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Reel Life: how an odd job turned into a first feature

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Aleksandra Hodowany was finishing up a film degree at Columbia College when she landed a job as a photographer for a small local modeling agency. But after just three weeks she started thinking there was something strange about the operation. "We were taking pictures of people who were overweight, gangbangers, older people," she says, and charging them around $300 for the privilege. "The owner would have these fake fashion shows with the models at nightclubs. . . . He'd put overweight people in tiny bathing suits and lingerie and say humiliating things about their bodies so they wouldn't come back.

"One day he told us this mentally challenged girl was going to be one of the models. That's when me and a couple of people were like, 'What is he doing?' This girl was so gullible, so nice--he totally broke her heart."

When Hodowany quit a short time later the owner joked, "What are you going to do--make a film about this?" That's exactly what she and her partners, Monika Szewerniak and Chris Collins, have done. Their Runaway Divas is a colorful spoof of the modeling racket shot in 2002 in and around the northwest side's Polish neighborhoods. Hodowany plays a dim, accordion-playing wannabe with a heart of gold; Szewerniak is the jaded photographer who tries to protect her.

Szewerniak and Hodowany were both born in Poland. Szewerniak's family came to the U.S. in 1980, when she was five; Hodowany and her parents, labor activists working with Lech Walesa, fled the country for West Germany in 1986 and emigrated to Chicago three years later. The two met while enrolled in an accelerated three-year program at Foreman High School and became fast friends. "I was over at her house every single day," says Szewerniak. "We always did these minishows we'd record on video. We'd dress up as different people and do talk shows or commercials that were goofy and funny." Before Szewerniak left to study film at USC in 1993, they made a pact to start a production company after they finished college. They even had a name--MonOla Productions ("Ola" is the Polish nickname for "Aleksandra"). "We figured that if we had a name we'd manifest it," says Hodowany.

In 1999, after working together in Chicago on Hodowany's final student film and a play directed by Szewerniak, they headed to LA in Hodowany's green Ford Taurus. They wrote the first draft of Divas on the road. Six months later, working as translators at the Cannes Film Market, they met a producer who was interested in the film, but after negotiating with him they figured they'd be better off on their own.

They moved back to Chicago in 2002 to produce and direct the film themselves, running up their credit cards and soliciting investments from family and friends to come up with the $480,000 budget. Collins, a friend from Columbia, signed on as coproducer and director of photography.

They shot on 35-millimeter film--unusual for an independent first feature--because, according to Hodowany, "film gives it a look of magic. Video still looks like reality." Collins got a deal on the film and processing from the LA lab where he works, and the actors worked for deferred payment. Szewerniak and Hodowany say it wasn't that hard to direct a film in which they're also the stars. "There weren't many scenes between me and Aleksandra," says Szewerniak. "Plus we see everything the same way. Chris calls us 'unibrain.'"

"Acting and directing go together, so it wasn't hard at all," says Hodowany. "Producing is hard."

Currently they're working on a new script for a drama about reincarnation ("Dead Again meets The Sixth Sense") that they plan to shoot here--unless they can get a Hollywood studio interested, says Szewerniak. "If we want to do it on our own, Chicago would be the only place possible to do it. Permits are reasonable and there are so many people that are willing to help you out and let you shoot in their location. They think it's cool if you're shooting at their restaurant. Over there, the first thing they'd want is to get paid for it."

Runaway Divas opens Friday, July 30, at 8 PM and runs through August 5 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; see Showtimes in Section Two for a complete schedule. Hodowany and Szewerniak will ap-pear with members of the cast and crew at the Friday and Saturday screenings. Tickets are $9; call 312-846-2800. For more on the film see www.runawaydivas.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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