Crime Fiction: With University support and ‘I-love-you money,’ students, alumni make film with perverse twistBy Julia Morse
In the summer of 2005, eight young filmmakers from the University had all the right elements to bring their crime drama to the big screen—their own combined talents for storytelling; funding, including support from the University; a handful of professional actors; an original score; and a perverted protagonist whose crime brings him celebrity.
Just months after completing the full-length feature film, titled Crime Fiction, the five Chicago alumni and three current students who wrote, directed and produced it are making a trip to Park City, Utah, for its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 19.
“It’s truly mind-blowing,” said Graham Ballou (A.B.,’06), one of the film’s four producers. “We say to ourselves every single day that we can’t believe this is happening to us.”
Crime Fiction was written by current Comparative Literature Ph.D. candidate Jonathan Ullyot and is described by its creators as a “perverted crime drama.” It is the first full-length feature film created by these self-professed film lovers, who have since founded their own production company, Crime Fiction Pictures.
The plot of Crime Fiction centers on James Cooper, a literary failure, portrayed by Ullyot. “The poor reception of his first novel forces him to leave New York and accept a position at a decrepit academic publishing house in Chicago. After an argument with his girlfriend ends in her murder, James’ luck takes a turn. He buries her body in a cornfield, writes a best-selling novel that documents his crime and becomes an instant literary celebrity,” Slocombe explained.
“We made this movie in 18 days during the summer of 2005—and I think our shortest day was 16 hours long,” Ballou said.
While the actors were permitted by law to work a maximum of eight hours per day, the filmmakers worked as long as possible day-in and day-out, sacrificing sleep for editing and preparing future scenes.
“The fact that we didn’t know how much work it was going to be really worked to our advantage,” Ballou said. “That kind of naiveté allowed us to go in guns blazing without fear of the amount of work ahead of us from day-to-day.”
Director Will Slocombe (A.B. ’06) said, “It really was the best and most challenging time of our lives.”
Former President of Fire Escape Films Ben Kolak (A.B.,’06), who served as associate producer and assistant director, noted that while he may have taken on a bit too much during those 18 days, he would not trade a minute of them.
“I really did get in over my head,” Kolak said, “I would even say that it was traumatic, actually, having no sleep and seemingly endless challenges ahead of me. But I learned so much; it was a remarkable time.”
He added that he most enjoyed the “otherwise forbidden transgressions” while filming in Chicago.
“When you make movies, you get to transgress public spaces,” he said. “We got to break the rules a bit and that was really exhilarating for me.”
Other producers are Marc DeMoss (A.B.,’03) and fourth-year Jonathan Cowperthwait. Kirsten Johnson (A.B.,’06) served as the film’s cinematographer. The University Symphony Orchestra performed the film’s original score, which David Bashwiner, a Ph.D. candidate in Music, composed. Bashwiner also recorded the audio on the set during production.
Through networking and diligence, the group of writers, producers and directors managed to raise about $60,000 and hire professional actors, including many accredited members of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Professional actors starring in Crime Fiction include Amy Sloan, who was in the cast of The Aviator, Dan Bakkedahl, a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and Yasen Peyankov, a Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble member.
Of the $60,000 raised to produce the film, about $15,000 was provided by the University, specifically, Fire Escape Films, the Arts Planning Council, the College, and the Committee on Cinema & Media Studies.
Much of the remaining funding came through what the filmmakers affectionately call “I love you money,” from family members and friends—and one very significant $12,000 investment from an anonymous Chicago alumnus.
“Our biggest investment was $12,000, and our smallest was $300, but every cent really, really mattered,” Slocombe said.
He added that in retrospect, it was the production of Crime Fiction that he found the most exciting. “The traveling, connecting with new people and new places, the rhythm of it all, the stress and the challenges—it was so intense and so amazing,” Slocombe said.
For DeMoss, the making of Crime Fiction served as a second Chicago experience.
“When I was enrolled in the College, this wasn’t my life,” he said. “Although I’ve always been interested in film, I didn’t do Fire Escape at Chicago and I wasn’t in this world. It has been the most incredible second go-around. I’m so excited to see where this takes us.”
All involved are not shy in expressing gratitude to all those who helped them get this far, including the University. “The University was amazing in supporting us without looking over our shoulders,” Slocombe said.
Additionally, the filmmakers received support from unexpected places, including a city junkyard that provided a car for a crash scene in the film.
“We couldn’t have done any of this on our own,” said Kolak. “So many people contributed to this success.”
Up next: Slamdance. And all eight collaborators are counting the hours until they arrive in Utah for the premiere of Crime Fiction.
“We are so incredibly excited for Slamdance,” Ballou said. “This is showing us that there really is a future here. Until this moment, you never know if what you’re doing is merely for the experience or if it’s for product.”
Echoed DeMoss, “I couldn’t be more excited about the festival. I can’t wait to see what precipitates.”
Following Slamdance, the filmmakers have no plans to slow down. They already are working on producing another of Ullyot’s screenplays later this year, in addition to reaching out to other film festivals in the coming months and organizing an on-campus screening of Crime Fiction.
More information about Crime Fiction is available at http://crimefictionpictures.com.