If you live in a Midwestern city like Madison or Chicago, it always hits you. You’re driving out of the city, and all of a sudden, the buildings and busy streets recede and you’re suddenly among rolling hills and farmlands, in another world so close to your own.
“Uncle John” is a drama that captures that sense of two different worlds, living a couple hours’ drive from each other, rarely intersecting. Shot in Lodi and in Chicago, the film had a well-received screening at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin last month, and is one of the hot tickets at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, playing this Thursday and Friday.
The film follows two different plot strands. In an unnamed Midwestern community, an older man (John Ashton) is trying to cover up the death – possibly murder – of the town bully. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a twentysomething advertising agency animator (Alex Moffat) is finding himself attracted to a new employee (Jenna Lyng).
As the film switches back and forth between its rural and urban storylines, it feels like you’re watching two different movies. But the film pulls the two strands together in interesting and resonant ways by the end.
The guys who made “Uncle John’ reflect the film’s bifurcated nature. Writer-producer Erik Crary grew up in Lodi, Wisconsin, attending the UW-Madison and working at the Orpheum Theatre in college. Writer-director Steven Piet grew up in Chicago.
“It’s definitely thing that we talked a lot about and we were trying to get across in the film,” Piet said. “We would go up (to Lodi) and we’d just talk about how different it is, and how close it is. That was definitely one of the driving forces when we were writing.”
The pair met while working for a Chicago advertising agency, and quickly hit it off both personally and professionally, seeing they could work well together. They began working together on the “Uncle John” screenplay, focusing on making a film that played to their strengths, with scenes that could be filmed on a budget in locations they knew well.
It was while they were in the middle of the screenplay that Piet saw that “Beverly Hills Cop” was on Netflix. He started watching, and became fixated on Ashton, a veteran character well known for playing the exasperated Det. Taggart who spars with, and then backs up, Eddie Murphy’s character.
“I was watching him through a different lens,” Piet said. “He just has that salt of the earth vibe. His voice is so great, just the way he carries himself, just a man’s man. I thought he would be perfect for Uncle John.”
Once the screenplay was finished, Crary got ahold of Ashton’s email address and sent him a “frank email” about the film and their modest resources. Ashton read the screenplay and signed on immediately.
“It was insanely fortunate,” Crary said. “You don’t think you can really get to these people. You write an honest letter and hope you had a minute to read it.”
Given their limited budget, Crary and Piet were determined to be as well-prepared ahead of time as possible. Piet even spent six days with an artist to draw up over 1,600 storyboards detailing each of the scenes in the film. They also locked in the days they would be shooting months in advance, so they knew exactly what they needed in each location.
Piet said that being so prepared on set is actually liberating, because once you don’t have to worry about the basics of a scene, that frees up cast and crew to be in the moment on set.
“Once you’re prepped, and the hard work’s done, then you can find things and see things and let the actors improve a little bit,” Piet said. “That’s when the real good stuff comes in, the stuff you can’t prep for.”
The strong SXSW reception has generated some positive buzz around “Uncle John.” The filmmakers have some more festivals planned in the late spring, and have also hired a sales agent to shop the film around to theatrical distributors.
For now, Crary said he’s very happy with the film and very excited to bring it home to Madison.
“I loved going to college in Madison, loved working at the Orpheum,” he said. “I don’t think I really figured out my life until college. I had no aspirations for film until college, and then I really got taken with it.”