Very few feature films are shot in Chicago, and even fewer lesbian ones. That changed last November in Chicago, when a team was put together to do just that.
Tracy Baim is well-known in the Chicago GLBT community for her many enterprises. A journalist in the city for over two decades, she is publisher and managing editor of Chicago's largest chain of gay and lesbian publications ( Windy City Media Group ) . Among her many accomplishments, she played a significant role in bringing the 2006 Gay Games to the Chicago; edited the first book dedicated to gay Chicago history, Out and Proud in Chicago; and spearheaded the Chicago Gay History website, chicagogayhistory.com, that provides a wealth of information about the community online.
In 2008, Baim founded Ripe Fruit Films, to "produce Chicago-based films about lesbian lives." The production company's first feature film is Hannah Free, based on the play of the same name by Chicago playwright Claudia Allen, and will have its Chicago debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Sept. 25 through Oct. 1. There will be a gala opening night event featuring the film's star, Sharon Gless.
"I had wanted to make a lesbian feature film for a few years, and had worked on a book and a play called Half Life with various people, staged in Chicago," recalls Baim. "I was continuing to work with various people to develop it as a movie, but it was a military story, which was difficult to do." At the end of 2007, Baim was attending a Victory Gardens event, invited by gay playwright Nick Patricca, and she ran into Allen, and got another idea.
"I had just finished my history project, and wanted to interview Claudia for it. I offered to pick her up for her interview, and on the ride there I mentioned to her that I really wanted to do a movie, and I thought her plays would translate well to film. She said that various people had approached her about filming one of her plays, but she would trust me with a film project if I was serious about it."
Baim had seen two different productions of Hannah Free in the 1990s. "That play was the one that came to my mind as something relatively simple to stage," says Baim. At the interview Baim introduced Allen to Wendy Jo Carlton, who was doing the camera work for the history project and would become the film's director. "They were both from Michigan, and hit it off, and I said that a film might be an interesting thing to think about. Then I talked to Claudia more about it, and the three of us met together to discuss it in early 2008."
As a result of that meeting, Baim began working on a business plan for the film, and Carlton and Allen began to confer about the script. But the project really got off the ground when Hollywood actress Sharon Gless, of Cagney & Lacey and Queer As Folk fame, agreed to participate. Gless had become an admirer of Allen's work after appearing in her radio play Deed of Trust in 1994, and her stage play Cahoots. Gless was in town in early spring of 2008 to get an award from DePaul University, and invited Allen to lunch at the Four Seasons. When Allen told Gless about the plans for a film version of Hannah Free, Gless expressed great interest in playing the title character.
"From that point on," says Baim, "we were working around Sharon's availability." Gless was busy as a regular character on the hit television show Burn Notice. But she would be able to shoot Hannah Free during November, for 3-4 weeks. "That was an extremely aggressive schedule," says Baim, "but as it turned out, we were fortunate to have a short timeline, because it prevented burnout, kept costs down, and kept people committed to the project. So a short timeline and short shoot schedule worked out well."
As executive producer, Baim took on the critical task of every independent film, raising money. "Basically, the buck stopped with me, in that I had control of the budget, and ultimately, the final fundraising. Claudia also raised money, and other people had different economic roles." Marti Marro was the fourth person to join the team, as composer and sound supervisor, and also became an investor. Editor Sharon Zurek invested as well. "Everybody tries to get as much donated as they can, but I think it's kind of rare that some of our key crew and producers also put money in," says Baim. "Often it's the money people very separate from the creative people, and it's very rare to have so much overlap as we did on Hannah Free." It was one indication that those who worked on this film really believed in its importance.
Casting Director Laurie Attea was busy casting by September, and shooting for Hannah Free began on Nov. 3, "just as the economy tanked," Baim laughs ironically. Interior scenes were shot at the huge house Baim grew up in on Prairie Avenue on Chicago's Near South Side, and her family also got into the act: Baim's sister Marcy was location manager, and her father Hal was the film's main still photographer; he shot more than 20,000 still photos during filming. "It was difficult because of cold weather and noise, but that location saved us a lot of resources and made it a doable budget," says Baim. Sharon Gless was housed in the residence's coach house, and "that also saved us tremendously on costs." External scenes were shot at a farm in Beecher, illinois, about an hour south of Chicago.
Post production was accelerated so a rough cut could be submitted to Frameline in San Francisco, and the gala world premiere was held at that festival in June on the evening of Pride Sunday, with many of the cast and crew in attendance. "We benefited from a great story and great actors, and you don't always get both those things, and all the great supporting cast, a wonderful group of people," says Baim.
Overall costs for Hannah Free, including post production, came to just over $200,000, "a testament," says Baim, "to Chicago and all of the individual businesses and people who stepped up to help, in many ways including volunteering in many ways, discounted services and donations."
"Now I know how difficult it is to make a movie," Baim says, smiling. "It requires hundreds of people. It was probably good that I was naive going into it, because I don't know if I would have taken it on if I had known. But I've talked to so many filmmakers since that I've now realized how many mini miracles we had during the making of the film, so it turned out to be a really good experience."
Baim also notes that there is a great talent pool in Chicago. "So many movies come through Chicago for the tax credits, but the talent and crew they use are not from Chicagothey don't use Chicago actors as key cast or for post production. When we go around the country to the film festivals showing Hannah Free, we've discovered that this is something filmmakers and festival producers especially like about our filmthat it really is a Chicago production, through and through."