Let’s forgo beating around the bush and cut to the chase: Brad Bischoff is one of the most exciting writer/directors in the Chicagoland area. He’s made several short films, many of which are available on his site, and they exude the vision and exuberance of a born filmmaker. Now he’s working on his feature debut, “The Grasshopper,” and has launched a Kickstarter campaign that runs through April. The picture marks an intriguing collaboration between Bischoff and two other acclaimed local filmmakers, Malik Bader (“Street Thief”) and Frank V. Ross (“Tiger Tail in Blue”). Bader will star as a suburban contractor who decides to skip his daily dirge of responsibilities, a la Ferris Bueller, in order to spend time with his wife. Bischoff describes the film as a “suburban fever dream” that serves as a nod to both Aesop and John Hughes.
Indie Outlook spoke with Bischoff about his thoughts regarding relationships, parenthood, millennials and—oh yeah—filmmaking.
In an interview with my colleague Pat McDonald, you cited Frank Perry’s 1968 film, “The Swimmer,” as one of your favorite movies. What do you like about the film?
I feel like it is a lost American classic. My mom tried to get me to watch it for a very long time when I was growing up. She was a stay-at-home mom, and I’m the youngest of three brothers. We had a huge VHS collection, and I was more into films like “The Fast and the Furious” and people like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. One day, my mom described to me the central idea of “The Swimmer,” which was that a man swims back home by visiting a series of backyard pools, and I decided to pop in the film. It ended up being the right time for me to watch that movie, and it really spoke to me. When it got to the final shot, I thought if I could ever make something half as good as this, I’ll be satisfied with my career. It was absolutely phenomenal.
Then I started reading all about the backstory of the movie—how Frank Perry quit and walked away from it, and Sydney Pollack got brought on. How Marvin Hamlisch’s score, which I love, didn’t become part of the film until after Perry left. How Burt Lancaster had to fund a whole extra day of filming because financing fell through. It was ultimately one of his favorite pieces of work that he did, and I can see why. It was based on a short story by John Cheever that was in The New York Times, but the story was originally much longer, and written to be a novel. The idea of it all taking place within the course of a day was almost this happy accident, and that’s my favorite part of the movie. It goes from this beautiful, bright blue summer to fall’s arrival over the course of a day, which I felt was a metaphorical way of expressing the breakdown of this man’s psychosis, as he searches for the American dream. Some people I’ve talked to think it’s just about a guy with a mental case. It’s cool to have a film where so many people get something different out of it. If I could ever guest-direct a festival, I would do an entire retrospective on that movie.
While watching your work, particularly “Eyelids” and your branded short for Intel, “When I Was an Elephant,” they reminded me of “The Swimmer” in how they encompass a whole life through a series of memories.
That Intel short was my first commercial job, and I didn’t get another job for a while after that. It honestly didn’t do that well, commercially. It scared a lot of people away from Intel because I was humanizing a hard drive, and if you do that and the hard drive actually fails, it’s kind of devastating to picture all these family moments burning and dying.
The short struck me as Charlie Kaufman-esque.
Exactly. I still consider “Eyelids” to be a character study because it’s following this one guy, but in another way, it’s like an ensemble piece because you’re seeing different actors playing the same characters at different ages. I kind of tried to do that with the Intel project, but afterward, I took a step back and decided to take a different approach with my future projects. The idea of spanning a whole life started to become a storytelling crutch for me, and everything I started writing was going in that direction. You see a lot of commercials that try to encompass all of these life moments—graduation, college, marriage and a baby—and I wanted to get past that because I felt like that was where everyone was going. How do we take, for instance, what we’re doing now, sitting in a cafe at 6:15pm and make that interesting? That is a life moment and every day can be just as drastic as your whole life. Like “The Swimmer,” a lot of my films now take place over the course of a day—ever since Intel actually, which was in 2011.
My favorite short that you’ve made is “For Mick Jagger, 1972,” which so beautifully captures the sort of past relationship that you’re grateful for having experienced.
I like that you said that, and that’s how I felt. Personally, I had gone through some relationship issues at the time, and it was similar to “Eyelids” in that it was a black-and-white piece, and I was with somebody at the time that I made it. The footage was originally intended to be a documentary short about the Mick Jagger impersonator Keith Call, who is one of the best there is. Jake Zalutsky was the cinematographer, Alex Hidalgo and Nick Santore were producers, and we all flew out to New York together. The idea was just to document a night in the life of Mick Jagger. I interviewed him and we got behind-the-scenes footage. I cut it together like a traditional documentary, and then I watched it along with one of my other producers, Bob Zegler. It just wasn’t interesting for some reason. There was no spark.
So we sat on the footage for two years, and after I had gone through some personal life changes, Nick recommended that I revisit the footage. That’s when I reinvented my style. I had done “Where the Buffalo Roam,” which featured me and my brother, and I had always wanted to start the film with archival footage. In many ways, that opening sixty seconds was my favorite part of the movie, and if a whole film could look and feel like that, I thought that would be cool. That was the approach I took with the Mick Jagger piece. I found some poems that I had written, and then I just wrote a letter to what I was feeling at the time. That became the voice-over for the film. I wanted it to feel like an intimate night in the life.
One interesting thing about Keith Call is that he plays a 1969 version of Mick Jagger. When he can no longer play that version of Jagger, he’s not going to do that anymore. I asked him why, and he said that it just happened to be his favorite year of Mick Jagger. “Sympathy for the Devil” had come out, as did “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” and it was just a beautiful time. There was a specific way that Jagger sang his songs back then. Mick Jagger is like the devil. He’s always morphing into something new every ten years or so. Keith’s version of Jagger is stuck in time, and I feel like relationships can get like that. There will always be a place for them, but it gets to a point where they are no longer living, and they become a memory.
Both “Buffalo Roam” and “Lady of the House” focus on characters who feel somehow displaced in their environment, and that theme seems to organically lead to what “The Grasshopper” will explore.
Oh totally. I became a father just over a year ago. My daughter, Everest, is a year and two months old, and my wife and I made a pact that we wanted Everest to join our lives, we didn’t want to join her’s. I think a lot of parents, just based on personal experience, base their worlds around their kids, and then years down the road, that leads to a sense of trauma. We’re trying very hard to let Everest be a part of our lives. I love seeing parents bring their kids to work. Whatever it is they’re doing, the kid is a part of it.
Joe Swanberg has cast his son, Jude, in several movies,
Yes, and I love that he does that! Everest has been on four film sets already. For a little while, my wife and I had traditional roles. I worked a 9 to 5 shift while she stayed at home, and I felt an overriding sense of guilt whenever I left. Before we had a kid, my wife was a yoga teacher and she wanted to go back to school. Then all of a sudden, it’s all supposed to stop for her and I get to keep doing what I want? It’s just not fair. We had a lot of honest conversations about it and I wanted to show her story. My sister-in-law is a stay-at-home mom who used to be an opera singer, so I modeled the story for “Lady of the House” around her. We shot it all in one day, just me and [cinematographer] Casey Bohrnell. I scripted the story around her daily routine with the kids, and I offered direction from the sidelines. I wanted each scene to be one shot, and the only thing we lit was the final scene. That’s the only time we use a dolly, the rest of the film is handheld.
It’s difficult to sum up the emotional turmoil that you go through internally as a parent. On one hand, the day you become a dad is the greatest day of your life. On the other hand, you’re now a dad and you have another mouth to feed. You have to deal with the fact that anytime you go out to do something, there is somebody else depending on you. All the stakes are risen. At the end of the film, I put the title card, “For mom.” The fact that my mother is now supposed to find work and reinvent herself after raising three kids is just wild to me. That’s sort of what “Lady of the House” is about. Even the title, “Lady of the House,” tells you who the main character is expected to be. There is a song unsung at the end of the day that nobody hears but her.
One of the movies that made me want to make movies was “The Shawshank Redemption,” and one of my favorite scenes is when Andy puts on the record. Nobody knows what the lyrics are, but it’s just a beautiful song. I didn’t care that the song in “Lady of the House” was in another language. I didn’t want to subtitle it because the lyrics aren’t important. Her husband’s asleep and the TV’s on, and the song is a vision of her soul. It is a bird inside of her that’s trying to fly.
“Where the Buffalo Roam” is millennial, dealing with post-college life in a way that’s a little existential. The characters in “Lady of the House” are parents, and “The Grasshopper” is the next logical step. I grew up in the suburbs, and all of my schools were on the same road. The steps are very clearly laid out for you, as far as what you’re supposed to do: get a house and have kids. I’m so conflicted because I do want that, and I hate when people condemn the suburbs. I don’t think it’s a bad way of living, it just is a way of living. Yet I’m also wildly in love with the city, and “The Grasshopper” is very much about that conflict. It’s about somebody who thought their life was supposed to be a certain way and all of a sudden, they wake up and they’re middle aged. They’re working this 9 to 5 and they just want a day off to do whatever they want. You could do that as a kid. Just like we did in “Where the Buffalo Roam,” my brother and I would actually break into our old middle school, bring a backpack full of beer and run through people’s backyards. I remember getting caught by the cops multiple times, and we would be like, “Sorry,” and it was totally fine.
The older you get, the more difficult life becomes. You can’t be that irresponsible anymore. This movie is about a man dealing with that fact, and that’s why I’ve been calling it my dark version of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It’s inspired by the fable, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” where the grasshopper sings all summer while the ant works. When winter comes, the grasshopper doesn’t have a home or food, but the ant does because he had planned for the future. So the grasshopper asks the ant for forgiveness. I feel like as a millennial, we all want to be our own bosses. We all want to create our own hours, and nobody wants to plan for the future. Less and less people are owning homes and we’re all questioning the steps that past generations had been expected to make. The main character is in between the age range of a millennial and a Gen Xer. He’s like half-grasshopper, half-ant.
Are you attempting to deliberately reference the locations from “Ferris Bueller” in a subversive context?
Yes. My parents grew up in Glencoe, and my mom was in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I wasn’t even born yet. She was in a car with my two older brothers, and she had to duck when Matthew Broderick ran past her. I’m very familiar with the streets in that film, and that’s another reason why I love John Hughes and everything he was able to accomplish in film. I want to repurpose some of the same locations like the Glencoe Beach where Cameron was lying down, and some of those backroads, although my sequences are very different. Fans of that movie will be curious to see what we end of up doing with it. I would love to watch a movie about Ferris Bueller twenty years later, and that’s kind of what this movie is. All that s—t catches up with you. You can’t run forever.
“The Grasshopper” will co-star Frank V. Ross, who made a marvelous film about young adulthood, “Tiger Tail in Blue.”
One thing I love about “Tiger Tail,” and this is true of most of Frank’s work, is that you never know when a day begins or ends. He’s always sort of cutting around to moments, and the way he bends time is fascinating. His film transcends “mumblecore” because it actually has a direction. Jake Zalutsky had introduced me to Frank last year, and we started hanging out. I’d take the train out to where he lives in the suburbs, and a few months ago, I was visiting him at one of his local bars. At one point, he asked, “Have you ever seen any of my films?”, and I realized that I hadn’t. We had just connected because we were both from the suburbs and make movies. He gave me his whole filmography and I’ve been watching them all. I was very impressed with “Tiger Tail.” There’s a twist in the film that took my wife and I by surprise, and you realize that the film is a lot deeper than it initially appears. It’s very subtle.
The film got me thinking of how we are often surprised by the people we see cheating on their lovers. Why did he leave this person for that person? A lot of times, it has nothing to do with looks. It has to do with the fact that you’re seeing an aspect of your partner in someone else. It’s what attracted you to that person in the first place, combined with the spontaneity of meeting someone new. What you used to have with one person, you’ve now found with another. The thing about relationships is that flames change over time. The flame is never going to be the same, and if it was, that would be boring. The interesting thing about having a longterm relationship is figuring out how to dance around the flame. If you’re both just sitting there watching the flame, it’s gonna die out. Somebody has to chop wood. You’re not always going to be together watching the flame, because that will suck all the oxygen out of it. Give each other space and return to it like it’s a new flame every time.
That reminds me of what Richard LaGravenese told me about relationships. He said that long-term relationships occur when people are able to evolve together.
That’s very interesting. I think there’s a lot of pressure on people to live a certain way, and you see that in “The Grasshopper” as well. This is what you’re supposed to do, and if you don’t, then you’re not a part of the club. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a part of the club and having fun outside. The club is full of people who don’t even know what they’re talking about. They’re just in there because they paid the entry fee or their name was on the guest list. I think there are many unique ways to live a life, and I feel like so many people demonize the grasshopper and prop up the ant as how you’re supposed to live. Aesop’s fable has a clear message: the ant is right. My twist on it is, “What if the grasshopper is right?” It’s just a different way of living.
How did you first strike up your collaboration with Malik Bader?
I’ve known him since 2012. He saw “Where the Buffalo Roam” and he really liked it. Then we exchanged numbers and started hanging out. That’s what I love about Chicago. People are approachable and they just want to make good stuff. Malik became a mentor to me, and he’s such a fascinating chameleon. He made a film called “Street Thief,” and part of me thinks that he actually is a street thief and lives a double life, which I wouldn’t put past him. I actually developed a whole other feature just for him, and it was going to be more in the vein of “Where the Buffalo Roam.” Instead of my brother and me, it was going to literally be me meeting Malik after watching “Street Thief.” It was going to be this weird dramatization of someone meeting their role model and what that does to them. We developed that for a year together, and then that didn’t end up going where we wanted it to. Then I went back to the “Grasshopper” script, and I started bringing it up to him a couple years ago. We’ve been developing his character together. He’s a huge supporter and just wants to see the damn thing made. It’s good to have his blessing on it.
What inspired the film’s poster art by Jeff Wells?
It was inspired by a photo I saw of Chet Baker hugging one of his lovers, a behind-the-scenes still of “Days of Wine and Roses” with Jack Lemmon, and behind-the-scenes photography of James Dean on “Rebel Without a Cause.” There’s a lot of beautiful poses of these men in almost babylike situations, clutching the stomach of a woman or asking for forgiveness from a woman or demanding love from a woman. Once you’ve read the script or seen the movie, the poster will make so much more sense. Even by itself, if you study the composition, you’ll see the tilt of the wine glass, the position of his head on her belly, the clutch of her hand on the back of his head. It’s very thought-out, and it will definitely be in the movie. The poster design for films in the ’70s used to be paintings. There’s something beautiful about trying to sum up the whole movie in one image.
When I get involved in a film, everything matters to me—the way it’s marketed, the poster, the trailer, the production design, the sound, everything. I think it’s terrible when people just rush out imagery or rush out a poster or rush out a teaser. It should all be a vision. It should all be how you want this film to be understood and seen. We put a lot of thought into that poster and that painting. Jeff is actually my uncle. I approached him around Christmastime, and I hadn’t seen him in a while. He’s been painting since he was a kid, and I was very blessed that he said yes. I always love watching director roundtables, but Ridley Scott said something on one recently that really upset me. He said, “There’s an overabundance of directors,” and I couldn’t agree with that. I thought it was the wrong language to use. I think I understood what he was trying to say, which is that there is an overabundance of director-less films. I think there’s a lot of people that just want to make movies, but their films are director-less. There’s no vision behind them.
How did you approach your film’s Kickstarter campaign?
I’ve talked to a lot of people about going this route, and I think I’m offering a lot of cool things. One thing I wanted to do was open the veil on the filmmaking process, giving people behind-the-scenes updates and showing them what it’s actually like during production. Malik and Frank are well-versed in distribution, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about where we think this film could play and premiere. Hopefully with all our connections, we’ll find a good life for it, because that’s the other half of the battle.
According to your Kickstarter page, you’ll be working with local schools to offer onset shadowing opportunities for students.
I think it’s very important as a student to get outside of the school and see what the real world is like. How amazing if there was an opportunity to work on a film with Joe Swanberg, and be by his side when it’s raining outside at three o’clock in the morning. The student will be like, “Wait, I didn’t think we’d be shooting past 7,” but then they’d see that’s just how s—t works. It would challenge their mind, and that’s what I want to do for at least three students. I want to let them be a part of the journey. They’ve got to be hungry, though, because it’s going to be a crazy ride.
Brad Bischoff will be speaking on a panel at Chicago Acting in Film Meet-up Committee at 530 W. Fullerton Ave., on Monday, April 11th. He’ll also be attending a fundraiser for “The Grasshopper” at the historic Save More Liquor Lounge (also a location in the movie) at 4060 N. Lincoln Ave., on Friday, April 22nd; he’ll be guest lecturing at Columbia College Chicago on Monday, April 25th; and he’ll be reading an excerpt from “The Grasshopper” at Drinkers With Writing Problems at Brisku’s Bistro, 4100 N. Kedzie Ave., on Friday, April 29th.