‘Dreaming Grand Avenue’ director Hugh Schulze

Dreaming Grand Avenue, produced by Newcity’s Chicago Film Project, is the story of Maggie and Jimmy, who have never met, but they keep showing up in each other’s dreams. As they navigate memories, traumas, hopes and desires in sleep and the waking world, they’ll discover the truth of their linked destiny with the help of a dream detective, a sleep scientist and the poet Walt Whitman himself.

The film opens today at Naperville’s Hollywood Palms Cinema. It plays tonight at the Music Box Theatre // Virtual Cinema and can be seen on Screen at: Showplace Icon Cinema (Chicago) and Studio Movie Grill (Wheaton, IL)

Interview with Director / Filmmaker Hugh Schulze

This isn’t your first feature film, but it comes across as a very personal narrative, one that explores themes you’ve clearly thought about quite a bit. Talk about how the narrative came to be, around the themes you aimed to address.

My first feature, CASS, was set in Detroit, where I was born. I wanted to do my second feature in Chicago where I’ve spent the majority of my life and include the city itself as a character. I believe cities dream too.

Six years ago, my father died and I began to think about how much we cannot know about our parents, especially their inner lives. Martin Heidegger has a concept called Geworfenheit (you asked!) which is translated as Thrownness and refers to how each of us is “thrown” into life at different times and places which in turn send us on very different journeys, even within the same family. Indeed even identical twins can have significant differences in their life journeys. This idea set up the idea of Jimmy and James — though they share the same father, they have different lives and different views of the same man. One has been abandoned, the other was not. How would each be affected to learn of the others’ existence?

Hugh Schulze

I have spent the past four decades writing down my dreams and have been fascinated by their logic, by the connections they make. Much of what is in Dreaming Grand Avenue relating to dreams and the Soul comes from the writings of archetypal psychologist, James Hillman. His method of dream interpretation is not to “analyze” a dream, anymore than you would analyze a painting. He writes of engaging dreams in a deeper conversation to explore those connections.

As I began to sketch out Jimmy and a potential love interest, I began playing with the romantic pop culture idea of a “soulmate” — especially in a culture that seems little interested in the idea, much less the implications, of having a soul. To find a “soulmate” would require believing in a soul. The woman we see Jimmy with in waking life cares about him deeply but also cares about him as a project, as someone she can feel like she can help, fix, even save.

What connects Jimmy and Maggie is their shared sense of vulnerability — both are wrestling with issues around a death. While they discover each other through that doorway of emotional vulnerability, what deepens with each encounter is a sense of shared enthusiasms: poetry being another connection between them. In the end (literally), they find that their very different passions have an overlap that provides meaning that they might not otherwise have found with simply a job. One of the reasons we leave the possibility of a romance as a possibility at the end is that first each person has to find what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose.

ALSO READ: Two Kino Lorber films to screen at CIFF next week

Casting is a critical element in any film. In a story that asks quite a bit of its lead actors—real life, dream life, unresolved trauma, radical optimism—how important was finding the right actors for Jimmy and Maggie? When did you know you’d found them?

Casting Andrea Londo was a surprisingly easy choice. While her work in Narcos may seem miles away (literally) from Dreaming Grand Avenue, Andrea was able to show a headstrong character with a tender heart.

It was a little tougher for Jackson Rathbone as Jimmy K. There was a bit of a tightrope to play Jimmy as someone relatable and slightly depressed and not just an eccentric goof. In some ways perhaps having played in a series of fantasy films like Twilight may have helped navigate some of the twists and turns of his through-the-Lookinglass experience.

Chicago is as much a character in the film as any speaking role; how did the city become such a significant part of the narrative? Could this story be told anywhere else?

Chicago itself has such a unique history and character that from the First Nation Potawatomi history to Marc Smith’s poetry slams at The Green Mill, I wanted this infused with imagery and a landscape those who love the city could relate to. The story of Jimmy and Maggie could certainly be told (and is being told in its own way) in other cities — but it would look and feel very different. Cities dream and I think the dreams of Chicago are unique to this place.

What were you reading, watching, listening to as you developed the script? How did elements like Walt Whitman, Andromeda and other influences find their way into this journey Maggie and Jimmy must go on?

I’m always a little nervous answering questions like this because it can set up certain comparisons that don’t necessarily map 1-to-1, but that said, I would say that Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire was in heavy rotation at the back of my mind. I’ve always been a fan of directors who are willing to embrace themes that are a little more liminal, at the end of a dream state. Bill Forsyth’s work in Local Hero and Comfort and Joy come to mind. Alan Rudolph is another director who takes risks with films like Trouble in Mind and The Moderns.

While Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson have East Coast roots, I think of them as quintessentially American poets, and poets whose work is fully an expression of their lives and a commitment to language: Whitman with his yawp and excess and Dickinson who is able to pack so much power into a few lines.

As for Andromeda: there is a quote that is still hanging up in the office that was used as the production office by the poet, Robert Duncan: “Our work is to arouse in a contemporary consciousness reverberations of old myths.”

And maybe this goes more in the spirituality section: Carl Jung wrote: “The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room.”

As with any art, what a viewer takes away from Dreaming Grand Avenue will depend largely on what they bring to it in the first place. How did your understanding of the film, its themes and messages change from when you started writing the script to when production was completed?

I’d say there were three types of changes that occurred at three different points: In addition to the producers, Brian and Jan, I had a number of people provide feedback. Every reader was different, but where I saw recurring issues in dialog, character of plot, I adjusted and shaped the script. Bringing in Maggie’s father was a very late addition which was to provide more backstory and increase the conflict for her to show her commitment to the issue of children in Chicago.

At the production stage, a fortuitous agreement from Shoreline Sightseeing, allowed us to move the initial mandala scene from a quarry to the Chicago River at night. Knowing the number of compromises that have to be made for budget or logistics in any film, this was a huge win for me.

Unfortunately, in the screening of the first cut, a number of people were confused by several roles and we were forced to cut on character completely which took a bit away from the Dr. Wandervogel character. But for the most part, the edit kept fairly close to the shooting script.

The other bit of feedback we received from the screening was that the audience not only bought the chemistry between Maggie and Jimmy, but they were more invested. We shaped the ending several different ways to provide the final image of the two walking away together. From the beginning, I wanted to avoid any explicit kiss/hand holding/romantic cliche and more focus on two people who’ve dealt with some of their demons and want to get to know each other better.

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