It’s not everyday that I get to talk with a director who loves Chicago as much as I do. It’s also not everyday that said director, Daniel Nearing, chooses to highlight an extremely diverse cast in a murder mystery set during the not-oft-discussed Red Summer of 1919. The movie is “Hogtown” – so named for Chicago’s title as the butcher capital of the world.This was a time when white Chicagoans rioted and lynched hundreds of Black people after a little black boy floated to the wrong side of the invisible racial line in the waters of Lake Michigan.
You can click here to read the story on www.suntimes.com or you can keep going and see it below. Nearing’s other film, “Chicago Heights” was about a suburb just south of the city. It’s interesting that Nearing, a white Canadian, has decided to tell stories that encompass the wide variety of history and stories in the city. Read on.
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The following story first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sunday Sitdown: Daniel Nearing explains his indie flick ‘Hogtown’
By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
Director Daniel Nearing’s “Hogtown” is a Chicago love affair presented in black and white. A true art film, it conjures a time when stark contrast and glared down dialogue defined the cinema. It’s also sort of a combo murder mystery, racial tension exploration and art noir film. With A score performed by the orchestra at the College of William and Mary, it’s a micro-budgeted movie that delivers big. Nearing, 56, has a history of working cable documentaries, but his first film, “Chicago Heights,” earned the attention and praise of Roger Ebert. This second is a kind of variation on a theme. Here’s what else Nearing had to say about “Hogtown.”
In his film more than most, it seems that Chicago is actually a character.
It’s a character for me. Hogtown is Chicago, the hog butcher to the world. The whole back of the yards thing. The whole difficulty of life. Chicago was an acquired tasted for me. I came from a city that didn’t have lot of crime and doesn’t have the racial tensions in the communities you encounter in American cities. Over time I came to fall in love with it. I think of myself as a chronicler of the soul of chicago. that’s what Hogtown tries to do; it tries to get at the essence of what it is to be a Chicagoan in the period in which we live and the prior generations live – a ridiculously ambitious thing to try to do.
How did you achieve the look of the film with it’s high-contrast black and white imagery?
It’s the picture profile in the particular camera we’re using, a Sony. I worked closely with the cinematographer so it would look like the cinematography of Gregg Toland in particular who shot ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ Really super-black blacks and the contrast is very, very high. You’re focused more on the presence of light and shadow and the characters rather than what’s populating the negative space. We worked on that for a long time.
This is a period piece except it’s not. I spied electric street lights and modern-day El trains.
I wanted an anachronistic approach – to shoot in the contemporary context but have the feel of the period pieces. We call our films ‘period less.’ In 1919, [a character] has an iPhone. We play with that a bit. The suggestion is that the more things change the more they stay the same. Chicago particularly has this underbelly of racism and we may think it changed significantly from 1919, but [the times] are not that much different. A hundred years from now, a historian looking at this time may say [it] blended.
You managed to reference a plethora of important, but not-oft-discussed, events in Chicago’s racial and workers rights history. The Race Riot of 1919, for one.
Carl Sandberg wrote a book about the race riots and the epigraph of our film comes from Sandberg. It was something I didn’t know much about and then came across it. I was surprised how many people died. The deeper meaning that we’ve committed to is that we are talking about the present as much as we are about the past.
Where did you film in Chicago?
Lawrence and Broadway, near the Aragon Ballroom. We shot everywhere and we had such great support. We got locations you normally would have to pay a lot to shoot in.
In Indiana there’s a jailhouse that was the actual jail that John Dillinger escaped from. That movie Public Enemies was shot there and they completely renovated it and we shot in there for free. We shot in St. Michael’s Church, the oldest surviving church of the great Chicago fire. The old Naperville Settlement gave us access.
When you say minuscule budget, what does that mean?
It means nobody got paid. No one. And they’re not likely ever to get paid. It’s an experimental film. It is an art film. It is a labor of love. Roger Ebert put our previous film “Chicago Heights,” on his list of his best art films of 2010s . We used that as leverage to tell people we were making something that was worthy for their involvement. We didn’t provide gas money but we did provide food. We had a little bit of budget for costumes. A couple thousand. Melanie Parks did the most incredible job.
The orchestra didn’t get paid either? How did you do that?
They donated talent and time in recording this really beautiful music. I don’t know what’s gonna happen for the third movie but for the first two we just had the incredible good fortune to meet Minister Raymond Dunlap. At the time he was on the south side on 107th and Vincennes and he brought us into his church with his gospel choir and man, I would write lyrics for him. Kill me now. Kill me now. Re (pause) mem (pause) ber this. He takes those simple words and makes this magnificently moving gospel song that I relied on for a lot of different purposes.I also met up with Paul Bassoon, who is now at the College of William and Mary. These old soundtracks, films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ were scored by Bernard Herrmann. I wanted that anachronistic, antique sound like a film from the 40s. I wanted something like a theme from ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ or the Theme from Godfather. Really rich themes that stay with you when you leave the theater.
I couldn’t help but to notice that the only fully naked people in the film are the black people, and one is a child who appears to be an older toddler. Was this race-specific nakedness intended?
I wrote a lot of the screen play in Paris. I spent six weeks there. I”d write in the mornings and in the afternoons go to the museum. A lot of the motifs and elements and aspects of paintings from the Renaissance forward, are in the film. The riot scenes are moving friezes of people borrowed from Greek sculpture. The protagonist is a man who has to be naked. And the women he’s with. The most frank depictions of intimacy come from his relationships. And, I saw all kinds of cherubs in these paintings, and I thought “I’m gonna put cherubs in my movie,” And we put wings on that little boy [and a girl] and had naked. They were not happy with those wings. They were not willing to cooperate. It’s so beautiful. [In the film] it’s him dealing with the reality fo life but it was really him going ‘no I’m not going to put those wings on.’ You see those infants in the paintings. He represents innocence. It’s really a beautiful moment.
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs covers arts and culture for The Chicago Sun-Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet her @adriennewrites