On a drab Monday night, I met up with filmmaker/video artist and Logan Square resident Clara Alcott over at New Wave Coffee. We chatted about her different stints in the neighborhood and how it has evolved over time, her career and current projects, and her love of science fiction.
Her most recent project, a short sci-fi/noir narrative film entitled The Distant Architect, recently reached its fundraising goal on Kickstarter and will move into production in early 2015. Quoting from the Kickstarter page, it “centers on a young architect named Karen who begins to question what she knows about herself and her body. Are there parts of her that are cybernetic? Does it matter? Can she still be considered a ‘normal woman’?” The film is sponsored in part by Chicago-based production company BulletProof Film and the Near Northwest Arts Council.
So would you say New Wave Coffee is one of “your places”?
Well, it’s funny because I guess I live on “the other side” of Logan Square, which is like Armitage & California? So there is Bang Bang Pie [Shop] over there, and I live closer to [Café] Mustache, and there’s another coffee shop that just opened called La Strada. It’s brand new; it’s really close to my apartment. I think those are the coffee shops that are a little closer to me.
Thanks for making the hike then …
(laughs) Oh no, it’s still not that far!
How long have you lived in Logan Square?
At this apartment, I guess it’s been about a year and a half. Then about 10 years ago I lived at an apartment that was at Milwaukee & California for like, a year.
Oh, so you’ve come in waves; I had read that you’ve done things in New York and LA. Are there periods of jetting out then coming back, etc.?
Right, right, I guess so? I go out to the other cities for work and just because of work for me, I basically have to go out to LA for a while, then get called for a job here, then go out to New York and get called back for a job here. I’d say that I’m little bit more entrenched in the production world here though then in the other cities.
So as you’ve been coming back and forth, have you been seeing all this change — specifically in Logan Square?
Yeah, and that’s actually really interesting because I was in Los Angeles when I needed to move back here, needed to find an apartment really fast because a job was starting. A good friend who had been a roommate in the past — we became really excited because that meant we were going to move back in with each other — she works at the Shakespeare Theater, and she stipulated that she HAD to live near an el stop, basically.
So we were looking for spots and then she found us the apartment that we now live in, and she said, “That’s a great area!” but I was all, “I lived there a little while ago and I don’t know…” but then she said, “There’s a pie shop!” And I said, “What? A pie shop?” and didn’t know if we were talking about the same place.
So yeah, things are very different now, but I still really like living here because the Fireside [Bowl] was there — [LS interjects: Still is.] — Well yeah, that’s when they had shows all the time though! So maybe more like 10 plus years? But I’d lived with Theo [Katsaounis, of Joan Of Arc] and we were just talking recently about the shows we used to go to when we lived together in the neighborhood in college.
You just said you went to school here. Are you from the area?
Well, I’m from Milwaukee but I went to school at Columbia College; the film program, specifically.
Which is a good segue, now that the how-do-you-do’s are out of the way, into talking about your film The Distant Architect!
Yes! We are going to shoot in March … or at least we hope to shoot in March. I’m currently working on a television show [Empire, for FOX] and my cinematographer Jose [Luis Rios] is also on the show, and we both wrap out in February. So we are hoping that at least by the end of March there isn’t going to be any snow. [LS interjects: Fingers crossed.] Basically, so that’s when we’re hoping to shoot. Down in Bridgeport, near South Side, kind of down near the South Shore, and there’s a factory in Bucktown that we’re going to shoot in.
Very cool. So in trying to discuss the synopsis, and without giving too much away, what kinds of “bodily things” is your protagonist dealing with? What kind of elements are we getting into with the “sci-fi/noir” genre?
Well, without giving too much away, the sci-fi that comes into this is that she has “non-organic anomalies.” Those anomalies in [the protagonist] Karen’s body are causing her body to fail, so she needs to find a way to fix herself. And it’s not through normal medical means… I guess the term would be more “soft science fiction”?
Can you expand on what you mean by that?
Well, I want to say that the science fiction suggested by someone like Shane Carruth [director of films Primer & Upstream Color], would be kind of a very “hard science fiction” but done so as a low budget style in which the science fiction is suggested.
I may not be so up on my sci-fi terms, but there is a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wis. [called WisCon] that is so awesome. And I went there, and I was just thinking that, “Wow, I don’t know anywhere near as much about science fiction as they do.” But I guess there are comparisons between [my soft sci-fi] and what Shane Carruth does.
There’s also this movie called La Jetée, which I love, and it’s a French movie from the 60s, by Chris Marker. And the whole film is actually told in photos, like a series of slides, with narration. It’s just very minimal and captivating, so that’s more of what I’m trying to go for with this; 12 Monkeys is based on it.
I will also say that much of your plot, a woman trying to fix herself through, not to say alternative, but rather “unaccepted” or “non-mainstream means”, takes a hard line into the, avoiding the clichéd term, “issues of today.” It would very easily fit into that feminist sci-fi conversation.
So how long have you been involved in making The Distant Architect?
Well, with this project? I’ve been involved with this project for a really long time. Because I’ve come back and forth to it, I would say like 10 plus years, maybe? But, I mean, at the same time I could say I worked on it very seriously for two years in the beginning, and then more heavily in the two most recent years.
So were your previous films made in those six years in between?
Not to get too much into it, but I made a lot of little films in high school. Then I went to school and made more as part of projects and class. And then after college I got really into doing more video art, made a lot of experimental videos, and curated a program at the Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park as well as other video shows. I just got really heavily into experimental video and experimental form.
So, um, I guess I’ve always “made stuff,” but I would say that in the last five years I’ve started to get back into narrative form and almost what you could call “the experimental narrative.” But I’ve gotten back into telling stories using my love of science fiction. You could even say I’m seeing and using the terms “experimental” and “science fiction” interchangeably the same way here.
But prior to The Distant Architect, I made a short film called Kick. And after that I made a film called Reds And Blues; I’m now in post-production on Reds And Blues.
Once The Distant Architect wraps, what are your plans for it? Will there be screenings, etc. lined up?
I’ll definitely screen it here; there will be a local screening, but then we’ll submit to festivals. We want to have a cut ready by July or August. There are a lot of festivals that take submissions in September and October, so we hope to have a strong enough cut by that time. And I believe it’s completely possible.
Since The Distant Architect was a back burner project for so long, are there any scripts or other projects that are on your back burner while you make this one?
No, actually, this one was the one that was always on the back burner and I’m finally getting a chance to make it. So it’ll be an interesting feeling once this is done and I’m presumably out of ideas. There is, however, a feature-length draft and there is the possibility that maybe if I could find funding I might go on make this into a feature film instead of leaving it as a short.
I’m very comfortable with short form work though, so I’ll probably be completely comfortable after I finish shooting that I won’t need to expand on anything. There is a feature-length draft though, so who knows. It’s just interesting when I’m talking to the crew to have to remember what I’ve put in the feature-length version versus what’s in the short.
To try and tie this back into the neighborhood, the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival have been in this area for a while. Have you ever shown or done things with either of those festivals?
I don’t know that I’ve ever shown any of my work, but I believe I have programmed [at Heaven Gallery, in conjunction with] both festivals, and I was on the jury once for CUFF.
Have you found that it’s any more or less easier to collaborate being based here compared to other places you’ve lived, either in Chicago or NYC/LA?
I think it’s been pretty easy to collaborate in both, and I’ve spent a lot of time in LA and made a lot of things there too, but I would say it’s probably about the same for collaborating. The only difference I see is that in Los Angeles it’s “more professional,” so to speak, so it’s like people have more of a kind of focused way of doing things. Here it’s more laid back but I would say that it’s probably about the same. The thing about Chicago I want to say is that it’s probably a bit more laid back and comfortable when it comes to what I need for making my work: I have an infrastructure here, my film school is here, different collaborators are here.
What I like about Logan Square is, since I have traveled all over the place, I just feel that where I’m at right now is a very pretty street with trees; I think it’s the quietest street I’ve ever lived on. And I lived on Division Street for a long time. … But here all the neighbors have lived there for a long time and they kind of look out for each other, and it’s just very calming and I’m surprised my roommate and I found a place like that. Because it is very urban and very close to a lot of things, like the train and busy streets, but it’s still very, I don’t know, calm and pretty and walkable and I appreciate that. Nothing is as crazy as when I lived at Division and Ashland.
Well then let me ask you this: if Fireside Bowl was your go-to 10 years ago, where do you go now?
There’s a restaurant on Armitage called Table, Donkey, and Stick near the end of my block, and I go there. A LOT. Their special Monday night meal is one of my favorites, and in general TD&S is probably the place I frequent the most. I also go to Bang Bang a lot, and Parson’s sometimes. Then there’s a chocolate shop called Katherine Anne that’s really good.
Have you been on [Parson’s] ice rink yet?
No! I didn’t even know! And I live really close to it! Somebody at work said something about it and I was like, “I guess? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” But then I heard from other people and yes, there is an ice rink there.
Any guesses as to what the neighborhood is going to look in 10 more years?
I have no idea, but I guess I just hope that there’s not as much of a rush to change things. I mean I’m sure it will change, but I just hope that there can be conscientious decisions about how there’s already a great neighborhood in Logan, and I believe there always was. But what I hope for is that there are conscientious decisions about this change with regard to who already lives here, because there are people that have always lived here.
Clara Alcott is a filmmaker based in Chicago. Clara has worked professionally in the film industry in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Her personal projects reflect an interest in both the experimental and narrative style. She has screened her work at various festivals and galleries in the US and Europe. Clara’s work has been recognized and received honors from the City of Chicago (CAAP Grant), The Illinois Arts Council, Nokia, The Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For news on upcoming events & screenings, writings about cinema, art and life, please visit her blog Never Let Me Go. Also check out pages on Vimeo and YouTube. (Clara’s bio courtesy of ClaraAlcott.com)
Photo: Erik Lindahl
“Socializing the neighborhood” is at the core of the LoganSquarist mission, so we introduce readers to interesting and unique residents throughout Logan Square in our Know Your Neighbor column. If you know someone who would be ideal for to feature, let us know.