‘Mumblecore’ movie shows drama in Elgin after dark
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org February 12, 2012 6:44PM
Pete Garlock (center), lead male of "Dark Before Dawn", discusses the film with Greg Vogt (left) of Palatine and Chad Meyer of Chicago after Thursday's premiere of the locally made movie at the Elgin Marcus Theater. | Michele du Vair~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 14, 2012 8:06AM
ELGIN —Two strangers, each holding an awful secret after the most horrible day of each of their lives, meet at the National Street Metra station and spend the rest of the night walking around downtown Elgin, gradually revealing their life stories to each other.
The night ends with dawn breaking over the Walton Islands and a real gun (actually a pellet gun that looked like a semiautomatic pistol) being thrown into the Fox River.
That’s the plot of a 90-minute movie called “Dark before Dawn,” which drew more than 100 people to its premiere Thursday night at the Elgin Marcus Cinema. Although no theater has booked the film for a regular run, it is available on DVD from www.darkbeforedawn-movie.com and probably will be entered in film festivals around the country.
Director Gwydhar Gebien, who lives in Glendale Heights but is about to relocate to Los Angeles, explained that the movie is a “mumblecore film.”These are movies that are made with improvised dialogue, a low budget, are about ordinary people dealing with real-life issues, and usually have relatively unknown actors, she explained in the theater lobby.
In this case,“Dark before Dawn” is almost entirely a two-person drama starring Amy Karen, a professional Chicago actress, and Pete Garlock, whose day jobis to promote the glories of visiting the Fox Valley as director of sales at the Elgin Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Karen plays a Chicago bartender who falls asleep on the last Metra train of the night, overshoots her intended stop in Roselle and doesn’t wake up until she has arrived in Elgin. Garlock plays an advertising man who has ridden home to Elgin but finds no one is there to pick him up.
Garlock said he and Gebien met in 2009 while Garlock was chairing the first Elgin Short Film Festival. Gebien’s Blue Damen Pictures had entered a 10-minute movie in the festival, a story about an artist going blind that finished in third place in the competition.
Garlock, who has appeared as an extrain slightly more high-profile, high-budget movies like “The Dark Night,” befriended Gebien and eventually joined the board of Blue Damen Pictures. When she suggested he star in a mumblecore film made in Elgin, he suggested that the co-star be Amy Karen, who had shown a flair for improvisation when they took an acting class together in Chicago.
Gebien said she told each of the actors to make up the details of the character they would play and to include one big secret that they wouldn’t even share with the other actor until the subject came up during their on-screen conversations. They did share their secrets and the details of their characters with Gebien.
“I developed a plot arc and a series of about 10 scenes, and told them certain things that had to be accomplished in each scene,” she said. “But there was no script. They made up the dialogue up as they went along.”
Garlock said that worked surprisingly well but also posed one unexpected challenge. “Gwydhar gave us some props to keep in our pockets — a lighter, a phone — that we could take out and use to get something new going if our conversation stalled,”he said. “But we never had to do that.
“What was difficult, though, was one time when we were by the Kimball Street bridge. Amy and I were really going at it, yelling and screaming at each other for several minutes. Then Gwydhar said, ‘OK, let’s do that again.’ Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk to somebody for five minutes, then have somebody say, ‘Now repeat everything you just said for the last five minutes, word for word’?”
The filmmakers had planned to shoot the whole movie in one night, in May. But they ended up working four different nights spread over four months, between May and September. Their locations ranged all over the center city, from the railroad and bus stations to JJ Peppers, Villa Liquors, Festival Park, the outside of the casino, the islands in the Fox River, the Elgin Tower Building, the Fulton Street Parking Deck, the pedestrian alley leading to Grove Avenue from the parking deck, and even the corner of Summit Street and Dundee Avenue.
Downtown a star
“Downtown Elgin becomes a third character in the film,” Gebien said, showing off its distinctive look and coming across as an attractive and interesting place even at 3 in the morning, although the couple are briefly accosted by a homeless man in one scene.
“I had never been to Elgin before this. I grew up in Beecher,” Karen said. “But I plan to come back to Festival Park in the summer with my friend’s kids.”
Karen said it was especially satisfying to hear the premiere audience laugh many times at humorous parts of the conversation that just came up naturally as the characters talked.
Meanwhile, Gebien plans to come back to Elgin in May to shoot a short movie called “Recalculating,” in which Garlock will play a man whose life course is being ordered around by the GPS unit in his car.
Part of the budget for that has been provided by a $25,000 grant from the Florence B. and Cornelia A. Palmer Foundation. The Blue Damen people are urging others to pledge donations at the website www.kickstarter.com.