Swanbergs and Steve James on Kutza, CIFF, and Chi film

Kris and Joe Swanberg, Judy and Steve James

Indie-film legends
Steve James,
Kris and Joe Swanberg
discuss the
Chicago film fest and
Michael Kutza’s retirement.

Surrounded by the glitz of the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF)’s Summer Gala at the Loews Chicago Hotel on July 14, it only makes sense that three of Chicago’s greatest independent filmmakers gravitated towards each other.

Reel Chicago spoke with Steve James, Kris Swanberg, and Joe Swanberg about the retirement of Michael Kutza, the CIFF, and why they choose to continue making films in Chicago.

Regarding Kutza’s work building and maintaining the festival, Steve James comments, “Number one, it has had tremendous longevity. I mean this is one of the longest running premiere film festivals in the country.”

Secondly, Kutza “carved out a place for Chicago where you can see the kinds of films that you’re not going to see at your local multiplex, that you’re not going to see anywhere else,” said James.

Also Read: How Michael Kutza built an international film festival

As for his own genre of films, Steve James states, “Over the years, they have expanded the focus on documentaries which is really great for my world, as a documentary filmmaker.”

Kris Swanberg laughs, “Uh, well, you know, I used to work for Kutza. I worked at the film festival in my 20s.” As for Kutza’s swag and style, Kris Swanberg emphasizes, “He fancies it up! He brings out red carpets, and everybody wears black tie. He makes it feel elegant.”

Her statement is no exaggeration. With appearances from Terrence Howard, Paula Wagner, Andrew Davis, Chaz Ebert, and Kathleen Turner, the red carpet at the CIFF Summer Gala was no prop.



When asked about the significance of Kutza’s retirement, Joe Swanberg laments, “For me, it’s definitely the end of an era. I started coming to the festival in high school, and I worked for the film festival when I got out of college.”

Swanberg elaborates, “The festival, really, it was the first experience that I had as a young person in really broadening my horizons, exposing me to a lot of world cinema that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

Joe Swanberg especially cherished “getting to, as a sixteen/seventeen-year-old, hear filmmaker’s Q&As after the film.”

He continues, “The festival has had a massive impact on my life and career… I don’t know what comes next. We’ll see.”

As for the Chicago film community as a whole, Kris Swanberg states, “Chicago somehow has managed to keep the film community really feeling like a welcoming, loving community, and not competitive.” “To me,” she continues, “there is a lot of support here, but there is none of the edge that I have found in other cities.”

Regarding why Joe Swanberg primarily produces movies and television shows in Chicago, he reveals:

“Life keeps me here more than movies … living here in Chicago is really about loving the city, enjoying having a life that exists outside the entertainment industry … a sense of community, a Midwestern aesthetic.”

“Even if work brings me elsewhere, I’ll still keep living here,” says Joe Swanberg.


Click here to view Reel Chicago’s
Facebook photo album of the Gala.


When asked how they are going to spend the rest of the night, Kris Swanberg chuckles, “Well, right now, everybody is moving into this room where I am sure we’re going to watch a lot of people say really nice things about Michael Kutza and probably make some jokes.”

She continues, “We’re going to eat some food and celebrate this universe that he created.”

Besides being Chicagoans, the three filmmakers also share the connection of having all studied at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Kris and Joe Swanberg have been married since 2007.

Steve James is the director of The Interrupters, Life Itself, and the Academy Award Nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. James also directed the iconic Hoop Dreams, which Roger Ebert famously declared the best film of the 1990s.

In 2016, Reel Chicago’s founder Ruth Ratny proclaimed Joe Swanberg to be Chicago’s “most prolific micro-budget indie producer.” Since 2003, Swanberg has written, directed, edited, and starred in an almost countless amount of Chicago-based films. Most recently, he has directed Netflix’s Win it All and Easy.

Kris Swanberg is also a multi-hyphenated filmmaker and frequently collaborates with Joe Swanberg (Kissing on the Mouth, Young American Bodies, Happy Christmas, and Win it All). Recently, she was the writer/director of the critically acclaimed and semi-autobiographical Unexpected, which premiered at Sundance and stars How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders.

For more information about the Chicago International Film Festival’s Summer Gala and Michael Kutza’s retirement, click here.

Contact Joey Filer at Joey@reelchicago.com. or follow him on Twitter @FilerJoey