Nelson Algren: Unsung Chicago Writer

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Maybe a logical upshot of running with artists (less physically dangerous than with scissors, but more emotionally taxing), but lately everywhere I turn someones using Kickstarter to raise funds. Documentary filmmaker Michael Caplans is the most recent effort to come to my attention. Ending on July 11th, his campaign aims to raise $25,000 to complete Algren, a documentary about underrated Chicago writer, Nelson Algren. Although the recipient of the first National Book Award and a cultural forerunner, influencing everyone from musicians to painters to theatre-makers, Algren is often overlooked, even by Chicagoans. Caplan, a long time fan of Algrens, spoke with Our Town about his views on film making, how Kickstarter has changed life for artists and of course Nelson Algren.

Our Town Although Algren loved Chicago (perhaps because rather than in spite of the citys corrupt aspects) Chicago hasnt seemed to embrace Algren the way it has Sandburg or Terkel. Why?

Michael Caplan Algren has always been embraced by [those] who want to see the world as it is, not as we want it. The Chicago that Algren described in his many books and essays was the Chicago that “lived behind the billboards.” He lived amongst the poor and the dispossessed and that’s who he wrote about. On top of that, he did not have the warmest demeanor, compared to Studs or Sandberg. He did not suffer fools.

OT Why did Algren identify so closely with the dispossessed?

MC Algren grew up in Albany Park, about a block from where I live now with my wife and son. His father owned a car repair shop on Kedzie, so his upbringing was solid working class. It’s hard to say what sparked his identification with the people on the lowest rungs of society, but I know he was a huge fan of Dostoevsky and would read Crime and Punishment once a year. He quoted Dostoevsky on a regular basis, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.”

OT What compelled you to focus on Algren?

MC My roots are in Chicago and with the working class. I grew up on the Southeast Side of Chicago and my great grandfather owned a tavern on Franklin St. In 2008, I met Art Shay, the famed photographer, who was a lifetime friend of Nelson Algrens, and whose work I admired. He growled at me, “So, you’re a documentary filmmaker? Why don’t you do something about Algren?” I was shocked that there had never been a documentary about Algren and it took me about ten seconds to agree to do it. We’ve been working on it ever since.

OT Musicians like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Henry Rollins are some of the many who agreed to be interviewed for the project. How did you go about securing their participation?

MC We wanted this film to be about Algren’s life, his work and his legacy. We believe his story is not just in the past, but very much alive today, in the arts, writing and music. We soon found that everyone from John Sayles, Phillip Kaufman, Cormack McCarthy, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Depp and Tom Waits feel some debt to Algren’s work. Connecting with artists is not always easy, but when we have connected, everyone has been very interested in helping out.

OT What goes into putting together a documentary?

MC This is my third feature length documentary, and each project comes together differently. The story always drives everything, from the interviews, to the visualization, to the approach to the audio and soundtrack. Algren’s work is very descriptive and visual, so it’s not hard to be inspired to create imaginative visuals and soundtracks.

OT Do you try to put your personal stamp on the material, or do you work to stay out of the way?

MC All non-fiction filmmakers have a POV, so my goal is to embrace that POV and make it apparent. [Though the film] should be driven by the story and the subject, I strive to be like Algren, who not only told interesting and engaging stories, but told them in a distinctive and well-crafted way.

OT Were hearing a lot about kickstarter lately. What are the forms pros and cons? Will it change grassroots campaigns?

MC Kickstarter just hit its second year anniversary and already has had a huge influence in the independent film world. I have spent many years raising money the old-fashioned way. We are now two weeks into the 21st century approach, and both [methods] take a lot of ongoing energy and focus. The biggest disadvantage of Kickstarter is that you don’t get any of the pledged money if you don’t hit your goal, motivation for your supporters, but a pretty scary approach. [With] Kickstarter you use social networking, blogs and Twitter to engage your fan base long before your project is finished and they stay engaged throughout your struggle to complete it, which is both aunting and exciting.

To donate to Caplan’s campaign, visit Learn more about the project on Facebook.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” is forthcoming from Counter Point Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.

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