Setting the scene

Ross Yelsey

Approaching the intersection of Fremont Street and Waveland Avenue on the frigid Friday night before Halloween, I encounter a square block ablaze with illumination and pulsating with energy in the midst of Wrigleyville’s shadowy residential streets. I watch the night sky glow lemon-lime from the intense light reflecting off of the fall foliage. I watch clusters of film students, bundled up in parkas and stocking caps, their breath floating in the crisp air, scattered about the sidewalks setting up cameras and adjusting lamps. I watch as both drunk and sober passers-by, dressed in tacky Halloween costumes, slowly encroach upon the set, itching to become part of this magical scene.

I can understand why. After hearing the stories of four vastly different men involved in this production, I realize that the lure of moviemaking proves irresistible.

In the midst of the spectacle stands a short 22-year-old guy in a crumpled, blue-hooded sweatshirt. This man is responsible for the blinding lights, the excitement in the air, the constant movement. He’s Isaac Feder, the director. Alone in the center of the set, Isaac surveys the scene surrounding him and rubs his narrow eyes. This is really happening, he seems to remind himself as he watches his actors and crew mingling on the sidewalk. Isaac grins, gestures toward his chaotic, glowing city block, and whispers to me, “This is a movie.”

This is “Jackson,” a short film funded by Northwestern’s student-run, non-profit Studio 22 Productions. It was filmed in October and November 2001 and will make its debut June 8 at the Studio 22 premiere. Its story chronicles the adventures of the eponymous Jackson, a lovelorn 20-something Chicago cigar shop employee. One night, he crosses paths with Leon Pottermeier, a burly bar owner who wants Jackson to kidnap his beloved rottweiler back from his ex-wife. This seems like a simple crime, but it leads to unforeseen consequences, including a romance with Leon’s 19-year-old daughter.

‘I can never imagine doing anything else’

Isaac, a Speech senior, wrote the screenplay with his friend Josh Hirsen, who had originally written “Jackson” as a short story. Isaac brightens as he remembers its creation. “We wrote one draft back in mid-April. We stayed up from like midnight to 6 a.m.,” he says. “We changed it about a thousand times. It just evolved.”

Isaac submitted the script for a Studio 22 grant last spring, and it was one of the few accepted. It’s not hard to understand why. Beneath Isaac’s disheveled and drowsy exterior beats the heart of a natural schmoozer. He’s the guy who, walking through Evanston any afternoon, will undoubtedly cross paths with more than five different acquaintances before reaching his destination. Isaac’s gift is that, as he exchanges words with these people, they feel as though they’re momentarily at the center of his universe. It’s easy to place your confidence in him.

With his charm and passion, it’s also easy to imagine Isaac finding success in Hollywood. However, even the most talented people fail to make it in the movies. Isaac doesn’t fret about that. Once out of NU, he’s moving to New York to follow his dream of filmmaking. “It’s all I see myself doing,” he says.

Tonight, it’s clear that filmmaking is as tedious as it is exciting. Isaac and his 30-person crew are shooting in the bitter cold from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. so they can generate a grand total of two minutes of film footage. And it’s not deeply dramatic footage, either. It’s scenes of characters walking down a sidewalk. Isaac is responsible for giving these scenes the perfect pace, the perfect tone and the perfect lighting. Every 30 seconds of film takes two hours of setup, rehearsals and takes to get just right. There’s intense pressure to get everything done on schedule because at sunrise, it’s all over. Isaac keeps it together, though, managing to be patient and cheerful despite setbacks. But stress is inescapable. Isaac provides a bright smile for a photograph before he prepares to rehearse a scene. The photographer leaves and Isaac’s smile fades away as he rubs his temples with his hands and gets back to work.

Despite the weariness and monotony, palpable electricity looms in the atmosphere. I sense it when Isaac eyes a shot’s composition through the viewfinder of the camera and yells “Yes!” He jumps up and down, reinvigorated by the creative magic of the moment.

“This film is created by a community. To say it’s mine would be false,” Isaac says. I look around at the crew. They’re in constant motion – carrying cameras, blocking traffic on the street, serving dinner, talking on their cell phones, joking with each other over steaming styrofoam cups of cocoa. They all want to be here.

It doesn’t hurt that Isaac’s crew is largely composed of his close friends. Many of them are not film majors, but they’ve become Isaac’s assistant directors and production designers to share in his spectacle. Watching these friends, braving the chills and frustrations of the night, working together as an organic whole, I begin to understand why Isaac says, “I can never imagine doing anything else but film.”

‘This work chooses you’

Inside the nearby vacant apartment Isaac and his crew are occupying for the night, David Kovac stares at himself in the mirror as he puts on his makeup. Clad in a red sweater and a brown leather jacket, he makes faces at himself – terror, surprise, confusion – just to make sure he’s still got the gift. David, a professional actor, is playing Jackson. He’s 30, but I imagine he still gets carded at R-rated movies. Short, pale and scrawny, an air of fragility surrounds him.

At all times David desperately desires to please and entertain. More than anything, he wants you to laugh at him. Talking with the crew in the apartment, David makes faces and talks in silly accents. It’s eerie how his face instantly switches from stony seriousness to a goofy grin. He’s a natural performer: never letting his guard down, good at being anyone but himself.

It’s 10 minutes until David goes outside to spend a couple of hours in front of the cameras and the bright lights. During this time, he runs to his Honda to fetch two postcards for me. On the front of one are three Davids wearing the same suit, tie, and sneakers. All three are gesticulating wildly in different poses. I flip it over to find his name and phone number in large type. “I’d love not to have to advertise someday, ” he confesses with a chuckle.

David definitely needs to advertise right now. “To be honest,” he tells me as he bundles up to go outside, “I have no paying jobs in October or November. I’m doing ‘Jackson’ for free just because I’ve wanted to do a movie.” This is the life of the true performer. “Actors have always done some different shit,” he explains. “Since I’ve been out of DePaul (University), I’ve worked with carnies, balloon artists and prop comics. I’ve been a street performer, I’ve worked trade and corporate shows, I’ve juggled on Navy Pier.” David has never held a steady job – and he doesn’t want one. “This work chooses you, you don’t choose it,” he says, wrapping a scarf around his neck.

Initially, David was not chosen to play Jackson. As is the case for most actors, his fate came down to chance. Isaac recalls, “When David came to read for the part, he wore a suit and acted all flamboyant. It was all wrong for the part. I had hired another guy.” Days later, Isaac went through the tapes of the auditions and watched David again. “Something was different that time,” he explains, “I saw that he had this potential. I said, ‘This is the guy.'”

David checks himself over in the mirror one last time. He mugs for the passing costume designer and then turns serious. “There’s a danger in not doing what you want to do,” David warns. “You waste away on the inside if you wait too long. You’re stuck.”

Tonight, David is doing what he wants to do. He’s the center of the spectacle. The lights and the cameras are all aimed at him. Next week he’ll be passing out his postcards in the search for another paying job.

As I watch him head out to the set with a sm
ile on his face, I look at his second postcard. On its front is a picture of David, wearing a top hat and a tux, balancing three juggling clubs in his hands. One of the clubs, balanced on another, obscures most of David’s face. However, I can just make out his expression. David’s cringing. He’s balancing everything for the time being, but he knows, at any second, it could all fall apart.

‘I want to do that’

For Dave Lykins, the road to playing Leon Pottermeier began with Dolly Parton. It was in 1992 when Dolly’s unremarkable comedy “Straight Talk” was filming on Michigan Avenue. Dave just happened to be in Chicago that day, and he saw Dolly and James Woods shooting a scene outside the Wrigley Building. At that moment, Dave told himself, “That’s so cool … I want to do that.”

With his broad shoulders, gruff voice, tough eyes, and short gray beard, Dave looks like a real Chicago guy. He’s waiting patiently out in the cold in a black leather jacket, smoking a cigarette, as the crew to prepares the lights for his scene. “Is it bad if my throat is sore and my ears hurt?” he jokes softly, shivering in the middle of the night.

Dave is a 40-somethingengineer from Antioch, Ill. He’s married. He worked all day and he drove two hours south to Chicago through the Friday traffic to film “Jackson.” At 6 a.m. Saturday, he’ll drive all the way back. Then he’ll head back to Chicago at 4 p.m. and do it all again, and he’ll do it again on Sunday.

Why? After the Dolly Parton incident, Dave decided that he would eventually be in movies. He enrolled in some acting courses in Chicago and ended up in some small theater productions. In order to get in front of the camera, all it took was almost a decade and a classified in the Chicago Reader looking for actors to be in a film called “Jackson.”

“Dave Lykins is a favorite on this shoot,” Isaac says. “When I saw his audition tape, I knew he was just perfect. He’s just so easygoing. He’s done everything we ask, even when we accidentally screw him over.”

For all the spectacle, filmmaking becomes another job for Dave. He shows up, does what Isaac tells him to do and heads back home. He doesn’t talk much about it. Without holding any illusions about what moviemaking is about, Dave knew he needed to be a part of it.

‘You have to learn to go on’

Howard Fishlove relishes his great movie moment. As he’s about to talk about it, his eyes squint searchingly. He rubs his stubbly chin in anticipation. “It was this great scene in the movie ‘Mahogany,'” he says, “I played this Chicago cop who arrests Billy Dee Williams. Diana Ross comes out of her house and I explain to her why I’m taking him away … I bet it was about a 30-second scene.”

In the end, the scene got cut.

Scratching his fuzzy head, Howard recalls, “Tony Richardson, the director, got fired and some new guy took over. I went to go see the movie and the scene wasn’t in there … it sure was a great scene.” Howard holds no hard feelings. “I wasn’t discouraged,” he says, “You have to learn to go on. That’s why actors take courses in rejection.”

Around midnight, the 65-year-old man sits on a fold-out chair in the unfurnished apartment, chewing on a hamburger. The laughter and conversation of the crew echoes from down the hall. Behind him, people take quick naps, using their jackets as makeshift beds on the hardwood floor. Howard plays “the drunk” who spews gibberish at Jackson as he walks down the sidewalk. He looks the part. A stained striped shirt stretches tight across his paunchy belly. His left arm is enclosed in a frayed cast. His veiny, plump feet wedge into a pair of dirty slippers. He’s missing half his upper front teeth. A grizzly crew cut graces the top of his sagging, sad face. People often stop by to see if he needs anything. “I’m just great … just great,” he replies each time.

Though he doesn’t look it, Howard is probably the happiest person to be working on “Jackson.” In fact, he’s finished working on “Jackson.” His scene wrapped hours ago. He continues to sit around, hamburger in hand, asking the name of each passing crew member. When they reply, he borrows a pen and jots the name down on a crumpled piece of pink paper that he folds and puts back in his pocket. He pays rapt attention to the constant movement around him. “I could have left but I’d rather see all these kids work,” he says. “They work harder than most professionals I’ve ever worked with.”

The son of a novelty toy producer, Howard started acting onstage in Chicago in 1946. “I usually was the choir boy,” he says, “but I loved it.” After playing bit parts on television, Howard went to a casting call for “The Blob” at The Drake hotel in 1957.

“I was cast as a mechanic and as the first guy who runs out of the theatre when the Blob attacks,” he recalls, smiling. “That was Steve McQueen’s first real starring role. He was a rough guy – an asshole, throwing firecrackers around the set.” Howard looks up at the ceiling, remembering. “Years later, I was working on his final film, ‘The Hunter.’ He remembered me and I asked him if he wanted to see some outtakes from ‘The Blob’ that I had kept. He said, ‘Burn them’ and walked off.”

One may not easily locate Howard in his films. He’s usually in the background somewhere – a waiter, a cop, an extra – only onscreen for a split second. But it’s been his life. After “The Blob,” Howard sold his father’s business and pursued acting full time. “It’s what I needed to do,” he says. He appeared briefly in films such as “The Blues Brothers,” “Oh God! Book II,” and “The Kid with a Broken Halo,” which starred Gary Coleman. “In between takes, Gary just expected to be carried around on someone’s shoulders,” he says, smiling warmly as if he’s back on that set.

As for his other films, he scrunches his face up in thought and admits he can’t remember their names anymore. “They’re not that important,” he says quietly. Then, his eyes light up again. “My claim to fame was in the Wendy’s Russian fashion shoot ad. I was told I had to dress up as a woman. I never questioned it,” he says flatly, taking a bite from his burger.

Later, around 1 a.m., Howard stands in the night air, watching David Kovac walk down the sidewalk in front of the cameras. He makes sure to stay out of the way, watching the crew hustle about. His bloodshot eyes follow their movements, eager to see what happens next. “When do you guys go to classes?” he asks a group setting up the lights. “Classes?” someone responds with a laugh. Howard laughs in confusion.

Surrounded by the blistering lights and the energy of the crew, he turns to me. “This is the biggest shoot I’ve been on in years in my (he pauses) near-career as an actor. I’m on Medicare and Social Security now, you know. It’s just great to watch these young people working like this.” He half-smiles, but he knows his career in film is nearing its end; he can’t keep up with the bustle anymore. As the crew brightens the lights, he tilts his head down, out of the glare, until his face is in the shadows.

It’s a wrap

It’s 4 a.m. Two more hours to go. Waiting for the crew to set up the next scene, an exhausted Isaac sits on the stairs of an apartment building, plucking leaves from a bush. His face is bright red from the cold. Dark circles appear under the eyes of his crew. Dave Lykins smokes another cigarette and looks at his watch.

Meanwhile, a young couple looks down on the crew from their balcony. Well-dressed, they look like they just got home from a bar. Illuminated by the light below, he smiles and she holds a cigarette as if they’re both in an ad for Virginia Slims. They continue watching for a half-hour as the crew films another scene of David Kovac trudging down the sidewalk. Throughout, they don’t say a word to each other.

Around 4:30 a.m., an inebriated pair of Halloween revelers tear by the set in a black sedan. “Fuck the shoot! Fuck the shoot!” they yell as they screech around the corner. Two minutes later, they return. “Where are the whores? Where are my whores?” they scream. I had a feeling they would come back again. They had to see the set, the lights, one more time.

Jeremy Latcham, one of “Ja
ckson”‘s producers, whips out his cell phone and reports the drunken drivers to the police. Shivering on the sidewalk in his puffy North Face coat, he finishes the call and returns to a conversation with a crew member.

“Have you heard my contention?” he asks, rubbing his hands together. “What’s your contention?” the guy asks, his voice muffled by the scarf around his face. Latcham eagerly replies, “I contend that if everyone were given the choice of profession, they would all be in the movies.” nyou