3:11 PM PDT, October 25, 2012
The one art house cinema in town to regularly spotlight the work of local filmmakers, the Siskel Film Center, brings back a handful of its more popular Chicago-made films of the last year, including "Band of Sisters," the documentary about nuns' views on Vatican II that I wrote about in this space last month (screening Nov. 16-21). This week marks the return of "The Wise Kids," Stephen Cone's wry coming-of-ager about religion and sexual identity (through Nov. 1). A recent transplant to Los Angeles, Cone is finishing work on his latest film (co-starring Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton), but will be in town for post-show discussions this weekend.
Also making a return for one night, Monday, is the slow-burn psychological thriller "Into the Wake" (filmed in Chicago and Wisconsin's Sauk County) about a grizzled if mellowed-out working-class guy reluctantly pulled back into an ugly feud between families in the small town where he was raised.
The look of the film (which screened over the summer) belies its price tag; the production values are first-rate and suggest that low-budget filmmaking doesn't have to look cheap. Director and co-writer John Mossman told me his budget was around $60,000, far below the $100,000 threshold that qualifies a project for the state's tax credit.
"I spent so much time when I started out on crews, working as a sound guy or a lighting guy," he said when we spoke about the film's polished look. "The one hindrance to a lot of directors is that, of all the people on a crew, we're the ones who've spent the least amount of time on a set — and if you don't know the quality of your crew's work, then you might end up with some terrible surprises come postproduction. Like, you didn't know that boom guy was pointing the microphone in the wrong direction. Or the lighting is too bright. I've had a lot of experience with that, so I know what to look out for and that was an advantage."
The story's origins, he said, were derived from a recurring dream that "I had buried somebody that I didn't kill."
"It was a real panic-inducing experience to have this dream," Cone said. "I went to my brother and we talked about it, and he goes, 'Oh yeah, the dream where you've buried somebody that you didn't kill, and every day a little more of them disappears into earth but there's always a trace of your guilt there? Yeah, I have that dream too.' Which is really crazy and really weird."
There are no disputes in Mossman's family history that would explain the shared dream. It's just one of those things. But after Mossman made the film, the dreams stopped. He and writing partner Tim Miller (who also stars) did a good deal of research on violent family feuds and found that the Hatfields and McCoys are hardly the only clans to be caught in a trap of their own making. "Feuds like this are all over," Mossman told me. "They're in the South, they're up in Canada. Molotov cocktails going through windows. It usually starts over some animal or border dispute. Something stupid, and usually no one can remember how the feud started."
In the movie, the impact these ongoing disputes have on future generations is summed up in a brief but indelible scene, of a little boy pushed out of the frame as a group of men walk past him, carrying shotguns and shovels. "That's Tim's son, who was maybe 2 or 3 when we filmed," Mossman said. "It was hard to wrangle him, he kind of did what he wanted. But when he saw these guys come — the way that he regarded them as they came in and suddenly became really aware of their weapons and shovels — watching that happen was like being inside one of my dreams."
Mossman chose rural Wisconsin locations (where the latter half of the film takes place) not far from where he grew up. "I think it's beautiful and undiscovered in certain ways, and I wanted to make something that showed the personality of it ... the hills and the banks and the bluffs. My brother is a biologist up there, so he knows every single nook and cranny. I'd say, 'I need a cave,' and he'd go out and find a cave. During that scene where we're supposed to be digging for the body, if anyone came by, the official word was that we were taking soil samples."
As co-founder of the Artistic Home, Mossman is a Chicago theater veteran (he is now in the Seanachai production of "In Pigeon House") and he cast the film mostly with local theater actors. That's unusual; one of Chicago's more baffling realities is the disconnect that exists between the film and theater communities in town.
"I teach filmmaking at Columbia (College Chicago), and I'm constantly talking about getting more theater people involved as actors," Mossman told me. "I did a panel yesterday at the Chicago International Film Fest with foreign filmmakers, and every one of them said they went to see theater in their towns to find their actors. That doesn't happen as much here, and I don't know why. I put out a casting notice (for student films) on our theater website just the other day, and it's gotten more hits than any other page on our website, which tells me people are looking for film opportunities, but they maybe don't know quite how to do it."
Mossman, by the way, will be at Monday's screening for a post-show discussion. "My favorite part is always the Q&A," he said. "Once you get past the questions of what did you shoot on and how much did it cost, you get to the meatier stuff. There's a lot of ellipses in this film; it's shaved to a bare minimum, and leaves a lot for the audience to fill in so the discussions usually go to motivation and story."
"Into the Wake" screens at 7:45 p.m. Monday at the Siskel Film Center. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/intothewake.
Film fest: Iran
The monthlong 23rd annual Festival of Films from Iran at the Siskel Film Center continues this week with screenings of "No Men Allowed" (a farce set in an all-girl high school that hires a male substitute teacher) and a double bill that includes "Reluctant Bachelor" (a documentary about the filmmaker's uneasy family life) and "My Home" (a documentary about the quest for an affordable condo in pricey Tehran). Through Nov. 1 at siskelfilmcenter.org/iran2012.
Film fest: Israel
The Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema is organized by theme, including "The Poland-Israel Connection" and "Life Changing Moments." Film critic and former Chicagoan Jan Lisa Huttner (author of "Penny's Picks: 50 Movies by Women Filmmakers 2002-2011") will conduct a Q&A after the 3:30 p.m. Sunday screening of "The Fifth Heaven" (nominated for five Israeli Academy Awards), about a 13-year-old girl deposited by her family at an orphanage on the outskirts of Tel Aviv in 1944. The fest runs through Nov. 4 at AMC Northbrook Court. Go to chicagofestivalofisraelicinema.org.
Film fest: Englewood
In its second year, the Englewood Film Festival includes screenings of the Bernie Mac doc "I Ain't Scared of You" and the highly regarded "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," which originally aired on ESPN as part of its "30 for 30" series. Also on tap is the documentary "Walls that Bleed: The Story of the Dudley-A&T Student Uprising,", about the 1969 Greensboro civil rights protests that led to a three-day battle between protesters and police and the North Carolina National Guard. Through Sunday at englewoodfilmfest.com.
Film fest: Kids
The 29th Chicago International Children's Film Festival features 240 entries. Screenings of the stop-motion animated comedy-horror film "ParaNorman" will be followed by a zombie costume contest and a Q&A with Laika studio's Mark Shapiro, who will explain the inner workings of the studio's stop-motion workshop. Through Nov. 4 at
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