Jared Leibowich, a fourth-year Cinema & Media Studies student at the University of Chicago, has finished postproduction on “John Doe and the Anonymous Nothing,” a film he has been working on since high school. Before his film was screened for the public for the first time, he eagerly agreed to an interview. On the couches in the far corner of Ex Libris, with a trademark grin and a tone of unwavering enthusiasm, he told the story of how his film took form over the course of his high school and college careers.
Jared described the premise of his film, pausing often as he chose the right words. “It’s a coming-of-age film. It’s sort of a movie about someone trying to find their place in a city. And so, it’s sort of like a meditation on being anonymous in a city, both the freedom and the loneliness.”
The film is structured as a voice-over journal of an anonymous character’s thoughts and his time in the city. He likes to wander the city, ride trains, that kind of thing. We never learn about his personal life, or, I should say, his background. All we know is this journal of his time in the city.
Jared first began the project of creating a film in his senior year, when he adapted a large body of his own poetry into a screenplay. Jared said that he was motivated to consolidate his work after discovering the Beat movement. “I read ‘Howl,’ and I thought it was so cool how it was pages and pages long. I also thought that ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was a lot like one big poem.” He noted that the decision to turn his consolidated work into a screenplay was a relatively late one, since he paid little attention to film for most of high school and only got involved with actual film production in college.
In his first year of college, he revised the script and picked up the technical skills he would need by assisting in odd projects with Fire Escape Films. He considers these early projects “Random stuff, just so I could hone my chops and get comfortable.” He bought a $200 super-8 camera, as well as all the film on which “John Doe” would be shot, with his bar mitzvah money.
Most of the shooting happened during the weekends of his second year, with the remainder of the shooting taking place alongside the editing during his third year. Tom Discepola and Dusty Plotnick helped with the shooting, and Greta Honold and Echo Gonzalez acted in the film. Most of the time, however, Jared was alone in downtown Chicago or accompanied only by a single camera operator. Upon reflecting on the production process, one particularly vivid story came to Jared’s mind, and he told it all excitedly, repeatedly rising from his seat and sitting back down.
“Once when I was filming, I got arrested by the FBI, and also the Department of Homeland Security. Well, not arrested, but, you know, they were questioning me there on the spot. I had to show my ID and everything. Okay, so the problem was, I was shooting in a tunnel, that tunnel that connects the Blue Line and the Red Line, the Jackson Tunnel, because I think it looks really cool. But apparently they think that that tunnel is at high risk for terrorism and… stuff. They caught me on their cameras, and I knew they had cameras, and it was really hardcore because I knew I only had a limited time. It was one of those security cameras with the black sphere, so you can’t see it. A Panopticon. So, all of a sudden, we’re in the tunnel at our cameras and we’re shooting and this guy in civilian clothes comes up and says, ‘What are you doing there?’
‘Oh, I’m working on a film!’
‘Do you have permission to shoot here?’
So he says, ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘You know, your identification.’ And he flashes his badge. I think it was FBI or DHS, but maybe he was working for both. And so, he looks at my ID and he sees my last name, and he sort of realizes, oh it’s this lanky Jewish boy. So he asks me, ‘Do you understand why you shouldn’t be doing this?’
And I say, ‘Because of terrorism and stuff?’
And he didn’t respond to my response, but he says ‘Okay, I realize that you don’t have malicious intent, but you have to realize that you can’t do this in the future.’
And I got off lucky because he could probably have taken me back to wherever for questioning and stuff. I probably could have gone to jail, as well.”
Although “John Doe and the Anonymous Nothing” is now complete, Jared’s work involving the film is far from over. He is now in the process of submitting the film to festivals. One possible hazard in the submission process is acquiring the “festival rights” to the music he used in the film, including Velvet Underground’s “Run Run Run” and Charles Mingus’ “Pithecanthropus Erectus.” He says that “it shouldn’t be a huge problem, even if I can’t make contact with some of them, since I’m not making any money off of it. So I’m probably not going to jail.”
He also plans to use the film as a creative component of his BA project, which he has already titled “Bare-Bones Cinema: Towards an Aesthetic of the Raw.” The academic paper component of this project will examine the constraints imposed by a low budget and how filmmakers embrace the visual experience that these constraints create. Jared explained that he wants to incorporate “Italian neorealist stuff, a lot of New Wave stuff as well. The attitude of ‘pick up a camera and go.’”
Jared then rose from his seat and held his hands out as though framing a large scroll or tabard. “Technically, it’s a paper supplement, but I want it to be a manifesto.”
“John Doe and the Anonymous Nothing” was screened at Doc Films on Monday, October 8 at 9pm. A preview is available at www.johndoethemovie.com, as well as stills from the film, Jared’s contact information, and a movie poster that Jared encourages his well-wishers to download and spread. Jared also welcomes viewers to offer their feedback and criticism, explaining that “I’ve been working on the film for so long, I can’t step back and look at the whole film without a very, very biased perspective.”
When Jared receives his BA, he will have spent a total of six years working, in one way or another, on “John Doe and the Anonymous Nothing.” Toward the end of the interview, he reflected on the consequences of devoting so much of his life to a single project. “So I wrote the film when I was 17 and 18, but later on, when I edited the film when I was 20, and I found that I wasn’t as interesting in exploring the themes I wanted to explore when I was 17 and 18. I didn’t feel as attached to them, I guess. I got frustrated and stuff. So I decided to use that young aesthetic to its advantage, use those themes that would be somewhat naÃ¯ve and use it to the film’s advantage. Make it intentionally innocent. My parents were really worried when I was done with the film, that if the film turned out bad, I’d be really sad and stuff, because I’d spent so much time on it. But I feel that, even if I weren’t pleased with the final product, and I am pleased, it still would have been a worthwhile project, because of all it taught me. Some of the important stuff about the movie, more than anything else, was the life skills it taught me, like perseverance. I know it sounds corny, but, like, never giving up. So, I know it sounds corny, but it’s really how I felt when I was going through it. If you believe in yourself enough, other people start believing in you.”