U of C alums make Fiction a reality

By Leif Johnson

Toward the beginning of Crime Fiction, the protagonist is told that one reason why he has been unsuccessful as a writer is that he has had little experience with the subject matter he writes about. Fittingly, the movie is successful partially for the same reason. Jonathan Eliot, a Ph.D. student in comparative literature who wrote and starred in the film, has weaved a tale about concerns and experiences with which many U of C students are familiar. The opening scenes, for instance, could just as easily have been about a failed or struggling academic as a fiction writer.

Crime Fiction, directed by alumnus Will Slocombe (A.B. ’06), is at once a crime story and a dark comedy. The film centers on James Cooper (Eliot), a failed writer who has had to abandon life in New York for a dismal existence at a Chicago publishing house. Following the unexpected appearance of his successful girlfriend (Amy Sloan), a jealous argument ensues, and the next thing you know, Cooper is burying her body in a cornfield. Then, inspiration hits. The experience gives him material that leads to a best-selling novel, which in turns attracts the attention of macho fiction writer Don Lee Boone (Christian Stolte). Boone coaches Cooper and encourages him to embrace the controversy surrounding the novel’s origin. What follows is a comic critique of the relationship between the media and fame, along with a light romance with a woman whom Cooper met near the scene of the crime (Katrina Lenk).

For the most part the product of U of C alumni affiliated with Fire Escape Films, the film has done quite well despite its modest beginnings. It was recently screened at Slamdance, an important indie film festival in Park City, Utah, to mixed reactions. The first screening was sold out to a pleasantly responsive audience. Unfortunately, that showing was followed by a scathing review in Variety that proclaimed that “critical and commercial response to this misfire should be every bit as frosty as that received by its lead character’s first literary effort.”

It wasn’t that bad. Far from it.

The haunting notes of David Bashwiner’s commendable score provide the film with a professional ambiance absent from many independent productions. Slocombe’s direction hints at future greatness; examples include an energetic sequence that depicts Cooper’s writing process and a suspenseful scene following the murder. In addition, like Eliot, Slocombe has successfully drawn from the U of C experience to create a realistic atmosphere of uncertainty. His shots of Cooper’s disheveled Chicago apartment poignantly evoke a troubled academic’s clutter. The acting is largely solid. Yasen Peyankov, in the role of a police officer intent on proving Cooper’s guilt, gives one of the most memorable performances. Stolte is endearingly revolting in his role as the Hummer-driving, opportunistic Boone, and Eliot, whose performance and appearance are eerily similar to Matt Damon’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley, leaves us with a believable performance of a failed writer desperate for a break.

The film is not without flaws. At times, the dialogue seems forced, and the script loses some of its power following Cooper’s ascent to best-selling greatness. There are a number of small plot holes, but none so great that they force us to suspend our disbelief. For a first film—a film produced with a small budget and a largely inexperienced crew—Crime Fiction succeeds admirably. Allowing even for some home-theater advantage, last Wednesday’s screening at Max Palevsky Cinema demonstrated that the film could keep an audience entertained, sometimes even on the edge of their seats. A number of amused reactions were heard in the audience that were likely not encountered at Slamdance, as delighted audience members recognized Hyde Park landmarks. Here was the neon sign of Hyde Park Cleaners. There was the glaring yellow Hummer, likely the same one that was a fixture on Blackstone Avenue for months. And then there was Cooper’s apartment, which could easily have been the home of any U of C student.

“We’re the underdogs,” said Alex Mackenzie, the production’s gaffer, at a forum preceding the screening. Mackenzie and other crew members spoke about how remarkable it was that something like Crime Fiction could come out of the U of C, which has very little to offer students in terms of filmmaking experience, mentorship, and funding. Such a product would’ve been more likely to come out of Columbia College, which provided film editing services for the production.

Thus, in many ways, the story of how Crime Fiction came into being is as interesting as the story on the screen. The message is one that should not only be applicable to students at the U of C, but to all of those who wish to be involved in the arts despite a lack of formal training. Students shouldn’t worry “just because haven’t gone through the right program,” Mackenzie said. “If you actually do something, and you stick with it, and you’re organized—that’s probably 90 percent of what got this project done.”

And it always helps to write about something you know.