Auteur Of The Heights: A Conversation With Chicago Filmmaker Daniel Nearing
The films of Daniel Nearing have a magical-yet-elegiac quality—mingling noirish pastoral scenes with flashes of urban life, black-and-white cinematography with brief shots of color. Lives from the past greet the present in overtly lyrical contexts: a MacBook suddenly appears on a 19th-century nightstand, a skyscraper peeks from a bridge scene that seems otherwise frozen in time. In 2010, the late Roger Ebert included Nearing’s debut feature, “Chicago Heights,” in his list of Top Ten Art Films. Nearing’s most recent film, “Hogtown,” was hailed by the Chicago Sun-Times as “the most original film made in Chicago about Chicago to date.”
But Nearing isn’t originally from Chicago, or even the United States. A native of Canada—originally from Alberta—he founded 9:23 Films in 2008 and has lived in Chicago’s University Park neighborhood since 2001, when he joined Governors State University’s film faculty. Escaping the wind for brunch beers in Bucktown’s Map Room, we discussed cinematography, literary lenses and creating a convincing female protagonist. Keep reading to learn more about this maker and his process.
Your first film “Chicago Heights” was retitled “The Last Soul on a Summer Night,” in which you took the 1919 Sherwood Anderson short story cycle “Winesburg, Ohio” and placed it far from where it’s originally set. What do you love about Anderson’s stories?
The title “Last Soul…,” which we had to use for distribution purposes, also comes from Anderson—it’s the closing line of the final chapter of the book. But I prefer “Chicago Heights.” The original title tests the universality of Anderson’s book in a lot of ways. With “Chicago Heights,” I love the irony because the people in the book are living in the depths of despair. They dwell in a space that is relentlessly bleak, but every now and then, life offers these moments of exhilaration, of rising above.
And in these moments you switch to color?
Yes, that’s why I like to call it “ecstatic” color. It’s all about very specific illumination. In general, I find color garish and over-the-top. When we go to color, it’s not so much an interruption of color as this sense that this moment calls for it.
In a way, the whole approach to “Chicago Heights” seems audacious. Anderson’s story and language are grafted onto an African-American community, but the film doesn’t seem to impose a white narrative onto black characters. Rather, the characters impose their own complexity onto the story.
That makes sense. The decision to set Anderson’s story in this part of Chicago came about naturally. I work about four or five miles away from Chicago Heights, and that’s the demographic of my university, as well. I had the original “Winesburg, Ohio” screenplay optioned in Canada years earlier—I’d written it a long time ago—but they weren’t willing to film this American story in Manitoba. So when I came to the US, I already had this property that I thought could lend itself to an approach to my new neighborhood. And I tried to be deferential to the culture that the film was representing.
Anderson writes with incredible intimacy; he gets right inside the minds of his characters and forms really intimate bonds, but he writes in this formal, detached way. For this reason, we struggled with the adaptation to film, but as soon as we added music, it changed everything. Suddenly scenes became very emotional that didn’t seem that way before.
The film has a conspicuously artful aspect to it, but it doesn’t feel detached. I especially enjoy its confrontational shots of the characters staring directly at the camera.
I do the same direct address— quite a lot of it—in “Hogtown,” and I plan to do the same with the film I’m working on now, “Sister Carrie,” based on the Theodore Dreiser novel. His novel starts in Chicago and ends in New York, with Carrie becoming a Broadway star. But in my version, it starts in Chicago and ends in Paris, with her becoming a star at the Folies Bergère. It’s a kind of hybridized mix of “Sister Carrie” and the Moulin Rouge.
How do you see “Chicago Heights,” “Hogtown,” and your newest project, “Sister Carrie” related?
They form a kind of triptych. “Chicago Heights” is a study of isolation and longing in a rural, or ex-urban, community. “Hogtown” is studying the same things through a multiracial, ensemble cast. It looks at the urban experience through the lens of what’s considered “the most American of American cities.” “Sister Carrie” is meant to be global—to explore the same ideas on a bigger stage. It’s also a bilingual film.
In all three, there’s this illusion of plot, but in fact the narrative is formed through a series of epiphanies strung together from character to character.
Vignettes formally seem to serve as an anchor, a shift from linear narrative which often goes privileged across art forms—the idea that in order for something to be accessible it has to be told from beginning to end. When you’re making a film, do you think about whether it will be seen as “accessible”?
I understand what you’re saying. T.S. Eliot has this lovely phrase, “Plot is the bone you throw at the dog while you go in to rob the house.” I think my obligations are to get at something that feels real, something deeply personal, and if I have to create the illusion of a plot to carry those ideas to an audience, then that’s what I’ll do.
I didn’t that at all with “Chicago Heights, but I’m making that compromise more increasingly. But there’s a through-line to all of them. In “Chicago Heights,” there’s a protagonist who wants to get out of town. In “Hogtown,” it’s a murder mystery—there’s a missing man you’re trying to find, but the missing man is actually a sense of identity or self-esteem. With “Sister Carrie,” I’ve been strongly advised to tell a more accessible story, and I’m sensitive to it, if only because I want to take these stories to the point where they’re widely seen and acknowledged.
It seems like part of your overall goal as a filmmaker is to collapse certain aspects of history. When did you develop that interest?
I’m aspiring to something—and I still haven’t winnowed down exactly how to pursue it. The underlying message is, “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” and why not be overt about it? They say that period pieces say more about the times in which they were made than the time they represent.
It’s not anything that ever evolved in an overt kind of way. But I become conscious of it gradually. With “Chicago Heights,” the antique quality of Anderson’s language with a contemporary context was already there. In “Hogtown,” I’d already drafted it, and realized that Anderson and Doctorow were both huge influences. That’s how it came about.
And now, working on “Sister Carrie,” I wanted to write a straight-up love story with a female protagonist that had a period-less aspect to it. But when I shared it to readers, it was brought to my attention that the female character was not wrought in a realistic fashion. It called into question not only my own perspective, but also perspective of the white male authors whose work the script was based upon.
Do you consider “Sister Carrie” a feminist film?
Dreiser’s novel, from 1900—like Anderson’s “Winesburg”—is considered proto-feminist, another example from the period of a male author trying to be empathetic to a female character, but ultimately objectifying her.
I’ve been drafting the screenplay for more than a year now, to try and ensure that I don’t fuck it up. I’m still wrestling with what kind of movie and what kind of message I want to pursue. The novel is based on the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But the film also segues into the 21st—the perspective we would have on it now.
“Sister Carrie” is meant to be both a celebration and indictment of the male gaze—and ultimately more an indictment. It impales itself on the sword of the 20th century.
You worked in documentaries before founding 9:23. How did those years influence your way of making fictional films? There’s a kind of fidelity to place that I pick up between them.
Those years made me appreciate the license I had as a fictional filmmaker. I liked making documentaries, and as I invested myself in them, they became very personal. You start to live with the characters. You get to know them and you never forget them. You want to represent them in as real a way as you can. But I felt I couldn’t get at deeper truths.
In a way, I feel now I have the absolute latitude to be a truer documentarian, in a sense, through fictional storytelling.
You’ve been here in Chicago for 16 years. As an artist born and raised in Canada, what has surprised you?
As a Canadian, when I initially came to the area, I was terrified. I come from a country where there are less than a hundred homicides in any given year, and I came to a place where there are seven or eight hundred in Chicago alone. I was initially just uncomfortable—I didn’t think of it as pocketed with violence, but it was something that unnerved me.
But over time I overcame these fears and fell in love with the place. The story of “Hogtown” was originally set in Toronto. But like the “Winesburg, Ohio” screenplay, I brought it to the US when I moved. The story of “Hogtown” was actually really easy to migrate from Toronto to Chicago, and got much, much richer as a consequence of the dramatic history of the United States—the racial conflict, the capitalist influence. In the course of shooting the film, we went into so many neighborhoods that I used to have qualms about, that were truly welcoming and lovely places to work.
Have you thought of other places in the Midwest that you’d like to make a film? What is your overall sense of the region?
You hear about news anchors, how the voice of authority is the Midwestern accent. But by extension, there’s something to be said about how the Midwest is perceived nationally and internationally. People seem to think there’s something more down to earth, more trustworthy, more genuine. I feel a kinship to St. Louis and the whole Midwest. I mean, Orson Welles came out of Kenosha, Wisconsin.