“Chicago Rot” begins filming its dark love-letter

By Sophia Coleman

A brute force tragedy is brewing in the gritty depths of our beloved city.

As previously reported by The Chronicle on Sept. 6, “Chicago Rot,” an indie horror-thriller, vowed to deliver a “dark love-letter” that the “Rot” crew said will break the preconceived boundaries of the independent film scene.

Three filmmakers—director Dorian Weinzimmer, producer Jeremy Vranich and Brant McCrea, co-writer and lead actor—have rounded up a crew of 30 local actors, actresses, techies, writers and musicians to bring their vision to life.

“We have a crew with everyone fully committed to this project, and we won’t settle for anything less than perfect,” Weinzimmer said. “[It] is both a blessing and a curse.”

Now with the crew a third of the way finished with on-location shooting, that promise has stayed true to form. Using the overlooked and under filmed parts of Chicago, including locations in Wrigleyville, Wicker Park and the suburbs of Joliet and Franklin Park, the crew has managed to capture obscure and haunting footage that locals should find emblematic of the city’s dark nature.

Set in the supernatural underworld of Chicago, the story follows the revenge plot of wrongfully imprisoned street legend Les, who is known as the “ghoul” amongst locals. Released from his 10-year stint in prison, he furiously travels through the dark alleys and seedy streets of the city to find the man who murdered his mother and robbed him of his soul.

Along the way, he runs into bizarre characters, some of whom are real-life local legends—such as Jojo Baby, an avant-garde doll-maker, and Ken Melvoin-Berg of Weird Chicago Tours.

The film is completely Chicago-centric, with the cast and crew made up of locals who wish to put—quite literally—their blood, sweat and tears into the film to show their undying love for the city.

In the spirit of the indie-mantra, actors with no acting background play the film’s two lead roles. McCrea, who stars as Les, embodies the rock ‘n’ roll, anti-hero vibe.

Shira Barber, who plays the lead female role and Les’ love interest, Alex, heard of “Rot” during its inception approximately two years ago while bartending with McCrea at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St. Interested from the start, she dove into the psyche of her character heart-first, with full support from the “Rot” crew.

Alex, who suffers through a rough home life with a father who drank himself to death and a runaway brother, comes under the wing of Les and a mix of other misunderstood, enchantingly dark characters.

“[The role of Alex] puts you in a weird head-space,” Barber said. “I definitely have been living in two different realities in the last two weeks.”

McCrea and Barber did not suddenly get into character all on their own. With the immense help of Catherine Lynch, an acting coach at Piven Theater, 927 Noyes St., in Evanston, Ill., the two were able to comprehend the physical and mental toll it would take on their bodies and minds to successfully embody their characters.

Lynch used a technique that originated in Italy called “Commedia del l’arte,” which is a transfer of emotion from one person to the next. This was the prime way for McCrea to break down before a scene.

“[McCrea] has this wonderful shield that I have to help break down for him to get into the emotional parts of his character,” Lynch said. “Men aren’t typically outwardly emotional, so it was a great challenge.”

Despite his major role as Les, McCrea had also put together the Rot Shop in Ukrainian Village, a fully equipped workshop where props, costumes and makeup effects are made. McCrea is a union carpenter and has been able to construct most of the props used within the film, including a killer pair of prison doors.

The Rot Shop is also home to the “ferret girls,” the makeup artists, who have earned the name, according to Vranich, because they’ve created their own language and mannerisms, not to mention, they sleep in an attic space in the shop.

So far, the “ferret girls” have used more than four gallons of fake blood, and this is just the beginning.

While gore is no challenge to the Rot crew, the time factor, combined with the high-standards upheld for the film, has been the obvious hurdle because of the original plan to shoot in the summer. Weinzimmer once had visions of the melting heat and oppressive nature of the city’s unforgiving summers to be the backdrop of the film, but after time and a few scheduling setbacks, the lure of fall and winter’s death and dreariness seemed to be a better fit.

Naturally, because it is an indie production, being in the wake of major productions has also been a challenge.

“Productions like ‘Playboy Club’ and ‘Boss’ have taken away many resources we would like to use in the film,” Vranich said.

Improvisation has been key within the making of the film, and with the help of the community and individuals in Chicago neighborhoods, everything has been made possible. During the Kickstarter campaign that ended in July, backers pledged anywhere from $1 to $5,000, and the film’s funding goal surpassed $25,000.

One of the backers is Tyler Crain, a dedicated superfan. A friend of Vranich, he moved from New York to Chicago approximately four years ago. Because he shares the same love of the city as the “Rot” crew, he now sports a “Chicago Rot” dot tattoo, which is a play off the red, white and blue circular CTA logo, on his chest.

“They’re not worried about offending people,” Crain said of the filmmakers. “They’re not worried about making a mass marketable movie. It’s a gory, intense movie from their hearts.”

The film itself has become a monster, according to executive producer Kelly Kerr, in the way it encompasses a mass amount of Chicago talent.

Of course, it will have to, as Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, has been under the impression that “Chicago Rot” is capable of a larger production than what their small crew may appear to encompass. Moskal has faith that it will defy any notion of the talent indie film as a cult phenomenon.

“We all accept each other’s eccentricities and it all gels together,” Vranich said of the “Rot” crew. “A person who is otherwise weird or rejected in some other aspect of their lives, fill[s] a gap that we need within the production of the film.”

Adam Dick, the film’s script supervisor, said even though the film is low-budget, it has the quality and continuity of a million dollar film.

Two days before pre-production began, Dick got the call from Lynch asking if he’d like to be a part of the “Rot” project. He read the script cover to cover and said he thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Despite it being a genre film, it defies convention,” Dick said. “I find myself unable to predict what would happen from one page to the next.”

He described the film’s dialogue as akin to that of a noir film, in that it is fresh and hard-boiled, and predicted there will be a number of catchphrases that come out of the film.

The release date of the film is early fall 2012, according to Kerr. Vranich said they plan on entering it in the Chicago International Film Festival.

The crew agrees that to be involved with the film, one definitely has to have something wrong with him or herself. And because there is no hierarchy within the film crew, Kerr said they are capable of creating a film that can be relatable to many audiences.

“There is something in this movie that will appeal to anybody from any audience because it’s sonically massive,” Kerr said. “If you’re a fan of the Chicago music scene, if you’re a fan of gore, of pulp fiction, and if you’re a fan of love stories, it will be a good date night movie.”