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Action Heroes

26 people who make films happen in Chicago—plus three newcomers making their mark

(page 3 of 5)

From left to right: LaBute, Vaughn, Ebert


Director/screenwriter, 45

Three years after probing the depths of human cruelty in his 1997 debut, In the Company of Men, producers asked the Barrington resident if he’d direct an offbeat comedy called Nurse Betty. He said yes, and the movie got nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes. LaBute now channels his personal projects onto the stage, while directing movies such as The Wicker Man and Lakeview Terrace. “It’s getting harder to make films that aren’t exactly what a studio might be looking for,” says LaBute. When he tried to morph Lakeview Terrace from a thriller into a study of race relations, some complained that the movie became a thriller in the final reel. “Dude, it was always a thriller,” LaBute says, laughing. “These guys weren’t going to let us make anything but a thriller.”


Actor/producer, 38

Vaughn’s unlikely ascent from goofy sidekick to one of cinema’s most popular leading men seems as if it had happened overnight. But it’s been 13 years, dozens of movies, and Lord-knows-how-many paparazzi since Vaughn’s 1996 breakthrough in Swingers. Now, according to Forbes, he’s Hollywood’s “best star for the buck.” The Lake Forest native’s next film, 2009’s Couples Retreat, pairs him again with Jon Favreau, his frequent collaborator and fellow alum of Chicago’s Improv-Olympic. Vaughn spends much of his time in L.A., but he keeps a home downtown. In a recent story, Esquire asked him to choose between the Cubs and Sox. He refused, obviously unwilling to risk alienating even one resident: “Because I love Chicago most of all.”


Film critic, Chicago Sun-Times, 66

Film geeks love to lament that after Ebert’s 40-plus years at the Sun-Times, the Urbana native has gone “soft.” We disagree. Whether speaking out on film criticism itself or using Ben Stein’s film Expelled to kick-start a debate about evolution, Ebert pulls no punches. No Chicagoan has written more about movies in the past four decades—and he’s never been afraid to take chances, as when he reviewed Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties from the cat’s point of view. The loss of his voice due to cancer has done nothing to slow Ebertfest, his Champaign-based film festival. In a recent review of Synecdoche, New York, Ebert wrote, “If we don’t ‘go to the movies’ in any form, our minds wither and sicken.” It’s safe to say that hasn’t happened to Ebert. If anything, his voice is louder than ever. 


Director, 64

When Peter Thompson was 35, his father committed suicide. That tragedy 29 years ago sent the Columbia College professor searching for Super 8 film of his father. He found only 12 seconds’ worth, but stretched them out to 17 minutes and added narration. When he expanded it to include his mother, the resulting film, Two Portraits, moved audiences to tears. Thompson, who once studied guitar with Andrés Segovia, has since made documentaries on Nazi experiments (Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen) and a Mayan shaman (El Movimiento)—leading The Reader’s eclectic former critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to call Thompson “perhaps the most original and important Chicago filmmaker you never heard of.” Now a grandfather of ten and the owner of a documentary film production company called Chicago Media Works, Thompson has just completed Lowlands, which asks how Vermeer created tranquil art even as war raged outside his home in the Netherlands.


Programming director, Gene Siskel Film Center, 61

Barbara Scharres is so dedicated to finding good movies that she has flown to Tehran eight times in search of Iran’s best new films. After making experimental short films herself, Scharres began working at the School of the Art Institute’s film center (now in the Loop, known as the Siskel Center) in 1974. Eventually her focus became deciding what films to project. Long before Jackie Chan was a household name in the United States, Scharres launched an annual festival here dedicated to Hong Kong cinema. “One of the most satisfying things was to see how audiences went wild over it,” she says. These days, the Siskel Center’s calendar is crammed with some 40 titles every month, including rarities and classics you won’t see on the big screen anywhere else.


Director, Facets Multimedia, 59

Stehlik, a Prague native, had a simple motivation for starting Lincoln Park’s art-film sanctuary in 1975. “The only way to see the films I wanted to see was to show them,” he says. Facets has screened films from the frontiers of foreign and offbeat cinema ever since. When Stehlik’s nonprofit branched out into video in 1983, purists scoffed. “They said, ‘How can you show it on that horrible VHS or Beta?’” he recalls. “For us, it was just another means of delivery.” With 65,000 titles, Facets is now one of the world’s biggest video rental stores, with its own DVD label. These days, Stehlik, who doubles as a film commentator on WBEZ’s “Worldview,” is excited about the classes and summer film camps at Facets: “We’re engaging young kids in the possibilities of cinema.”


Managing director, Illinois Film Office, 43

Last June, Steinberg was meeting with studio suits in California when she learned Johnny Depp was filming Public Enemies at her Old Town apartment building. “I said, Johnny Depp is going to be in my house all day and I’m stuck in L.A.? No!” But Steinberg’s bad luck meant her work—marketing Illinois to Hollywood studios—had paid off. In 2007, she helped the state pull in $155 million, more than ever before, thanks to blockbusters like The Dark Knight, which created 4,500 jobs for Illinoisans. “Film is not just about red carpet events,” says Steinberg, a former television development executive for The History Channel. “Behind the beautiful people are painters and welders doing hard work.” Illinois officials hope that a new film tax credit will help the state stay competitive  in attracting productions. Steinberg’s dream is bigger. “I also want to foster an indigenous community that will stand onits own despite the whims of Hollywood.”


Owner, MPI Media Group, 56

When Waleed and Malik Ali began selling videos in 1976, not much was available. The brothers began distributing documentaries for schools. They snapped up the rights to horror flicks as well as historical footage, inking a deal with Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate. As the video industry began to explode, they built an independent empire that today licenses and distributes movies— all from south suburban Orland Park. MPI’s recent Blu-ray release of the cult classic Baraka, which employed high-res scanning, led Roger Ebert to call it “the finest videodisc I have ever viewed or ever imagined.” And 20 years after financing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, MPI is producing films again, with The House of the Devil coming soon. Since Waleed’s death in 2003, Malik has run the show. “Every day, I say, ‘I wonder what he would do,’” he says. “His office is still untouched.”


Photography: (Scharres) Candice C. Cusic/Chicago Tribune; (Thompson) Courtesy of Peter Thompson; (Stehlik) E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune; (Steinberg) Bob Coscarelli

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