Why filmmaking? A talk with Marie Ullrich
Why do I want to be a filmmaker? That’s a hard question to answer, nearly impossible. I have millions of reasons, both personal and collective. Being a filmmaker means a million different possibilities. I want to be a filmmaker for change, for catharsis, for therapy, for freedom, for independence. But this small list does not do justice the reasons that push me forward everyday. I recently attended the premiere of a Columbia College Chicago MFA Directing alums film at the Chicago International Film Festival. Marie Ullrich directed the film The Alley Cat, which was in the running for, and won, this year’s CIFF Chicago Award. After viewing the film, and having the opportunity to chat with Marie Ullrich, I became ever more self aware of the reasons why filmmaking is my calling.
I have only ever attended a film festival once before, and the experience of attending the Chicago International Film Festival is one I never imagined feeling. When attending a showcase such as CIFF, which is on a massive scale, there is a real sense of dedication and interest in the work being shown. The crowds attending the screenings were, just as I am, movie buffs, filmmakers, and art lovers. It was a thrill ride to wait in line with people who I identify with, all of us waiting for the same thing: Marie Ullrich’s The Alley Cat.
The film itself was based of the Ullrich’s thesis for CCC, which revolved around the day in the life of a bike messenger. Ullrich expanded upon her character and her character’s history and created her first feature-length film. The Alley Cat follows the same protagonist as her thesis, Jasper, as she participates in a Chicago alley cat race. The film was exhilarating and harrowing. It was fun to have watched Ullrich’s thesis film and to see the progression made into her feature over such a short span of time. The entire project was an impressive feat, given the large ensemble cast, as well as the stunts, which required so many actors to be on bicycles.
A Q&A with Ullrich followed the screening, after which my classmates and I were given the opportunity to speak with her independently of a crowd. She was extremely down to earth and engaging, someone I hoped to emulate in my own time. She had no problem being honest with us about her struggles as a filmmaker, but stayed very true to her passion. She, like any artist, went through times of writer’s block and loss of confidence. Seeing her work on screen, however, gave her pride to keep working. I too found pride in watching her work. I was proud to call myself a CCC graduate student, a filmmaker, and an artist. To see so many people gathering around something you crafted, from start to finish, must be exhilarating, as well as affirming. At the premiere of the The Alley Cat I knew that I was studying to be in the right field. I’m ready :)
Below is a transcription of an interview I conducted with Marie Ullrich after the screening of The Alley Cat:
Tell me briefly about your time at Columbia College Chicago
I came here after years of freelancing in the industry, so I was pretty focused on what I wanted to learn. I didn’t really consider teaching until I was in the program and had a seminar-style class with Karla Rae Fuller. I got the bug then. But my focus was writing and directing film, specifically narrative features. The program was challenging, rigorous, exhausting, pushed every single button—and was exactly what I needed/wanted!
What is a memory you have from your experience at CCC?
It’s so difficult to find people who can offer you useful critical feedback. I loved Chap Freeman’s Scriptwriting 1 class, and the wonderful sense of community he created, his warmth and humor.
What did CCC teach you to prepare you for where you are now?
CCC taught me that I do have what it takes. It taught me to be prepared, and to love where I am.
What are some of the things you have been doing since graduating CCC?
I officially graduated with my MFA in 2011. I wrote and directed my first feature film, The Alley Cat, in the summer of 2012 and started a tenure-track Assistant Professorship at Grand Valley State University in August 2012.
What is some advice you have for students thinking about going into film?
Don’t do it unless you absolutely can’t live without it! But if you can’t live without it, then don’t let anything stop you. Always be moving forward, even in some small ways. Don’t lose faith.