Something Wicker This Way Comes

By Cara Jepsen

Two years ago Greg Pritikin and Gary Rosen had high hopes for their screenplay “Spaced Out,” about a ne’er-do-well hipster recruited as a smart-drink poster boy. Egged on by an independent producer who told them he’d found an investor to put up $250,000 to shoot the film, the pair began auditioning actors, organizing a crew, and waiting for the producer to finalize the deal.

“He kept saying how close he was to getting the financing,” says Rosen. “But little by little our film fantasy would give way to patches of lucidity. This guy would not call us back, or when he did he would talk about how difficult it was to hammer out the details of the tax situation or the liability issue.” Rosen and Pritikin, who were living in San Francisco, decided to investigate the situation on their own. They found the investor’s address in Chicago, flew in, and bribed his doorman $20 for his beeper number. When they finally spoke to him, he “treated us like we were offering him a free plague,” Rosen recalls. The two went back to the producer, who refused to see them. It became obvious that there never had been any deal.

Humiliated, Pritikin and Rosen left San Francisco for Chicago, their hometown, and ceremoniously torched the script in a grill on the back porch of their new apartment. Then they holed up for two months to begin writing their next movie.

Pritikin and Rosen have been writing together since the fifth grade. At Highland Park High School they wrote and directed an admittedly awful hospital musical about a mad scientist who discovers a cure for the common cold. They went their separate ways after graduation in 1987, but hooked up again when Rosen sent Pritikin an early draft of the ill-fated “Spaced Out.” Their new film, Totally Confused, is a comedy about a trio of hipsters in Wicker Park, where Pritikin has lived on and off for the past few years since his return. It centers around–what else?–a musician named Johnny (played by Pritikin) who works at the Quaker Goes Deaf. His manager, Murray, repeatedly breaks his promises but assures him that his album is wowing them in Greenland. Johnny’s best friend, the sexually uncertain Wiley (Rosen), works at Myopic Books and is addicted to pornography. Johnny’s girlfriend, played by Jackie Katzman, is a sensible veterinary student. The scenesters drink at Marie’s Riptide Lounge, sing karaoke and crowd into the photo booth at the Holiday Club, and eat at the Earwax. Channel Five’s Dick Kay makes an appearance as Wiley’s father, and members of Veruca Salt have cameo roles.

The humor in Totally Confused ranges from high satire to banal bathroom gags. It’s also full of good-natured barbs directed at the increasingly stale Wicker Park scene. For example, the film shows Johnny playing his guitar only once. “We didn’t want the audience to know how bad his music is,” says Pritikin. “It’s part of the Wicker Park wannabe scene–you have all of these poets and artists and musicians, but you never see anybody actually do anything.”

The two share a similar sense of humor, which helped them both on the set (they codirected the film) and during the writing process. “If you look at the script, you couldn’t tell where I stopped and Greg’s line started,” says Rosen. “It was kind of like The Dick Van Dyke Show when we wrote it. We’d write something and present it and see if the other person laughed.” Some of the more sensitive material, such as a clumsy love scene between Johnny and Wiley near the end of the film, was improvised.

The film’s financing was also cobbled together. With just $10,000 in hand, they presented themselves to line producer Bob Fagan, who had experience working on commercials and some low-budget movies. Fagan diplomatically suggested they use their money to make a trailer to show investors. “I didn’t want to be a naysayer, but I did say I wasn’t interested,” he says. “Then I read the script and thought it was the best thing I’d read in a really long time. I figured they were going to get it done whether I helped or not.”

The film was shot over 19 days last January and February with a core crew of 15 people and about 15 part-timers. “People in Chicago were excited to work on a feature. They make a lot of money working on commercials, but they’re miserable,” says Pritikin. Director of photography Alan Thatcher, whom Pritikin and Rosen found after advertising on an Internet newsgroup, was a veteran of the advertising scene but had also helped out on the movies Normal Life and Love Jones. Pritikin and Rosen auditioned actors for the roles of Johnny and Wiley but ultimately decided to cast themselves. “It was our first film, and we were pinning a lot of hopes on it,” says Rosen. “We knew we would show up for three weeks every day. It’s hard to get people to take three weeks off work and not pay them anything at all.”

A rough cut went over well at some test screenings last fall. The movie has undergone extensive changes since then, especially to the sound track–expensive licensing fees convinced Pritikin and Rosen to dump some of the big-name bands in favor of lesser-known groups such as the Girls, the Joy Poppers, and Rex Daisy, some members of which also happen to be friends of theirs from Highland Park.

Three weeks ago the pair learned that their film was one of eight chosen by the Independent Feature Project to represent the United States at the Berlin film festival, causing yet another scramble for cash. The two need $25,000 to make a projection-quality print of the film to show at the festival next week.

“We never allowed ourselves to think of what to do if it got into a good festival,” says Rosen. “We knew the most important thing was to get it into the can, get it shot. Then at least we’d have some credibility to raise the rest of the money.” This week the two are having a private benefit to raise it. “The money will certainly come,” says Rosen. “But whether it comes in time is the question.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Greg Pritikin, Gary Rosen photo by Nathan Mandell.