Story by Rob Eisele
CHICAGO-The sun peaks through the clouds on an unseasonably cool June Saturday at the Bohemian National Cemetery in a working class neighborhood on the city’s northwest side.
As traffic speeds by on busy Pulaski Avenue, a band of equipment-toting twenty-somethings dressed in sweatshirts and jeans is clustered around the cemetery’s Gothic-spired stone gatehouse. A bulky camera is loaded with film and a boom microphone with a furry gray filter is held aloft above a jean-jacketed bicyclist crossing repeatedly in front of the gate.
In a makeshift black canvas lean-to just out of camera range, director Jeff Clayton Brown hunches down across from a video monitor and studies intently the action framed on the small screen.
“I thought I’d do the whole thing a little less ‘angsty’ this time,” the cyclist/actor says as Brown nods affirmatively between takes. Dressed in a ribbed brown sweater and jeans and sporting a two-day stubble, Brown repeatedly bounces a blue tennis ball as he waits for adjustments on the camera and lighting.
A member of the Jewell class of 1990, Brown is clearly the ringmaster of this temporary traveling circus that has gathered in what is unquestionably on this brink-of-summer Saturday the liveliest cemetery in all of Chicago. The crew of 30 artists and technicians has assembled to help Brown realize his vision–an original script called “Galileo’s Grave” that received top honors in the regional Independent Feature Project’s 2005 competition. The award brought with it $100,000 in film production goods and services from such industry giants as Panavision and Kodak.
The film follows a pair of reclusive audiophiles: a man who monitors satellites on his shortwave radio and a woman who records the voices of graveyard apparitions. They are brought together on the night that NASA crashes the Galileo satellite into the planet Jupiter to avoid contaminating potential life on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
“It’s a story about how two unconnectable people make a connection,” Brown says. “This very strange moment, when a satellite is being deliberately crashed into Jupiter, somehow makes it possible for the two of them to come together. It’s funny that it takes something so bizarre, but at the same time it echoes an intense personal moment between them.”
Brown seems unfazed by the marathon, dawn-to-dark five-day shooting schedule in which he is calling the shots. A collegial, we’re-all-in-this-together feeling permeates the set as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are passed around from a cardboard box.
“We’ve got water, cookies and fruit,” says a ball-capped assistant providing the low-budget filmmakers’ equivalent of location catering services. “There’s Lemonheads, too, and some Laffy Taffy.”
Bright orange extension cords snake around the cemetery’s headstones to a nearby truck that provides the power source. Giant squares of silver reflective material are tilted to catch the scarce sunlight and bounce it onto the actors’ faces.
“Film shoots can sometimes move at a positively glacial pace to the outside observer,” Brown comments as the camera angles are adjusted to capture the action from a different perspective. “It’s a little like a baseball game–a few minutes of intense action followed by potentially an hour or two of standing around waiting while minute technical adjustments are made.”
Brown arrived at his current position at the helm of an independent film company via a circuitous route. The son of longtime Jewell music professors Don and Helen Brown, he was an English major at William Jewell. Brown harbors fond memories of his time at Jewell: choir tours, studying at Oxford, physics lectures from Dr. C. Don Geilker, the graveyard at night, an independent study on William Faulkner with Dean Jim Tanner, and attending performances on the college’s Fine Arts Program (now the Harriman-Jewell Series).
“Jewell opened my eyes to a bigger world and helped me understand that everyone has a different belief system, a different way of interpreting the world around them,” Brown says. He credits Dr. Geilker with feeding his sense of wonder about the universe.
After graduating from William Jewell, Brown earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He worked as a graphic designer for the Kansas City alternative newspaper The Pitch before deciding that he needed a change of scene and a change of direction. He applied and was accepted into the master’s program in documentary filmmaking at prestigious Northwestern University in 1999.
“During my years at Northwestern, I realized I was just as interested in fiction filmmaking as I was in documentary,” Brown recalls. “I feel they inform each other in important ways, and switching from one to the other is a little like cross-training–you exercise mental muscles in one that you use in the other, despite the fact that they are approaching storytelling from opposite directions. I emerged with a pretty rounded understanding of how filmmaking works, including a thorough understanding of sound and recording.”
With an M.F.A. in documentary filmmaking under his belt in 2003, Brown found gainful employment as a full-time videographer for a suburban Chicago bus company. “I would make short videos and animations about the buses of the future that the company could show to the local mayors and city councils,” Brown says. “Not a bad day job for a filmmaker. Strange, but not bad.”
An offer to teach a class on sound design at Northwestern led to another offer to teach a cinematography class and eventually to his current full-time faculty position at the university. He continued to feed his filmmaking habit by writing scripts and making short films to enter in independent filmmaking competitions, eventually landing a fifth-place finish with a film called “I Will if You Will” at a New York film festival.
“The four films in front of mine were so good that I was inspired, depressed, and motivated all at once,” Brown remembers. “I came home determined to write something that could possibly take me to the next level as a filmmaker.
“Up until then my short films had been slightly more experimental in form and content, and I wanted to write a traditional script that was strong in character. I’d always written about people negotiating some kind of obsession, and I like to explore how that obsession affects the way they interact with the world.” He entered his script for “Galileo’s Grave” in Chicago’s Independent Feature Project in 2005 and emerged with the competition’s top prize.
“What drew me to Clayton’s script was how full of heart it was,” says Leigh Jones, chair of the production fund committee for IFP Chicago. “I loved that it was about non-typical people doing non-typical things and finding each other. After meeting with the filmmakers, we thought that Clayton and his team had what it would take to make this film–the creative talent combined with the skills to pull off the production.”
Brown’s cinematic vision has always focused on the nexus between art and science, a connection he credits to the strong liberal arts foundation he acquired at William Jewell.
“I think that liberal arts background has contributed to all my films so far, and to ‘Galileo’s Grave’ in particular. People have been fascinated with the intersection between art and science for some time now, of course, but I’m convinced it can produce some really powerful ideas and moments. Maybe it’s not so much the intersection of art and science, but of spirituality and science, or how science inspires the spirit.”
A documentary project Brown is also working on, “The Atom Smashers,” follows a team of physicists working with a particle accelerator as they search for what Brown calls “a tiny piece of the cosmic puzzle”–a quest for the Higgs boson, a particle that gives mass to everything in the universe.
“The search for the particle becomes a metaphor for scientific pursuit,” Brown says. “When filmmakers are looking for stories of passion, they think of arts or athletics–anything but physicists in lab coats. But you don’t have to dig very deep to find these profound stories that are so much more rich and intense than everyday life, because the universe is involved.”
Brown is currently hard at work on the final edit of “Galileo’s Grave,” which is scheduled to receive its world premiere October 28 in Chicago. As the Independent Feature Project’s top prize winner for 2005, the film qualifies for a “first look” from the Independent Film Channel national cable network. “That means if they like it, they can air it,” Brown says. “I’ll then shop it around to festivals.”
“People often say that a short film can serve as a calling card, or an indicator of what you can do if given the chance,” Brown says. “If I’m lucky enough to get accepted to some of the bigger festivals, the smart way to go about it is to have a feature script already written and stuffed into my back pocket. That way, if I end up talking to a distributor, I can say ‘Glad you liked it. Now you’ll really like this!’ ”
For the latest updates on Jeff Clayton Brown’s film projects, visit his web site at www.137films.org