Birthday parties are generally a time for celebration, but that didn’t prove to be the case on the set of Kyle Henry’s “Rogers Park.”
“It comes after a lot of light comedy, but then it erupts into this Mount Vesuvius kind of moment – that was a whole day of people in a room sweating and screaming at each other and crying, and then getting to a place where they can’t cry anymore and then having to take a break and going and crying again,” recalls Henry, who had braced himself for a long day of shooting when devising the raucous scene in which shrieks of laughter between two couples living in Chicago at the start of a surprise party gradually morph into screams of anger as they realize their beliefs about relationships don’t align, not only as pairs, but individually. “The actress who plays Deena, Christine Horn’s feet started killing her for standing in a certain position forever, and it was a challenge for everyone, but it was like running a marathon. At the end of it, everyone felt really like they had given it their all.”
Which yields an unmistakable authenticity in Henry’s third narrative feature, written by his creative and life partner Carlos Treviño, that vividly brings the rhythm of their daily lives to the screen, as the creative duo train their lens on the neighborhood they call home where the nobility of dealing with the daily grind of work, both professional and personal, shines through. As it turns out, the birthday party scene is hardly the only time Henry asked his cast to throw themselves so fearlessly into the film, designing a drama akin to the kitchen sink realist filmmakers of England such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh that involved a lengthy preproduction where the actors appearing onscreen would heavily influence the characters they’d play. The approach results in tremendously affecting performances from Horn and Jonny Mars as Deena and Chris, and Sara Sevigny and Antoine McKay as Chris’ sister Grace and her husband Zeke, as the two couples at the center of “Rogers Park,” balancing the considerable time and energy they’ve put into their lives together versus the possibility of living apart, perhaps regaining a part of their individual identity that’s been subsumed as part of being in a committed relationship yet losing sense of who they’ve become since they were single.
Over the course of a year, the seasons change, as do the fortunes of Deena, Chris, Grace and Zeke in all aspects of their lives, yet “Rogers Park” relays the dignity of forging ahead as obstacles big and small crop up and provocatively asks how the history that’s built up between the couples can work for or against them. Naturally, the film is starting its theatrical run in Chicago this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center before making its way across the country and recently, Henry generously took the time to talk about opening himself to a new filmmaking methodology with the project, finding collaborators who were game for the experimentation, and conveying just a fraction of the diversity of his neighborhood.
When you were setting this up on Kickstarter, I remember you were envisioning a process similar to Ken Loach in terms of how you would make the actors a part of the process of creating the characters. How did that work out?
I had always wanted to make a film from a more devised process. I’m a big fan of Mike Leigh and the Dardenne Brothers, people who have an affinity for actuality and finding a way to bring that more into the process of making narrative fiction work, so we cast actors before we had a story. We had a casting agency that did race- and gender-blind casting for two couples and all we told them was we wanted to see people who reflected the full diversity of Rogers Park. We didn’t know again if they would be gay or straight. We didn’t know what their ethnicity would be. I just knew we wanted to tell a story about midlife crisis, [which] I consider to be the second great coming-of-age and Carlos Treviño, my writing partner who’s also my life partner, and I were in the thick of it ourselves.
We cast four actors that we really loved to play with and it just turned out they were both going to play interracial black/white couples. I worked with them initially for a week brainstorming, coming up with ideas for the characters, and sending them out into the Rogers Park neighborhood to do research, [where they’d] come back to me and tell me about their research to do improvisation. On the streets of Rogers Park, we would mic them and have a sound operator sitting with a cable next to them to have them live through the life of their character and as they’re a couple up to the point where the script would begin. [laughs] So all of this [became] this huge generation of data, which Carlos then processed and started writing a script from.
All of the four actors that were cast in that original workshop are given the credit in the final film as “additional research provided by…” and two of the actors that were in that initial workshop eventually, each for different reasons, ended up leaving the project and were replaced by other actors who came from out of town, one of them being Christine Horn from Atlanta and Jonny Mars from Los Angeles. So that was an interesting part of the process too. We had two actors who were there from the very beginning – Sara Sevigny and Antoine McKay were natives here in Chicago and had been to Second City training and they hit it off like gangbusters when they met each other – and two actors who kind of had to come into the family at different points during the making of the film. They also shadowed real professionals in Rogers Park, spending a day with a real estate agent or a preschool teacher or somebody who would work in the Alderman’s office and come back and tell all Carlos and I and it helped us craft something that felt more authentic than if we had tried to invent it all out of thin air.
Even if you worked with the actors from scratch, were there certain things you were adamant this touch on?
Yeah, Carlos and I had a couple of things that we knew we’d hold onto, which was one couple would seem on top of the world and take a tumble and the other would seem like they were just about the break up and over the course of the year of the script, they’d be on firmer footing. Also, Carlos had come up with this way of thinking about the couples being contrasts to each other and then having an image for each of the couples in his mind – not an image of what they would look like, but a kind of feeling/tone quality for that person.
But it really came down to casting four people that we thought were incredibly talented improvisers who also were very giving and willing to give a lot emotionally throughout the course of the year. Some of these improvisation sessions we did were for an hour straight – these were not your stand-up/sketch comedy improvisations. These were taking things to a point where you would go beyond all ideas of where you thought a scene could go and really discovered new places, which was really exciting for me. I had never worked that way before. So [we wanted] really playful people who would have one idea for one interpretation of a fight scene and then turn it around with a few directions on my part and take the scene in a different direction and not be latching onto their previously conceived idea. And we found four really amazing people.
Something I really liked about this is how there’s this wonderful duality to the language being used. You can often hear a compliment, but you can hear some resentment behind it since it’s loaded with history. What was it like crafting that?
That’s something I strive for, which is subtext. I know that often isn’t popular these days in work where what somebody might be saying on the surface might be very straightforward or very literal, but I’m really fascinated by what’s going on in the mind of somebody and what is revealed through the ways in which they’re saying things to each other, again, I try to work with my actors in a way that opens up as much possibility [on that front]. But Carlos is also highly attuned to that. We both have a theater background and he has worked as a theater director and language is a way that we express, but also hide from each other. My world is filled with a lot of talking and I see that as an active reflection of the lives of these people, so I wanted to see the ways in which they were hiding, attacking, dodging, defending and sometimes it’s in the subtext.
The camerawork seems quite intuitive to echo that quality of turning on a dime. How did you come to work with Drew Xanthopoulos?
Drew is a documentary cinematographer mostly and I fell in love with the way that he had this incredibly unobtrusive, close presence and intimacy with the people he was filming. I knew I needed that because I often will shoot a scene with three or four variations, asking the actors to have different intentions and go into the scene in a different place and run the scene again. Because of that, I often end up with a mountain of footage that I’m cutting, but I feel like it gets the best possible performances out of the actors, but I knew we’d have some really intense days emotionally because of this, and that Drew was going to be incredibly respectful. He wasn’t going to be overly fussy with the cinematography to the point that it would detract from the acting. I always want to give my actors the most possible time to do their job, which is to act while the camera’s rolling.
You’ve said elsewhere that you actually gave significant positions on the crew to some of your film students. Is that something that’s actually important to you?
Yeah, I always seem to be working with people who are new to the business, [other than the] key heads, like a DP or a writer. Maybe it’s because I shoot things on extremely low budgets. [laughs] And maybe it’s because I’m not afraid of doing some teaching on set. Everything is a compromise between money, talent and creativity and I knew I had access to some incredibly talent students who were just entering the workforce, including two Northwestern grads – Madison Ginsberg and Grace Hahn, who went onto produce Stephen Cone’s latest film “Princess Cyd,” and [I told them] “I really think you could do these jobs and I want to be the person to give you that opportunity.” So it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to see young people come into their own on their first, second or third professional shoot. [Some of] these people had worked on a few features before working on my film, but I know that all of us [including myself] were working at levels on this film probably much higher than we’d been asked [to] before, whether it was simply the number of creative challenges or lack of money or just the kind of intensity that the 18 days of shooting created.
Obviously Rogers Park is inspiring for you as a location, but given the care you give to establishing a sense of place throughout your work, is it important for you to capture for posterity’s sake?
Yeah, film is very ephemeral. What you see is what you get in front of your camera and I always make films about the ethnography or anthropology of my own backyard. And [practically] I knew to maximize time with my actors, I really wanted to make a film I could get to any given set in about 10 minutes from a car. I read somewhere years ago [about] how Ken Russell would work, like “I only want to drive 10 minutes to get anywhere.”
But I just hadn’t seen a film about Chicago that felt like the Chicago I knew. And the only Chicago I’ve known in terms of a place to live is Rogers Park. I moved there in 2010 with Carlos. We haven’t lived in any other neighborhood and it felt special in a way that I knew hopefully we could capture, or at least one aspect of Rogers Park [because] Rogers Park is so diverse. If you go out on Clark [Street] between Devon and Howard or if you go north of Howard or these are many neighborhoods in one – and I think our film captures a tiny part of that. For example if you see Fawzia Mirza and Jennifer Reeder’s most recent film [“Signature Move”], that captures another community in Rogers Park.
What was the hometown premiere like in Chicago?
We had two packed screenings [at the Chicago Film Festival] and I was surprised by the number of people from Rogers Park who were writing on social media, “When is this going to come play Rogers Park?” [laughs]. it felt great and so many people came up afterwards and said, “That was the first neighborhood I lived in” or “I’m so happy that somebody is doing something about this neighborhood that I think is so special for me,” so it was really, really wonderful.
“Rogers Park” opens in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on February 23rd before traveling around the country with stops including Austin at the Marchesa on March 23rd-27th, Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 on April 6th-12th and New York at the Cinema Village on April 27th-May 3rd. A full list of cities and dates is here.