A stroll through “Rogers Park” with director Kyle Henry

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Jonny Mars and Christine Horn in "Rogers Park"

Jonny Mars and Christine Horn in “Rogers Park”

It’s hard to imagine director Kyle Henry acting like a “tough bastard” because he’s a really nice guy. But after learning about the process behind Rogers Park — a feature film shot in the Chicago neighborhood of the same name — his self-applied description makes sense.

Rogers Park is “a hyper-local yet entirely universal story of love, loss, joy and redemption.”

The film, which premiered to a sold-out audience at the Chicago International Film Festival last October, launches a run at the Gene Siskel Film Center tomorrow night and continues with a theatrical release across the nation in March.

 

 

The making of Rogers Park began when Henry persuaded the actors to audition before most of the script was actually written.

“I told them, ‘you have to be willing to play, it’s the first time that I’m using this process, and I don’t always know what I’m doing,” he recalls.

“But,” he assured them, “I think I have good taste and you can trust me.”

Henry also wields an IMDb page that contains more than fifty credits for various accomplishments, including directorial efforts that have screened at Cannes and Sundance. These qualifications, along with his contagious enthusiasm, helped him convince an impressive number of actors to play along.

Among those starring in Rogers Park’s ensemble cast are American Crime Story’s Christine Horn, A Ghost Story’s Jonny Mars, and Empire’s Antoine McKay and Sara Sevigny.

Kyle Henry

Their trip to the final cut was a journey down a unique conceptual path.

At the beginning of each audition, Henry asked the actors to spend about an hour writing a list of the people who had influenced their lives. When they finished, he and his screenwriting partner Carlos Treviño asked questions about the names on the list.

Then they turned the information discussed during the Q&A into an improvisation.

“The story kind of started evolving from there,“ Henry says.

After selecting the main cast, the director, the screenwriter, and the actors participated in a method-style collaboration. Besides continuing to workshop the developing script, cast members would meet in locations throughout the Rogers Park neighborhood and hang out together in character.

“Antoine and Sara met for a blind date as their characters,” Henry continues. “The audio was recorded, and I watched across the street.”

Eventually, they penned a narrative based on an idea that he and Treviño had discussed before beginning the process.

“We thought it would be interesting to see two couples, one on their way up and a another on their way down,” explains Henry. “But there’s a surprise: you don’t know who makes it.”

Although the description may seem to dwell on collective and individual struggles, Henry says there’s a lot more to Rogers Park.

“The film is also really funny,” he continues. “It’s about mid-life, which I consider like the second great coming of age.”

The casting was intentionally ethnic and gender blind, but fate allowed Henry to ultimately feature a pair of mixed-race couples that perfectly reflect the diversity of Rogers Park itself.

Henry moved into the neighborhood from from his native Texas after accepting a teaching opportunity at Northwestern University. Since then, he has developed a deep appreciation for the crowded and multiethnic place that he calls home.

Among the greatest rewards of filming there, he says, is “seeing the place you live in every day as something new and beautiful that you felt like you had never seen really before.”

“Rogers Park” begins a limited run at the Gene Sikel Film Center on Friday Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, click here.

 
To contact editor Daniel Patton, email dan@reelchicago.com.

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