Marie Ullrich: Bike Messengers, Liminality, Loneliness, and The Rigors of Night Shooting

Marie Ullrich director

Filmmaker Marie Ullrich talked with #DirectedbyWomen recently about her film The Alley Cat. The conversation explored the world of bike messengers, liminality, loneliness, the rigors of night shooting, the joys of collaboration and more.

Jenny STRUBIN in The Alley Cat 4

DBW: I think about your film The Alley Cat often. It really lingers with me. I felt that we were being invited below the surface of Jasper’s life as she moved between shadow and artificial lighting. Something that really struck me about the film is the way the soundtrack weaves me in and out of the middle of the night glimpses of almost empty Chicago streets. I’m curious about the process of editing the sound in and around the scenes as Jasper and the others competing in the Alley Cat race navigate their course.

MU: In terms of the sound track, there is a keyboard artist, Nils Frahm, I had just discovered when we were starting post-production. I felt both that I wanted to share him with everyone I know, and also that I wanted to keep him a secret, because his music was so powerful, so touching. It seemed natural to use some of his work for Jasper when her scenes are more internalized, when she’s in her own world of conflict rather than having her mind in the competition itself. Then most of the rock tunes are from a Chicago band, Bailiff, and it seemed natural to use them based on being local, but also because their sound went so well with the grittiness of the race and the hardness of life surrounding it.

DBW: Jasper was the focus of your short film Faster! What inspired you to explore her further?

MU: I wrote a feature film with a female bike messenger, named Jasper, as the main character, way back in – I don’t know – 2001? 2002? I submitted it to the Sundance Labs, and it was a finalist. So I didn’t make it into the labs, but I thought, hmm. Maybe with a little more education I could actually make a go of this filmmaking thing. I had been working in production for years by that time, but in Art Department or as an Associate Producer – I still didn’t really know how to talk to actors, how to direct them. So I went back to school, to Columbia College Chicago to get am MFA in Writing & Directing for Film.

I wanted to make that film as my thesis, and I proposed it, but the thesis can’t be feature length. It has to be a short. I didn’t want to just hack up the feature – a short film has to stand on its own – so I wrote a completely new film based on the main character, which became Faster! Then when it came time to make this film, I was rereading my Sundance entry and thinking, well, I did some of this already in Faster! and I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m still interested in the character, but I don’t want to just make a longer version of Faster! So I went back to the drawing board again and wrote a new script for The Alley Cat.

In terms of wanting to explore Jasper’s character more, I put a lot of work into her backstory and felt that she was pretty complex. So Faster! was about her work life, but I wanted to go deeper into her personal life. In this film it’s the same character (Jasper), a few years later and in an entirely new set of circumstances. We never see her at work, but in her element with her friends, her relationships with family. I wanted to make a film about a female character for whom neither the essential problem nor its resolution was a romance. Not that romance isn’t important, but it’s not the only, or even the most important, factor in women’s lives, and it shouldn’t be the only story that gets told. I wanted to make a feature film about a female bike messenger since before I made Faster! (my MFA thesis for Columbia College Chicago), and even before I went to graduate school.

DBW: Why bike messengers?

MU: Bikes are awesome. Remember how thrilling it was to learn to ride a bike when you were a kid? How the whole neighborhood opened up? I still feel that joy. I went to school in Boston, Emerson College. I couldn’t afford a car, so I walked everywhere or took the T. I hated the T. I mean I’m really, really thankful that it exists. Public transportation is fantastic. But for a while I had a job at an animation company out in Watertown and it took two buses, a bunch of walking to get there, and if one of the buses was too early or too late, I’d be late for work. I bought a bike and started riding – 8 miles each way – and it was fantastic. I could leave later and still get there on time. And if I had a bad day at work, biking was the best part of my day.

One day I was riding in Downtown Crossing and something seized up on my bike. I got off it and was just starting to squint at it – I hadn’t even figured out which part was frozen yet when a tall bike messenger guy swooped in, whipped a wrench out of his bag, fixed it, and then swooped off again. I was in love. We didn’t have bike messengers in Nashville (Tennessee) where I grew up, and I always thought they were cool. Kinda punk, with some amazing skills. The ones I’ve met through making Faster! and now The Alley Cat have been some really cool folks – it’s an amazing community.

DBW: Are your actors bike messengers?

MU: Jenny (Strubin, the lead) is not. But when we made Faster! together I sent her out for a day of training with Rene Cudal, an owner / operator at 4 Star Courier. So I knew she had some chops. Rene is in both Faster! and The Alley Cat – you can see him in The Alley Cat at the fruit stand station, where he drops the dice and gets punished – and Scott Klocksin, another messenger (now a journalist in New York) is, or was, one too. Scott held some training for talent in The Alley Cat who wanted to beef up their bike skills before the shoot, and he’s in the film too.

DBW: Were you ever a bike messenger?

MU: I was never a bike messenger. I think I not so secretly wished I had been one at one time, but I was always focused on working in production or filmmaking. It didn’t even occur to me that I could be one, back when I was living in Boston, though I might have done it.

I always felt an affinity for them. As a freelance Production Assistant and Art Department Assistant back in Boston, in the days before GPS or even cell phones, you had to know the city really well because you’d get sent on errands during a shoot, and it was time-sensitive, and there would be hell to pay if you took longer than anticipated. And you’re just some kid driving a production van around picking stuff up from rental houses, hardware stores, restaurants, whatever, and in your head you’ve got to know the cleanest route to your next stop(s) and back to set.

The Alley Cat

DBW: In The Alley Cat you put together such an interesting group of people and you introduced us to them in such a relaxed, natural way! Can you talk about how you identified the other riders in the alley cat race and what helped you bring them each into focus while retaining emphasis on Jasper?

MU: My experience with bike messengers – volunteering at alley cat races or just getting to know some of them through making Faster! and then becoming friends – is that they’re really lively, opinionated, confident, and fun. So even though they might have minor roles in the film, the other racers to me each had a very distinct personality. I was tempted to do more with the race. There were other checkpoints I wanted to do, for example, but I didn’t want to overwhelm Jasper’s story. A lot of the structure really took shape in the edit, with lots of creative energy and time from Eric Houtz, my editor, plus multiple feedback screenings with other editors and non-industry people too.

DBW: Were there specific themes you knew you wanted to explore going into the project? Or did some reveal themselves as you progressed?

MU: Let’s see. In Faster! I was working with an idea that the office world was “heaven” (even if it’s a false heaven) and the street was “hell.” I think this might have carried over a little into The Alley Cat. I was thinking about liminality a lot. Jasper’s life goes through a pretty major internal change during the film, even though the external parameters of it don’t change. We start that journey in the flash-forward in the beginning, which hopefully helps the viewer feel how tentative and liminal her situation is during the film’s story. Night is also part of that, since it’s temporary and dark…

Other themes kind of sneak into my work without me being conscious of it. Things that other people have pointed out to me: that the protagonists in my films are constantly let down by their families. A loneliness.

DBW: What was the most difficult thing about making this film?

MU: It was a physical challenge. We had a rainy summer and we got rained out of shooting a few times, and a lot more days were really touch-and-go. In fact during one scene you can see it just start to rain – but then it stops during the same take, and we pressed on.

The Thompson Center days were really exhausting from standing on the hard concrete for the entire length of the shoot. Something you don’t really think about, but I noticed that after nights we shot there the crew was a lot more exhausted than usual, from that and from the heat.

Then there’s the whole night shoot thing. I’m not a night owl, so shooting at night was really a challenge, and we considered whether it was *really* necessary to set the story at night – and it was. For me it was absolutely essential. The story takes place mostly at night, which meant we were going to bed by around 9 or 10 a.m. and getting up at 4 or 5 p.m. to start our days. I’m more of a morning person, but I was just running on adrenaline anyway.

DBW: Looking back on the project, what strikes you as particularly satisfying aspects of the filmmaking process?

MU: The most satisfying part of the process is being to express something emotional and conceptual through the medium. Sometimes it really comes together in a scene or even in the whole. I think my films are an extended conversation, maybe. This probably doesn’t make any sense! But I’m not just thinking in terms of plot points and resolutions. I’m thinking of complex issues in life (especially in women’s lives) that are hard to talk about or don’t get talked about in a certain way. At least I think that’s what I’m doing or what I’m trying to do. Then when bike messengers told me that I got certain things really right, that feels like an accomplishment.

Also the most satisfying part of the process is finding a true creative collaboration. When others understand your ideas so well and help you express them better or even build on them. Whether it’s the actor, the cinematographer, the producer, the editor – when the creativity is crackling and things are stronger than they would have been if you were working alone, that’s an amazing feeling. Something to be cherished.

Director Marie Ullrich at the Eclipse Awards

DBW: What have you enjoyed most about sharing the film with audiences?

MU: In terms of sharing the film with audiences, the Chicago International Film Festival was a dream come true. I had one man in the audience come up to me after a screening and say that the film was literally the best film he’d seen in his life. He had a bike helmet clipped to his bag, so he was obviously a little biased there, but that was really special. I’ve seen people crying at the end, and that’s really amazing. It’s been a nice platform for me to talk about cycling and try to improve relations between drivers and cyclists, or advocate for cyclists’ rights to the road. I did a screening here in Grand Rapids as a fundraiser for the Greater Grand Rapids Cycling Coalition a year ago, and that was really fun. The theatre was full even though it was a miserable -15 degree winter night and snowing. Attending screenings is my favorite way to share the film, but I hope people will watch it online!

DBW: Where can film lovers stream The Alley Cat online?

MU: We’re on iTunes, Amazon, XBOX, VUDU, YouTube rentals, and Video on Demand on a lot of cable providers in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. I need to find international distribution.

DBW: What’s next?

MU: I have a few irons in the fire. One is an adaptation of Chicago author Joe Meno’s novel, Office Girl. There will be some changes, but I hope to keep and build on the book’s playful and artistic style. I’ve been collaborating with Joe and am now taking over writing the script. I’m ready to start looking for collaborators. Joe saw The Alley Cat and loved it – he told me to take absolutely any and all liberties with the material that I want. He said he had total creative freedom when he wrote the book, and he wants to see me put my stamp on the film, to really make it my voice. Another book of his has been optioned and is in development in Hollywood, so he’s comfortable doing this one differently. He’s totally on board with the indie world, and it’s super exciting.

I also have two original screenplays I’m working on. One is about a tween girl who is saying goodbye to the freedom of childhood, winning a Pyrrhic victory over the male gaze. She moves from being unaware of the male gaze to fully embracing it, and in the process she loses that incredible freedom of late childhood – the freedom to be fully present in the world without worrying about appearances. She has a painful family life that complicates things. That’s not really telling you much of the actual plot, but that’s what the film is about to me.

The other is a romantic comedy, if you can believe that! It’s true. But it’s my take on a romantic comedy, so there will still be a complex female protagonist. You could compare it to High Fidelity in terms of sensibility, although it’s nothing at all like that in terms of plot. It’s still about self-empowerment, learning difficult things in uncomfortable ways. I might be open to selling that script, when it’s done, but I also might want to direct it.

DBW: Thanks for taking time to share about your work, Marie. Much appreciated. Keep going. Can’t wait to see your work continue to evolve.

MU: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me! And thank you for all the work you do for promoting women who direct! The lack of support for and interest in work made by women, starting with what gets funded, who gets hired, and what gets promoted, reviewed or watched, has gone on for far too long. I’m glad the conversation is finally happening again in this moment, and I’m hopeful that with the Internet to connect us there might be some real advances. I know you put a lot of time and energy into this project, and I can tell you that it is encouraging and validating to have a voice out there championing us. So thank you.