Facets talks with Michael Caplan about his new documentary Algren: The Movie, a love song and much needed biography for Nelson Algren, a forgotten American literary genius.
Revered by Ernest Hemmingway and Richard Wright, a lover and intellectual companion to Simon de Beauvoir, and a powerful influence on Billy Corgan and Stephen Elliott, Nelson Algren might appear like a recognizable, if not canonical, American writer. Surprisingly, he is not. While he found commercial success and artistic acclaim during the late 1940s and early 1950s with his novels Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wilde Side, Algren fell into relative obscurity from the 1960s until his death. Maybe this was due to Algren’s stubbornness towards self promotion, his eventual distrust of mainstream publishers, or, as Colin Asher put it in The Believer, maybe “Algren was the type of loser this country just can’t stomach.”
Thankfully there has been a recent revival of interest in Algren, and his writings are finally back in print, including work from his forgotten post-Wild Side career. Michael Caplan’s Algren: The Movie brings a new and much needed layer to the conversation about Algren’s life and career. Through rigorous research, Caplan creates a collage of interviews, archival footage & audio, and Art Shay’s iconic photographs to rediscover Algren.
We had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Michael Caplan about his experience making the film and his relationship with Algren’s writing.
Facets: In a 2009 interview with the Chicagoist, you mention that you’ve always felt a connection with Algren’s work but the impetus for the film came from a meeting between you and photographer Art Shay, whose photographs of Algren are featured in the film. Before the decision to make Algren, how did Algren’s work influence you either personally or artistically?
Michael Caplan: I think he influenced me as a person and how I saw myself as an artist in a bigger picture. What has always interested me was making films about people who were off-the-radar. I was always drawn to those types of people, but Algren helped push me further in that direction — since his writing is about the people that we don’t pay attention to, that are either off to the side or at the bottom.
Facets: Would you say that your other films focus on marginalized people or topics that aren’t often talked about?
Michael: I wouldn’t say all my films necessarily, but certainly the films that I produced in the 1990s, which were feature fiction films — they definitely did. They were focused on the lesbian and gay communities and one about African-Americans. But in my documentary work, it’s not so much the dispossessed that I am interested in, but the quirky or the untold stories.
Facets: Which still has a similar weight to subjects outside the mainstream.
Michael: Outside the norm, off the beaten track, although not necessarily marginalized per se. Like my documentary A Magical Vision about Eugene Burger, an avant-garde magician — it’s focused on a subject that is a little off-the-beaten-track rather than about marginalized people.
Facets: On a basic level, Algren is a biography. Biographers easily become mouthpieces for their subjects and are sometimes expected to answer questions in their stead. I assume you’ve been asked questions like, “What would Algren do or say in such and such situation?” After completing the film do you feel like you’re in a position to answer these types of questions?
Michael: It is a weird thing because I didn’t think that I would become an expert. I mean, that wasn’t my goal going in, but now I can certainly say that there are few people who know as much as I do about Algren. It’s a small number within a small number: if you take Algren’s fans and then take the people who really know his work, know his life, it’s not a huge number. So in that sense, I guess I’m an expert.
But to answer your question, it does get a little strange to try to answer in his stead. I feel like I’m better served by talking about the details of his life that I know, the people that he’s impacted, and the reverberation that his work has had and still continues to have. That is more important to me, rather than speculating about what Algren would think about the Chicago of today. I mean, because the world has changed significantly since 1981 when he died.
Facets: Has your position as an Algren expert changed your relationship to Algren’s life and work?
Michael: Well, I never really returned to his work in that sense. I think on one level I’m much more in awe of the craft of his work. I knew he wrote emotionally evocative work, but it didn’t hit me just how much care he put into his writing and how much he really saw himself as a writer’s writer. His work ethic also made an impression, the fact that he was so driven to be a regular, daily writer, a true working writer. His passion to do the type of work he was doing also comes across more to me now: how it was important to him from an artistic perspective but also from a social perspective.
Facets: Algren had a long production history, it was conceived around 2009, and then you ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2011, culminating in its premier this past year at the 50th annual Chicago International Film Festival. Did the project take many different forms through the years?
Michael: Five years is a norm for me and I certainly have a lot of colleagues who take more time. Recently, I went back to look at my notes from 2010 and some of the themes are definitely the same: Algren’s importance in American literature, his influence on other artists and writers, and his focus and dedication to his work. I was aware of these major themes pretty early on.
In terms of some of the specifics, there were definitely textures that emerged as the film developed, like Algren’s sense of humor, the amount of work that he produced in the 60s — which is pretty much overlooked — and the amount of travelling that he did. Again, most people who know Algren think of him as a Chicago writer, but he travelled quite a bit in the 60s and 70s: to Japan, to Taiwan, to Ireland, to France. And he wrote about those experiences. So in the film, we spend some time on this whole other side of his career to show how it was longer than what most people think. Algren is usually seen as someone who emerged in the late 1940s and was pretty much done by the late 1960s.
Facets: Getting an independent documentary funded can be hard, especially when you’re dealing with an obscure subject. To help fund Algren, you used Kickstarter. Even though the campaign was not successful do you think it was a worthwhile experience?
Michael: Well, it’s funny because Kickstarter has the contingency that if you don’t hit the goal you don’t get any of the money. Since we didn’t reach our goal, we didn’t succeed within their parameters. But in reality it worked out for us, because after the campaign had “failed,” we wrote everybody and told them they could still donate through our website and we actually got most of the money that had been promised. With some additional funding from private sources, we were able to complete the production.
But the reality is, I don’t know anybody making independent documentaries who doesn’t have a hard time raising money, and I think the fact that Algren was someone off the radar didn’t help us. Documentaries that are more “historical” usually have a slightly harder time finding funding anyhow. I think the docs that tend to have an easier time getting funded are the ones that deal with contemporary social issues. And that’s great, I think they should. I don’t think they should be the only ones, but they absolutely deserve the attention.
Facets: Do you think the crowd-funding model is a viable alternative for filmmakers who exist on the margins and wouldn’t find funding otherwise or do you think it’s something that will become another tool to produce mainstream films?
Michael: If you look at the numbers for crowd-funding, Kickstarter will say that something like 55% of their projects get funded, but what is overlooked is that the average amount raised is under $10,000. That kind of money can be a modest supplement, but won’t be able to fund most full productions. And obviously there are big success stories that we hear about, but those are the exceptions.
When I was growing up in the late 1980s, early 1990s, it was all about Spike Lee or John Sayles or Tarantino. To me, crowd-funding is similar to that production climate: it makes the world of independent film more visible, but it doesn’t mean that every filmmaker will get their project produced.
I think what is more exciting is the ability for filmmakers or any other artists to connect with their audience before their work is even finished by using social media. From pre-production all the way to distribution, we are now able to connect with our audience and have them feel connected with the project. We are also able to find a fan-base or start to build a fan-base before the film is even released. That’s a pretty tremendous thing.
Facets: Continuing with this idea of connecting with your audience — the release of Algren is part of a recent rediscovery of Algren’s work. How do you think the film has added to this rediscovery?
Michael: Oh gosh, that I don’t know. I’d need other people to tell me that. I think there are always waves of people finding and re-finding certain artistic icons or cultural trends. I hope in the next couple years we’ll be a big part of that.
The reality is that people are more likely to watch a movie than read a biography. It’s just part of our era. Hopefully this rediscovery is also emblematic of people finding literature or art or music or films that speak to them instead of falling back on the typical Hollywood model.
Facets: Something interesting about rediscovering an artist is that the source functions as a way for people to find out about the subject’s life and work, but it also creates another layer on top of their life and work. A new way of seeing or interpreting both.
Throughout the film, most, if not all, of the commentators mention how Algren’s work affected them so much because he was writing about real people in a way that rang true. With his novels, Algren is able to fictionalize reality to the extent that it seems real. When making Algren, how did you approach the differences between the fiction and the “truth,” were both held at different or equal weight?
Michael: There’s the work that Algren did and there’s the life that he lived, there was a certain overlap but they weren’t the same. One of the things that I always felt about Algren, even before I first read him, was that he walked the walk, lived the life that he wrote.
By the end of making the film, I understood that this was basically true, but it wasn’t entirely true. He certainly could go to the North Shore and Lake Shore Drive and go to fancy parties. And he came from a middle class family that got a BA in journalism. So he was able to move between largely different social circles, but what is important is that he chose to spend most of his time with the dispossessed rather than the well-off.
I also came to appreciate how intensively he wanted to create these pieces of literature as literature. He was aware of the craft of writing and in that sense he’s not like many people. I think Russell Banks said it better than anybody in the documentary: it was the people Algren wrote about and the way he wrote about them. Algren couldn’t just be a journalist and write about how people lived, he wrote literature that also reflected the truths of these worlds that he lived within.
There was nothing false about it, either. He wasn’t just a cultural tourist, he wasn’t just checking in and saying, “Hey, look at this!” Which was one of his complaints about the Beat poets, although he later came to like Burroughs quite a bit, but he felt like the Beats were fake, like “Oh, let’s check this out, it will be fun.”
Facets: If Algren was able to walk the walk and talk the talk, it seems that the film adaptations of his books lost this genuineness. The Man with the Golden Arm was adapted by Otto Preminger in 1955 and A Walk on the Wild Side by Edward Dmytryk in 1962. While both were commercially successful, Algren viewed them as failures. Do you think there is a director, living or dead, who would be in tune enough with Algren to be able to properly adapt his work?
Michael: I think in terms of people who actually knew him and were in the film, either Philip Kaufman or William Friedkin could have done a better job or still could do a better job. I would love to be able to pursue some kind of adaptation of one of his books or short stories. When I think of people of the slightly younger generation, I’d say David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, could definitely be able to reproduce that vibe. I feel like The Wire is one of the best “Algren-esque” TV shows out there.
Facets: In the film you interviewed a wide variety of really wonderful people that were either personal friends of Algren or were influenced by him. You just mentioned William Friendkin and Philip Kaufman, but Billy Corgan, John Sayles, Denise DeClue, and Suzanne McNear were also featured. How did you approach them to get them involved with the project?
Michael: You asked me a little while back what changed throughout the production history, and one of the things that changed was realizing how many people were out there who had known Algren. When we first started, I was concerned that most of them would be deceased at this point. So just by finding out who was out there, who knew him, and who was connected to him, was part of the discovery process.
In some cases, especially with the fans of Algren, people like Billy Corgan or Wayne Kramer or Stephen Elliot, this was just more happenstance while we were doing research. Then it was just a matter of who knows whom. We had a feeling that if we could reach out to them, then they would be happy to be involved.
The one thing that was consistent was once we sat down to talk, the passion and the excitement that came across were huge. It was like people who knew knew and now it’s our job to let everyone else know what we had already known, which was: if you don’t know Algren’s work, then you don’t know American literature, you don’t know where it came from.
Facets: What’s next? Any new projects that you’re working on right now?
Michael: I don’t have a specific project. We’re actually looking at three or four ideas. I’d love to do some short pieces about other Chicagoans, because there are a number of people who are, like Algren, hanging out off the grid and have some pretty interesting stories.
Honestly, I just want to spend most of the next year working on getting Algren out to world. What we’d really want to do is to be able to connect to people, just go from city to city, because we know we could get a crowd and be able to spread the world on the big screen before we go for the small screen.
Check out Algren at the Music Box Theatre on March 3rd & again from March 28-30.
Michael Caplan is a Chicago-based independent film director, producer, and teacher. His films have shown at festivals around the world. His most recent film, Algren: the Movie premiered at the 50th Annual Chicago International Film Festival and his 2008 feature length documentary, A Magical Vision, won the Audience Award at the Spirit Enlightened Film Festival. Caplan also directed Stones from the Soil, a documentary about his father that aired nationally on PBS in 2005. He is an Associate Professor in the Cinema Art + Science Department at Columbia College Chicago.
All photos of Algren by Art Shay.
Interview was conducted by Paul Gonter on January 27, 2015. It has been edited for continuity and clarity. A big ‘thank you’ goes out to Thavary Krouch for setting the interview up; Chris Houkal, Tu Nguyen, and Anna Siemienkiewicz for all their research; and an extra-special thanks Anna for transcribing and editing.