Regardless of Chicago’s ebbs and flows in the film industry, a dedicated core of locals continue to make, preserve, and celebrate movies. Thanks to the success of The Dark Knight—and the recent passage of a film tax credit—things are looking up for these 29 talented people, all of whom are united by one thing: a love of film.
As he talks about his upcoming movie, The Year One, Ramis (above) sounds more like a theology professor than the guy who co-wrote Animal House. “The source of so much conflict in the world is deeply held religious beliefs,” says the Glencoe resident, who based the story on a 1970s sketch he created for a National Lampoon show with Bill Murray as a Cro-Magnon meeting John Belushi as a Neanderthal. “My mother always said: ‘It’s been that way since the year one.’” But then Ramis emphasizes the comedy at the heart of the movie, which stars Jack Black and Michael Cera as Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who stumble into the Old Testament. “Oh, it’s as silly as can be,” he says. “My goofiest comedies have deep philosophical underpinnings.”
A few years back, Ramis saw an article in which Judd Apatow, the director of Knocked Up, said, “We’re all the spawn of Harold Ramis,” and decided he had to meet the guy. Now Apatow is the executive producer of The Year One, which brings Ramis full circle. His script came out of “table reads” with Apatow, Lee Eisenberg (a writer for The Office), and Gene Stupnitsky (a Deerfield native and Ramis’s former intern). Ramis hadn’t done anything like it since his SCTV days in the seventies.
In his future: a possible third Ghostbusters film, written by Stupnitsky and Eisenberg—which would mark the first time Ramis and Murray had worked together in ages. The two have barely spoken since Groundhog Day in 1993. “I have no idea why,” Ramis says. “It’ll be one of the great mysteries in my life, and I’m sure that’s how he wants it.”
Silent-movie pianist, 52
How much work can a silent-movie pianist find in the 21st century? More than you might think. Drazin improvises as many as 12 live scores a month at the Gene Siskel Film Center and other venues, and his music appears on several DVDs. So when Buster Keaton does something involving, say, a ticking time bomb, Drazin provides the soundtrack. “People who love silent movies are having a heyday because stuff’s coming out on discs and it’s being shown,” says the Evanstonian. Drazin blends ragtime, jazz, and themes redolent of Stravinsky. It may not exactly reproduce the 1920s movie scores. “I have a pretty good idea of what people played [in those days],” he says, “but you can’t really know.”
Director, Chicago Film Office, 50
Moskal bridges the gap between filmmakers and government, two disparate groups that need each other. With background in both fields, the Loyola grad had his hand in virtually every Chicago production in the past decade—not only luring it to town, but getting things done once it’s here. You can’t just decide one day to explode a truck on LaSalle Street, as they did in 2007 with The Dark Knight. You need access. Permits. The goodwill of neighbors. Moskal’s staff of three provides solutions. “We had a mayor’s press conference with [Dark Knight’s star] Christian Bale and [director] Chris Nolan to tell people, ‘Hey, it’s going to be loud; it’s going to be complicated,’” he says of the four-month shoot. Since Moskal became director in 1996, his office has brought in 800-plus film and television productions and just over $1 billion in revenue.
ANDY and LARRY WACHOWSKI
Directors, producers, screenwriters, 41 and 43
Most mentions of the Wachowskis these days revolve around two things, neither of which pertains to their insanely popular movies such as The Matrix. One: They have purposely stayed out of the public eye for a decade, even as they made Matrix sequels and Speed Racer. And two: Stories continue to swirl online that Larry, the older of the two brothers, has undergone a sex change operation and become Lana, a notion that insiders continue to deny. What we know for sure is that the former house painters from Beverly built their own state-of-the-art postproduction studio in Ravenswood. Within those walls, they’re currently working on Ninja Assassin, which is slated to come out later this year.
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Tillman Jr. (left) and Teitel
ROBERT TEITEL and GEORGE TILLMAN JR.
Producer, 41 // Director/producer, 40
Teitel’s and Tillman’s names have become inseparable, and their projects (Barbershop, Notorious) have both men’s fingerprints all over them. The pair met as students at Columbia College 20 years ago, and found they were kindred spirits. “It wasn’t like we were the best filmmakers,” says Teitel. “But we worked harder than anybody else.” Together, they make quintessentially Chicago films, from the surprise 1997 hit Soul Food—which Tillman wrote and directed—to the recent Nothing Like the Holidays. “Chicago’s another character for our movies,” says Teitel, a Mount Prospect native who, for Holidays, drew in memories of his Puerto Rican mother’s family in Humboldt Park. “Because of his commitment to his hometown, Bob has shot six movies in Illinois, bringing millions into the economy and providing thousands of job opportunities,” says Betsy Steinberg of the Illinois Film Office. “The [Chicago] crews are amazing,” says Teitel. “When you create this family, it feels like everybody’s giving you a little more.”
Artistic director, Kartemquin Films, 66
When Quinn and two friends from the University of Chicago founded Kartemquin in 1966, they hoped to change the world by making cinéma vérité. “We honestly believed that if you held a mirror up to society, that would be enough to cause social change,” he says. Working out of a Lake View studio stuffed with tapes and editing equipment, Quinn has nurtured many documentary filmmakers, including Steve James, director of the 1994 Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams. His newest film is Prisoner of Her Past, about the repressed Holocaust memories of Sonia Reich, mother of the Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Reich. With Justine Nagan taking over as Kartemquin’s executive director, Quinn is eager to focus on what he loves best: making films, full-time.
“You have to make your peace with your life,” says Cusack, who lives in Chicago with her husband and two sons. That means keeping out-of-town movie shoots to a minimum and focusing on being a good mom—not that this arrangement has slowed her down. The two-time Oscar nominated actress is in the upcoming Confessions of a Shopaholic, and in the year after that she will appear in Hoodwinked 2 and reprise her role as Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl in Toy Story 3. “I can do it here in Chicago,” she says of Toy Story. “You just show up in a sound booth and you zero in, tightly focused on your voice.” Cusack was 17 in 1980 when she happened to be in the right place to get one of her first screen roles (My Bodyguard); she still considers herself lucky. “It’s a lottery to be in the business in the first place,” she says.
Screenwriter, producer, director, 39
Conrad’s story gives false hope to aspiring writers everywhere. While an undergrad at Northwestern University, he wrote a short story called “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” for a creative writing class and adapted it into a screenplay. Just one year after he graduated, it became a feature film starring Robert Duvall and Richard Harris. “I forgot how much I sold it for,” says Conrad, a Lake View resident. “But I spent it in a year.” It would be another decade before he broke through again, this time with 2004’s The Weather Man, a darkly comic Chicago film starring Nicolas Cage. After writing the screenplay for The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith’s 2006 blockbuster, Conrad wrote and directed The Promotion, a 2008 comedy filmed in Hyde Park and starring John C. Reilly. Now he’s juggling several projects, including The Parking Ticket with Ben Stiller.
Owner, Music Box Films, 60
Schopf, a veteran attorney, bought a building on Southport Avenue in 1986 and became the Music Box Theatre’s landlord. When the cinema’s owners retired in 2003, Schopf, also a film buff, bought the business, though he knew it wasn’t exactly a gold mine. “It’s sort of a break-even proposition,” he says of the 80-year-old theatre. In 2006, he launched Music Box Films, plucking works from film festivals and offering them to U.S. audiences. Schopf struck gold with one of his first acquisitions, the French thriller Tell No One, which became 2008’s top-grossing foreign film and played in more than 100 U.S. theatres. “People were beating down our door to play it,” says Schopf, who tempers his hopes for the upcoming French comedy Shall We Kiss? “It’s a gambler’s business model.”
Director, Chicago Latino Film Festival, 58
After working as a human-rights lawyer in Latin America, Vargas came to Chicago in 1980 with $200 and almost no English. He got work as a busboy. “People had no clue who I was,” the Colombia native recalls. To improve his English, he studied broadcast communications at Columbia College, made a documentary, and worked as an adviser at the first Chicago Latino Film Festival. “Suddenly,” he says, “I became a human being overnight.” A year later, Vargas was running the event; the festival marks its 25th year in April. As founder and executive director of its parent organization, the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, Vargas dreams of building a downtown center to present films, plays, and concerts. “We can be a bridge that joins Chicago with the entire Latino universe through the arts,” he says.
Photography: (Teitel & Tillman Jr.) Philip V. Caruso/20th Century Fox; (Conrad) Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune; (Schopf) Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
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From left to right: LaBute, Vaughn, Ebert
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.”
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.
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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When Hollywood movies come to Chicago, producers turn to local casting directors like Alderman to find actors for various parts. She’s been in the business long enough that faces and names spring to mind when she reads a script. “If anyone ever hit me on the head, I’m afraid 6,000 names would fall out,” says Alderman, who handled casting for NBC’s ER and David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Before she launched her casting business in 1980, Alderman was an actress, and back then producers contacted numerous agents to line up actors for film shoots. They’d end up with 500 people who weren’t right for the part. “I know it’s not done this way in New York or Los Angeles,” Alderman recalls thinking. “I’m going to start it.” After 28 years, her advice to actors remains the same: Spend $700 on a professional photo. A cheap snapshot won’t do.
Director, Chicago Film Archives, 58
When Watrous heard that the Chicago Public Library was eliminating its film collection in 2001, she leaped into action. A producer of educational and corporate films, Watrous formed the nonprofit Chicago Film Archives to preserve the library’s films, and persuaded volunteers to help her transport the CPL’s massive inventory. “Everybody lined up their cars outside the library, popped their trunks, and started hauling films out,” she recalls. Now, the flotsam and jetsam of Chicago’s cinematic history—industrial and experimental films, home movies—pour into the archives’ 18th Street facility, overflowing with more than 7,000 films. In the process of restoring and duplicating damaged prints, Watrous has discovered obscure auteurs like Margaret Conneely, a Chicagoan who made dozens of odd little dramas in the fifties and sixties. “The less known the filmmaker, the more excited we get about it,” Watrous says.
Business manager, secretary and treasurer, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 476, 54
When a movie company decides to film in Chicago, Mark Hogan is one of the first people called. The longtime muscle behind the city’s union of film and stage craftspeople, Hogan provides the skilled carpenters, sound technicians, prop masters, and other behind-the-scenes workers. The Hogan family has been in films for three generations in Chicago—his grandparents did silent films—and Hogan himself worked early on as an electrician on The Blues Brothers in 1979. “I was 25, I made $11 an hour,” he says, “and it’s still the best job I ever worked on.”
The South Side native who won cult followings with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Wild Things has downshifted, directing episodes of HBO’s John From Cincinnati. Meanwhile, he’s awaiting green lights on five potential projects, including The King of Counterfeit, which Bill Murray asked McNaughton to direct—with Murray starring and producing. Books about Punch and Judy pile up in McNaughton’s Bucktown loft: research on a sentimental Christmas film he’s writing about puppet shows, orphans, and a big toy company. It’s 180 degrees from a movie about a serial killer, but McNaughton hopes Murray (a veteran of three McNaughton films) will agree to play the disabled patriarch of the puppeteers—and already has his pitch to Murray perfected: “You want to win an Academy Award? Sit in that wheelchair!”
Producer, CEO of Lakeshore Entertainment Group, 61
Tom Rosenberg has a name that you see in movie credits and quickly forget. Until you realize how many times you’ve seen it. The Missouri native, who made his fortune in real estate, jumped into film with 1991’s The Commitments, and has since produced 46 features—including Million Dollar Baby, for which he took home an Oscar for best picture of 2005. Rosenberg also made news in 2008, when he testified in Tony Rezko’s federal corruption trial that he had been shaken down to make a campaign contribution to Governor Blagojevich. As of presstime, his Beverly Hills–based production company, Lakeshore Entertainment, had six movies on board for the next year or so, including The Ugly Truth, starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler.
Founder/Artistic director, Chicago International Film Festival, 69
Kutza was 22 when he decided Chicago needed more than a couple of foreign films a year. “I know it sounds grandiose, but I wanted to change this stupid city,” he says. “I love Chicago, so I believe I have absolutely changed it.” He formed the Chicago International Film Festival, the oldest competitive film fest in America, celebrating its 45th year in 2009. While it’s never had the cachet of Sundance or Toronto, those tend to be markets for selling films. “That’s not what we are,” he says. “We’re an audience festival.” Kutza has faced criticism for what a recent article called his “iron-fisted control” of the festival. He acknowledges he has clashed with board members but insists that all nonprofit arts groups have conflict. “I think probably I’ve been too outspoken,” he says. “I would be afraid to meet me after reading all those stories.”
Photography: (Rosenberg) Peter Kramer/Getty Images; (Kutza) Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune
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With five features already under his belt—including the new IFC release Nights and Weekends, and three series of short Web films—Swanberg is among Chicago’s busiest filmmakers. He’s also a progenitor of “mumblecore,” a low-budget genre in which twentysomethings sit around, talking, texting, and taking off their clothes. “It seems like there’s a lot of sex in my movies,” says Swanberg, whose awkward sex scenes are as honest as any other part of his characters’ lives. “But really, I think there’s a right amount of sex.” Swanberg has been known to cut 20 hours of footage down to 80 minutes of his actors’ most telling moments. The West Town resident is now hitting the festivals with Alexander the Last, co-produced by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), and making another film with Baumbach starring Jennifer Jason Leigh—with no script, the same video camera he has always used, and a crew of two.
DEREK “PRETTY BOY” DOW
Growing up in Englewood and West Chatham, Dow saw his share of fights and gangs. His father was murdered; a few years later, gang violence put a friend in intensive care. One day in 2004, a Chicago State University professor assigned Dow to make a video. “The minute she put the camera in my hand, I got addicted,” he says. Dow raised $5,000 and filmed Family Values, based on his experiences. Then he rented a screen in Chatham and sold out three shows. The movie won the audience prize at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s 2007 Black Harvest International Film Festival. His next project is Drifting—“like Crash without the racism”—and in August, Dow and ten directors formed the Chicago Alliance of African-American Filmmakers. “It’s so hard to get acknowledgment,” he says. “If we band together, we can bring in all our fan base.”
Tapia, a Mexico native who grew up in Maywood, earned a master’s degree in film at Columbia College while teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. Her first film was Buscando a Leti (In Search of Leti), about a ten-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents in Mexico while her parents work in Chicago. “I did it with gut feeling more than anything,” Tapia says. The accomplished 2004 film, distributed on DVD by Unicine, makes it clear that Tapia has a gift for working with actors, especially children. She has just completed Silent Shame, in which a young Latino discovers the secrets behind his mother’s death from AIDS. (Look for the film at festivals soon.) At present, Tapia has returned to her school job, but is taking a different turn with a horror film called La Llorana. “I get only three to five hours of sleep—and no personal life,” she says.
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