Kyle Henry, director of the compelling, hyperlocal Chicago drama Rogers Park discusses the appeal of his home neighborhood and the need to tell stories that reflect his experiences.
For Chicagoans, films that actually take place in Chicago can be a bit of a mixed bag. You can usually count on a few things: most of it will take place downtown, no one actually eats the right kind of pizza (deep dish is for tourists), and everyone’s going to be slim, sexy Hollywood types. Usually, it takes a real, native Chicagoan to represent the city proper – a city filled with diverse, eclectic neighborhoods that bleed and breathe Chicago even when they sit outside the borders of the Gold Coast.
In Kyle Henry’s assured microbudget indie Rogers Park, which takes place in the neighborhood of the same name, the city exists as a natural backdrop to the subdued, everyday dramas of its central characters – troubled alcoholic Chris (Jonny Mars), his idealistic partner Deena (Christine Horn), and middle-aged couple Grace (Sara Sevigny) and Zeke (Antoine McKay). The result is a claustrophobic, heart-rending, and deeply authentic movie about Chicago and its real-world inhabitants.
I sat down for a phone interview with the breezy, charming Henry – who immediately remarked that Alcohollywood reminded him of the boozy late-night British clip show After Dark – to talk about Rogers Park, the virtues of crowdfunding, and the need to tell authentically Chicago stories.
What was the impetus for the project?
Well, I am of a certain age, which we call mid-life. Part of what motivated me to make my work is wanting to see a certain type of film that reflects my experiences, and realizing it’s not being made. There’s a lot of mid-life crisis films from the 70s that I really like, like [the works of] Paul Mazursky, particularly An Unmarried Woman. Every Cassavettes film feels like a mid-life crisis film, same with Elaine May. I just like observational work, where the people talk, they’re reflective and present, and they’re struggling.
Your partner Carlos wrote the script and performs in it, of course. What’s it like collaborating with your partner on a creative endeavor?
It’s been amazing. One, I collaborate with Carlos because he’s one of the best writers I know. First off, pick your collaborator based on talent; luckily, he’s really close to me, like across from the table or bedroom. Second, this isn’t our first go-around, we’ve been collaborating on scripts since my film Room played at Sundance in 2005, and we started working together since 2006. We’ve gone through a lot of different kinds of script development processes, one being an Emily Dickinson biopic script that was optioned by TCM and given the full development run.
What was unique about Rogers Park was we had this devised process, where we came up with ideas for a story – one couple’s on their way up, one is on their way down – and we knew we wanted to cast actors who were as diverse as the neighborhood in which it was set, but who didn’t know the story.
We wanted to have a collaborative process where the actors would do research, and Carlos would use that to write the script. We did a week-long workshop that Carlos documented in every possible way you could imagine, sending our actors out into the neighborhood for hour-long improvisations in restaurants and beach locations. Carlos took that data – the lives of these people – and wrote a script from it.
I’m not precious, which is a good thing as a director. If he came up with something great that wasn’t in our workshopping, I’d run with it.
So, you knew when to kill your darlings?
Oh God yes, and we had some darlings to kill on this one. We shot one ending, and actually reshot it. We got to the edit process, we watched it, and we didn’t think it was truthful to this stage of life. We just said, “Hey, call the actors, we’ll just do something else.”
That happens a lot in movies: the train keeps moving until you’re getting color correction and your sound mix done. If you see something that needs to be fixed, you need to fix it.
Why was it so important to set this film in a specific neighborhood of Chicago, rather than the downtown Chicago used by most films set in the city? What did you want people to get out of Rogers Park as a neighborhood?
One, it’s the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago. There’s more languages being spoken, more different types of people living here. It’s had a long history of not only immigration, but first arrivers – a lot of people land here first when moving to Chicago. It’s also a place I feel where different kinds of people can collide off each other. Other neighborhoods in Chicago feel more segregated; Rogers Park feels, for the North Side at least, the least segregated. That was important to me.
It’s the only neighborhood Carlos and I have lived in since we moved to Chicago in 2010, and I like to make films on things I know about. Plus, I like being able to travel from home to set in about ten minutes every day [laughs].
I’m interested in real people, by that I mean people who look like friends, family, people I know. I think a lot of Hollywood actors feel like consumable products. I’m interested in, for lack of a better word, “70s faces” – people who are more reflective of our general population, who look like normal people. I got to work with some really great Chicago actors – and one actor from New York and one from LA – great character actors who I could give lead roles.
Going back to that devising process with you and Carlos – when you had the script finished, was it set in stone or was there room for improvisation?
Once the script was locked, it was locked. If there was an issue with something, there’d be maybe a line change. But where improvisation occurred, it was with intentions. What I’d do is I’d go into a scene with three different intentions – I’d get a version where it feels like this is the final straw, and they’re getting a divorce after this scene, or a version where you want to stay together and make this work. Same lines, but different intentions.
That can give me a lot of great puzzle pieces that come together into a scene that feels like the zigging and zagging we all go through when we try to figure things out with people. We don’t know when we’re in a scene when we’re playing our lives, normally. But I watch stuff where it feels centered toward a big payoff moment at the end of the scene, which feels inauthentic.
You said earlier you wanted stories that reflected your experience. What issues did you want to raise within the film, especially as a Chicagoan in middle age?
I wanted to capture the instability of mid-life. I think it’s a second great coming of age; most people see it as a crisis, instead of an opportunity to let go and move on from a lot of stuff that comes back with a vengeance. “Shit, I thought I was over this crap, and now it’s back again?”
Setting it in Rogers Park, I wanted the people and situations to feel very real. It was one of the last neighborhoods to gentrify, and the first to bust when the real estate bust occurred. Whatever jobs my characters did, I wanted their lives to feel connected to the neighborhood.
For the devising process, I would have the actors shadow a real life professional for a day who lived there. Then they’d come back and tell me what they saw – what they observed about their lives and jobs. It’s tough to see actors in professions in film, and you’re like, “I don’t believe for a minute that she’s a reporter.” It feels like a setting in which the drama can occur.
I wanted these people to be rooted in this unique neighborhood, and we’re just dropping in on their professional and personal lives. Maybe that comes from my documentary background: I’ve edited 12 feature documentaries for PBS and Showtime and other places. I watch real people all the time, and I wanted to make sure my actors, who were faking it, were really grounded.
Are there any other ways your editorial background informs your filmmaking?
I’m not afraid to try different things on set. Production is a great time to record rehearsals. What we’re doing on set is similar to theater rehearsals, if you build enough time for it – “we’ve tried this scene one way, let’s try it a different way.” If we need to shoot both versions, I’ll figure out in the edit room what I like. But that’s your only time to capture new ideas as they come to you. I know what can cut together, so I’m not afraid of changing how I’ll shoot something or emphasize something in the moment.
I’m also not a director who fetishizes cinematography, as much as I want to make sure what is on camera is believable. Maybe that’s something I’ve gleaned from editing too.
You used Kickstarter to help crowdfund the film. Did you learn anything from that experience?
With Kickstarter, it’s about finding an audience early, and getting them invested in the project. It’s not easy when you’re trying to raise more than $1,000, unless you’ve got a rich uncle [laughs]. But I was fortunate, in that I had some funding through Northwester University, where I work as a professor. I had grant money through the City of Chicago, and eventually I had two companies in Austin, Texas (including Arts+Labor) to come in with finishing funds for the film.
I think the best thing is that, early on, you get a sense of whether people are really interested in this film. Luckily, a lot of people were, so we found encouragement from running that Kickstarter.
Do you think there is a market for more low-budget local Chicago-based cinema? If smaller filmmakers want to do movies like that, what do they need, besides having a rich uncle?
[laughs] I’ve never had a rich uncle, unfortunately. Everyone’s got a rich uncle but me!
I’ll let you borrow one, that’s okay.
Oh, that’s great. Please give me one, I’ll try to make that uncle happy.
Again, the important thing to think about is, who’s going to see the work? What’s your sense of your audience? I also did publicity for a repertory film theater for three or four years in my early 20s, so I got a handle on publicity is about finding your audience. You shouldn’t be afraid of going out into the world to find them. Sometimes, people don’t realize that maybe 50% of the job of being a film director is hustling to get a potential audience aware of your work.
There’s a lot of potential for local filmmakers to have their work seen; you have to be creative. For example, the New 400, which is a smaller theater in Rogers Park, is going to show the film. Maybe that’s something more filmmakers can do, if their work is situated in a particular neighborhood – find the theater in your neighborhood and see if they’ll show the film.