It was December, when Chris Michael Birkmeier, a young gay filmmaker, sat down with me in his South Loop apartment to talk about his first feature film, In Bloom. By that time, all of the filming was done and much of the cast and crew had already parted ways, leaving Birkmeier and his core post-production team to finish what they had poured so much of their lives into.
Lots of Birkmeier’s inspiration is apparent in his living room, where I sat down next to a copy of the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and was surrounded by movie posters. Other books were stacked loosely on the coffee table, where he had clips from the film open on his MacBook.
At points throughout our conversation, he stopped to just show me what he was talking about, including a scene where the sun is rising over edge of Lake Michigan and climbs right between the two main characters as they sit on the shore and kiss. At other points, he shared some intimate moments from the making of the film, in raw and honest detail — an quality that he says makes the film so easy to relate to.
Set in present day Chicago, In Bloom, is a gritty, raw and real look at young queer life in the city. It follows a young gay couple, Kurt (Kyle Wigent) and Paul (Tanner Rittenhouse), a pot dealer and a struggling grocery story clerk, respectively, as their relationship unwinds. The summer is like any other they have experienced together until Kurt begins to fall for one of his customers. From there, their story of loss and universal emotional unfolds … or, blooms, if you will.
Chicago Phoenix: So, you’ve said to me a bit earlier that this film is sort of based around a past experience of yours?
Chris Michael Birkmeier: I mean, it’s fiction. I want it on the record. It’s a fictional movie. There’s a lot — like any writer or filmmaker, you draw from what you know, you draw from your real experiences — so there’s, you know, there’s definitely lines of dialogue in there that I’ll watch or my friends will watch and we’ll remember that conversation. But the whole story had to be fictionalized. I think the most important quality of the film is that it’s honest and you don’t censor yourself because censorship is basically the death of any real art. So, there’s stuff in there that hurts … Hurts for me to watch, hurts for other people in my life to watch, but that’s why people will hopefully respond to it. Because it’s real.
CP: The downfall of any relationship is relatable, right?
CMB: I would say so. I was really, really inspired by Blue Valentine. I saw that at the perfect time. It was like — it just really touched me because, originally, I was trying to do — I started writing In Bloom at Columbia. It was for my screenwriting class. It was Screenwriting II so we had to write a feature basically. Originally, I had this idea about this main character named Brad and he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and he wanted to maybe go to college, and it was like four characters, two relationships, one straight, one gay. And it was about the straight couple meeting and falling in love while simultaneously, there’s this gay couple falling out of love. So, it was basically inspired by Magnolia. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. Probably top 10. So, I tried to do that and I wrote that for about a year and then I just fucking — I didn’t give a shit about the straight couple and I wasn’t going through any of the meeting someone for the first time, I was going through the bad stuff, so when I was writing these ‘Oh, I really love this person’ stuff, I just didn’t feel it. Then I saw Blue Valentine, and I was just like ‘wow.’ It’s a really good film about a couple falling out of love, and I was like ‘Why don’t I do that?’ and so that really inspired me to change it. I just chopped off the shitty characters and stuck to the main story and then that went and wrote itself.
CP: And then you went and chopped out Columbia, too?
CMB: Yes … Because I realized that — I don’t know — I can talk for a long time about this. Some people love film school, some people hate it. I hated it. I just didn’t — I thought it was constrictive. I hated writing a paper about a film and then getting a letter grade on it — you know, that’s my fucking opinion — I see this, why are you judging me based on that? It was just really frustrating to me and I felt like In Bloom was something I really wanted to do and I’ve always beent told by a lot of people, and just watching interviews with my favorite directors, that the best experience comes from just fucking doing it. I’ve always been one to just do something crazy and big and I kind of wanted to do something big and crazy.
CP: And so that big and crazy thing is In Bloom?
CMB: Yeah. I feel like I learned more in the 23 days that we shot the film than I did in the two and a half years of film school, AND it’s cheaper!
I’m saving tons of money. I mean, we spent a lot, but that’s not as much as school. I don’t even want to know how much debt… I’m starting to pay it off.
CP: I don’t think I would have the balls to drop out of school, though.
CMB: I don’t think it has so much to do with … balls.
I wouldn’t tell my friends, or you, to drop out. It’s a different fucking beast, the directing major, because nobody hires a director based on their diploma. Oh, they got an A in their directing class — they’re going to look at your resume. You don’t get hired to be a director anywhere, really, unless you have a body of work that they can look at. Usually, people start at the bottom as like a production assistant or whatever, a bitch, and then you work your way up. Nobody ever just comes out with a job unless you do it. So, I’m establishing myself as a director already and whether or not the movie is a big flop at least I have something under my belt… I don’t want to talk bad about Columbia.
CP: And yet, you stayed in Chicago and filmed it here. What was the reasoning behind Chicago?
CMB: Well, I mean, obviously it’s where I live. I’m not going back to Michigan, back to a small Republican town … Fuck.
CP: Now, that would be an interesting setting for the story!
I wanted to do — because I fucking love this city, I really love Chicago a lot — I wanted to do a story that was kind of like a ‘I love you Chicago,’ a little time capsule of being here, you know? And it’s so pretty, it’s such a pretty city. There’s a lot of cool places to shoot. I wanted to capture some of that flavor in Chicago and just being young in the city, bad shit happening… Yeah, Chicago’s a cinematic place.
CP: So In Bloom is sort of like a love letter to Chicago?
CMB: Yeah, I would say that. A love letter and a love story to gay Chicago.
I came out to Chicago. Chicago embraced me.
CP: I think the craziest thing about this thing is that you shot it in 23 days. What was that like?
CMB: I mean, we had to. We really did. Nobody who was working on it, besides the actors, were getting paid. We really, really wanted to pay the actors because if they’re not good, the movie is going to suck. But everyone else was doing it for their reel, so we tried to compress it as much as we could and we actually fucking stuck to — we shot it under schedule and under budget — on time, completely, which was great. We didn’t go over. There was a lot switching shit around. Sometimes, we would just cut scenes out. Other times, we would get kicked out of a location or we would lose a location so we would have to compromise and find a new location, but it would always end up where that location was much better. And it would end up working better for the story.
For example, one time there’s this scene where someone gets mugged and we wanted to shoot it right out here in the South Loop, but we didn’t get a permit in time and we didn’t want to have to deal with lights because down here, where are you gonna fucking plug something in an outlet? And it also ended up raining that day, so what we did was, you how on the lakeshore how there’s those tunnels that take you under Lakeshore Drive? We went in there. So, it was raining outside, we shot in this tunnel, which was fucking beautiful and you couldn’t tell that it was raining outside and it was just fucking creepy. It was like this rape scene in Irreversible. It’s like one shot that’s like 15 minutes, and so it was like our little homage to Irreversible. It ended up being great and I’m so glad that it happened. A lot of shit like that happened.
CP: What about the day-to-day part of it?
CMB: Yeah, 23 days … Everybody had to get back to work, to life because it was me, the DP, and the actors, you know, they couldn’t work for 23 days. We’re adults, we have to pay bills, so people had to save up and sometimes people had to leave, and leave for a week or so, and we would lose people. At one point, we were down to like five people. It was the worse few days ever. So, we scraped by — that’s guerrilla filmmaking.
CP: Guerilla gay filmmaking in Chicago?
CP: Speaking of Chicago, I don’t know a lot about the film scene here, but what do you think about it? It’s sort of like with everything, and everyone ignores Chicago…
CMB: Yeah, it does get ignored and it’s frustrating realizing that. I feel like there’s a lot of filmmakers here, and I feel like I know a lot of them, but I feel like there’s not much going on. A lot of people like to do sketches and webisodes and stuff. But mostly from what I’ve heard from people who are trying to make it professionally is that it’s mostly just commercial, it’s no so much of an arts scene, which is frustrating. If you want to do commercials, this is the place to be. It’s frustrating to me and I’m losing a lot of friends to L.A., a lot of them are moving to L.A. I don’t want to move there. It’s not my thing. I’m actually moving to Seattle in August.
CP: Oh, really?
CMB: I don’t want to be in Chicago forever. I’m just going to spend a year in Seattle because I’ve never left the Midwest and I’m actually writing my second feature, so I’m going to go out there and just get a breath of fresh air, see the Pacific Northwest, which I fucking love, and then come back, hopefully. Or go to L.A. and sell my script. I don’t know, it’s really up in the air right now.
CP: I can see how that would be scary.
CMB: Obviously, I made a feature film in Chicago. As long as I raise the money — that’s the had part, is raising the money — then you can write a film anywhere, you can direct a film anywhere. You don’t need to be in L.A. That’s just where the money is, I guess. My friends will be out there if I ever want to go. I’ve been to Seattle three times.
CP: So you fell in love with it?
CMB: I did. Every time I go up there, I’m obsessed with it.
CP: There’s all of this Chicago-ness in the film. Where were you and what is that one scene in the film that you think is the most beautiful? There’s gotta be that one part where you just got the chills.
CMB: There were a lot of parts where I thought something really magical was going on, like when we shot a scene on the lakeshore — this is probably the best scene, too — we shot a scene on the lakeshore when the sun was coming up. Here I’ll show it to you. I’m not supposed to show it you, but it’s my goddam movie and I’ll show it to whoever I want… We shot a scene on the lakeshore, and it was all one take. We didn’t know where the sun was going to come up. We wanted to catch the sunrise, but just watch. This was like a five-minute take, and we were behind the camera just screaming like little schoolgirls, you know, because we couldn’t do another take … And then the sun just starts peaking through…
CP: Oh my god.
CMB: I know. That was really exciting, and it just keeps getting bigger and you get a lens flare… It’s super pretty. And then when they kiss, it’s just the icing on the cake because we thought that Tanner was going to block out the sun… And then they kiss and it’s just like…
CP: How is this possible? How did this happen? [Laughs]
CMB: I don’t know! I feel like god was watching it, like looking down on us.
CP: And that was just one take?
CMB: Yeah. Isn’t that sweet? That was the most exciting day. And then after that we had to do the scene on the beach and that was horrible because the beach sucks and it was cold. And we had just shot an amazing scene and then it’s nine in the morning and you’re at the beach and it’s like… I was just tired.
CP: What were these instances I heard about in the behind the scenes videos about the van breaking down?
CMB: We were shooting it for a taxi cab, it was supposed to be in a taxi cab, but we didn’t want to like spend an hour in a cab trying to get these takes, so we just got a car and got a camera and just pointed it to the back. This is another example of a take that that had to be all in one take. I’m really into those. And so, they’re driving on Lakeshore Drive, and they’re shooting this and apparently they run out of gas. And so they pull over to the side and they end up walking to get gas and coming back, but meanwhile, me and a few other crew members were at a parking garage somewhere, waiting and we have no cell phone service in the garage whatsoever and they have been gone for like two hours and we’re just wondering what the fucking is going on because it was only supposed to take like half and hour.
So, we have no idea where they are — they come back three hours later and explain the whole story to us, but the good thing about that — this is another happy accident — is that while they were on Lakeshore Drive, when the car broke down, they were right by Navy Pier and the fireworks started going off. So, we go a bunch of footage of Tanner and Kyle against the fireworks, like holding hands and kissing and that ended up going in the film. If the car hadn’t broken down, then we would have never gotten those firework shots. I wasn’t there for the shenanigans of that.
CP: This film is sort of full of happy accidents. And not that this is a happy accident, but what if you had never had this relationship and this past experience? … Then none of this would have happened, right?
CMB: Yeah, the film probably would have never been made. And that’s another thing you realize, as a director, is that it’s all about control. Like any director you talk to, they’re all really controlling. And I’m a really controlling person. But there’s moments where you lose control and sometimes they’re stressful, but sometimes those are when the magic happens. So, you have to be open to shit happening like that … all the happy accidents. A lot of that happened during the making.