Panicky, pulsing music plays as a man runs down a street, covered in blood. A tape labeled "Watch me" lies in the gutter, intriguing a passerby. A man rapes a woman with the help of her girlfriend. A barista gets fired for serving a customer whole milk rather than skim in her latte.
These disjointed scenes are from The Cliffhanger, an ambitious feature film made by a loose consortium of caffeine-driven guerrilla filmmakers. If the through line seems elusive, it's by design: the movie was developed using the techniques of the surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse.
Jason Stephens began thinking about the project last spring. An arts management grad student at Columbia College, he founded the nonprofit organization Split Pillow a year ago to promote "improv filmmaking"--productions acted, directed, edited, and sometimes scripted on the fly. Split Pillow had already put together "The Challenge," an event in which writers were given 12 hours to produce short scripts that were then filmed and edited in another 48. Over 100 people participated, and the results were screened at Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park. But, Stephens says, "we wanted to create something a bit different, something that would require Chicago-based filmmakers to collaborate on a larger scale."
The Exquisite Corpse format--in which a sketch or poem is collectively produced as players add parts to it in sequence--had intrigued Stephens since he was introduced to it in a high school English class; he'd even used it with his students while serving in Russia with the Peace Corps. For The Cliffhanger, he proposed that each production team would have one week to create a five-to-ten-minute chapter of the film, from script to rough cut. Participants would view preceding chapters, but the only requirements were that the story be continuous and that the same cast be used throughout. Content, form, theme, and setting were left to the teams themselves.
Stephens eventually assembled 11 teams involving around 75 participants for the project, many of them veterans of "The Challenge"; shooting took place over 11 weeks beginning in July (editing on the final cut of the film carried into the fall). Split Pillow's volunteer staff coordinated schedules, helped scout locations, and provided editing equipment and DV cameras to those who needed them, but apart from actors' fees of $5 per chapter, the teams were responsible for their own funding.
The teams took widely varying approaches to their chapters, and Stephens admits that the biggest challenge was "keeping the story alive." He's still confident that improvised filmmaking will catch on: "It took at least a decade for mainstream audiences to get used to color film," he says. "This is a whole new generation of filmmaking in its infancy. Improv-style filmmaking will soon be embraced by more than just the people that create it."
The Cliffhanger premieres Monday, November 17, at the Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway. Doors open at 8; the screening is at 9:30. The $15 admission includes hors d'oeuvres, live entertainment by Toeknee B the MC and Swak One, and performances by break-dance troupe Chicago Champions. Semiformal or business casual attire is requested. All proceeds benefit Split Pillow; visit www.lakeshoretheater.com or call 773-472-3492 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.