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Notes from Chicago DIY filmmaker Marie Ullrich

December 6, 2010 | By

Matthew Blake

Marie Ullrich has spent most of her adult life in film production and decided that her love for filmmaking trumped her wariness of the industry, enrolling at Columbia College Master’s in Fine Arts program for film.

Last week, Ullrich effectively wrapped up her studies at Columbia, screening her master’s thesis film “Faster!” at Columbia. The film has also played at the Chicago International Film Festival and the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival, both in October 2010.

I talked to her about what opportunities and challenges await after film school and how indie filmmaking has changed in the last 20 years.

Talk about your thesis film “Faster!” which is told through the perspective of a female bike messenger.

Marie Ullrich

I wanted to make a film about a bike messenger woman. I always have a character in mind that I want to write and direct a film about. The bike messenger world is an interesting subculture to explore. I was working with this theme of heaven and hell. The street level is hell – dirty, gritty and angry. The people in the office buildings is sort of like a false heaven, but it’s a heaven in that they’re protected and above her and more wealthy. And also in mythology the messengers can communicate between the Gods and underworld, so I was really working with that thematically and visually.

The woman, Jasper – she feels trapped in this situation that she feels really unhappy in and she realizes that she has to change. She has this moment where she says, “Oh, I am kind of an asshole.”

Is film school worth it?

Being a filmmaker is a risky proposition and film school is only for people who can’t live without it. If you’re confused about whether or not you should go, you shouldn’t go. I had worked in the industry pretty much my entire adult life and I knew that being a director in the industry, especially as a woman, was going to be a huge risk.

So I kind of stubbornly got an MFA in film against my better judgment.

Why Columbia?

I worked at the Chicago International Film Festival for three years before I decided that I like Chicago. Columbia is very narrative and character-driven, rather than explosion and car-chase driven, so I was like, “That sounds like something that I want.”

Marie Ullrich

Talk about the logistics of making “Faster!” Is part of the deal of film school that Columbia financially supports your student projects?

Columbia provides equipment and they provide a basic level of insurance for their equipment. Other than that, everything is up to you – funding, producing, casting, everything. Then you can apply for grants but you’re never guaranteed any funds. I was pretty lucky in getting two Weisman Awards for “Faster!” – one for the production and one for the post-production, which is a reimbursement award.

How do you go about putting all that together? How, for example, does casting a student film work?

We’re very lucky in Chicago to have an amazing community. There are a lot of incredibly talented actors, so that’s actually been relatively easy. I put notices in a lot of theater community Web sites and it’s pretty easy to organize an audition – we have just really incredible actors here.

Are the actors paid on short films?

No. Ideally, I would pay everyone on my set, including the cast and crew. I would pay them all an actual day rate and not a cut rate, but I’m not there yet.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a feature length version of “Faster!” Obviously, it won’t be called “Faster!” because there is now a movie with Billy Bob Thornton and the Rock now out that’s called “Faster!” But I do have a feature length script for it, and I’m rewriting it currently and looking for production partners. I’m trying to get big budget funding for it, but I’m open now into it being a DIY micro-budget project. Filmmakers I’ve talked to at the London Film Festival and here have been really supportive of me doing a micro budget.

Marie Ullrich

They say, “Make your movie and make it now with whatever means you have – maybe adapt the story to fit your means.” So I’m going to try to do that avenue.

And I also have this idea for the short. I wanted to try to ride my bicycle around the country with my film “Faster!” and basically a projector and have “pop-up” cinema: just roll up on my bike and try to find a place to show it somewhere.

The pop-up cinema is to try to raise money to make the feature version, but it’s also just to show it. It’s kind of frustrating if you’re a filmmaker and you submit a film to, say, a festival in Cincinnati and perhaps the people who work at the festival don’t like it and because they don’t like it, nobody in Cincinnati gets to see your film.

What do you think of Chicago as a place to make movies?

We have a really thriving experimental film community here to be sure. I think it’s just hard, though, for Chicagoans to come up with the necessary budgets. So I’m kind of torn about staying here. I feel like if I were going to move to Los Angeles, I probably would have already been there by now. I went to Columbia to establish some roots and make some connections in Chicago. One reason I want to make the feature version of “Faster!” now is that I have connections here and I want to make use of them.

Is it uniquely hard for Chicago filmmakers to raise money?

It’s hard for any independent filmmaker in America to come up with a budget unless you’re making a zombie or slasher movie. When I was in London, I felt like there was a lot more money available because they value film as a cultural object and not just as a commodity. In London people would ask me, “Would you like to make another short?” and I could practically see the money in their hands that they were about to offer me. But then they were like, “I’m sorry – you’re an American.” If I were a UK citizen, you know, I could be shooting now!

Is this because artists are publicly supported in the UK?

Yes – the U.S. used to have more funding through the NEA [the National Endowment of the Arts], but even before the economy tanked, public funding had really died off. The funding was around in the 80’s but it had died off by the early 90’s. Spike Lee, when he got his start, used NEA funding.

So I research who has made films that I like and respect artistically and are about the same scale as my film in terms of the budget and audience, and I try to contact some of these people. Also, I may be going to Sundance to showcase “Faster!” – and hopefully network with production partners there.

Faster! trailer from Marie Ullrich on Vimeo.

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