From the ATX to Chi-Town
Kyle Henry explores Chicago in Rogers Park
You can take the filmmaker out of Austin, but you can't take Austin out of the filmmaker. Kyle Henry, director of ATX Aughts indie film Room, may have relocated to Chicago in 2010, but even his position as an associate professor at Northwestern University hasn't severed his ties to the local film community. His latest film, Rogers Park, features his "Fourplay: Austin" star Jonny Mars, and even what he called "a significant proportion" of the budget came from two Austin companies, Arts + Labor, and Production for Use.
Both Austin and Chicago are outsider towns, away from the coasts and the big film industry, with fiercely independent filmmakers (Illinois, Henry observed, leans more toward documentaries). However, he added, "Chicago is a little more disparate. There's no organization that people coalesce around, the same way that the Austin Film Society brings people together." It's not that there's a lack of will (Henry pointed to organizations like Kartemquin Films, and Joe Swanberg's Forager Films), but the sheer geographic scale of the city makes it harder to build the kind of interlinked, everybody-knows-everybody scene that has defined Austin. Henry says, "There are filmmakers [in Chicago] making work that I never or very rarely see, whereas that wasn't the case in Austin. You would run into people, or you would go to a rough cut screening of another filmmaker's film."
Henry's films are often grounded heavily in a specific community – for example, his 2013 feature Fourplay, which was constructed from four chapters linked to their location (Austin, San Francisco, Skokie, and Tampa). He said, "I've always made films about people and communities that are right in front of me." That started with his directorial debut, 1998's American Cowboy, "a feature about a gay rodeo cowboy when I was dealing with my own sexual identity as someone who came from a small town in Texas." He followed that with 1999's University, Inc., "an investigative documentary about the University of Texas while I was there as a grad student, about corporate involvement in university education. Room came from my experiences of being in New York during 9/11 and then moving back to Texas, and then Rogers Park is the only neighborhood that me and my partner [scriptwriter Carlos Treviño] have lived in since we moved to Chicago."
So for all those Austin links, Henry's film is absolutely about the burgeoning, diverse, and integrated Chicago neighborhood. The two core relationships in the film – comfortable middle-class couple Grace (Sara Sevigny) and Zeke (Antoine McKay), and surly novelist Chris (Mars) and community organizer Deena (Christine Horn) – are both interracial, but that's never a plot point. That may be the most Rogers Park-specific element of the story. "It's the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago, the most languages are spoken, you see interracial couples on the streets everywhere, and that's not the case everywhere in Chicago."
Rogers Park is also a reflection of Henry moving into middle age. Bluntly, he said, "I'm not going to keep making coming-of-age movies about 20-year-olds." So Henry and Treviño wanted to deal with the complexities of mature relationships in a way that neither had seen in American cinema since the Seventies: films "that weren't about disaffected Brooklynites, or struggling artists in L.A. People who just really reflected the diversity of this country."
Rogers Park opens at AFS Cinema on Friday. Director Kyle Henry and writer Carlos Treviño will be in attendance March 23-27, and will be joined by Jonny Mars for the March 23 screening. For review and showtimes, visit our listings page>.