“How do I improve enough to be a great writer?” a college student asks his teacher. “If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here,” answers the teacher, played by Seth McClellan, whose narrative feature, Creative Writing, bows Oct. 24 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
McClellan adapted the film from several real-life situations he encountered in his classes at Triton College in Oak Park, where he teaches mass communication and digital video. He cast his students in the film, and shot at the college.
“There was a student whose dad was declining from Alzheimer’s and another student that got into a fight during class,” McClellan says. “I took these stories as a jumping off point, then intensified them and added other students and my own frustrations and aspirations to the mix.”
Everyone in the film’s writing class wants to be famous, including McClellan’s teacher, and their tensions mount to a racially charged confrontation.
McClellan was inspired by John Cassavettes and Mike Leigh’s use of improvisation, and the “brutal, unrelenting gaze” of Michael Haneke and the Dardenne brothers. “I thought blending those styles might be very compelling,” McClellan says.
“With the resources I had, the best way to do it was to tear down the artifice of ‘acting’ and use real people playing fictionalized versions of themselves.”
Shot in black & white to heighten sense of reality
McClellan and Matey Mandazhiev shot in black and white on a Sony Cine-Alta EX1, using a camera profile McClellan cribbed from another film he co-produced, Chicago Heights (The Last Soul on a Summer Night).
Filmmaker Daniel Nearing adapted that film from Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection Winesburg, Ohio, produced and shot by Sanghoon Lee. Roger Ebert picked it as one of the 10 best art films of 2010.
“High contrast black and white works well to stylize very natural performances and create a heightened sense of reality,” McClellan says.
“It also makes a fast shooting schedule more possible because you don’t have to worry about light temperature in the same way. Then in post you also have lots more options to create a seamless visual look.”
McClellan also directed the 2008 feature documentary King in Chicago, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s work with the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966 to battle poverty and de facto segregation in northern cities.
Film won top award at Iowa festival
Creative Writing premiered at the Independent Filmmakers’ Showcase in LA, and won the Karen Black Award for Excellence in Independent Film at the Iowa Independent Film Festival.
McClellan hopes the Siskel Center screenings will yield more attention and exhibition opportunities. “I intentionally did not want to make an indie film with TV actors or high concept genre elements,” he says, “but the reality is that most festivals look for something like that to help reel audiences in.” See the trailer here.
Next up is tentatively titled Mommy and Daddy Love You, a satire/homage of Cassavettes’s classic A Woman Under the Influence that McClellan is developing with actress Tanna Frederick, who is attached to star.
They’re producing with Rainbow Film Company of Santa Monica, and plan to shoot in March in Garner, Iowa, as part of Frederick’s Project Cornlight initiative.
Creative Writing screens Oct. 24 at 8 p.m., Oct. 26 at 5:30 p.m., and Oct. 30 at 8:15 p.m. at the Film Center, 164 N. State St.