It’s only fitting that Independence Day has been followed each year by the anniversary of Indie Outlook, my site dedicated to films and artists who are among the finest in independent cinema. 2018 was by far my busiest and most rewarding year as an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com, and though my blog entries here were infrequent, each was as in-depth and impassioned as anything I’ve published. I am deeply humbled and grateful for all of the incredible people who took time to share their stories with me, from the visionaries in my sweet home of Chicago to those residing in such places as Los Angeles, New York City, New Zealand and the Czech Republic.
I’m always struck by how the articles on this site continue to follow me throughout my life. At Ebertfest this past April, I was honored to participate in a Q&A with director Morgan Neville, following the screening of his wonderful documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, which made my Best of the Year list in 2018. I was joined onstage by my boss, Chaz Ebert, my fellow Assistant Editor Nick Allen, and a deeply cherished letter sent to me by Fred Rogers himself. It likely would still have been stored away in my parents’ basement had I not fished it out for an article I published on Indie Outlook in 2017, where the contents of the letter were accompanied by my interview with David Newell (a.k.a. Mr. McFeely).
Rogers’ extraordinary message was written in response to a fan letter I penned at age five, and after I got the chance to read them on the Ebertfest stage, Neville replied, “At one point, Fred got more mail than anybody in America, and he responded to every letter he got. It was a huge part of his life—for ten or fifteen hours a week, he was doing correspondence. To him, it wasn’t a chore. […] Being able to minister to children through letters was almost more satisfying to him than the show.” You can watch me read the letter at the 16:45 mark of the Ebertfest video embedded below…
As in my previous anniversary retrospectives, I’m providing excerpts of each interview published over the past twelve months at RogerEbert.com. Click on the name of each subject and you will be directed to the full conversation…
“I don’t like relaxed film sets because it gets too relaxed. ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ was a really intense set. Peter Bogdanovich was driving us through this very fast-paced dialogue, and the concentration that that took was just incredible. That intensity also made us an ensemble because we were all in the same boat. I was staying at a hotel in Los Angeles, and when I got back to my room, I would literally open the door and crawl toward the bed. When you see the film, it looks effortless, but the effort it takes to get something to look effortless is really something.”—Austin Pendleton, star of “Calumet”
“The camera wants to see you reveal yourself, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that in every single role. Once you do that—in collaboration with the story, the character, the production design, the cinematography—you reveal a different aspect of yourself because every human is a rich and complex combination of many different qualities. So really, it’s about respecting yourself and trusting yourself to bring, as Marcel Duchamp would say, ‘the infrathin difference’ to each character, which can translate as a huge difference through the lens of the camera.”—Miranda Harcourt, co-director of “The Changeover”
“When I decided to start painting more, I felt more in control. I am so thankful to have that outlet right now, and it definitely is like acting. This is me, this is what I am, and this is what I bring to this life and this table. It’s vulnerable and liberating to share a part of myself. I’ve also been doing auditions on the side for commercial work and stuff like that, but I haven’t really found a film that I feel connected to. I still want to act again and put myself out there, but I want it to be meaningful.”—Alison Hixon, star of “Mercy’s Girl”
“It’s one of those things that happened instinctively. Even though we did some research prior to production, we didn’t really look at other movies. A lot of my instincts stemmed purely from my experience as a black man in America. It felt intuitive to me, and that’s the first time I ever had that on a project. Moving on as a filmmaker, I want to continue working that way.”—George Tillman Jr., director of “The Hate U Give”
“We were thinking a lot about that shift between illusion and reality. From the beginning of the shoot, I wasn’t sure how to straddle that line separating lie from truth. Should the audience be aware what parts of Mára’s story are made up, and at what point? I eventually realized that it would be more authentic to portray the story as Mára would remember it, because between the ages of 12 to 15, what is true, what is false and what is part of your imagination all feel equally real. When the characters are on the road, we push the atmosphere about fifteen percent above the level of realism in order to capture the subjective truth of one’s childhood memories.”—Olmo Omerzu, director of “Winter Flies”
“Those moments were definitely written in there, but I loved the way that Jean-Marc directed them. Some flashbacks bring a film to a halt, whereas these have a dreamlike quality. They really make you feel like you are floating back into her memory. We wanted Camille’s memories to be a part of the show because it is so much about memory, about where you come from.”—Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects
“Every year they show it around Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I will have little kids look at me in the grocery store and whisper, ‘There’s the ‘Home Alone’ lady!’ Whenever I walk in the door at a particular IHOP, there’s a waiter who does that pose with both hands on either side of his face like Macauley Culkin. In my scene, when I call over the pharmacist, Herb, the focus is really on Macauley and the guy from next door with the bandage on his hand. As you’re watching that, Herb and I are having a little improv. I ask Herb, ‘Do you know if this toothbrush is approved by the American Dental Association?’ He says, ‘I don’t know—tell him that it is!’ And I say, ‘Your father and I are not gonna bail you out of another lawsuit after lying to a customer.’”—Ann Whitney, star of “Home Alone”
“For me, one of the easiest tools to use in determining when I should make a cut is based on the actors’ performances. Maybe a character said something that makes me, as a viewer, want to see how the other character in the scene would react. Sometimes it is right in the middle of a character’s line, sometimes it is just after the character has finished their line. Then I’ll be curious to see how this new piece of information is sinking in for the other character, so I want to be on them for that. Reactions play such a huge part in the editing process, because that’s how your focus shifts in real life. When you are talking to someone, you are always looking at the other person to see how they are taking in what you’ve told them.”—Erin Wolf, assistant editor of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
“You just get to stick within the moment and react to things in real time as opposed to breaking it up into different parts. We get to feel how Amanda feels in the moment during those different phone calls. As an actor, I love thinking about where my character was at the moment before a particular scene and where they are going in the moment immediately afterward. I’m sure most actors do, but it is incredibly important to me. Theatre training obviously teaches you how to find the strength in a performance within a certain narrative. That’s what I feel theatre does so well, and that also has to do with being able to take a scene from the beginning to the end properly. You just get to discover the proper richness of it.”—Morgan Saylor, star of “Anywhere With You”
“For me, acting was a way out of poverty. Then it mutated into a means of activism, and a way to see the figure of a role model on the screen that I didn’t have growing up. Eventually, it led to me hitting a wall, and I realized that I didn’t have anymore room to grow in the action film world, making commercial movies. I wanted to evolve as a person and as an actress. After 16 years of doing the same s—t, man, I can’t expect to grow. Then I met McQueen and—boom—I discovered my feminine side. I honestly don’t feel that I’ve actually been challenged since working with Karyn on ‘Girlfight,’ until now, so it was a beautiful experience. I was really grateful for it.”—Michelle Rodriguez, star of “Widows”
“When I was growing up, my father was a missionary pastor, so I moved across the U.S. and we did missionary work in Mexico. I moved every nine months to a new city, a new town, and I remember being five years old, going out on the street with him as he’s trying to ‘harass people into Jesus.’ I was about five or six years old when I started getting a lot of attention from the males in my father’s church—not that he was aware of this—and it blew my mind. That’s also when women came to me and pointed out something that I was wearing, whether it was open-toe shoes or spandex shorts that totally sexualized me at a young age. I began to feel guilty, and developed a fear of older males. That was my first instance of being confused about religion and sexuality and what it meant to me.”—Emily Lape, director/writer/editor/star of “Mercy’s Girl”
“I felt like I should be making notes on my shirt cuff, so I’d remember everything she told me. Anyway, I thanked her again and turned to leave—and then I remembered one more thing and whirled back around. She did a mock little ‘take,’ and we both laughed, and I said, ‘Oh! And I’m coming to see you again tomorrow night!’ And Judy laughed in that wonderful, wonderful laugh of hers that started at the soles of her feet. I knew she wasn’t laughing at me; it was more like her joy met my own, and we laughed together. She teased, ‘Well, you’ve got a lot of courage to sit through two of them,’ and I told her, ‘No, no, no! It’s my pleasure!’ And then I said, ‘Anyway, thanks—for everything.’ And that was the first moment the smile left her face, and with great sincerity and with those huge brown eyes, she looked at me and said very simply, ‘Thank you.’”—John Fricke, leading historian of “The Wizard of Oz”
“Peter Nowalk is a great collaborator. He is always there to rally me, and I told him, ‘There is no way I’m going to go on TV and not play a real woman. I can’t do it. I don’t know how to walk in heels, I’m not a size two, and I’m not getting to a size two, that’s not happening.’ And so, I knew that if I did something that was real like that, they would have to write for that. They would have to deal with her. And I was tired of seeing the other. Everybody has the right to be exactly who they are. I told Peter, ‘I think Annalise is pansexual,’ and he said, ‘Okay, now why do you think that?’ I said, ‘I think she’s reached a point where she is open to love whomever she wants to love.’ There was something so beautiful about that. I am proud to play a character that is so open and free. To me, that feels strong and revelatory, even moreso than just being the black female lead of a TV show.”—Viola Davis, star of “How To Get Away With Murder”
“Whether it’s your blackness, your gayness, your trans-ness or whatever it is, I think it is always so important to acknowledge the components of self that make us us. The premise of ‘I don’t see color’ is one that rests upon the idea that we live in a post-racial or post-identity society, which is not true. When we relate to one another and see, hear and regard each other, I think it’s really important to be inclusive of all the different facets of self that contribute to one’s own experience. You have to make sure that when you are seeing someone, you are seeing them not despite of who they are, but including and because of who they are.”—Amandla Stenberg, star of “The Hate U Give”
In addition to these interviews, I also published full reviews of Bo Burnham’s pitch-perfect junior high drama, “Eighth Grade,” and Alison McAlpine’s visually stunning documentary, “Cielo.” “Eighth Grade” went on to top my two-part list ranking the Best Films of 2018 (click here for Part I and here for Part II), as well as received the most nods in my annual list revealing what films I’d nominate in each awards season category. Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful black-and-white opus, “Roma,” which came in at #3 on my list, was among the movies I reviewed in my coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival. I also had the honor of chatting with the stars of Steve McQueen’s “Widows” and George Tillman Jr.s’ “The Hate U Give” on the festival red carpet (you can find excerpts from my chat with McQueen here). As for the Music Box Theatre’s essential 70mm Film Festival, I singled out five must-sees from last year’s installment, including Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s audacious 1982 fantasy, “The Dark Crystal.”
The essays I chose to write for Indie Outlook were all labors of love, beginning with my analysis of Michael Verhoeven’s frighteningly timely 1990 German satire, “The Nasty Girl,” a film that haunted my dreams from an early age. In honor of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born,” I celebrated Lady Gaga’s decade of diverse performances. After closely following the production of Alex Thompson’s SXSW prize-winner, “Saint Frances,” I preceded its opening night screening at the 2019 Chicago Critics Film Festival with a deep dive into the soundtrack of Hal Ashby’s 1978 masterpiece, “Coming Home,” a film that Thompson cited as a major influence. It was after seeing a 40th anniversary screening of “Alien” at this year’s CCFF that I became inspired to examine how Ridley Scott’s horror classic made an unexpectedly fitting double bill with Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Along with all the new content, I republished my conversations with “The Room” director Tommy Wiseau and “Harry Potter” star Matthew Lewis, as well as my prophetic review of 2008’s “Iron Man.”
Two of the most meaningful articles I’ve written over the past year were published not at Indie Outlook but at Eileen Kelly’s essential site, KillerAndASweetThang.com. The failure of sex ed classes Kelly observed as a Catholic schoolgirl inspired her to create a safe space for people to educate each other on topics still widely deemed taboo. Her crew of editors and contributors have made it their mission to fight against forces of societal repression by removing the stigma from their sexuality, encouraging readers to do the same. I was so inspired by their bravery that I decided to pen an essay myself, which is without question, the most personal I’ve ever written. The response I received to it—from people I know as well as complete strangers—has been utterly life-altering. I cannot thank editorial director Jacob Seferian and the entire KAAST team enough for letting my voice be heard.
After viewing “Tape,” the latest wrenching triumph from one of my all-time favorite interview subjects, filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier, I knew that an interview with her and her leading ladies, Isabelle Fuhrman and Annarosa Mudd, would make a perfect fit for Kelly’s site. The edited transcript of our wonderfully cathartic conference call was published on KillerAndASweetThang.com this past May, when Fuhrman was starring in Erica Schmidt’s brilliant all-female stage production of “Macbeth” at NYC’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. “Tape” is slated to arrive in theaters this fall, and is destined to emerge as a landmark of the #MeToo era. You can find interview excerpts showcasing each of these amazing women below…
“For me as a filmmaker, ‘Tape’ was about trying to find a cinematic language that shifts from the male gaze to the female experience—not the female gaze because for me, as a woman, it’s not ever about the gaze, it’s about the experience. Rosa’s hidden camera represents how hard it is to find that female experience and the search for it is confusing and unclear. Near the end, there is this huge payoff where you’re hearing that typical sex scene between Pearl and Lux with all the moans, and then you get that hidden camera and it is focused right there on her face. She looks in that camera and you see the truth of her experience.”—Deborah Kampmeier
“There’s that scene in ‘Eighth Grade’ where the girl is in the back seat of the car and the guy’s asking her to take off her shirt. She repels his advances, and then goes, ‘I’m sorry.’ I remember something like that happening to me. Someone wanted to kiss me and I didn’t want to kiss him. For the rest of the day, I kept finding myself needing to apologize, and he was like, ‘Your first kiss is going to end up with someone you don’t even like and you’re going to be bad at it.’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I know, I know,’ and he’s like, ‘This is about you.’ That’s when everything gets skewed, and it happens so far back in our lives.”—Isabelle Fuhrman
“My advice for people like Pearl is to find your tribe of women who value what you have to offer, amplify your voice and help you grow. There is such a fucking fierce energy among women right now, especially after the midterm elections. Find those people who stand for what you stand for, and maybe you’ll get to work with them. Women are talking about everything now. We are looking out for each other, we are creating, we are organizing, we are making shit happen. Just try alerting your senses to those people. There are wonderful men too, of course, but there is something going on right now among women that’s really powerful and protective and invigorating, and it opens so many more doors to connect with others.”—Annarosa Mudd
Stay tuned for Part II of this anniversary retrospective, which will compile my interviews, reviews and essays published over the past twelve months at RogerEbert.com.