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Action! Mode
Films and filmmakers create buzz around city

April 2014

Jeff Gendelman: Lake Effect

Living in Milwaukee, we often take the beauty and splendor of Lake Michigan for granted. Now our own Great Lake plays a prominent role in an upcoming movie. Bayside resident Jeff Gendelman wrote and produced "The Surface," an indie film in which Lake Michigan is virtually a main character. The premise of "The Surface" is two strangers, (played by Hollywood actors Sean Astin and Chris Mulkey) each at the end of his rope, meeting in the middle of the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan. "‘The Surface’ will help educate the world about Lake Michigan and how Milwaukee is a dynamic hub for freshwater research and technology," Gendelman says.

Writing a screenplay and developing a movie is a long and often frustrating process; Gendelman credits his eclectic background for his ability to persevere through 18-plus years of script revisions, development meetings and securing financing. "My mother pointed me in the direction of martial arts and entertainment as a young child," he says. Now a partner and popular instructor at J.K. Lee Martial Arts Academy, Gendelman knows what it takes to succeed. "To be able to do a screenplay, it has to be developed and nurtured, and you need to trip and fall and pick yourself back up. There’s a wonderful Korean saying in martial arts: ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight.’" All that resilience paid off: "The Surface" wrapped shooting in August. Gendelman flies to Los Angeles on a regular basis to oversee the film’s editing process. Release is projected for this spring.

Gendelman takes enormous pride in keeping his commitment to shooting the film locally. "Through the years as I was interesting Los Angeles people in the project and they knew it took place in Milwaukee, they’d say, ‘No, it’s too cold.’ I became an (Wisconsin) ambassador for years. They don’t know the gem that’s here. I won out!" Gendelman adds that at the end of the shoot, director Gil Cates Jr. said, "Thank you, Jeff. Milwaukee was completely the right place."

Gendelman’s goal is to screen "The Surface" at a few notable film festivals, including Sundance, Tribeca and Cannes. But no matter what ultimate place "The Surface" holds in film history, Gendelman has loved the filmmaking process. "It’s all wonderfully difficult and complicated … otherwise everybody would be doing it," Gendelman says.

George Tillman Jr.: Making Good


Milwaukee-born movie director George Tillman Jr. pauses in a street-side chat with a news crew outside the Von Trier bar, the Oriental Theatre marquee prominent from across the street. A gray truck rounds the corner, radio blaring, the rap causing a brief halt in the interview. Tillman smiles even when the camera stops and the techies step back as the loud vehicle cruises past and angles down the street.

Tillman grins broadly and says, "Like ‘Notorious,’" a reference to his award-winning bioepic on The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace. The noted rapper was gunned down in 1997 in a bloody West Coast-East Coast war between rival musicians and their fans. Tillman’s movie was produced in 2009 and had just been shown at the Landmark Downer Theatre a few blocks away as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

But the Milwaukee native was in town primarily to talk about his latest hit, a Sundance audience sensation, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete." The poignant tale centers on the struggles of two youngsters in Brooklyn when their mothers are arrested on drug charges and they are left to fend for themselves. First lady Michelle Obama considers "Mister and Pete" one of her favorite recent films. Speaking to an audience of teachers and youth and education counselors after the film’s screening at the White House this January, she said: "This movie isn’t just about the challenges that kids like Mister and Pete are facing, and that’s really why this movie is so powerful to me, because it’s also about their courage, their grit, their resilience."

The film would play that night to an overflow crowd at the Oriental, following a jammed invite-only Hotel Foster reception attracting Milwaukee’s cultural and civic glitterati. Tillman shared the hometown adulation with his high school sweetheart/actress wife, Marcia, another local making good in films, and their 10-year-old son, Chase, a self-admitted math and history buff.

On his return for the MFF as the featured "tribute director," Tillman also participated in a panel discussion on representing race in films. He shared that slot with "Defeat" screenwriter Michael Starrbury, another former Brew Citian who lives in the Twin Cities.

Tillman is proud of his Milwaukee roots, growing up on 42nd Street and Capitol Drive. At John Marshall High School, he focused on journalism and broadcasting and credits numerous Milwaukee Public Schools teachers for putting him on his career path. "I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was too skinny for football," he says with that smile again. Tillman graduated from Columbia College Chicago, where he met producer friend Bob Teitel, his longtime partner in their California-based State Street Films.

He remains close with his family in Milwaukee, including parents George Sr. and Bernice, whom he also regularly credits for his success. In fact, Tillman’s extended clan was inspiration for "Soul Food," a 1997 hit focusing on the lives of an ordinary black family. The film’s universal premise resonated and proved that such movies could be commercial successes. His other acclaimed work, such as the "Barbershop" trilogy and "Men of Honor" starring Robert De Niro, have ensured Tillman’s choice spot on list of notable contemporary filmmakers. "I want to make good stories," he says.

It’s been a long time since Tillman downed Heath candy bars at the Oriental, Northtown and other local theaters as a kid. Yet you can’t take Milwaukee out of this guy, who now lives and works in that ethereal world of Hollywood and travels to locales such as London and Copenhagen for his work. Obviously, it’s not time yet for a Tillman wrap. So now, for him, his life remains in a continuous "Action!" mode.

Peter Balistrieri: One-man show

Peter Balistrieri is a great juggler, in the creative sense. He wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in the feature film "On the Verge." The comedy is "an original chronicle of one man’s unique quest to find love and the perfect public toilet," Balistrieri says. The story line "provides a candid, unfiltered look at how three friends navigate their relationships with the opposite sex," he says.

"It was a lot to do, but I loved all of it. It seemed normal to me to be doing all of that. I wrote the script, and so as the director, I knew every line of every character, I knew how every scene was going to be cut with something that we might not be shooting for a few weeks. Having that sort of comprehensive involvement for me was necessary. I wasn’t about to hand it off so I could get more sleep," Balistrieri says.

He began to write the script 10 years prior to the movie’s eventual production, then shelved the project after 60 pages when his funding collapsed. An expedition to Los Angeles followed, a marriage and a move back to Milwaukee to start a family happened in the interim. All the while, Balistrieri promised himself it would happen, it just needed to be the right time. "The story never left my head. I’m a bit cursed that way. Once I have an idea, it stays there," he says. Balistrieri eventually spent his own money on "Verge," keeping to a budget of $3,000 in addition to dropping several more thousand in marketing. He shot the film at numerous easily recognizable sites around Milwaukee, such as Palomino, Comet Cafe and Koppa’s.

His patience paid off when "Verge" snared finalist nods for Best Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Soundtrack at the prestigious Beloit Film Festival, up against submissions from around the globe.

For Balistrieri, script writing is the most challenging and the most important part of making a film. He agrees that the editing is a long and slow process and that "the most fun is easily being on set and shooting the movie."

"My advice to a first-time filmmaker would be to never expect anyone to have the same amount of passion for your project as yourself. Try to do as much as possible," he says. "Learn as much as you can about every aspect of the process so you can delegate as little as possible."

David Patrick Lowery: Texas Influence


Former Wisconsinite David Patrick Lowery, who is now living in Dallas, says he hasn’t completely been absorbed by the Lone Star State. "For the record, I can’t ride a horse, and I’ve been vegan for more than 10 years, which goes against at least a few of the cliches about the state," he says.

But at one time Lowery did sport a magnificent Lone Star mustachio, giving him a grizzled cowhand look. Texas has definitely affected Lowery’s vision as a storyteller and also his attitude as a person. "I think it’s made me a little rougher around the edges, hopefully in a good way. And the rebellious attitude that is intrinsic to the state has provided a good atmosphere in which to make stubbornly independent films about stubbornly independent people," he says, although he seldom bases his movies there.

His new film, however, is set in Texas. "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints" features an escaped convict who sets out across the Texas hill country to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met. The raw feature stars Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster.

Lowery’s cinematic list dates as far back as 2000, beginning with his drama "Lullaby," as well as stints as director, cinematographer, producer and even actor.

Lowery lived in Waukesha until he was 8 years old. His dad grew up in Milwaukee, his mom in Texas. The family moved when his father landed a job at the University of Dallas but regularly returned to visit relatives. The peripatetic filmmaker showed his short film "Pioneer" at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival and co-edited the MFF 2013 competition film "Upstream Color." ("Bodies" also was shown at the 2013 festival.)

Lowery says he enjoys the whole process of filmmaking, with each movie having its own pains and pleasures. "Writing is probably the hardest, in some ways, but at the same time it’s the easiest because you’re on your own. Editing is the best part, because it combines the solitary aspects of writing with the joy of alchemy," he says.

But shooting is like a marathon, as is promoting the film. "When those films are my own, it’s ultimately all part of one cohesive whole, each step blends into the next," he adds. When editing someone else’s film, Lowery feels it’s a great opportunity to subject himself to someone else’s intentions. "It’s a little bit like vacation in that way," he says.

Lowery regularly uses social media to promote his films, an important aspect of his marketing thrust. "I am a very shy person, so it allows me to be friendly and personable without having to crawl outside of my shell. In all honesty, though, I like being able to put a face to what I do. I always have," he says.

This story ran in the April 2014 issue of: