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Interview with RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO writer/director Michael Glover Smith

November 26, 2018

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It’s that time of the year again fellow film enthusiasts, specifically for those in the Chicago area! The Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival (or Oakton PUFF) returns this week to the Footlik Theater at the Des Plaines campus of Oakton Community College for its fifth consecutive year. Curated by film professor and local filmmaker, Michael Glover Smith, the FREE festival runs from Tuesday, November 27th through Friday, November 30th, highlighting choice selections from local and national filmmakers. Each afternoon viewing will be followed by a discussion led by either Smith himself or a local film critic, often with special guests such as the director or actors involved in the film. The lineup this year is quite special in that Smith’s latest film is scheduled, which is the reason for my latest interview with him. 

While one of the year’s best films, Jacqueline Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” will open the festival, it makes sense that curating such a festival allows writer/director Smith the ability to program, “Rendezvous in Chicago”, his third feature-length which makes its Illinois premiere on Thursday, November 29th. The film had its world premiere last month at the Adirondack Film Festival in Glen Falls, New York, where it took the 2nd place Audience Choice Award for Best Feature. The film then screened earlier this month at the Strasburg Film Festival in Strasburg, Virginia, where it won the award for Best Comedy. Reception of the film is clearly looking up for Smith, who recently made it into Newcity Chicago‘s annual “Film 50” list for the first time.

To get an idea for what the film is about here’s Smith’s Director’s Statement for “Rendezvous in Chicago”, which he posted on his site White City Cinema last May:

 

“As a filmmaker I have long been fascinated by the cinematic representation of relationships and communication. RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO constitutes the third part in a trilogy of films tackling these subjects (following my previous features COOL APOCALYPSE and MERCURY IN RETROGRADE) although, rather than telling a single narrative, this film is itself a trilogy; it is comprised of three vignettes that correspond to the beginning (THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV), middle (CATS AND DOGS) and end (THE END IS THE BEGINNING) stages of a relationship. This tripartite structure allowed me to come up with a distinct visual style for each vignette in terms of color palette and camera movement. The cast is the finest I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, featuring many well-known Chicago actors (Rashaad Hall, Clare Cooney, Nina Ganet, Matt Sherbach, Shane Simmons, etc.) as well as French import Haydee Politoff (whose cameo is an homage to her mentor Eric Rohmer); but what really sets RENDEZVOUS apart from my previous work is its more overtly comedic tone and the way that it abandons naturalism in favor of a dreamlike but gentle surrealism. I hope you walk away from it with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.” 

 

In recent years, I’ve developed a cherished friendship with Smith. He remains someone whose viewpoints and perspectives on films I greatly respect and appreciate, someone I typically learn a great deal about film from. One of many benefits that’s come from such a friendship is getting viewing access to his films before they are released. It’s an honor I experienced with his impressive feature-length debut, 2015’s “Cool Apocalypse” and last year’s “Mercury in Retrograde“, his excellent sophomore effort. “Rendezvous in Chicago” was the first of his films in which I really had to allow some time before I was able to come to terms with my position on it – even then, it took another viewing before I could confidently recognize my thoughts on the film.

I see “Rendezvous” as a fitting companion to Smith’s previous films, in that once again he delivers an authentic and real look at relationships at their various complex stages, only this time there is a relaxed looseness present throughout. However, there’s a certain comfort and warmth present, with an identifiable witty sense of humor and quirky energy that sets itself apart from his other films. While the third vignette didn’t totally work for me, I felt there’s much to admire in the first two vignettes, but the casting and performances in all three were spot-on overall. Between Smith’s writing and his cast’s acting, I definitely found myself wanting to know more about these characters long after they left the screen.

As with his last two films, I was able conduct an online chat with Smith about “Rendezvous in Chicago” and in doing so came away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the film. More details about Smith’s Oakton PUFF can be found here, but the entirety of our interview can be found below…

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Hey hey!

MICHAEL GLOVER SMITH: Hey! Sorry for my tardy reply. I was watching HOCUS POCUS.

DJF: Just for that, I’m gonna include that in the interview!

MGS: That’s fine. The wife and I are doing a “31 days of horror” challenge and she gets to pick half of the movies. You know how it goes.

DJF: Ah, yes. I’m curious what people see in HOCUS POCUS? I’ve never seen it and it seems like it became this nostalgic classic that may be lost on me. I’d be too late to catch that wave. What’s your hot take?

MGS: I was a little too old for it when it came out so this was my first viewing. Jill saw it as a kid so it has sentimental value for her. Bette Midler is good. It’s kind of cute – though it lacks the subversive edge that someone like, say, Joe Dante would’ve brought to it.

DJF: Gotcha. I’ll eventually catch up with it. So, you’ve chosen tomorrow’s horror film?

MGS: I’ve got a bunch to choose from. Don’t know what it’ll be just yet. I’m only picking films that I’ve not seen before though.

DJF: Good plan. Alright, let’s talk about Michael the writer, director and actor…

MGS: Let’s do it.

DJF: Does feature-length filmmaking get any easier the third time around or did this film bring a different set of challenges?

MGS: It was easier in most respects. My previous film, MERCURY IN RETROGRADE, was very difficult to make, especially because we had to continue raising money during the post-production process, which dragged on for a long time. The impetus to make RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO was to make something quickly and cheaply and to exorcise some of the demons from the previous experience.

DJF: And did it work, were demons exorcised? Did you feel a catharsis along the way?

MGS: Absolutely. The shooting and the editing went very fast. We shot the whole thing in eight days on a budget of $20,000. It’s a “small” movie but it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.

DJF: Does working with some of the same actors that have appeared in your last two films make the process easier? (I know that’s twice that I’m using the word “easier”, and maybe there’s a better word, but it would appear that often times, a directly will pick certain elements that he or she would know to be sure things and I a lot of that comes from working with the same people)

MSG: My original plan was to make a bigger film, which would’ve been very different from my previous work, but I wasn’t able to raise the money so I wrote RENDEZVOUS as a backup plan. I’m the kind of person who, if I can’t make the movie that I’m dying to make, then I’ll make the movie that I can make. That’s when I got the idea to bring back actors (and characters) from my previous films. It definitely made the process easier. The only parts we really auditioned actors for were the leads in the second story, CATS AND DOGS.

 

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Clare Cooney and Kevin Wehby in “Rendezvous in Chicago”

 

 

DJF: Interesting. So, this third part in your trilogy started off as something else entirely or are we seeing an amalgam of what you intended for it in RENDEZVOUS?

MGS: The genesis of it is kind of complicated. I had the idea for the third story first. That was back in 2014 when I was shooting COOL APOCALYPSE. I wanted to make a film where the main character would fall in love with the viewer. I asked myself, “What would that look like?” I realized it would have to be a short film: as soon as the audience gets the idea, I would need to bring down the curtain pretty fast. Anyway, I sat on that idea for a few years. Then in the fall of 2017, I got the idea for the first story. That came to me pretty fully formed and was influenced by the anxiety that a lot of people feel about the “Me Too” movement. Then I realized that one story was about the beginning of a relationship and another was about the end. If I came up with a story about “the middle” then I could string them all together into an anthology that would have a meaningful structure.

DJF: Ah, okay. That’s illuminating and I think we’ll put a pin in some of those thoughts and come back to them. If you don’t mind a chronological run through, let’s touch on Part 1, shall we?

MGS: Sounds good.

DJF: First off, I know you’ve said Eric Rohmer is one of your favorite filmmakers, so would you say this is the most Rohmer of your films, since the opening scene includes Haydee Politoff?

MGS: Rohmer is never far from my mind but I wasn’t thinking about him as a conscious influence until after I had conceived all three of the stories. Afterwards, I remembered that Rohmer had made an anthology of three stories, RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS, in 1995. So I thought, “I’ll just call this RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO.” It was as simple as that. The Haydee Politoff scene was the last one I wrote, literally a month before we shot it. We lucked out that she happened to be coming to Chicago around the same time that we were shooting and she very graciously agreed to do a cameo. That was intended as an homage to Rohmer. Her character’s name, Scherer, is Rohmer’s real last name.

DJF: You’ve mentioned to me before that you’re not a fan of coming up with a title for your films, so I bet this was a relief. As a visual artist, I can relate. It’s all about the process, who cares about the title? But, I get that a lot of times, you need something to catch people’s attention.

MGS: I try not to spend too long thinking of titles. Same thing with character names. As soon as something has the right ring to it, it just sticks. Or I’ll ask my wife. She actually named Delaney. I asked, “Honey, what’s a good female name that’s three syllables?”

DJF: A reminder that art doesn’t have to be an isolated endeavor! Your wife has had input in the past and has played bit cameo parts in the past, here she receives a writing credit. What contribution did she bring, besides naming characters?

MGS: I knew that the second story was going to be about a guy proposing to his boyfriend. I asked her what else should happen and she said they should talk about the cats and dogs they see as they walk the streets of Rogers Park. That’s the neighborhood we live in and that’s something we’ve experienced walking those same streets on many occasions.

DJF: Alright, screw the chronological idea, lets stay in the middle with CATS AND DOGS. I liked the glacial pace of it, how we simply coast along with this couple as they walk through their neighborhood. It brought to mind the art of capturing the everyday of life. Can you talk about that approach, the tone and the pace of that story?

MGS: Yeah, that chapter was really important to me because it’s what anchors the first part to the last part. I thought of the whole film as being like a punk song: the first part is the guitar, the last part is the drums and the second part is the bass that ties them together. It also harkens back to an idea in MERCURY IN RETROGRADE where you have three couples and you feel like the youngest couple could end up like either of the other two. In RENDEZVOUS, the couple in the first story seem to hit it off but the couples in the next two stories represent different potential outcomes for their future. The relaxed pace of the scene, the use of long takes as they’re walking and talking, arose organically from the type of relationship they had. It’s very different from the fast cutting of the first story and the crazy handheld camera in the third part.

DJF: Let’s go back to the guitars and then come back to the bass – I get the feeling at the end of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV that Kevin Wehby’s Paul still hasn’t learned much and things aren’t necessarily going to turn out the way he’d like them to.

MGS: You may be right. I have a confession to make about that scene: Clare Cooney and Kevin Wehby wrote the ending! I wanted Delaney to humiliate Paul and the scene originally ended with her leaving him stranded naked in the bar without giving him her number. But, independently of each other, they both told me they wished she had given him her number and I’m a firm believer that if you get the same note from multiple people, they’re always right. So that’s when I came up with the idea of her writing her number on the napkin, which he doesn’t notice until she’s gone.

DJF: That’s a good ending, because even though he’s gotten something out of the whole encounter/exercise, it still feels like things aren’t gonna go his way in the future.

MGS: Right, it’s still ambiguous – as all such encounters are! You have a first conversation with someone and you’re totally excited about it but you really don’t know them yet so there’s a lot of projection and a lot of agony that goes along with it.

 

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Kevin Wehby as Paul in “Rendezvous in Chicago”

 

 

DJF: And while there’s an endearing and charming quality to Paul, he’s still a “goofball”, as Delaney calls him.

MGS: Yeah, he’s kind of dubious! I mean, I often think it’s annoying when I’m approached by someone I don’t know in public. “Why do you think it’s okay to monopolize my time?” And, of course, it’s much worse when a man does it to a woman. That’s why it was important that Kevin Wehby play that part. He has a natural charm that prevents the character from being too unlikable. The chemistry between him and Clare is very, very good, I think.

DJF: I love how Wehby plays him as such. She calls him on it, but he doesn’t see it, of course. It’s endearing, sure, but his behavior and mannerisms are also eye-roll inducing, which brings some nice levity.

MGS: Yes, when the character tries to be funny, he’s not funny. And then that becomes funny.

DJF: When I first learned that Wehby and Cooney were going to be in the first story, I was really curious. Primarily because I wasn’t envisioning them together, but I saw how well they fit when I visited the set and especially in the context of the film, they certainly have great chemistry together. Some casting must be obvious, I suppose, while others not so much.

MGS: It’s funny: I knew exactly what they were going to be like together and, sure enough, that’s the way it was. That comes from knowing them as people as much as it does having worked with them before. I knew that Clare was going to be sitting there, rock solid, like Buddha and saying her lines precisely and that he was going to be squirming and stuttering all over the place. We spent a night rehearsing before we shot it but I didn’t have to tell them what to do. They knew exactly how to play it.

 

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Clare Cooney as Delaney in “Rendezvous in Chicago”

 

 

DJF: Her stature and expressive responses are priceless, yet I like that she’s not playing it all cold and one-note. They’re are moments when she lets her guard down and then there’s that memorable delivery where she gives into his request to beg him to sleep with her. It’s hilarious and it reminded me how you had told me this would be your most outward comedy yet.

MGS: I know exactly what you mean. Clare is such a precise performer. I too loved watching her go back and forth between being skeptical of him and then deciding to let him in a little bit. I honestly think she’s the kind of actor who becomes a co-director of any scene that she’s in. She’s very aware of her body language and how that affects the mise-en-scene. Even when she’s totally still physically, she knows how to just shift her eyes in a way that will be dramatically effective.

DJF: In watching this first story, what I was reminded of is how you’re at your most engaging when it’s simply two people talking on screen. I became aware of this in your first film, but it’s obvious here too. Whether it’s Paul talking to Doc or Paul talking to Delaney, it feels like the camera is infatuated with its subject (something that’s mentioned by the protagonist in Part 3) and the focus is appreciating who these people are as much as what they’re going to do and say. Much of that has to do with where you envision the camera being placed, but is there more to it than that?

MGS: I know this is going to sound super-obvious but all I want to do is film interesting people in interesting situations. It’s as simple as that.

DJF: The right actors certainly help with that, but I’ve noticed you take a setting that most viewers will think they’re familiar with and make it interesting.

MGS: Like the wine bar?

DJF: Sure. And walking around a neighborhood or capturing the interior of an apartment. In each of your features, you’re working with different cinematographers, yet much of what I see in your appreciation of humanity is a steady thread throughout each film.

MGS: Location is everything. I always have a real location in mind when I’m writing even if I know we won’t end up shooting there. It helps every scene to have a feeling of specificity about it. I couldn’t write a scene if I didn’t know where it was going to take place. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great cinematographers. It’s always a true collaboration but they know what they’re getting into when they read my scripts. I show them scenes from movies, I give them my first-pass shot list then we make adjustments from there.

DJF: In watching CATS AND DOGS, I found myself wondering if the action comes to you first or the dialogue – then giving the pair something to do while speaking.

MGS: Again, with CATS AND DOGS we knew exactly where they were going to be walking. I knew that the first conversation with the dog owner, for instance, was going to occur in front of a church with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the background. But the timing of it was something we had to rehearse in advance. You know, where do you guys need to start walking so that you end up in this spot? That sort of thing.

DJF: I think I recall you mentioning last year how too often romantic relationships between two men are often unconvincing on film. Do you remember mentioning that or am I just imagining that?

MGS: I think what I said was that it’s often unconvincing to me when straight actors play gay characters.

DJF: Ah, that’s right. So, I paid closer attention to the naturalness between Rob and Andy and it’s there, it’s honest and believable. Did you have a discussion with them about their character’s relationship and how it would be conveyed?

MGS: Not a lot, but a little bit more than I did with Clare and Kevin because I had never worked with Rashaad and Matt before. I actually wrote biographies of their characters, which I sent them in advance. The gist of it was that Rob was the more emotional and dynamic one and that Andy was more cool and even-tempered. It’s the old opposites attract principle, which I think is underscored not only by their temperaments but by the visual of how they look next to each other.

DJF: It’s certainly evident. in this story, you work with dogs and cats, and you also have some brief experience working with a baby. so, you can put that old saying to rest, I guess.

MGS: Working with animals and babies is great! They’re the ultimate naturalistic performers because they don’t know what’s going on. This has the effect of making everyone around them more natural too. Matt’s excitement about petting those dogs was very real, I can assure you.

 

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Shane Simmons as Wyatt in “Rendezvous in Chicago”

 

 

DJF: Let’s get to the drums. THE END IS THE BEGINNING (love the title) story was the reason why I knew I had to watch it again. I mean, I was going to anyway, but there was something about it that solidified a rewatch. Before I get to the hang-ups I had about THE END IS THE BEGINNING, can you take about the decision to make this particular story narratively different than the other two?

MGS: You mean the fourth-wall breaking moment?

DJF: Yes, as you previously mentioned, there was an idea to have a character fall for the viewer, which touches on voyeurism, to an extent.

MGS: I’m not a big fan of realism, believe it or not. I think it’s boring. Anyone can make something feel like a documentary and I see no inherent virtue in that. Art isn’t reality, it’s a reflection of reality but, unfortunately, people want everything in a movie to feel “real” or else they won’t accept it. So I thought the best way to end this trilogy of realistic relationship films would be on a note of surrealism. It’s kind of a crazy left turn. It’s my way of saying, “Goodbye, I’m moving on to something else now.”

DJF: I can appreciate and understand that. Sure, it’s ‘left field’ as you say, but it’s unpredictability is probably what confirmed a rewatch for me. out of each of the stories, I feel like there’s a feature to be made from this one – but, I concur and respect the feeling of ‘moving on’.

MGS: Ha! That’s funny after what I told you about how it had to be a short.

DJF: Maybe I feel that way because of how it starts, with the cliched beginning of catching a guy in the bedroom with another girl. I thought, if expanded, there could be more to this story. Of course, I like the actors and the characters they played had my interest (which is probably why I wanted to know more of their story), but their ending (or beginning) was a bit abrupt and then we go hard left.

MGS: As you note, voyeurism is a theme running through all three stories (along with a few other themes: role-playing in relationships, the unavoidability of dishonesty, etc.) but having that theme become explicit and self-reflexive was important to me. There are brief point-of-view shots in all the stories – notably in the first when Paul looks at Delaney. She even says to him, “The whole point of the game is to look.” So the third story mirrors that – only instead of Delaney making Paul feel uncomfortable, it’s Julie making the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s actually my favorite scene that I’ve ever directed. It’s the only one in this film that I think I couldn’t have done, say, a few years ago.

 

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Nina Ganet plays Julie in “Rendezvous in Chicago”

 

 

DJF: You’re referring to the sequence where it’s just Julie and her viewers, that closes the film?

MGS: No, the whole thing but that part especially. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that a few years ago.

DJF: That’s understandable and I like how you’re subverting our expectations with that decision. (Side Note: I also like that you got that plug in about physical media in this story, as she tosses Wyatt’s blu-ray player out the window)

MGS: I know it’s not going to work for everyone. It’s not as “accessible” as the first two parts, which are more like a straight rom-com, but I had a strong conviction about it and I felt the need to do it. And I really wanted to hear Nina Ganet say all those words, which I think she does magnificently.

DJF: I think it’s a bold and absorbing monologue from Ganet.

MGS: Let me circle back to something you said earlier…You said you wanted to spend more time with Julie and Wyatt at the beginning of the story but, in my mind, you already have been spending time with them in the form of those two other couples!
I thought of this movie as being like those movies where different actors play the same character at different ages (e.g., MOONLIGHT) – only here we’re seeing the same relationship being played by three different couples. And when you look at it in this light, it illuminates something about comedy. Imagine that Rob and Andy were the couple in the third story. If it began with, say, Andy slapping Rob because there was another guy in their bed, it wouldn’t be funny at all. It would be tragic. But it’s funny in this context precisely because we’re dropping in on this new couple – just being plunged into their chaos.

DJF: Hmmm, interesting and while I like that idea, it never dawned on me to connect all three couple in that way while watching. I definitely saw certain themes thread throughout, and comedy in each, but not the connection you’re explaining.

MGS: Well, I was trying to correct a misconception some people had about COOL APOCALYPSE. Some people said they liked Paul and Julie – because their story was funny and sweet – but they didn’t like the scenes with Claudio and Tess because they were so bitter. But I always thought of them as the same couple!

DJF: I see what you’re getting at more clearly now, so I’m glad we’re talking about it.

MGS: Claudio and Tess (from COOL APOCALYPSE) started off like Paul and Julie and Paul and Julie eventually became Claudio and Tess, which RENDEZVOUS makes explicit. It’s kind of a metaphysical paradox but there it is. Many facets and perspectives can be found in the same relationships. It all depends at what point you drop in on them. Even if the relationship seems dead, the ghost of the old love is still there.

DJF: Right. Yeah, we can go on and on about that. And maybe we will and this is just Interview Part 1. I’d definitely like to double back with you about your upcoming experience at the world premiere of RENDEZVOUS at the Adirondack Film Festival.

MGS: I’m excited to see this with a festival audience. It’s like giving birth in pubic in front of strangers.

DJF: LOL! Hopefully you won’t need an epidural.

MGS: The Women of the Now will be there with me. They’re my midwives.

DJF: We’re going long here, but I DID want you to touch on those awesome women and how different they made the production of this film feel, as opposed to your previous features.

MGS: Oh, yeah, that’s the main reason we were able to do make this film so quickly and efficiently. They all know each other really well and have a lot of synergy. On most film sets, most of the people don’t yet know each other on the first day and it takes a while before you all figure out how to work together. It’s kind of cliche to say at the end of a shoot that you wish you could go back and do the first couple days over again. With RENDEZVOUS, the Clare/Kevin scene was the first two days and those days were solid gold.

DJF: It felt like very smooth and efficient when I was on set for that scene.

MGS: I was blessed with a great cast and crew. I hope to work with all of them again real soon.

DJF: Well, time is the enemy and sleep is the necessity. I appreciate your time tonight, Michael. A conversation with you is always effortless and illuminating.

MGS: Thanks for doing this with me again. It’s always a pleasure.

DJF: The pleasure is mine. See you around, I’m sure.

 

 

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