“The Musician” harmonizes a touching Chicago tale

Anne Harris and Reese Harley in "The Musician"

Anne Harris and Reese Harley in “The Musician”

Mark Schimmel combines
beautiful visuals with
conflict, resolution
music, and performance
in hard-to-shoot
action sequences
throughout the city

Chicago filmmaker Mark Schimmel’s short, The Musician, features a violinist and a child in a story of redemption, forgiveness, and inspiration.

Starring well-known musician Anne Harris and first time actor Reese Harley as the urchin who steals the tool of her trade, the film takes place on the Chicago River’s winding course through the lowest part of the downtown skyline. It was inspired by an observation that Schimmel made while filming various musicians performing “Sweet Home Chicago” on the streets of the city for a video of the same name in 2014.

“When I was filming (future American Idol finalist) Crystal Bowersox, and she was an unknown person, people were walking past us and kind of giving us dirty looks,” he recalls. “And I thought, wow, what if she was a famous person, would they react the same?”

The concept of a famous musician playing somewhat anonymously stuck with him. “I researched and learned that Yoyo Ma once dressed up in street clothes and performed on the streets of New York City,” Schimmel continues. It gained traction after he enrolled in the Masters of Fine Art program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).

“The school said, ‘you got to make something,’” he recalls. “I had an array of ideas, and it came back to, ‘hey I want to make a silent movie that’s based on music and visuals.’”



In his initial treatment, the street musician gives all of the money she earns to another street musician before revealing that she is famous by “walking into the Lyric Opera and passing a poster with her picture on it.”

With help from his advisors — filmmakers Till Schauder and Mike Day — Schimmel transformed the plot into a Dickensian tale.

“As my first script, one piece of advice was, make it hard on the musician,” Schimmel says. “The more conflict, the more interesting the story will be.”

Six months later, he had expanded the story to include a child who steals the violin when the performer gets distracted during a confrontation with a security guard. The two-part journey offers conflict, resolution, and a few hard-to-shoot action sequences.

Director Mark Schimmel and DP Bill Nielsen on location
Director Mark Schimmel and DP Bill Nielsen on location

“Throughout the story, we learn how the violinists retrieves her instrument and inspires the girl to become a musician,” says Schimmel. “Not giving that away in the story and showing that cinematically was a huge challenge.”

The idea became reality with help from various members of the Chicago film community.

Columbia College, where Schimmel is an adjunct professor, provided a professional development grant to cover about 20% of the budget. Cinematogrpaher Bill Nielsen — whose resume include Chicago Fire, Sirens, and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll — not only coordinated the action, but also offered a handful of suggestions to complement a Clark Street Bridge scene that Schimmel had in mind. Among them were shooting in River North’s bridge-framed Ward Park and on a Chicago River Taxi.

Chicago Film Office Director Rich Moskal and Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Mark Kelly provided guidance and support to help secure permits for the Clark Street Bridge and the park. Wendella, the company that operates the River Taxi, told him, “because you called us and asked us, we’d love to have you on the boat … usually people sneak on with their cameras.”

Keslow Camera, who “really helped (Schimmel) out” when he made Kill the Light in 2015, arranged gear, including the Alexa that Nielsen operated.

Harris and Reese in Wade Park
Harris and Reese in Wade Park

Of course, funding, locations, and equipment work best used with great actors. Schimmel started getting the cast together with help from editor and co-producer Mark Voss.

“I told Voss, ‘I don’t know if I should cast an actor who plays or a musician who hopefully can act,’” Schimmel recalls. “He said, ‘you should meet Anne Harris.’”

Schimmel checked out a few of Harris’ videos online and, three days later, met her at a coffee shop. He not only found her music to be “mesmerizing,” but also learned that she is “one of the nicest, most incredibly giving people I have ever met.”

On-camera her presence became a compelling vision of passion within wide and beautiful shots of the city.

“She will disagree with this, but I don’t think Anne required a lot of direction,” says Schimmel. “Bill and I both believe that nobody could have played this role except Anne Harris.”



He cast the role of the thieving-child through a stroke of old-fashioned social media good luck — “I got an Instagram message from Reese’s mother,” he explains.

When they met a few days later, he “immediately, beyond a shadow of a doubt, knew this was the child.”

“Reese has the most incredible expressions and takes direction very well,” he continues. “This is a silent movie, so I didn’t need to worry about dialogue.”

Harley, like Harris, “loves to perform,” and is accustomed to the spotlight through modeling and performance. Together, their talents helped get the film completed within schedule.

“We shot it over two-and-a-half days, but since we had a minor, we were limited to eight-hours,” Schimmel says. “Reese had never acted on camera before but was accustomed to being onstage and Anne becomes her music. The combination of the two provided amazing, genuine, and delightful performances.”