Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
This interview is part of our double feature on Marie Ullrich. Also see Katie Grimes’s review of Marie’s film The Alley Cat.
The character of Jasper, a tough yet vulnerable Chicago bike messenger, is at the center of your short film Faster! and your feature The Alley Cat. Can you tell us where the inspiration for Jasper came from?
I went to undergrad at Emerson College in Boston for filmmaking. I didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere or took public transportation. After graduation I started a medium-term freelance job at an animation company and it took two lengthy bus rides and a bunch of walking to get there; if one of the buses was too early or too late, I’d be late for work. So I bought a bike and started riding—8 miles each way—and it was fantastic. I could leave later and still get there on time. Sometimes biking was the best part of my day.
One day I was riding in Downtown Crossing and something seized up on my bike. I got off and was just starting to squint at it—I hadn’t even figured out which part was frozen yet—when a tall bike messenger guy swooped in, whipped a tool out of his bag, fixed it, and then swooped off again. I was in love. We didn’t have bike messengers in Nashville (Tennessee) where I grew up, and I always thought they were cool, like punk rock athletes. I was always kind of fascinated by their culture and their cool. It takes a lot of experience, guts, smarts, and strength to do what they do every day, and they bond over it. The messengers I’ve met through making Faster! and now The Alley Cat have been really awesome folks—it’s an amazing community.
I always write female protagonists, and I was researching the bike messenger community a lot even before I started writing. I found that some of them who made big paychecks in the ’90s started really hurting when things like faxing, email, and especially electronic signatures came about. So I thought about that a lot in conjunction with this character, Jasper, came up with a character bio for her that also disadvantaged her, and just loved her.
Sequel is a word that gets (often rightly) maligned, so I don’t want to call The Alley Cat a sequel to Faster! But it did feel like a continuation and expansion of Jasper’s story. Can you describe your process in creating two films around the same character and explain how you see the two stories working with each other?
Actually I wrote a feature film with a female bike messenger named Jasper as the main character way back in 2001 or 2002. I submitted it to the Sundance Labs and was a finalist. I didn’t make it into the labs, but I thought, hmm…maybe with a little more education I could actually make a go of this. I had been working in production for years by that time, but in Art Department or as an Associate Producer—I still didn’t really know how to talk to actors, how to direct them. So I went back to school, to Columbia College Chicago to get am MFA in Writing & Directing for Film.
Of course I wanted to make that feature film as my thesis, and I proposed it, but the thesis can’t be feature length, it has to be a short. I didn’t want to just hack up the feature—a short film has to stand on its own—so I wrote a completely new film based on Jasper, which became Faster! Then when it came time to make this film, I was rereading my Sundance entry and thinking, well, I did some of this already in Faster! and don’t want to repeat myself. I’m still interested in the character, but I don’t want to just make a longer version of Faster! So I went back to the drawing board again and wrote a completely new script for The Alley Cat but used the same character and mostly the same backstory. The films are each meant to stand alone, but actually The Alley Cat can work as a continuation of Jasper’s story.
Perhaps as present as Jasper in both films is Chicago as we watch Jasper and fellow bike messengers ride down its streets. What are your ties to the city and what do you think the setting adds to the stories you’re telling?
I first went to Chicago in 1994 or 1995. It didn’t stick, but I went again in 2001 to work a freelance job and ended up falling in love with it. So I moved there, and I decided I’d do my graduate work there. It felt like home as much as any place I’ve ever lived. I lived there until 2012, when I got a teaching job in Michigan—long enough that my native Chicago friends accepted me as one of them. It’s both a bustling city but also pretty low key compared to New York or Boston, and it used to be a lot more affordable.
It’s a really photogenic city as well. I had some really specific locations in mind that I knew I had to get into the film. There’s the weird palm tree alley in the Loop where we made the fruit stand checkpoint—that location always amused me. I wanted to see the viaducts and Lower Wacker and pieces of the city that a messenger might know. I wanted to see the city the way you see it from a bicycle. Then I knew I had to get the sparkly mural under the overpass into the film. It comes toward the end, and it’s a very small moment in the film, going by without any fanfare at all, but it was really important to me that that mosaic mural get into the film. Like a lot of the locations, it’s an aspect of the city that echo Jasper’s emotional states or her underlying motivations at that moment in the film.
A couple of people have mentioned that the film is a sort of love letter to Chicago, and I guess that’s correct. Cities to me are like characters. Maybe I’m just too sensitive, but I feel very different depending on where I am. They affect me—their weather, their physical attributes (whether beautiful or ugly), and their people. In Faster!, and in some ways also in The Alley Cat, Chicago was both heaven and hell. It’s the heaven or the hell that you make it. One of the greatest things about Chicago is how bike-able it is, and that really worked for Jasper’s character. Cycling seems like it’s a big part of her problem, but it’s also her salvation.
You not only wrote but also directed and produced both films. How do you juggle being involved in so many formative roles for your projects?
I have fantastic crew! I have a co-producer (Kathryn Henderson Schmüdde) who did all the line producing on these films, and there is absolutely no way I could have done either of them without her. When I’m on set I try to really just be a director, as much as possible.
Writing is a given for me; I was writing stories long before I knew I wanted to direct. Although there are books I’d like to adapt, and I’d be very open to directing a script I haven’t written, one of the main reasons I wanted to make films in the first place was to put my point of view out there. It always felt like there was something crucial missing in the cultural conversation. Not just a woman’s point of view, but a certain kind of woman’s point of view, maybe. The woman who’s not defining herself by her romantic relationships, or who is struggling with things in ways I wasn’t ever seeing on screen. We’re getting closer, but I still feel like I’ve got things to say that aren’t being said. I’m not in this just to be a director for the sake of directing. I’m doing it to say things I think are important, things that aren’t otherwise being said.
The Alley Cat is your first feature film. How did making a feature compare to making a short film for you?
Well, first of all it was a dream come true. Making the feature was exhilarating and terrifying. I mean, for one thing, it was almost entirely night shoots, and I’m not a night person. I like my sleep. So that was a worry—but in reality I’m always so jacked up on adrenaline when I direct that it wasn’t too much of an issue.
I’ve worked on features as below-the-line crew, but that’s a different beast. On day one of shooting The Alley Cat I remember thinking, “Why in the hell did I think this was a good idea?” But I remember having the same thought when I took my first step of the 500-mile walk I did, El Camino de Santiago. Why did I think this was a good idea? Because it is a good idea. It’s a fantastic idea. My cinematographer, Dylan Verrechia, was the most seasoned person on the crew, and extremely talented to boot. He’s a good friend, whom I called many times when I was working on the script and felt absolute despair that it would never get made, and he really helped me stay focused. He absolutely respected me as a director and supported my vision in the best possible way as a collaborator. It’s only intimidating if you’re thinking about how much work is in front of you. If you’re actually doing the work, focusing on the right things, that falls away.
What was your process for raising money for The Alley Cat and do you have any advice for filmmakers seeking to fund their work?
That is quite a story. We put together a Kickstarter, asking for $35,000, and on day one or day two we already had about ten grand. Then the donations started to ease up, despite being on the Kickstarter Chicago featured projects page. We plateaued at about $19,000, if I remember correctly, and it looked like we were dead in the water. In fact Dylan (Verrechia, who lives in New York) came to Chicago for a wedding the week the Kickstarter was ending, and I met with him and said that we had to face facts, it wasn’t going to happen for us this year. We decided that we’d rally, and make a fantastic trailer, and do another Kickstarter next year. Try again.
But something happened.
I was getting emails from someone asking to see samples of my previous work, someone saying, “I think I can help you.” I thought, yeah, right—during the Kickstarter, a lot of people hitting me up wanting to crew on the film or compose the score, so that’s what I thought this was—but I sent this person a link to Faster! anyway. Then, on the night the Kickstarter was ending, I got another email: “I want to make your project happen, but Kickstarter will only let me donate $10,000. So that it will only take you to $29,000.” Well, um…ok. So the Kickstarter died but this person said, “Never mind Kickstarter; I want you to make your film.” I ended up meeting with them and their representatives, and after I formed my LLC they gave me the budget. They just wired me the money, with no creative restrictions. It was mind-blowing. I left the meeting just walking on air, pinching myself. Then I realized how much work I had to get done, and I got on the phone to tell everyone we were back on!
I’m sorry if this isn’t super helpful. I mean it’s the kind of thing you hear about and think, “That sort of thing never happens to me!” In fact, as soon as the meeting let out, I made three phone calls. First, I called Kathryn, my co-producer. She said, “I need a minute to process this. And then I will call you back!” Then I called Dylan. Being French, he said, “We should open some champagne! This is fantastic!” I was absolutely walking on air. Then I called my father. After I told him what happened, I said, “Dad! This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to me.” He corrected me, “This doesn’t happen to anyone. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a fairy tale; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.” We followed up the dead Kickstarter with an indie-go-go campaign to try to recapture some of the pledges, since we had such a tiny budget for such an ambitious project. And a lot of people actually donated. It was heartwarming.
Since it seemed inevitable that the Kickstarter was going to die, I let go of preproduction at that point because it seemed like it obviously just wasn’t going to happen. But I wished I had just kept right on with prepro. I think the hardest thing as an independent filmmaker, or maybe just the hardest thing for me personally, is to keep the faith that your project can and will get made. For me it’s essential that I believe in my project wholeheartedly. I’m in it to entertain people, yes, absolutely—but I also have a very clear idea of what I want to put into the world, and why. I think that is what people connect to when they back a project.
So that’s my advice: to have faith. Have faith that you can do it. That people will help you. Have faith in the work and in yourself. It’s so hard, when you’re broke, you’re writing a script that you think no one will ever see, and you’re wondering why you couldn’t just be normal and get a safe career. It’s really hard not to lose faith. For me there just is no other option, but I still struggle to be productive when I’m doubting or struggling. Find the people who believe in you and hold onto them for dear life. I don’t even mean crew, although ideally that, too. But find the people who will help you keep going when you feel hopeless. When I got bogged down in the script, Dylan suggested that I go back out in the messenger community, start shooting, meet more people. I ended up volunteering at some alley cats. It helps to do something real sometimes. Step out of your head and do something that makes it feel real to you. It’s just as real either way, but if you’re struggling to keep the faith, make it more concrete.
One of the things that stood out to me as a fellow filmmaker is how beautifully you evoke Chicago at night in The Alley Cat. Not only is the vast majority of the film shot at night, it is also shot outside, which for an indie filmmaker working on a small budget is a daring feat. Can you talk about your strategies for filming at night and provide any advice on how to do it successfully?
The film was a physical challenge from start to finish. The story takes place over a single night, so we were committed to night shoots. We were going to bed around 9 or 10 in the morning and getting up at 4 or 5 p.m. to start our days. Like I said, I’m more of a morning person, but I was just running on adrenaline anyway. It was harder for below-the-line crew who don’t have that adrenaline fueling them, or who had other jobs to get to on their days off.
We had a weirdly rainy summer, and we got rained out of shooting several times and had a lot more days that were really touch-and-go. In fact during one scene in the film you can see it just start to rain—and then it stops during the same take, and we pressed on.
The Thompson Center shoot days (where the race starts and ends, and where the track stand is held) were especially exhausting from standing on the hard concrete for the entire night. It’s something you don’t really think about, but I noticed that after nights we shot there, the entire crew, myself included, was a lot more exhausted than usual. And it was really hot that summer, despite the rain. My own personal strategy was “git ‘er done!” but I realized that people’s physical limits were being tested. For safety and for the quality of the project—as well as for your relationships with cast and crew—you’ve got to respect that. We had some rest days built in, we had some rest days that were forced on us because of rain, and then we had some rest days that we needed to take to combat exhaustion.
As for strategy, we had scenes that were really coordinated with a lot of crew, and then we had other scenes, like the riding scenes, that required fewer people and were looser in nature. Dylan used lightweight LEDs to light the night exteriors. For the riding shoots we had bathrooms staked out at a hotel, and there were a few Dunkin’ Donuts that we used as bases, plus our vehicles. It helped to intersperse some of the more intense days with some lighter, night riding days.
Can you tell us about your approach to working with a crew and provide advice to filmmakers venturing on their own projects with crewmembers?
I cut my teeth being a PA in Boston. I’ve schlepped the world’s heaviest craft service table (owned by September Productions) up a hill, had crew calls of 3 a.m. to make coffee at the production office before loading the van and driving gear to set for the regular crew call of 5 a.m., and picked up cigarette butts that weren’t our crew’s doing at the end of a 14-hour day. I’ve worked the Art Department, been a camera intern, and produced. I expect a lot from people because I know what I’m capable of and what I’ve done for others. But I’ve learned that you also need to set the tone for the set.
It can be really difficult; at least it is for me. As director you’re barraged by a constant stream of questions, while you’re really trying to listen to the small, quiet voice of your own creative instinct during that tornado of activity.
It can be difficult for me to step outside myself and remember that other people might be having a tough day. Especially when it’s a micro-budget project and people are working for a fraction of what they’re worth, if anything at all. And on the other side of that coin, sometimes people are working for a song because they’re new to their position. They might be extra stressed out, and they also might make some mistakes along the way. But I absolutely trust the crew to get the job done. I trust them to know and execute their jobs.
Don’t hire assholes. And don’t be an asshole. Filmmaking is challenging enough without bringing unnecessary ego trips into it!
Look for collaborators who will inspire you, who really connect with you and the material.
Jenny Strubin gives a complex and spellbinding performance as Jasper, and she is surrounded by a strong, exciting cast. How did you go about casting your actors and what is your process for working with them during production?
Jenny is just astoundingly talented. I always planned on having her reprise her role as Jasper. When we made Faster! together I sent her out for a day of training with Rene Cudal, an owner/operator (bike messenger) at 4 Star Courier. So I knew she had some riding chops to go with her acting talent. Rene is in the film too—you can see him at the fruit stand checkpoint, where he drops the dice and gets punished. He also has a nice moment in Faster!, and he served as a stunt coordinator for both films. Scott Klocksin, another messenger in the film (now in Journalism school in New York), is, or was, a bike messenger, too. But most of the actors are non-bike messenger actors.
Some of the cast from Faster! expressed an interest in working with me again and reached out, which was great! I also approached some people about specific roles. Beyond that, Chicago is just oozing with amazing acting talent. It’s really a fantastic city for acting. I threw some breakdowns up on Actors Access and Breakdown Express, and had more resumes than you could shake a stick at. We had a couple of days of casting, followed by a group research/wardrobe consultation day with the larger cast.
It was important to introduce Jenny and Twyla, the young girl in the film, since their scenes are quite emotional, and I also introduced her to Dylan so she’d feel comfortable with him. I never have enough rehearsal time, and in this case especially it was quite short, but half the battle is casting well. Find actors who don’t just look the part—looks are quite changeable—but who can also understand you as a director and work with you. Cast people you want to work with, who you get good vibes from. Cast people who you believe when they perform in front of you at the audition—do you feel anything? Then stay attuned to that on set: it looks great, sure —but do you feel it? Trust your gut, and don’t be afraid to do another take if you didn’t get the performance you need. Your actors trust you. Do them justice by taking the time to get it right.
It’s my dream to some day have a real rehearsal period. Maybe not quite to the level of the Dardennes—but actually, maybe exactly that. Things develop, become clearer and more nuanced while you’re working. This happens on set anyway, if you pay attention to your gut and let yourself take those risks. But I imagine I could really make the most of it with more rehearsal.
Do you think there are advantages to having a woman direct female actors, and if so, what are they?
I’m not sure. I think it might be an advantage to having a woman write female characters. Maybe there could be an advantage in directing them in that you share a shorthand for some experiences, perhaps. Or because you share some experiences that most men will never understand or even know about. But you might have to ask an actor this question!
One aspect that remains compelling about Jasper throughout both films is her blend of I-don’t-care attitude mixed wounded vulnerability. She is not a traditional female lead. Why do you think we need to feature female characters like Jasper?
This is such an excellent question! Sorry, I needed to bold and italicize that because it really gets to the heart of why I’m a filmmaker in the first place.
We need characters like Jasper because she is complicated and realistic. People don’t always make the best decisions for themselves, don’t always act in their own best interest, don’t always learn from their mistakes, don’t even see what they’re doing that’s getting in their own way.
When I was freelancing in Boston and thinking about wanting to direct, it was because I wanted to see more realistic depictions of women onscreen. What about women who are struggling to pay rent? Who are struggling with histories that are dragging them down? What about seeing older women who aren’t moms or ex-wives? What about women who are the heroes of their own stories, who aren’t just looking for a man (or a woman!) to “complete” them? What about actually seeing some of the sexism onscreen that women encounter daily?
What about a complex female protagonist?
Why do we need complex female protagonists? Because we’re complex people. Because our protagonist succeeds or fails, and by tracing her choices we are able to extrapolate ideas we can apply to our own lives.
It’s funny because more with Faster! I had people asking me whether Jasper was supposed to be likeable, or even just telling me they didn’t find her likeable. I’m not sure likeable is the point, though. Is she relatable? Can you recognize something true in her? Women are more complex than manic pixie dream girls, evil stepmothers, or whatever.
Besides working as a filmmaker you are an assistant professor of Film and Video Production at Grand Valley State University. In which ways do the jobs complement each other and how do you juggle both occupations?
I teach because it’s something I can believe in wholeheartedly. In a way it’s all of a piece to me: my films, at least to me, are about self-empowerment, and my approach to teaching is that I’m helping students to become empowered as filmmakers. They’re not just learning what buttons to push—that’s the least they could get out of their education. They’re learning how to understand the stories they want to tell and learning how to express them within this complicated mechanism.
For the students who want to work in crafts aside from directing, I hope to teach them all the skills to step onto any set in the country and be able to fit in. I teach them how important preproduction is, and not being the weak link in the group. Beyond that, there’s a level of hustle that you just can’t learn until you get on a professional set, but I try to prepare them to succeed if they get there. But whether they want to freelance on set, direct, or work in post, I encourage them to be creative problem solvers. Prepare, prepare, prepare, and then trust yourself to be able to adapt when the thing takes on a life of itself.
As far as juggling the two, it’s really tough during the academic year. My first year of full-time teaching, I didn’t have a single day off, between teaching full-time for the first time, and trying to make headway with the film in post. I have an amazing editor, Eric Houtz, who put in the long hours at the AVID, and I made plenty of trips to Chicago to work through scenes and sequences together, fine tune things, hold feedback screenings, and such. As an academic I have summers “off,” if I’m not teaching summer courses, but it means both prepping the fall courses and making headway on creative projects. Then again, I’ve applied for and received some grants from GVSU to help with post and to help support the film in other ways, like travel to festivals.
I always tell my students that if they get into a festival they NEED to go; they must attend the festival. Aside from whatever official networking, it’s a priceless opportunity to meet other filmmakers who might become your next collaborator, your friend and ally. So then when my films have gotten into festivals, they tell me I have to go. They’ve made me go, even if I feel guilty for missing a class—and I minimize that as much as possible—but the students respect me for being out there doing the work.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Yes! I have a few irons in the fire.
One is an adaptation of a novel. This project is in the beginning stages; I’m working on the script this summer and looking for producers and funding. The author is someone who has seen and admires The Alley Cat, and he told me to take absolutely any and all liberties with the novel during adaptation that I want; I’m writing the script. He said he had total creative freedom when he wrote the book, and so he feels no need to have any sway over the film. He sees it as a separate work, and he’s excited to see what I do with it, wants to see me put my stamp on it. Another book of his has been optioned and is in development in Hollywood, so he’s comfortable doing this one differently. He’s totally on board with the indie world. It’s super exciting.
I also have two original screenplays I’m working on. One is about a tween girl who is saying goodbye to the freedom of childhood, winning a Pyrrhic victory over the male gaze. She moves from being unaware of the male gaze to fully embracing it, and in the process she loses that incredible freedom of late childhood—the freedom to be fully present in the world without worrying about appearances. She has a painful family life that complicates things. That’s not really telling you much of the actual plot, but that’s what the film is about to me.
The other is a romantic comedy, if you can believe that! It’s true. But it’s my take on a romantic comedy, so there will still be a complex female protagonist. You could compare it to High Fidelity in terms of sensibility, although it’s nothing at all like that in terms of plot. It’s still about self-empowerment, learning difficult things in uncomfortable ways. I might be open to selling that script, when it’s done, but I also might want to direct it.
What advice do you have for women filmmakers wanting to make their own first feature films?
I read a lot of advice for the indie filmmaker that talks about knowing your market and developing a project around that—really cynical, practical advice that makes me depressed. For me at least, it has to be about passion and about saying something important. I believe that if I can please myself, my work will be successful, not only because I have a knack for knowing what is on the horizon of the zeitgeist, but because I’m a harsh critic.
Really believe in your project. If you don’t truly believe in it, maybe it’s not fully developed yet. Really understand what you want to say, and why. When challenges arise and you’re forced to make compromises, it’s essential to know instinctively what you can and can’t give up, and that comes down to understanding your story. Not the plot, not even the themes, but something essential about what you’re trying to express. Know what that is with every project.
That, and I think we need to help each other. There’s this scarcity mentality telling you that if one person succeeds, it takes away from the success you could have had. This is dangerous, poisonous, and untrue thinking. It’s especially dangerous—and maybe even especially alluring—for women, because our opportunities have been so restricted for so long that it might seem natural to covet each other’s successes. It might seem like we have to distance ourselves from other women because of the scarcity of resources. But that’s dangerous thinking and it’s bullshit. You can’t make a film in a vacuum. You’ve got to have people around you, and you need money. Especially in the case of telling stories of female protagonists, it might be that Hollywood is never going to get it. Maybe we just take this industry into our own hands. But it means having a network of supporters—people who want to see your work made. If men can’t be bothered to see women’s stories, but women want to see them, well—we need to help each other make them. Literally.
I had someone complain to me during my Kickstarter campaign that she felt like it was the same group of broke filmmakers passing the same $20 around. I thought, well, exactly. That’s exactly it. Let’s do it! Let’s keep lending that $20 to whoever needs it, whoever’s ready to make a film. And when they’re ready, they’ll give it to the next person. We need to build each other up rather than tearing each other down, because no one else is going to do it.