Daniel Nearing knew what he was getting into when he set out to make a movie based on Sherwood Anderson's classic 1919 story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. He'd loved the book since he read it as an undergrad at the University of Toronto in the early 80s, and he'd come close to making a straight adaptation in Canada in the 90s.
But Winesburg is famously unfilmable. Framed by the stories of an author on his deathbed and a young journalist with an ailing mother and a yearning to leave town, Winesburg plumbs the regrets and repressed longings of several dozen residents of a town patterned after Anderson's native Clyde, Ohio.
Anderson wrote it in Chicago, "entirely in pencil on the backs of previously discarded sheets of paper," Nearing says. "It's one of the most highly regarded books in the history of American literature, but no one has ever tried to tackle it as a mainstream feature. It's an unwieldy, anachronistic ensemble piece that is remarkably intimate with its characters yet somehow just this side of cold in its tone."
There have been at least two previous efforts to capture Winesburg on film, but neither saw theatrical release. A 2008 version produced at Ohio University was credited to "Alan Smithee"—the classic pseudonym for directors who disown their work. It played at an OU film festival. And Timothy Bottoms starred in a 1973 PBS movie.
But this week, 90 years after publication of Anderson's book, an audacious adaptation by Nearing and producer-cinematographer Sanghoon Lee makes its theatrical premiere.
Chicago Heights, filmed in digital black-and-white, transposes the story to a contemporary-anachronistic African-American milieu in the south suburbs of Chicago.
When Chicago Heights played in August at the Film Center's Black Harvest film festival, Roger Ebert called it "brilliant" and wrote: "Nearing finds an approach that in 90 minutes accomplishes the uncanny feat of distilling the book's essence." The movie begins a weeklong run at the Film Center on Friday.
Nearing, 48, gave Winesburg a shot for the first time while he was still in grad school, studying film at Toronto's York University. He was drawn to the stories because they reminded him of his own life. "My mother's health was very frail. I had a connection with this relationship [between mother and son]," he says. "I identified with the longing to escape that the writer experienced. I wanted to be a writer. My whole life has been a series of compromises to keep me close to what I love."
A producer optioned the script and raised some development money, but "for some reason, a film with Ohio in the title didn't get far up the ladder with the Canadian federal funding agencies," Nearing said. "They tend to be a bit preoccupied with what they regard as cultural imperialism."
Nearing set the project aside and beginning in 1992 directed a string of documentaries and features for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Discovery, Bravo, and the Sports Network on topics ranging from juvenile murder and paternal incest to Russian hockey players and Carl Jung.
In his late 30s, Nearing says, he "got weary of the feast-or-famine proposition of being a filmmaker." He took a one-year teaching appointment at Columbia Academy in Vancouver, then moved to Chicago to teach film at Governors State University in far-south-suburban University Park, where he coordinates the MFA program in independent filmmaking.
But Anderson stayed on his mind. In 2005 Nearing began work on a documentary on the author, shooting in Paris and Clyde. Meanwhile, just down the road in Chicago Heights, he was struck by a bleak exurban landscape that set his mind wandering back to Winesburg.
"Along a certain stretch of Lincoln Highway, Chicago Heights is a strikingly desolate place," Nearing says, "a place where it feels like it would be a struggle to grow up and to cultivate a sense of identity. It is, in that respect, a bit like Winesburg." Soon the documentary was cast aside in favor of a severely retooled take on the Winesburg script, which he'd already begun revising with longtime friend Rudy Thauberger.
Nearing faced questions over the decision to tell the story with a mostly African-American cast. One of his students, a man in his 60s named William Sage, pointedly asked what a boring white Canadian guy was doing making a black film.
"He closed the door to my office, and questioned me with serious concern and at length," Nearing recalls. "He said 'What's going on here? You may not know what you're taking on, trying to make a black film.' He meant 'you're naive. You don't understand the history of the culture.'" But reading the script, Sage was sufficiently convinced, and in fact agreed to play the role of the dying writer in the film.
An admirer of Norman Jewison, the Canadian director of the racially charged 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, Nearing says he "grew up with a lot of empathy for the black American experience, and there's something about that iconic experience that brings another layer to the film that suits its tone and Anderson's underlying intent." He learned from an Anderson biographer that the Winesburg author "had a huge affinity for the struggles of African-Americans" and was an early advocate for school integration.
To bring details of the story in line with its new context, Nearing relied on another student, Keisha Dyson, a coproducer of the film who plays the lead female role of the reporter's mother.
"Keisha helped us to create the mood in the shoot," says Lee. "If we didn't have her it would probably be a little awkward. She talked to the other actors about how the story was adapted."
Dyson says bringing the stories to a new town in a new era demanded changes.
"There were times in the script when we were forced to break away from Anderson's stilted dialogue and exchange it for a more colloquial language," she says. For instance, "my character, Elizabeth, had garnered a reputation in Chicago Heights for being promiscuous, and so at one point, she rather forwardly explains, 'I'm not a ho.'"
Dyson connected Nearing with Morgan Park minister and gospel recording artist Raymond Dunlap, whose original songs for piano and choir bring an emotional through line to the otherwise fragmentary narrative. "The songs lift us out of that coldness" of Anderson's "distant and detached" voice, Nearing says.
To produce and shoot Chicago Heights, Nearing turned to Lee, 39, a native of Seoul who moved to the U.S. in 1999 to get his MFA at the School of the Art Institute. Lee produced Masahiro Sugano's 2006 "neo-yakuza romantic farce" Second Moon and then became the first professor Nearing hired for the GSU program he runs.
Nearing instructed Lee to model the look of Chicago Heights after the work of master cinematographer Gregg Toland on The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. That's less of a stretch than it sounds: Lee's luminous camera work captures the cast in rich grays, floating in isolated pools of light in a sea of inky blacks.
The budget for the project was crazy low: $1,000, secured from the wig maker that employed Lee's wife. Most of that went to buy food—everyone worked for free with equipment on loan from GSU. The filmmakers drew on their students as most of the crew and some of the cast.
They filmed in Chicago Heights, on the GSU campus, in Lockport, Evanston, and Chicago in the summer of 2008. They also cut in footage from Nearing's unfinished Anderson documentary.
A short version of Chicago Heights played as part of the Short Film Corner programming at Cannes in 2009. The full 67-minute version premiered in October 2009 at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea, Asia's largest film fest, where Lee had also taken Second Moon. It went on to play at ten more domestic festivals. After the Film Center run, Nearing and Lee are lining up more fests and hopefully some museum screenings.
Nearing says Chicago Heights also helped him get the attention of the powerful Sundance Institute: he's been invited to submit his next screenplay to its film-development program. It will be based on "Hogtown," a novel about the kidnapping of a Toronto businessman that he began writing 15 years ago. The book is set in Canada, but the movie takes place in Chicago, against the backdrop of the 1919 race riots, the Black Sox scandal, and the end of World War I. "Like Chicago Heights, the idea is to do a hybrid, overlaying period elements on contemporary elements to hopefully make something timeless," he says. "I'm very excited, but it's also a little scary." v
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