Filmmakers Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave have a message for Chicago artists of every stripe: Buckle down and get to work. Second-class hang-ups may pervade Second City attitudes, but they don't accomplish a damn thing.
"Chicago can't be thought of as a handicap. This 'coast' shit is ridiculous geographical snobbery," says Redgrave. "If anything, being based out of Chicago can either work to your advantage or be completely irrelevant. It's up to you."
The success of the former Art Institute classmates' first feature, Straightman, proves how far big-shoulders chutzpah can carry the undaunted. After impressing festival audiences in Berlin, picking up best screenplay honors at Outfest in LA, and receiving a special jury prize at New York's New Festival, the film kicks off the seventh annual Chicago Underground Film Festival tonight.
Straightman, written by and starring the Bens, is about male friendship amid messy relationships, simmering class conflicts, and the search for a viable identity. "It's about that stage where 'I'm not old enough to be old, but I'm too old to be young,'" says director Berkowitz, who's 27. "That's how I feel."
And it's about sex. In moments of comic clarity and gritty reckoning, Redgrave's character comes out and Berkowitz's comes clean about his compulsive bed hopping. Some scenes are explicit in a distinctly un-Hollywood way; namely, the actors look like regular people, much to the horror and delight of audiences. Berkowitz enjoyed being called "superdick" in Germany until he learned it meant superfat. He prefers one critic's description: "a hot sexy fat boy, frequently naked."
The film's realism has polarized some viewers. Redgrave, 26, recalls seeing a couple bickering as they left the New York screening. Later someone posted a message on the Bens' Web site (benzfilm.com) expressing gratitude to the filmmakers--the bickerers had broken up and the poster had started dating one of them. It's not an isolated incident. They heard about one marriage that hit the skids after the wife took a powerful monologue about commitment to heart. "It's not about relationships not working out," notes Berkowitz. "It's about finding the right person."
Finding the right distributor, however, is a continuing conundrum. After they showed the trailer last year at the Independent Feature Film Market, their voice mail was bursting with flirtations from Paramount, Fox, Miramax, and others. But nobody offered finishing funds, let alone a deal.
Straightman's complex yet commonplace themes haven't helped matters. "One of the most controversial things about the film is the fact that it's equally gay and straight," says Berkowitz. Gay niche marketers and mainstream Hollywood operators believe the public doesn't want that mixture, say the Bens, but they think differently. "Our biggest problem right now is with the gatekeepers of gay cinema," Berkowitz continues. "They don't think that their audience wants to see a working-class midwestern gay guy honestly portrayed. They think all people want is go-go boys in LA or New York with ripped bodies."
Despite all that, the two have reveled in the pitching process--especially the gravy train that is the indie festival circuit. Since completing the film in January, they've spent five months away from their Wicker Park headquarters, living off the largesse. Airplane tickets, free food and booze, sometimes a hotel, plus a few other privileges. "Ben and I are the only two heterosexuals I know that got laid at gay film festivals," says Berkowitz.
"Yeah, but it's hard for me--after screenings--to convince people I'm straight," sighs Redgrave.
"It's hard to convince me," retorts Berkowitz.
However much fun they've had on the road, they're excited to be home for Straightman's premiere in the city that provides the movie's rough-hewn sensibility. "It's a film that had to take place here," says Berkowitz. "These particular characters with their particular communication blocks are distinctly midwestern." He compares the situation to the Chicago focus of David Mamet and, yes, the Blues Brothers. "It's like, could A Streetcar Named Desire take place anywhere but New Orleans? I suppose we could have called it 'An El Train Named Blue.'"
Indeed, the movie makes for spot-the-location fun. Locals should recognize Okno, Gold Star, Rainbo, and Manny's Coffeeshop & Deli. Coastal audience members have swooned over scenes in the Bens' cheap and roomy apartments with back porches and cinematic alleyways--things often taken for granted here. Guerrilla shooting tactics (a camera hidden under a coat) provided an authentically seamy Union Station tryst and a buddy scene on a CTA bus that garnered the driver's unsolicited review: "You ain't going to the Academy with that fake friend shit."
Perhaps not. Straightman isn't a technical marvel. It isn't a groundbreaking combination of Hollywood star power and intellectual dispensation. But it is a tender examination of the young everyman's (and woman's) struggle to make sense of sexuality, relationships, and self.
Just a few scenes were enough to convince CUFF codirector Bryan Wendorf to award the project crucial postproduction funds last year. "We received over a hundred applications," he says. "But the naturalism of the performances won us over. The characters all felt like people we would really know in Chicago."
The admiration is mutual. "Most of the things we have are because of Bryan," says Berkowitz. "The $1,000 grant was the only infusion of cash we had available at the time." In fact, it was a godsend for the filmmakers, who had cobbled together their minuscule budget from family, friends, and a smattering of jobs in video production, welding, and landscaping as well as stints as market-research guinea pigs.
Berkowitz and Redgrave look forward to ditching the day jobs eventually, although Berkowitz understands the indie reality that "the best thing you're gonna get out of making a do-it-yourself guerrilla first film is to make another film." They're already writing a family drama with a criminal subtext set in Redgrave's native Baltimore.
"We just want Straightman to be seen and enjoyed by thousands," says Berkowitz. If that's not enough incentive, he promises to arm wrestle Redgrave at the opening. And if folks don't show up, Berkowitz vows to produce a revenge sequel. "It'll be 'Straightman Two: Electric Boogaloo.'" Go, people. Go.
Straightman screens at 7:30 and 9:30 PM Friday at the Fine Arts, 418 S. Michigan. Tickets are $7. For more information, call the festival's hot line at 773-866-8660 or see the CUFF sidebar in Section Two. --Joy Bergmann
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.