When writer-director Jefferson Root was making his first film, a romantic comedy about four guys, their obsession with mix tapes, and the women who put up with them, he naturally wanted to stack the sound track with his own favorite songs. By the fall of 2002 a rough cut of Mix Tape had been shot and edited--a process that took two years--but Root still hadn't gotten permission to use the songs he needed, including Sebadoh's "Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)," which plays a pivotal role in the plot. Without it he would have had to reshoot a key scene, but luckily Root's brother Joel, bassist for local band the Reputation, was on tour and opening for Lou Barlow in Boston. "Joel, you've got to help me out," Root remembers saying. After Joel approached Barlow at the show and explained the context in which the song's used--as "the smoking gun that backfires" when it's included on a tape--he gave Root permission to use the tune.
Mix Tape was shot on location in Chicago and includes scenes at Hard Boiled Records in Roscoe Village, Cody's Public House in Lakeview, and the now defunct Nervous Center in Lincoln Square. But Root says the settings are intended to evoke a college town like Eugene, Oregon, where he grew up. He had already written the screenplay for Mix Tape when he moved to Chicago in 1998 hoping to attend film school at Columbia College. At that point he'd spent a year at art school in Pasadena and worked as a production assistant on Bound, the first film by the Wachowski brothers. His plans to go to Columbia fell through, but he got a job in visitor services at the Art Institute, where he met many of his eventual collaborators--including production designer Jack Daniel Cozzi and Michael Loeffelholz, who plays the lead. "We had a lot of time," he says, "to kind of hang around in the checkrooms...talking."
The film's eight principal actors, mostly locals, agreed to work for free, and its cinematographer, Columbia College photo technician Cynthia Harrig, helped put together a crew and obtained the use of a high-end digital video camera from the school. In 2001 Root got a job as the assistant house manager at the Gene Siskel Film Center (where he still works), and a coworker told him about Experimental Sound Studio, the nonprofit recording studio in Ravenswood where the film's all-important sound mix would be completed.
Watching Mix Tape, with its juvenile male characters pontificating about the "rules" of making a tape--90 minutes always, never 60--it's hard not to think of High Fidelity. Root admits that reading Nick Hornby's book probably influenced his writing and that when the film adaptation came out he was "terrified" because of the similar subject matter.
Still, Mix Tape's depiction of crushes and breakups playing out in audio form is close to his heart. "It's a little embarrassing to say, but I've made a few tapes in my time, with a few Sebadoh songs here and there."
Root doesn't have a CD burner, and he argues that romancing someone with your record collection is more poignant when delivered in analog form. "If you're talking about burning a CD, and you're downloading songs off the Internet or various sites or whatever, it's all kind of that impersonal computer, digital stuff," he says. "Whereas, as in the movie, the guy shows up with stacks of records and CDs, and you're working from various different types of sources and you're pulling things from obscure places. I think it's more personal, bringing what you already have in your world to the tape."
The most obvious illustrations of this philosophy, and some of the film's more amusing moments, come from the character Dean, who sends his ex-girlfriend tapes with titles like "Easter Bowl of Hate" and covers made of sandpaper and metal. One is filled with the same song over and over: V-3's "Hating Me. Hating You."
"The fucknut sat there for 90 minutes to make this tape," complains the ex to a friend.
"Couldn't he have just hit 'repeat' on his CD player?"
"No, because he only has it on vinyl!"
Root and several cast members will appear at the 8 PM screening of Mix Tape on Saturday, September 6, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.