Student filmmakers bring their edgy idea to life

By Ethan Stanislawski

When asked to describe the script of Fire Escape Films’ newest project, And the Pursuit of Happiness, director Will Slocombe simply said “ballsy.” If it’s possible for ballsy to be a euphemism, it may describe a movie about a U.S. Congressman who has sex with bonobo monkeys, urinates on traffic lights, and mutilates himself in rather unpleasant areas. For such daring subject matter, however, two second-years with a crazy idea received $10,000 for a 33-minute movie—part of the exponential growth of student filmmaking at the University of Chicago over the past few years.

Started in 1995, Fire Escape Films only recently began to reach out to the entire college. “Until the past one or two years, Fire Escape almost tried not to attract members,” said Ben Kolak, the writer and executive producer of And the Pursuit of Happiness. But with a more proactive approach in recent years—in addition to an overhaul of technological and monetary resources from the University—Fire Escape has grown to levels even veteran members did not expect. An introductory Fire Escape meeting at the beginning of the quarter packed the Bartlett Arts Rehearsal Space to the brim.

And the Pursuit of Happiness itself was funded by the Chicago Arts Planning Council, and receiving the funding called for a formal proposal. According to Kolak, “It was interesting that in the entire meeting for the grant, the subject matter was never mentioned.” Kolak also noted that while the Planning Council was more than well aware of the topic, they seemed more concerned that students were making art than what their art was addressing.

As for the movie itself, which was based on the Apes and Human Evolution Bio Topics class and Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (as taught in the core European Civ class), it is incredibly impressive. While And the Pursuit of Happiness is political satire, it never takes itself too seriously. It’s filmed with an incredibly artistic eye; long, distant shots without dialogue dominate the movie. Although the director seemed to lack confidence in the movie’s humor, the movie has the ability to make someone laugh anytime in the movie. From the ironic call of Everett, the leader of the AASU (the American Association of Sensual Urinaters) to Tom Daschle’s office to the bonobo lab supervisor’s increasing hostility to congressman Adam, the movie’s humor—although at times a tad disturbing—is well thought-out and perfectly timed. And the Pursuit of Happiness has the feel of a legitimate movie, not something made randomly by a couple of hapless college students.

The toughest thing about making the movie, according to Kolak, was filming a movie set in Washington, D.C on the University of Chicago campus. Most of the film’s planning was accomplished in Arizona in the summer of 2003, where Kolak and Slocombe were filming a project about drug trafficking on the Mexican border. In fact, they had to make a road trip to the Cincinnati Zoo that summer to film bonobos in action, which was met with considerable hostility by other zoos. The footage looks great, and clips featuring professors, grad students and countless Chicago undergrads were an undeniable crowd pleaser; the audience cheered every name they recognized during the credits.

Another problem the movie faced was getting the acting the movie required. Slocombe said as soon as he read the script he would have a tough time casting a 19-year-old as a Congressman. Fire Escape actually held open auditions for professional actors in downtown Chicago until they agreed on Tim Krueger (who decided in his forties to take up acting) to play the lead part. His performance is scathingly real and perverse, and he captured the dark, demented Adam perfectly. While filming the movie, Krueger said he was amazed at the incredible professionalism and discipline of the members of Fire Escape, and had a phenomenal time working with Chicago students.

With a movie so heavily dependent on specific, poignant shots, the preparation for filming was intense. Storyboarding and screenwriting consumed most of the summer and fall before production, and director Slocombe worked tirelessly last winter quarter to prepare lighting, sound, photography, and acting to the right place for filming in the spring quarter. Due to this intense preparation, post-production was surprisingly low-scale.

Outside of printing about 200 posters, And the Pursuit of Happiness had little publicity. What drew the most attention to the project was its on-campus filming. Buzz particularly circulated around Adam’s dream sequence as a human statue. Yet, despite the low-key publicity, there wasn’t a seat available in Doc when the movie premiered Tuesday. As for Slocombe and Kolak, now third-years, they plan to enter the movie in a variety of film festivals and pursue the festivals more actively than any other Fire Escape project to date. While University Theater and Chicago Presents have long held an active place in University life, it is extremely exciting to see another dimension being added to the U of C art scene.