April 2 through April 6 the Logan Theater played host to the 21st annual Chicago Underground Film Festival. This year the festival presented a slew of short and feature-length films from around the globe, including the premiere of one short film from local critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky starring University of Chicago third-year Allison Torem. The film, Ellie Lumme, is Vishnevetsky’s directorial debut, and the next step in his career in film criticism for The Chicago Reader and The A.V. Club, and a year hosting Ebert Presents: At the Movies.
Allison Torem has acted in plays throughout Chicago, and in 2011 made her film debut in Stephen Cone’s feature film The Wise Kids, a New York Times Critic’s Pick in 2011. Torem and Cone came together again for Ellie Lumme, this time with Vishnevetsky at the helm.
Ellie, which clocks in at 42 minutes, stars Torem as the titular Ellie, and Cone as the maniacal, desperate Ned. After meeting at a party, Ned enchants the 22-year-old Ellie with his indifference and biting sarcasm. But as their relationship progresses, Ned reveals himself to be something much darker than a jaded twenty-something. The interaction between Cone and Torem is charged and pointed, at first comedic and entertaining, edging eventually towards disturbing.
The film, which was shot last spring along Division Street in the North Side, presents a dreamy, atmospheric tale, which loses all sense of time as it progresses further into the puzzle-boxes of its characters’ subconsciousnes. Vishnevetsky, who described it at a Q&A after the screening as a “supernatural genre piece with all the supernatural parts removed” weaves visual cues– fingernails painted yellow, glasses lifted and drained–with a claustrophobic yet beautiful portrait of Chicago in shots that simultaneously ground and de-familiarize the viewer.
I sat down to speak with Torem about the filming process, the psychological complexities of Ellie Lumme, working with Vishnevetsky, and the hardships of pursuing her art while being a student. Torem, an Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities major, found an interesting parallel between her character and academic life at the University. She continues, “one of the ways I...empathize with Ellie is that she talks the way I feel almost tempted to talk in some classes that I’ve had...my heart starts beating really fast when I raise my hand and then my voice lowers...That is who I become in a classroom sometimes, because of the environment that I’m in. But that’s not the environment Ellie’s in, it’s the environment she’s created in her head.”
Torem has also been involved with theater and film production on campus. She has acted in Theater 24 and has worked on projects with Fire Escape Films, including the 48 Hour Film Festival that the RSO puts on each quarter. The on-campus theater and film communities, she says, offer a respite from the “hierarchical, ego crap in the professional world.”
Vishnevetsky proved to be a masterful director in his first project. Torem noted he is a “really open-minded artist who also has a very strong, specific, and effective vision. But he’s also a really good collaborator. He will defer to someone who knows better than him in some way, and he created a fun environment. I had a lot of fun shooting this movie even though it was somewhat dark content and somewhat disturbing content.” Notably, Vishnevetsky did not show the script to film editor Shane Simmons before they started post-production, wanting the film to grow organically out of the footage rather than imposing his previous vision onto the project’s structure.
Vishnevetsky confirms that Ellie Lumme will play other festivals but is not allowed to disclose any specifics as to when or where. In an e-mail he mentioned “One of the ‘rewards’ we gave away when crowdfunding was the right to host screenings, so, once the film has done a few more festivals, we’ll be sending out packages to donors around the country to put together screenings of their own for the film.” Vishnevetsky also noted that he hopes to shoot “a crime thriller about the black market firearm trade in Chicago” over the summer, possibly involving Cone and Torem.
Torem managed to complete the project while taking three classes, yet still found the experience exhausting. “It’s easier to just have to do a film or just be a student” she says. “When I’m on set and I think ‘this is part of who I am, I love this so much, I want to do this. This is exciting,’ it’s kind of hard to get motivated to read a book that night or the next day; it’s just hard.”