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Feature Fri Jun 03 2011

Chicago Rot: Embracing the City's Dark Side

By Andrew Daglas.

In a sparsely-furnished office in the Merchandise Mart, five recent graduates of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy are striving to write the next chapter in Chicago's film history. With their independent movie Chicago Rot, currently in pre-production, they're determined to change the perception of their hometown among film-goers and filmmakers alike. And by partially funding the project via the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, they're inviting Second Citizens who share that vision to chip in.

Chicago Rot is the brainchild of Brant McCrea, Dorian Weinzimmer, Jeremy Vranich, Ryan Berena, and Sam Fell. All five were part of the 2009 inaugural graduating class of Flashpoint, the school for digital arts and media studies, which opened downtown in 2007. Rather than following the film student's stereotypical path straight to Los Angeles or New York, however, they're committed to proving Chicago can rival its coastal competitors as a hub for successful artists. Only fitting, then, that their first feature-length project should be what Weinzimmer calls "a personal love letter to the city - a dark love letter."

Described by Weinzimmer as "a revenge thriller with a heavy supernatural element," the film tells the story of Les, a wrongfully imprisoned man whose quest for retribution leads him into a demonic urban underworld. Unlike Chicago-set Hollywood films like The Break-Up or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which showcase sparkling skyline shots and picturesque upscale neighborhoods, Chicago Rot trains its lens squarely on the city's seediest corners and underground subcultures.

"I want to make a film relevant to me. I never lived in Lincoln Park. Being an artist, I always lived in the poorest neighborhoods," says writer and lead actor McCrea, a Highland, IN native and former Art Institute student who's logged time in Rogers Park as well as Wicker Park and Wrigleyville pre-gentrification.

McCrea originally conceived the idea that became Chicago Rot while working on set construction for another jailhouse thriller, the pilot for the Fox series "Prison Break". Gradually the premise evolved, incorporating stories and concepts gleaned from his nearly 20 years experience in the local art and music scenes, primarily working nightclubs like the Metro. Adding an extra degree of verisimilitude is the participation of local luminaries, like avant-garde artist Jojo Baby and musicians Scott Lucas of Local H and Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun, as themselves.

"I always felt, the whole time I was working [the nightclub scene] that it was every bit as surreal as a movie is, but it's real," McCrea says. "I always had an idea that I could drop right in the middle of that scene and I could make something that's every bit as cool as any movie."

The story gestated during a screenwriting project at Flashpoint. A year after graduating, in the spring of 2010, McCrea had about fifty pages worth of screenplay and an investor in the person of longtime friend Kelly Kerr. To round out the key creative personnel, he recruited Flashpoint classmates who shared two traits: a dark, surrealist aesthetic, and a commitment to plying their trade in Chicago rather than splitting for the coasts.

"Our intent is to make a name for ourselves so we can stay in Chicago, make more movies, and draw attention to the massive amounts of mostly untapped creative talent that exists here, " said Weinzimmer.

A Lakeview resident who grew up in the northwest suburbs, Weinzimmer quickly came on board as director. He and McCrea drew on their shared affection for the city's most unglamorous recesses as they fleshed out the script. Citing inspirations such as Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Escape from New York - bleak snapshots of New York City's infamously hardscrabble 1970s - he believes it's high time Chicago had its own iconic portrait of urban decay.

"It really does seem that there is still a lot of conflict and strife underneath the surface of this entire city," he says. "But there's a very dedicated element to the city that wants to push forth the fa├žade that, 'no that's not happening, it's all okay.'"

Adds Vranich, "People have seen the gritty sides of L.A. and ... of New York. I think we haven't really fully tapped into or exhausted what Chicago has to offer in that sense."

Originally enlisted to play the part of Les's sidekick, Vranich, a northern suburbanite and alum of the Chicago Academy for the Arts, soon assumed the role of producer as well. With Vranich came Painted Face, the production company he formed with Fell and Berena as sort of a co-op for working artists in Chicago. By pooling energies and housing different talents under the same roof, Painted Face provides a one-stop shop for clients in need of filmmaking skills. Their portfolio already includes a recent trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro, where they assisted the shooting of a documentary on grassroots organizing in Tanzania.

The members of Painted Face leapt at the chance to create a uniquely sinister sensory palette for Chicago Rot, exploring the city's eroding warehouses and rusted industrial sectors, even venturing into the environs of Joliet Prison. "This city has a lot of dark areas that get looked over, that I think people choose not to believe are there," says cinematographer Berena, who grew up in Niles but spent most of his time escaping into the city.

As director of sound design, Lake Forest resident Fell is charged with evoking that grimness in the aural atmosphere, a critical aspect of any horror film. "When it comes to horror, with the script itself there's no holds barred," he says. "That's how I'm approaching sound as well."

That harsh, discordant style comes through in the minute-long trailer the crew shot specifically for their Kickstarter venture, and it's been attracting notice. So far, more than 70 backers have contributed almost $9,000 to the film, more than a third of the way to the goal of $25,000 by July 13.

With most of the casting and location scouting complete, shooting is scheduled to begin in July. Although production will go ahead with or without the Kickstarter funds, the crew is counting on that twenty-five grand to realize their most ambitious visual and narrative ideas for the movie.

Perhaps their most ambitious goal, though, is to inspire and nurture a collaborative community of filmmakers and artists in Chicago, with their debut feature as the springboard. Everyone involved agrees that the success of Chicago Rot will be measured by more than just the reception of the film itself.

Said Weinzimmer, "We want the city to love the movie as much as the movie loves the city."


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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kelly kerr / June 3, 2011 2:57 PM

Thank you for such a lovely article about Chicago Rot. It is indeed a love letter to the city we all love so much.

Jim / June 4, 2011 9:53 AM

Every screenwriter needs to see 510+ stage hero's journey over at

Greg W / June 17, 2011 11:48 AM

What about the 1985 made for TV movie "Final Jeopardy," in which Richard "John-Boy Walton" Thomas gets stranded in Chicago at night and is chased by dogs and gangs and the city is all creepy and dark? Classic, yo.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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