Facets’ Paul Gonter interviews three outstanding filmmakers whose films are featured in Full Spectrum Feature’s anthology Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 2, premiering May 14th at Facets Cinémathèque.
When one is able to view an intimate coming of age tale, a 70s horror throwback, and a visual meditation on the fall of print journalism back to back, you know you’ve found something truly unique and special. This is the kind of reputation Full Spectrum Features has gained over the years due to their commitment to supporting the work of women, LGBTQ, and minority artists within the Chicago film community.
With their newest collection of films, Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 2, having its world premiere at the Facets Cinémathèque on Saturday May 14th, it is clear that Full Spectrum is showing no signs of slowing down. With ten excellent shorts from ten marvelous filmmakers, we are treated to a wide range of stories, ideas, and talent, all embodying Full Spectrum’s overall mission to present unique voices. Many of these featured Chicago artists have seen their award-winning films screened all over the globe at festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca, Sundance, Berlin, Vienna, Rotterdam, and, of course, Chicago International Film Festival.
Before premiering the collection, Facets Digital Media and Project Coordinator Paul Gonter had the privilege of sitting down with three featured filmmakers – Lonnie Edwards, Mina Fitzpatrick, and Jim Vendiola – and Full Spectrum Features’ Program Director Dane Haiken, to discuss Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 2 as well as their films, inspirations, and the Chicago film scene. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paul Gonter: The mission of Chicagoland Shorts is to bring together the most original and innovative voices in Chicago. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all the films are about Chicago. I’d like y’all to discuss Chicago’s influence on your films and how important geographical location is for you when you approach a project?
Lonnie Edwards: So, when I did my first film Parietal Guidance, I shot it in 2013, and I hadn’t gone to film school, so I did not really know a lot of film people. So from my perspective, it didn’t seem as though there was a lot going on in Chicago.
But I just always wanted to create movies that showed different parts of the city that I grew up in. I think that Chicago has so many different layers in every part of town. You can shoot a film in any part of Chicago and it can be something completely different. I feel that a lot of other places don’t really offer that. It’s just a beautiful city, you know?
Mina Fitzpatrick: I’ve always been interested in the architecture of the city. What’s especially interesting in Chicago is that you can sense when areas are changing and undergoing a lot of variation in terms of how the space is being used. I shot Run of Press at the Chicago Tribune Center – it’s this humungous 30 acre plot of land on the Chicago River close to downtown – and I just had this sense, even before stepping foot in there, I knew it was going to be a changing space. I knew that it would probably not exist in the near future or it would be repurposed for something else.
A lot of the US economy right now is changing. What used to be industrial factories and what used to be the staple of how people made their living is changing. So for me, I was just interested in that kind of environment and what it would look like now. I really wanted to document that because I feel like its going to disappear very soon.
Jim Vendiola: Like Lonnie, I think I’m largely self-taught. I did not go to film school. I went to art school, and so I think my approach to filmmaking – especially in Chicago – has been pretty guerilla-style, sort of “run and gun.” There’s that sort of visceral charge of stealing shots and shooting in places without a permit, like I’ve shot on the L a bunch.
With Violets, the plot is a little more designed to be vague and not Chicago-specific. You can tell through certain elements of the production that it’s modern day, but it’s not supposed to be discernibly Chicago
Dane Haiken: Although, you did shoot at Garfield Park Conservatory.
JV: Yeah, and I was going to say that was the one sort-of “run and gun” thing we did. We shot in the Conservatory and my two actresses are kind of in this weirdly anachronistic costuming. We’re throwing ten bucks into the donation pile, my second shooter and I are building the camera rigs over by the bench and we’re like, “Okay let’s go.” We’re trying not to get other people in the shot.
There usually is this kind of element in all the films I’ve made in Chicago.
There’s a short I shot in 2010, Drift, where we did a similar thing at the Shedd Aquarium and then we also shot on the L for a while. We rode the Brown Line in a complete circle and just took the least populated car and filled it with a bunch of extras. I think that stuff is kind of fun.
PG: Y’all have worked with very small crews and are dealing with guerilla-style filmmaking to a certain extent, could you talk about this aspect of your work, especially considering how Chicago helps or hinders this?
DH: I mean, Mina didn’t do it guerilla-style, it was just you and one other person right?
MF: Most of the time it was me and on occasion I brought a couple people who wanted to see the space.
DH: One-woman band kind of thing?
MF: Exactly. I think my approach would be kind of impossible for the narrative films that Lonnie and Jim are shooting, even if you are really on the small scale or with a small crew. Like what Jim just described would be insane to do by yourself, getting all the extras on a train and shooting.
JV: I mean, admittedly, I’ve done it with two people and they’re usually pissed off at me by the time we’re done. But when it’s all over and we have the finished product, I think they’re a little more satisfied that we’ve done something lofty. But yeah, I should really work with bigger crews, I’m getting older and I’m not as spry.
DH: Lonnie, how big was your crew?
LE: We had five people including myself, which I guess is large in comparison. But there was also a shot in the film where a prop gun was used and a friend of mine is a police officer and he came on set, which was pretty cool.
I was super nervous about that because we were doing it the same way, like we snuck onto the train and all that. But to have two kids with a gun outside and no cop around, it would have been some crazy behind-the-scenes bonus footage of me getting arrested. But it worked out.
PG: Lonnie, you mentioned how when you first started making films, you didn’t see much going on in Chicago. I think that is why Chicagoland Shorts is so important, because it is helping to expose people to our vibrant film scene. How do y’all see Chicagoland Shorts helping out the scene in Chicago?
DH: The elevator pitch for Chicagoland Shorts is that the anthology brings together diverse voices and diverse genres. On the one hand, people might not be interested in niche work, except for people in that subculture. Like a dance festival, typically only people interested in dance would go. Everyone else in the population would think, “That’s not for me.”
Chicagoland Shorts gets around this problem by putting a dance film next to an observational doc. So within the Chicago community and, I suppose since we’re nationally touring the anthology, people across the country are going to say, “I didn’t think I’d like a dance film” or “I didn’t think I’d like an observational documentary that doesn’t feed me information.” We want to expose people to engaging voices and forms that are unfamiliar to them.
PG: That’s interesting, because there seems to be this curatorial urge to put together film programs based around a very specific theme. The audience then gets 6 to 12 films that are quite similar and there’s no element of surprise.
DH: Yes and that’s a challenge that I’ve constructed for myself as a programmer, when I’m trying to sell the anthology to other programmers, especially to other colleges and universities across the country. We want academic departments to co-sponsor the screenings, but if our program doesn’t have a theme they can latch onto then it’s harder to pitch.
On the other hand, it’s extremely essential to diversify, because this is a program that is showcasing what Chicago’s film community has to offer. I think it’s important that we show that there’s a variety, there is not just one type of thing going on in Chicago. There are many different types of people from different disciplines, different approaches to making films. Seeing that cross-section is a lot more important than saying, “Hey, everyone makes cop dramas in Chicago, come watch ‘em.”
We have like every Dick Wolf production going on, and nationally that’s what people know Chicago for. That and Empire, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD. Chicago Pediatrician is next.
Lonnie, Mina, Jim, you all can speak to this, but maybe the Chicago film community has a self-image issue compared to LA or New York.
LE: I think it’s different from when I initially entered into this realm. In the last year and a half I’ve been in pretty much every major Chicago film festival and I’ve noticed that there are a lot of great films from Chicago filmmakers. I think that the filmmakers here are starting to, I don’t want to say, “Get a chip on their shoulder,” but maybe?
I don’t see as many people leaving from the city as much as I used to, and I see more people shooting independent projects and not really latching onto Chicago PD and whatnot.
Being part of the Chicagoland Shorts and just seeing a little bit of the other films that I have, I see that Chicago does produce a lot of amazing films. This is true even in other cities. I was in the Pan African Film Festival and I saw a few really great films from Chicago filmmakers – and they still live here!
DH: Lonnie, I like that you’ve brought up this difference between independent projects and mainstream productions, because you find that a lot of film new waves come about due to a studio system gaining strength and then people pushing back against it.
Like New Hollywood in the 70s or the UCLA filmmakers like Charles Burnet and Julie Dash who were pushing against a white supremacist Hollywood system in the late 60s and early 70s. I think something similar is happening in Chicago right now, because there’s a pretty firm studio system that’s in place and really growing in Chicago. With that you have a pushback from independent film. The independent film community stands to gain everything from that, right?
JV: That’s what I feel like. That’s kind of something that Joe Swanberg did when you talk about Chicago filmmakers and how he used consumer grade equipment to make great films. That was really inspiring for me, because I had just moved to Chicago in like 2004 and a year or two later Swanberg released Kissing on the Mouth and the Greta Gerwig movies. I got really into that stuff and realized, like Dane said, that this is like New American Cinema or like the conversant way in which the Nouvelle Vague movement was making films with a single camera and non-actors.
That definitely inspired me to make Drift in 2010, the aforementioned, shot-stealing-aquarium-Brown-Line-thing, because it was largely improvisational. I think with that sort of stuff, someone plants that seed and the community sort of latches onto it or is inspired by it.
PG: I know we’ve just been talking about how the collection is so diverse, but I do think y’all’s films can broadly fit under the heading of “experimental” – in the sense that none of them take conventional or mainstream approaches to storytelling. But also in Stan Brakhage’s definition: experimental in the spirit of experimental science, where a filmmaker is trying to test a theory and push the limits of human understanding. So with that in mind, I want to hear about how you approached your film’s aesthetic, and then what films, filmmakers, or other artists have influenced you.
LE: There was a film that Flying Lotus did around the same time, Until the Quiet Comes, and it was very intriguing to me because I had already written Parietal Guidance. I saw Until the Quiet Comes and I was thinking to myself “this is really crazy” because it’s shot in a way that I liked.
I do most of my work with two guys, Daniel Stanush and Diego Chavez – they’ve done some amazing work – and what’s really cool about them and the way that we work together is that we have so many different styles. We are planning on shooting a lot of films in the future together as well, but this was our first film.
The idea for my next two pieces are completely different from this one, and if our names were not attached to them, you probably would have no idea it was us. For me, every bit of work that I do, I want to be different and just have a completely different style. Maybe, eventually I’ll fall into something that I’ll just continuously end up doing, but I’m a huge fan of just bringing in different senses. I want my films to be aesthetically pleasing in all different aspects.
Parietal Guidance is very heavy on music and very heavy on sounds. I just thought that doing it that way helped support the concept of the film. I wanted to be able to use a lot of different layers, because we’re talking about a character that brings a lot of different things together. She is learning as she goes along, so the audience can also attach to that as well.
PG: How much of the film was written, fully planned, and how much of the collage came organically or from your collaborators?
LE: There are two things that I am a huge fan of: I’m crazy about music and I’m crazy about photography. Matt Tuteur, the guy whose photography is in the film, he’s maybe my favorite Chicago photographer. He used to be a graffiti artist, and so he’d break into places and he’d tag stuff, and with his photography he literally took on that same perspective. He gets all of these insane shots in these insane situations.
So I just thought that was great because these perspectives are things that we can see ourselves, but a lot of people don’t pay attention to stuff like that on a daily basis. So seeing that in the film and the way Matt’s pictures flash by is like you saw it, but maybe you didn’t see it. We came up with that after the fact in post. But Diego thought it’d be a great thing to add and it worked out really well.
But as far as writing or anything that I do, I want to kind of do more of an improvisational thing where I’ll write out what I want to happen but then I won’t give the actors much dialogue, I’ll just shoot a bunch of stuff and give them what mood I want and then see how it goes.
JV: Speaking in terms of experimentation, I guess definitely the intent when I started writing and then again when I started figuring out how I was going to shoot Violets, was that I wanted to see how much I could take out plot-wise and still have it make sense. So I wrote two passes of a treatment and it’s such a simplistic narrative by design that by the second pass I was just like “this has to be it.” I can neither add nor remove any more without it affecting what I felt was the perfect balance.
In terms of influences, I think visually I was looking at Barry Lyndon. The natural light and between Barry Lyndon and The Shining and how that blown-out light in the windows, the fog filter, the Vaseline over lens really lends itself to what very much feels like a period piece. I was able to achieve that largely in-camera by sort of aping on Kubrick’s love of the super wide lens and throwing a Tiffen fog filter on there and just basically shooting with bounce boards. And I mean, obviously the night scenes were a little more deliberately lit but I think daylight was on our side for those three days it took to shoot.
DH: I remember you mentioned to me that you said the foggy look was to capture that 70s exploitation kind of look. Like sleazy, soft-core porn almost.
JV: Totally, I was definitely going for that. Visually it’s like a Kubrick thing but tonally it’s like a sleazy, soft-core porn thing. I’m super into old Brian De Palma, so like Sisters or other films like Rosemary’s Baby – slow burn, with ominous music. That kind of stuff.
PG: I also get a New Greek Cinema vibe from Violets, like Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth or Anthina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg.
JV: I’m a huge fan of Dogtooth and I think I was probably inspired by that to some degree, as well as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. I had written a treatment for Violets and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to shoot it yet and I think I saw Under the Skin maybe one or two months later and I was like, “Well okay, that’s the score I’m definitely going to use as a baseline” and just the pacing as well.
MF: I liked what Lonnie said about trying to make all of your films be different from each other. There’s this tendency to want to create a style for yourself and have a consistency of your work and that’s great, but there is such a huge benefit to experimenting with different styles. For me, Run of Press was really an experiment.
My prior films were character-based documentaries that focus on the person and follow their story. When I set out to shoot Run of Press, I really wanted to see how I could learn about a space or a subject without going into it with the mindset of, “I’m going to get these shots,” or “I’m going to tackle this issue,” or “I’m trying to create this scene.” I wanted to see for myself if I could just get into this “cinematography-zone” where I was just taking in what was around me and really experimenting with what was around me to the point of not filtering in different stimuli or filtering out things.
I guess there are some works that would have been inspiring for this. There is this Italian filmmaker Yuri Ancarani, he does a lot of work that is very rhythmic with beautiful cinematography. I was really drawn to that kind of approach and so I kind of took that into this piece.
After I started filming, a lot of people told me I should watch Jacques Tati. After I watched Playtime, I was like, “Wow this is kind of what I’m trying to do.” Though less story-based, but more in terms of how he was framing things, the kinds of shapes he was interested in, the rhythms of people walking, and the things that you hear in his films.
PG: Were you particularly interested in these industrial spaces before or is that something that you were experimenting with?
MF: Industrial spaces are pretty new to me for filming. I think I was drawn to this particular subject because I’m interested in documenting history and things that are going on in the world.
The issue of the print news industry and what’s going to happen to it is important to me. So when I heard about the Tribune and their huge facility, I started thinking about the possibilities. To me it was a bonus, like a double feature, because I got to talk about print media but also be in a space that was really visually stimulating.
DH: What is that shot at the end where it’s littered with paper? Is it the paper that has been cut wrong?
MF: It’s inside the factory. They have a recycling center. They have tons of waste so they just recycle it.
DH: That works really nicely at the end thematically, especially when you are asking that question about what’s going to happen to print and you see it discarded in a pile.
PG: Did y’all set out with a goal or specific idea that you wanted your audience to take away?
LE: Well, I approach film as a different format of art. When someone goes to a gallery or museum or something like that and they see pieces on display, everyone has their perspective on it. I feel like a lot of times with film, you’re kind of being guided by the filmmaker in a sense. In all of my pieces I want to create this very open thing where whoever watches the film, if I talk to you afterwards, you would have a different perspective or a different question that I never thought anyone would have asked me.
DH: Your film has this neat little trick, the audience is presented with a narrative and slowly pulled into this much more abstract, thoughtful space, you know?
LE: I used that “trick” in Lost Voices: A Ferguson Story, too. So that is one thing, I guess, that I’ll keep doing.
PG: There’s also a huge aspect of Parietal Guidance that is very consciousness-raising – it has a strong social justice aspect, and not in an overtly didactic way. You slowly nudge the viewer by posing important questions.
LE: Definitely, and 90% of the pieces I’ve written have a big social justice message to them. But I also really enjoy creating and enjoying films that I can watch over and over again and see something different that I didn’t see before. So I try to add all these different aspects to my films and I try to be very conscious of opening up perspectives.
JV: I think the initial kernels for Violets were a confluence of a few different ideas I had, one of them being that I shot largely with non-professional performers. The older sister is played by my friend Annie, whom I had previously cast in Drift, and the other sister is played by Cassie. I know them separately in my life. Annie’s a good friend of mine. We’ve had a couple of jobs together, and Cassie works at the salon where I get my hair cut. For years I’ve been like, “They look like sisters, I want to do a sisters thing, I think that would be great.”
The other component was my lifelong fascination with true crime and serial killers. I wondered what would interest Annie and Cassie enough to agree, but that I would also be interested in. So I did some research and I found the true account that inspired what ultimately became Violets, which is this 1930s provincial France incident where two women who work as housemaids inexplicably murder their employer.
I then realized after the fact, after I had started writing it, that it had been made and remade in all these other capacities. Jean Genet’s The Maids has the same source material, what I understand, that play deals with the sibling power play a little bit more heavily than mine does. Also I believe Claude Chabrol did one as well. I think it’s something that has fascinated people for a while and I’m glad to claim that I approached it in a different way still.
MF: I don’t know if I had an exact idea of what I wanted people to take away. I just wanted them to have an experience similar to what I was having. And my takeaway was that this is a space in decline, but it has a beautiful art to it.
PG: It’s definitely extremely beautiful and reminded me a lot of Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring. What struck me was not only your ability to capture these weird, beautiful moments and how the machines interact with each other, but how you capture and use sound. How did you approached the sound and was it always sync sound, or did you manipulate anything?
MF: I would say that probably 90% is not synched. I did a lot of the sound work myself, especially when I had someone with me to handle the camera. I just tried to focus on the different sounds I was hearing and capture them. Since it’s so loud in there, I had to get really close to certain sounds. It was really as simple as which direction you are pointing the mic in a really large room and you’ll get a completely different sound.
I did add some sounds, like there’s paper crunching. So, there are very minimal foley elements. I tried to do it all on set there so I’d know that I wanted a certain sound and I’d go and capture that.
PG: There is this question that is asked regularly in artist interviews, but I think it is answered wrong a lot of the time. An interviewer will ask a writer, Why do you write? And there is usually some near-trite answer about the anxiety of the blank page or their overflowing need to get ideas down, etc.
For me, these answers miss the point of the question. So I’m going to ask the same question, but with some padding: Why do you make films? As in, instead of making a painting, or writing poetry, or sculpting – why film?
LE: I think for a lot of us, myself in particular, a lot of things that you mentioned – the other forms of art – are exactly that. We sculpt films together. It’s our art form that we use.
I grew up heavy into illustration and I went to school for it and I really liked it. At one point in my life I started deciding to become an adult, so, I kind of moved away from that and I fell into this sort of mundane full time job lifestyle after I attended Northwestern. I went to school for psychology and I worked at a company in their human resources department doing a lot of data analysis. Anyhow, my best friend actually talked me into getting into film. She knew that I’d written a lot of scripts and I’ve always loved movies, but I never really thought it was something that I could do.
So I put out a play and it did really well. Then I put out a couple more and those did well, too. So I tried to pitch these scripts that I had to people, but they were like, “Who the hell are you supposed to be? You didn’t go to film school, we don’t know who you are.” So I just decided to do it myself, and it worked out a lot better than if I did it the other way.
I’ve just always been drawn to art and I was really just running away from my calling as a filmmaker. When I finally decided that it was something that I was naturally talented at and something I really loved doing and I completely immersed myself into it, all these other things kind of started to happen. Within the last two years, I’ve gotten to speak at a lot of schools and universities and become a mentor to people.
JV: I’ve always been interested in film and I think it was right around age 14 or age 15 that I saw Pulp Fiction. It opened a new world for me, something a lot different from the Cineplex stuff I grew up watching. It also seemed accessible. It seemed like something I could do. It also inspired me in terms of my early script writing and got me into the films that influenced Tarantino – getting into those deep cuts of independent cinema.
When it came time for college, I think motivation-wise I wasn’t quite ready for the rigidity of a film school. So I just sort of dabbled in a bunch of things that ultimately contributed to how I work now, and what I value and what I aim to say as a filmmaker. During undergrad, I did the sort of English lit/creative writing thing, and then I thought I wanted to minor in psychology, and then I thought photography was the better option. I ultimately got a degree in graphic design. But I think all of those aspects culminate in the image-making/story-telling component of filmmaking.
MF: I think I relate to how Jim found this point where film was accessible to him. There’s this tendency where everyone loves films when they’re younger, but they don’t always think that it is something they could do. I just had no idea how you’d even start to make a film, so it’s really something that didn’t even enter into my mind until after college.
I studied political science and I was interested in social issues and making the world a better place, and I discovered there was this thing called documentary film that wasn’t so outlandishly huge that I couldn’t tap into. I realized I could do something with a camera and very few people and not a whole lot of previous knowledge.
I feel like now its kind of crazy to have the privilege to want to push a form and make it something different whether that’s for myself or different people, not to just accept something you’ve become interested in but to say, “Well documentary can be this thing or we can start fusing narrative and doc-style or we can start encouraging people to tell different kinds of stories visually, in whatever way.” It’s been kind of a short run so far for me, but I’ve been enjoying the constant challenge that film presents.
Lonnie Edwards’ debut film Parietal Guidance, which also features his daughter Alinah in the lead role, is an intimate coming of age film following a young teenage girl who uses calming music to drown out the violence and decay of the Chicago streets surrounding her. Follow him on Twitter @Neorevivalist
Jim Vendiola’s film Violets is a throwback to late 60s/early 70s slow-burn horror/exploitation films, following two sisters (who may or may not be from this time period) as they slowly and ambiguously move towards an act of violence. Find out more about Jim’s work at his website.
Mina Fitzpatrick’s short documentary ‘Run of Press’ focuses on the day-to-day operations of the Chicago Tribune Printing Center. Told visually, with no dialogue, the film explores themes such as man’s relationship to machine and the gradual decline of print journalism.
Interview was conducted on April 26, 2016. A giant thank you goes out to James Breslin for transcribing and editing.