The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, October 12th-26, has one of the most memorable line-ups in its history. Unique to this festival, CIFF features “City & State” films showcasing “local characters and settings” and this year, there are 6 standout films in the category. “Chasing the Blues,” starring Grant Rosenmeyer, Jon Lovitz, and Steve Guttenberg and co-written and directed by Scott Smith is just one of the truly wonderful films to see.
“Chasing the Blues” takes us into the life of Alan (Rosenmeyer) who is behind bars. This soon-to-be released convict, previously a teacher in Chicago, has his story to tell as to how he ended up in this lowly state. Lincoln Groome (Lovitz) visits Alan just before he’s released to dangle a carrot, hoping to entice Alan to look for the record album that landed him in prison 20 years ago. The temptation is too much and Alan takes the bait. We take that journey with him as he recounts to a random (and beautiful) fellow bus traveler the sordid and simply hilarious details of a mythical 1930‘s blues musician, a cursed rare record, and his rivalry with a fellow collector.
I had the opportunity to talk with Smith, currently a filmmaker as well as a creative director at Leo Burnett in Chicago about making this Windy City independent gem and creating the mystery and intrigue of the fictional blues legend Jimmie Kane Baldwin.
Pamela Powell (PP): Tell me about your background and how you got into filmmaking.
Scott Smith (SS): Long ago, when my interest in filmmaking started to get more present in my life, I decided to shoot a couple of spec commercials for myself to see what it was like. I came up with these fake commercials for a fake yoga studio…targeted to men. There are two guys who are calling a baseball game, but there’s a rain delay. To show something, they went out to this yoga competition and they had to announce the [it]. It’s them trying to understand what’s going on.
PP: That sounds hilarious!
SS: It’s a 30 second thing and it was done with a couple friends that are improv actors. Eventually, I wrote a short film about a guy who breaks all ten commandments (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0429172/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_12) in a couple minutes! That one was the one that really encouraged me and validated my interest and belief that I could have some sort of competence. And that short allowed me to compete in the third series of Project Greenlight. I was one of three director finalists in the third season…I didn’t win…[but] it boosted my confidence and my ability to do something semi-worthwhile.
PP: “Chasing the Blues” isn’t your first feature though.
SS: It’s the first narrative feature. The first feature was a documentary feature called “Being Bucky.” “Chasing the Blues” was based on a short story that my friend wrote. He and I wrote the screenplay…John Fromstein, the executive producer, was reading an anthology of short stories about Blues in Chicago and he read this one and said, “Oh, my God! You have to read this. It would be a really great short film.” I read it and I looked at the author and said, I’m pretty sure I know Kevin Guilfoile. The first thought I had was, yes, this would be a great film, but it would be a great feature.
Smith shared that he and Kevin would take turns writing a scene and passing it back and forth, but then the project sat on a shelf for several years. Then, 3 years ago, they picked it up again and began rewriting it as well as beginning the fundraising process.
PP: You have a great cast. Tell me about getting Lovitz and Guttenberg on board.
SS: Our first goal was to keep everything in Chicago. When we weren’t finding what we needed, we expanded out…Steve Gutenburg came to us and was really interested in playing the lead…he wanted to be a part of the project and ended up being “Diamond Dan” and his agent is the same as Jon Lovitz’. I started re-imagining the role before he actually came on—just the potential and the possibility of it. We had a phone call. He was totally into it. He wanted to put on a southern accent [and] he signed on.
PP: That’s great that you focused on keeping as much as possible in Chicago and it really has the flavor of our city. What says “Chicago” most to you in this film?
SS: Record stores here in Chicago. When we were shooting at Val’s (Records) in Oak Park, that was a really fun scene to shoot. Just being in there, to me it really reflects the depth of music in Chicago. Chicago has 15-20 record stores that are prominent and busy with a great knowledge. Re-creating the studio scene, Cicero Studios, felt Chicago-y to me. It gave it that historic blues feeling. And approaching the three flats… the apartment and Mrs. Walker felt very uniquely Chicago to me.
PP: Your actors who played Paul (Ron Connor) and Alan were polar opposites, but so wonderfully compatible in their roles! They really seemed like they were having fun while they were antagonizing one another!
SS: The three of us rehearsed a bunch [and] luckily Ron Connor is from Chicago…we went through a lot of the scenes and pre-blocked [them]. They did bring a different energy to it and we capitalized on it. They were really fun together and there was a lot we had to cut out!
PP: There’s something special about filmmaking in Chicago, don’t you think?
SS: One of the things John and I wanted to do is to really emphasize Chicago and really use a Chicago crew; support Chicago as much as we could. There was a conscious effort to keep it here and use people from Chicago. It’s like a family. It’s all the same attitude: let’s get it done [with] enthusiasm.
Energy, quick wit, and definitely enthusiasm can be found in “Chasing the Blues.” Check out the trailer and the video that had me believing in the myth of Jimmie Kane Baldwin right here: TRAILER JIMMIE KANE BALDWIN VIMEO