Movie of the Week: ‘Under The City’

Once a week, we’ll pick out one of Fancast’s many full-length free feature films to spotlight. Sure, you’ll check out the big stuff like Empire, Dead Again and Brighton Beach Memoirs, but the smaller movies need shout-outs, too.

The Movie of the Week is Under The City, a dark story of attempted redemption. Nate Mayott is trying to rebuild his life and family after leaving prison, but he finds him thrust into the ugly world of the underground Chicago sex trade, and after selling his soul piece by piece, he’s forced into a corner where he has to kidnap a little girl to save his own daughter. Watch Under the City below, then check out the Q&A with writer/director Adam Golomb.

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Q&A with Writer/Director Adam Golomb

Q. What would you say to someone sitting down to watch this film for the first time, knowing nothing about it?
Adam Golomb: If they’ve decided to watch it then I’m playing with the house’s money. It’s a fact-based crime thriller shot in Chicago, written and directed by a first-timer for 60 grand with 45 speaking roles ages 4-80, gunfire, fights and some solid Hollywood vets.

Q. What was the inspiration for writing this film? It’s very dark subject matter.
Golomb: In Chicago, Fall, 1996, I was in the back of a cab at 3 am, alone. This was in the stunning Gold Coast area on Lake Shore Drive. Beautiful buildings, but desolate by the lake at night. We stopped at a red light and a moment later a car pulled up next to us. It took me a few seconds to register that my cab driver was preoccupied with something in the car. I was slumped really low, so I lifted my head, followed his gaze and found two men in the back seat – one of them was blindfolded and gagged with rope. It was surreal. They pushed the guy down, then their front passenger door opened. My driver stood on the gas taking off through the red. It went on from there.

I discussed the incident with a doorman I knew who had been working in the area for a long – I was taken aback by the contrast between the elegant surroundings and the crime I witnessed. He started telling me about prostitution at some of the city’s finest hotels and our conversations became the basis for the research into the script. He asked me, “When was the last time you heard about the law being called to a Gold Coast hotel?” Rhetorical as it was, I followed up his question with a formal Freedom of Information Act Request with the Chicago Police Department requesting info on arrests for solicitation, pandering, kidnapping, etc at 6 major Michigan Avenue hotels. I received a call from the CPD prior to shooting asking why I wanted the information. Told them it was a matter of the public record and they denied the request the day before our location scout. 28,000 hotel rooms in the city with 10 million men visit each year on business, and almost no reports of prostitution busts at any of the finer hotels? Please.

The theme is that there is a sinister world around us that we either don’t see, or chose to ignore for our own protection. I tried to take the moral question to the breaking point: when does ignoring become compliance and participation? Our protagonist goes down this road and almost doesn’t make it back.

Q. How did the project come together? Was it difficult to get this film off the ground and into production? What were the major challenges?
Golomb: This project moved forward when we achieved the mental shift from focusing on the budget to focusing on the start date. We knew that there wasn’t going to be any money and were lucky that Panasonic had developed the 24p MiniDV format with the DVX-100 that had proven itself in cold weather. So shooting stock was cheap, playback was instant and processing unnecessary. I just wanted the film to be SAG, with full insurance, and to shoot on location in Chicago. I wrote the script knowing I had access to about half of the locations, the rest we could work on. For a long time, we were confronting an arbitrary dollar figure goal for the budget, but you always spend it to zero anyway. 60 million or 60 thousand, you spend what you have. In our case, we just made sure we didn’t spend more than that. A budget can sit idle in an account, but setting the start date with a script in hand made the rest happen. It took on a momentum of its own.

Q. How was the casting process? Any surprises in the cast you finally got together?
Golomb: Claire Simon cast the film in Chicago and I owe the production to her. I had Richard Portnow on board when I came from LA but Claire got John Heard and Mike Starr and 40 local actors who were tremendous including Steve Cinabro who passed away recently. She was absolutely amazing and treated this little movie like any major film she’s done. She only made me promise to do one thing: actually start when we said we would.

Also through Claire we discovered a local young actress named Zanny Laird who was fantastic and is now appearing in David Schwimmer’s play in Chicago.

John Heard, Mike Starr and Richard Portnow all worked for free, gave me extra shooting days, and told me that they would stay to make sure we got what we needed. These guys were passionate and supportive of me in my first time out and I’ll never forget that.

Q. How different is the final project from the original script?
Golomb: It’s better, leaner. A result of a $60,000 budget (through post). And paced better, probably a result of the bitter cold. We shot in the worst winter Chicago had in 10 years. It really sucked.

It’s also better because of what the actors brought – their own suggestions, dialects and affects. My primary concern at all times was providing an environment where the actors could bring their best game. With some of the vets I wanted to know if they wanted to get warmed up in a two shot, or master, or if they came in ready to kick in walls then I wanted them to have their close up off the bat. If they came with that much prep for the day, I wanted their best single shot and then I would work backwards to the master, or two shot that fit. We did some entire scenes in one set up because that was all that was needed. I didn’t really care about the logistics of it. I didn’t want to turn their creative juices into an ordered checklist of, “well, we’ll get to that but we have to shoot this first.” I was also thinking about what I really wanted to see to tell the story, not trying to prove with ever scene that we covered it 10 ways. The small budget forces you into creative solutions. No time for 10 setups, half hour left at the location so how can we tell this scene in one shot? An example of this in the film is the silent warehouse scene with Dean and Amy Kline as they drink coffee before going to the motel for her porn shoot.

Q. Are there any particular scenes you like the best, or that you think audiences should really take note of?
Golomb: The one scene that strikes everybody is the Child Porn hotel scene. It was always the main source of film festival Q&A – and some heated debate. People would ask questions recalling things that simply didn’t happen on screen. Some people were often angry about the “gratuitous” or “explicit” nature of the scene asking me why I felt the need to go that far, and would argue with me when I would tell them that, as a matter of fact, the actress (Amy Kline) never gets naked and never gets touched in any way by anyone in that scene. And that this was a deliberate decision on my part – we didn’t edit down to achieve that. Those were the instructions I gave. They remembered it wrong because the scene worked. It bothered them.

This may be of interest to only Chicagoans but I’m especially proud of our geographical accuracy. Nearly every interior leads to the corresponding exterior. Streets and stairs lead to exactly where they go. It always drives me nuts when movies or tv shows simply have the lead car drive past all the tourist spots, even though they show off the city.

Q. How about any scenes that were particularly challenging to shoot?
Golomb: Several things:

Mike Starr is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. He steals the show in Dumb & Dumber as the hitman who chokes to death on the hot pepper. I’m not precious about my dialogue, preferring to give the actors room to flex rather than make them say my words. I would reign them in only when a meaning was missed. Mike would improv some stuff that cracked me up so hard I remember it to this day. The only problem was that it was too funny and gave the wrong tone. Specifically, in one scene Mike was supposed to relay info on how John Heard’s character killed his ex-girlfriend. Each take Mike came up with how John killed her it was: “found her in a woodchipper” “something about a power drill” “or suplexed off a roof”. He had me rolling but it just didn’t work. BTW, Mike also improv-ed his line to De Niro in Goodfellas about doing the Lufthansa heist during the Jewish Holiday.

The cold challenged us all. We didn’t have a trailer or heaters except for one day. Often there weren’t places to sit. Those things can wear you down, but I think a lot of the actors used it and turned the discomfort into fuel. I would say that we can’t put “But it was cold” or “We only had 60 grand” in the credits as an excuse.

We were given permission to shoot in the InterContinental hotel on Michigan Avenue which was my first choice. I actually wrote a lot of the script in their piano bar. But we had like 8 pages to shoot in one night including my fight scene. We were also laying dolly tracks for the first time, trying to play up the elegance as a change from Act 1 to Act 2 in the story. Doing my fight scene with Dean, I clipped his lip with my elbow so he was swelled up the rest of the night. Plus his rib protector slid out of place on the take down and I really damaged his ribs with the punches that followed. I outweigh him by 40lbs.

John Heard’s confrontation with Dean Rabaiov in the warehouse was also dicey. Neither guy likes to back up, so I was more of a referee than a director when they went for each others throats a couple times (see screen shot below). John takes his work seriously and is one of the most passionate guys I’ve met. He showed up directly from another project without a day to rest, never met me before outside of a few phone calls, came in and raised everyone’s game. The local Chicago actors we were lucky to get were all experienced stage performers and they said watching John work was like watching a master class. He said he wanted to bring “heat”, as he put it. He did! He was pissed however when I set a scene of his in a meat locker. He was like, “It’s -18 fucking degrees outside and you’re putting me in a freezer?!”

Q. What would you say is the overall message you’d like people to take away from the film?
Golomb: No message in particular. I know the story is dark, but I want people to walk away entertained. I did this movie because of what inspired me most growing up. When I was 10, I saw Michael Mann’s Thief in the theater in Chicago. It’s the best crime movie ever made. Dark, depressing, violent and cool as hell. It struck me so much I even wrote a sequel to it. Read a ton of Elmore Leonard and true crime stuff, as well as Scott Spencer’s Endless Love. Watched The Deer Hunter about 100 times. I love those themes – wanting things so bad you can taste them but are incapable of digesting. People who want a concept of happiness but will never have it because of what they do to get it. Under The City lives in that world. I just hope people who see it are entertained.

John Heard and Dean Rabaiov in "Under the City" (Cinetic)

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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