things other than ballroom dancing and British detective series. While his high school comrades were getting turned on by Star Wars and Logan’s Run, Sikora was watching Knife in the Water, Wild Strawberries, Umberto D, and La strada, and digging it. “Although I loved action pictures too, somehow the reality of those films I was watching was a lot closer in some way to what I knew,” says Sikora.
After high school, Sikora spent about a year taking “general crap” courses at the College of Lake County. He says that trying to study film there was kind of a joke. About the best you could do was a film class in which a film aficionado showed early Woody Allen films like Bananas and Take the Money and Run. So Sikora dropped out and joined the army. He was stationed in Virginia for about a year and a half and then in Nuremberg, where he bought a Super-8 camera and, against regulations, started hanging out in bars and hole-in-the-wall movie theaters with artists and skinheads. It was here that Sikora made what he considers his first real film, a well-edited travelogue showing skinheads hanging out, drinking beer, doing drugs, and dancing to Violent Femmes music. The film is paced almost like a music video, and it’s called Drool.
What’s most striking about this film, aside from Sikora’s developing sense of composition, editing, and fluid camera motion, is the distanced, nonjudgmental way it observes its subjects. The unblinking depiction of a young Nazi shooting up speed on a podium where Hitler used to speak foreshadows the discomfiting way in which Sikora presents the private worlds of his down-on-their-luck characters in his later, more ambitious films. Like many of his other movies, Drool looks disturbingly like a home movie filmed by a voyeur.
With the money he made from the army, Sikora came back to Chicago to go to film school. He wound up at Columbia College, where he studied for a couple of years before dropping out to make films instead of just talk about them. Since then, he’s worked what he calls “shit jobs”–driving a delivery truck, doing time as a projectionist at Facets, working telemarketing gigs, and making the occasional music video for bands like Tar, Leaving Trains, and Greg Ginn. Lately he’s been signing up for medical experiments, testing new drugs in return for cash. The side jobs have allowed Sikora to scrape together enough money to make low-low-budget short films.
“He is so determined,” says Paula Killen. “I know Jim would eat macaroni and cheese for a month if that meant he could save the money to do a film.”
One time I asked Sikora what drives him to make films. He gave me a sneer and a contemptuous laugh.
“Why do I make films, man?” he snorted. “Why do you breathe?”
The television is always on in the east Lakeview apartment Sikora shares with his girlfriend and frequent coproducer Tamara Wills, three cats, and a ferret. We’ve just come from picking up the new laser-disc copy of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi classic Alphaville.
Sikora often uses movies as background, the same way that some people use the radio or CDs. When you walk in, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch will be playing. Or Seven. Or some weird Japanese horror movie that the folks at the laser-disc store have recommended. Crates near the TV are filled with laser discs. The bookcase is off to one side, stacked with books on film history, directors, and technique. Near the window are shelves with hundreds of videotapes, a collection of nearly every classic foreign film available on video and works by every B-movie director you could care to imagine.
Sikora’s ability to put films in a historical perspective is offhand and unpretentious, and sometimes astounding. He’ll relate Richard Linklater’s Slacker to Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty or cite a title sequence in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le doulos as the inspiration for the credits in one of his own films. If there’s a Kieslowski or a Bresson retrospective at Facets, chances are you’ll find him there. He’ll give you a look, but it seems to say, “You’re late. Why weren’t you here earlier?”
“Movie theaters are almost like temples,” Sikora tells me. “They have all the trappings of religion. They’re set up in the same way. And there’s a certain holiness in cinema. Especially when you watch a Bresson film, and it’s like you’re watching some kind of oracle.”
Sikora’s drinking a beer and showing a medley of his films and music videos, making self-deprecating remarks. He clearly thinks he’s hot shit, but nobody is harder on his films. After watching one, if you simply say “I liked it,” he’ll keep on pressing you. And the more you criticize it, the more he respects you.
Sikora’s films are a decidedly mixed bag, though all of them have a sort of “Hey man” stoner appeal. Drool, which he made when he was about 20, is more interesting as a historical document than a narrative film. Bring Me the Head of Geraldo Rivera, which features a witty credit sequence, is a diverting but all-too-brief excursion into the nightmarish life of a motormouth secretary (played by Paula Killen), whose fascination with tabloid journalism comes back to haunt her with the arrival of a certain outlandish, decapitated talk show host. Stagefright Chameleon, about two young dopes who follow a woman into a hallucinatory underworld, has some stunning black-and-white photography, great location shots of desolate railroad tracks, and a chilling closing sequence. But its dizzying, tripped-out style takes away from the overall film, making it look a little too much like a film school exercise.
Yet these movies are like the sketchbooks of an artist in the formative years of his career, showing progress from enthusiastic and promising novice to self-assured, accomplished filmmaker with a distinct voice and vision. You can see a more mature style in his 1994 Walls in the City, a compilation of three short films about troubled relationships on the fringes of society that has been released on video by Provisional Films. The engagingly raw and often jittery feature was made for just a few thousand bucks.
More than any other film he’s done before or since, Walls in the City is the world according to both Sikoras: the sullen barfly and the Panglossian innocent. It’s the seedy side of the city perceived by a quiet and moody loner, who views reality not through rose-colored glasses but through green-glass beer bottles. This gritty world is not presented in a cynical and foul-mouthed manner, but in a humanistic vein. The characters, like their creator, may appear to be leading dead-end lives, but they still love looking out of train windows, sitting in cars listening to 60s tunes on AM radio, and watching movies.
The film begins with an inspired credit sequence shot out the window of an elevated train. With the backing of a haunting score by the Denison-Kimball Trio, Siko- ra’s camera takes in a beautiful blue sky. The sun is out, but the city feels oddly desolate. We see alleys, fire escapes, vacant lots, and graffiti-covered walls, but there’s not a person in sight. This sense of isolation and dead-end sorrow resonates through all three of the films. The first, The Fly on the Wall, concerns a sensitive, alcoholic drifter named Ed (played by David Yow) trying to escape his past. At a bar he meets Jack (Michael James), a brutish clod, who strikes up a relationship with a woman (Killen). They all wind up at the woman’s apartment, where Ed spends his night watching John Boorman’s Point Blank on TV while Jack and the woman get drunk and screw. The dialogue has a charming but rather hokey B-movie feel to it. It sounds like Sikora when he’s had one too many and he’s thinking he’s James Dean:
Jack: So what’s your story. I’ve never seen you around here before.
Ed: Don’t have a story.
Jack: Everybody’s got a story.
Ed: Well, I forgot mine.
What’s truly impressive about the film is the sympathy Sikora shows for his characters and the courage he demonstrates by daring to be ordinary. He’s not afraid of long silences. He doesn’t mind letting his camera linger on characters as they sip beer or smoke. Even when the plot gets a trifle melodramatic, the scenes are never hammered home. Sikora never fully explains his characters’ histories. The audience is left to surmise their motivations, much as you might guess about the people you overhear in a restaurant.
Love, After the Walls Close In, the second film in the trilogy and the one that truly stands out, is also uncomplicated on its surface. Adapted from Reunion, a short story by Charles Bukowski, it’s essentially a two-character piece about the desperate love that emerges out of an abusive relationship between a cigar-chomping drunk just out of County Hospital (played by Tony Fitzpatrick) and a down-on-her-luck, self-doubting alcoholic (Killen again). Using a hands-off, point-the-camera-and-shoot approach, Sikora coaxes richly detailed performances from the actors. The details are what carry the film–Killen dancing in the kitchen to the Castaways’ “Liar, Liar” on the stereo, Fitzpatrick’s sly smile as he bullies his way out of paying for beer and the repairs on his car, Killen’s look of satisfaction as she finally gets the better of Fitzpatrick in an argument.
The final film in the trilogy is the ambitious but somewhat problematic She Used to Play the B-Side. Killen is a paralegal who dreams of leaving the office and fantasizes about what her life would be like if she took up with a rough but affable guy she meets in a bar (played by Bill Cusack). As always, the tavern scenes are well drawn, and the scummy guy conversations are all too accurate. But Killen’s character seems overwritten. Her lines are convoluted: “My boyfriend is a bastard, and my boss is the pig of pigs, and they just grunt and wallow about in my activities, snort about in my privacy. What they’re looking for are lies, a way to reinterpret my life.”
The trilogy concludes as it began: with a somewhat surreal and alienated view of Chicago. Except here we aren’t viewing alleys and empty porches of seemingly un- populated apartments; through the window of a taxi, we observe streams of people walking up and down Michigan Avenue as Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues” plays. By altering the speed of the film the people seem to move too slow or too fast, distancing us from the subjects, which seem every bit as empty as the buildings Sikora shot for the opening. A blurry railing over the Chicago River looks unmistakably like a strip of film.
“He’s awfully good at capturing bleakness,” David Yow says of Sikora. “Oftentimes, bars are happy, cheerful places, but Jim doesn’t focus on that aspect. He always focuses on the bleak.”
“I like bars, you know,” Sikora says. “Sometimes what is boring to a lot of people, I find fascinating. Like, I don’t know, sitting in a bar, no talking to anybody, listening to music on the jukebox. And it sounds different in a bar, and you hear people talk. And to me, that’s fascinating. Sitting in a bar and watching people and having a cigarette and having a cold drink and seeing people pass. There’s life there.
“I like trains, airports. Places where people from different social, political, and economic strata can meet and find a commonality. That attracts me. How people interact. Or how they don’t. I’m interested in places where people go and don’t belong. I come to bars to get away a lot of the time. It’s like a home away from home.”
We’re having a beer at Jake’s Pub on Clark and Oakdale. Sikora’s a regular here. A couple dogs are roaming about the place, the ball game’s on the TV, and Neil Young’s on the jukebox singing “Hey hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die.” Sikora’s been in a studio working on the editing of Bullet on a Wire. We’re discussing Walls in the City, and the way it expresses distances between characters. More than almost any filmmaker I know, Sikora makes the viewer constantly aware of his perspective as an outsider. You are always conscious of the fact that you are watching a scene through a window or a doorway, and though the scenes are often involving, watching his movies can frequently make you feel as alienated as his characters.
“Walls are funny,” Sikora says. “Sometimes I think about how much time I spend behind walls. And you can have actual, concrete walls, structures that can give you security or imprison you. And then there are the walls between people. You can’t really touch them, but you sense them.
“When you think about it, a movie screen is kind of a wall, and if it’s a good film the wall dissolves or breaks away to another reality. Like a Bresson film, A Man Escaped, that’s one where walls are a big thing. It’s all about getting through the walls or seeing through the walls and trying to find something useful in a very despairing situation. Some people just bellyache about the walls keeping them down. That’s valid, but I’ve been in some situations where I could have said the same thing, but I chose not to.”
While we’re sitting at Jake’s, an old buddy of Sikora’s from Columbia College, a location scout named Steve Andrzejewski, stops by our table. Andrzejewski has wanted to direct films for years, but hasn’t been able to get projects together. He mentions, after a while, that when he was 21 he was the second youngest member of the Directors’ Guild of America.
“You’re stealing my thunder here,” Sikora laughs. The Beatles’ “Come Together” plays in the background.
“But here’s the irony,” Andrzejewski says. “That don’t mean shit. I’m doing location scouting, and I hate it. It’s a way to make money. I might as well be behind that bar. I might as well be across the street selling clothes, because I want to direct, but I got caught up in that whole flux. I always said I didn’t want to sell out to Hollywood, and yet I’m a location scout. I want to do short films like you.”
“I’m doing features now. Let’s get that straight.” Sikora smiles with mocking self-aggrandizement. “It doesn’t matter, though. You do the work. I’ve done music videos. Some of them I didn’t want to, but you have to make money.”
“Barely any money,” says Andrzejewski.
“I did OK,” says Sikora.
“Could you buy a house on it?” asks Andrzejewski.
“No, but I paid the rent.”
“It’s not a Hollywood feature, you know?”
“I’m just talking about paying the landlord,” says Sikora.
“My girlfriend who’s a producer of commercials, she’s always like, “Steve, why the fuck don’t you go direct commercials? You’ve got all the ingredients,”‘ says Andrzejewski. “I don’t want to direct them.”
“Do music videos,” shrugs Sikora.
“But then you have to break into a circle of five directors.”
“Oh, no,” counters Sikora.
“They rule Hollywood and they get every job.”
“Yeah, but we’re in Chicago.”
“Billy Graham’s got a fucking film company, and they make $1.5 million films to distribute in churches and schools,” says Andrzejewski. “They used to make $40,000 films; now they realize they have to market them. They’re all these “high school football player gets in trouble and finds God’ stories. I did locations for them. They’re all Christians, but they’re all Christians who drink beer and swear and smoke. But they all prayed. I called them and I said I’d love to work with them again, because they write these films and produce them for $1.5 million and they get seen all over the world in 34 countries. I’m trying to get this short film done, and it’s a nightmare. A year ago I’m trying to get $3 million for a feature. Now I’m just trying to get $20,000 for a short.”
“Come on, Steve,” Sikora says. “You love it, though.”
“Up and down,” sighs Andrzejewski. “Up and down.”
“You know something?” Sikora says. “I could bellyache about it, about all this stuff. But I’m really having the time of my life right now.”
Of all Sikora’s films, Bullet on a Wire has the greatest potential to vault him beyond his status as a hand-to-mouth, nickel-and-dime director. A hypnotic and stunningly well photographed study of a man who’s great at his job but a fuck-up in real life, it’s Sikora’s most ambitious work, and at the same time his most mature.
Once again, the opening credit sequence is deceptively simple and effective. Shooting out the passenger side of David Yow’s car with his Super-8 camera and photographing the power lines in the alley behind his apartment, Sikora creates a fascinating image of black lines either intersecting or never meeting, bringing to mind the overlapping chains of communication and miscommunication that Sikora will develop throughout the film. He says the inspiration for Bullet came from a number of themes he’d been thinking about for years.
“I always wanted to do something about telephone terrorism,” Sikora says. “It kind of sprang out of the idea that technology is eradicating privacy and how the individual is sublimated under the technology. And that is creating sociopaths. A lot of this technological sphere of existence in which we’re living creates sociopathic behavior. I find it very ironic that this network that supposedly brings the universe to your fingertips is somehow keeping us apart.”
All the themes and motifs in Sikora’s previous work are present here, but they are more fully realized. Characters speak to each other through barriers, whether a glass partition in a maximum-security prison, a window of a small house, or the wall that can exist between people of different worlds who are tossed together by unexpected circumstances. Sikora’s signature sense of objectivity and understatement is also at work here. The characters are particularly well-defined and idiosyncratic, with Jeff Strong, Lara Phillips, and Paula Killen delivering gripping performances. Though it contains a rocky moment or two, the script, which was cowritten by Joe Carducci, is Sikora’s strongest to date. And some of the shots, done either by Sikora or his director of photography John Terendy, are particularly memorable: a frightening close-up of Jeff Strong as Raymond, lumbering with mad intensity down a hallway before he makes a fateful crank phone call; an uncomfortably real and private scene of David Yow and Lara Phillips rolling around in bed in happier times; a lingering shot of Phillips and Strong speaking to each other via telephone with a glass wall between them at a prison. Bullet on a Wire has been selected as the closing-night feature at this month’s Chicago Underground Film Festival. With a few lucky breaks, there’s no reason why it couldn’t make an impact at a festival like Sundance.
And yet the process of making the film has been vintage Sikora, marked by both incredible luck and massive hardship. Because of the perfect timing of his shooting schedule, he was allowed to shoot in the Cook County correctional facility on Van Buren and Clark. Unsure of where to set the telemarketing business where Raymond pulls his credit-card scams, Sikora used an animal hospital in the basement of his building. With Wellesian low-budget ingenuity, he staged a fight among the cages, which gives the scene a cold and authentic feel. But then there were also troubles: A massively hectic seven-day shooting schedule. An exhausted and overworked crew on the verge of mutiny. An often underrehearsed cast.
“There wasn’t a hell of a lot of rehearsal,” says Paula Killen. “There wasn’t a hell of a lot of anything. We ate bologna sandwiches the whole time.”
Throughout the entire week of shooting, the words “difficult to work with” and “Sikora” always seemed to go together. And then there was that pesky budget issue. Originally hoping to make the film for $30,000, Sikora wound up with only $5,000. Unlike 99 out of 100 other filmmakers who would’ve held out until they got the budget they wanted, he decided to go for it anyway.
“Yeah, I suppose I could have held out and waited to make that picture, but then again I might never have made it,” he says. “I remember reading about Werner Herzog and he said that having no money is no excuse.”
We’re in Sikora’s apartment, having just finished watching the current version of Bullet. Now he’s got John McNaughton’s latest film, A Normal Life, on TV with the volume down. The Who Sell Out is on the stereo.
“It’s just you have to want to do it,” Sikora says. “It’s like if you have something you love, like if you’re in a relationship and it’s deeply troubled, but it’s still worth it. If you want it to work out, then it works out. I’ve had relationships I’ve given up on, but with my filmmaking I have had a tendency not to give up.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Jim Sikora by J. Alexander Newberry, photo of David Yow in “Bullet on a Wire”, photo of Jeff Strong in “Bullet on a Wire”, photo of Lara Phillips in “Bullet on a Wire”,photo of David Yow, Sikora, Strong, photo of Richard Kern and Sikora.