#425: Building Ben Hecht

January 14th, 2015

“We’ve been dogged by sporting events,” 1001 Afternoons in Chicago director David Less said as we sat in the Irish pub he had turned into a 1920s speakeasy.

It was the same pub I had sat in almost two years before to meet with composer Seth Boustead to talk about the Ben Hecht-inspired radio play he was bringing to fruition. Now I was sipping breakfast tea and considering a faux-Gaelic lunch menu with the director of the film version.

To call the 1001 Afternoons in Chicago film a film is like calling Ben Hecht’s 1920s newspaper column a column: technically true, but so much more than you think. The movie blends live action, narration, historical photos, modern scenery, original classical compositions and more to bring stories nearly a century old to a modern audience.

For example, the pub where I slurped tea was just the scene for the re-enactments of Ben Hecht’s 94-year-old story “Don Quixote and His Last Windmill.” The classical musicians and radio play actors were filmed at a different bar.

“We shot that and it coincidentally turned out to be game five of the Stanley Cup finals, so every other take we had to stop when a goal was scored because you could hear people cheering from all the bars around us. And then we came here and the only night that, coincidentally, that we could get all the actors and all my crew and everybody was the NCAA basketball championship,” Less said, laughing.

“They were really nice and closed off the back half for us, but we have a couple shots where people walk in and there were TVs on in the background I had to frame out.”

The film is using this blend of radio, music, art and documentary to illustrate four of Hecht’s stories: Don Quixote and His Last Windmill, Grass Figures, Clocks and Owl Cars, and Dapper Pete and The Sucker Play

It started when Boustead called Less about turning the radio play he debuted in 2013 into a movie. They have known each other about 10 years, when Less was looking to make a silent film and Boustead was looking to write the score for one.

“Bizarrely, my neighbor was also friends with him and we both mentioned in the same week that we were looking for this,” Less said. “He hooked us up. It was an amazing coincidence.”

Less and Boustead collaborated again a few years later on “Composer Alive: Eastern Expressions,” a documentary that took them to China and was later purchased by WTTW. When Boustead called, Less was thrilled.

Less had first “met” Hecht through a performance piece Boustead wrote years before the radio play and had fallen in love with his work.

“The blend of journalism and literature had never really been done before,” Less said.

To illustrate these stories that straddle journalism and literature, Less worked on a style that straddled documentary and film. The veteran of History Channel and Discovery Channel projects wasn’t interested in spending his free time on yet another doc, but he also didn’t want to shoot a straight movie.

He wanted something other.

So in each story, there are four Ben Hechts: the omniscient “Newspaperman” narrator; the voice actor Hecht performing the dialogue in the radio play; a re-enactor downing drinks with Sherwood Anderson and a man named Sklarz; and the animations of an idealized, non-Hechtian 1920s reporter by illustrator Ian Wilcox.

None of the four is a Hecht impression. No one put on a bow tie or mustache, waxed the hair and practiced Hecht’s beady, perceptive, superior gaze upon the world. A collection of shadows walking down the street symbolize the reporter collecting stories of city life.

Hecht is everybody. Hecht is nobody.

And it works. This film will be exceptional.

Everyone is from Chicago. No one is getting paid. Less’ employer is letting him use the cameras. Funding is out of pocket. The musicians, actors, voice actors, illustrators, animators, director, producer, composers, writers — all volunteer.

Less talked dreams of city grants, PBS, any way he and the dozens of other people involved can spread these stories that have inspired them so.

“Here are these stories,” Less said, “from literally almost a hundred years ago now that you’re connected to…”

A waiter showed up with an Irish pub’s quesadillas as Less completed his thought.

“…by living in Chicago.”

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Learn more about the movie

Hear and see others’ Chicago stories

Read the four-part path to the radio play:

Read about Ben Hecht’s papers at the Newberry Library:

Learn more about Ben Hecht

And finally, on the occasion of my 425th story for 1001 Chicago Afternoons:

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