Feature-length dreams and artful, award-winning films

Jennifer Reeder

“I don’t like simple, predictable storytelling. Good filmmaking is artful,” says Jennifer Reeder, filmmaker and faculty member. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services


Prolific, provocative filmmaker Jennifer Reeder is shooting her 44th movie — “Blood Below the Skin,” her most ambitious film yet.

“More cast, more crew, more locations, more dialogue, more emotion, more plot, more money than anything I have previously made,” says Reeder, associate professor of moving image.

The half-hour film will chronicle a transformative week in the lives of three teenage girls leading up to the prom — an event none of them attends. Two of the girls are falling in love with each other; the third is forced to mother her own mother after her father disappears.

Reeder usually finances her work mostly with her own money. But for this film she used Kickstarter, raising $11,178. There were different enticements at each pledging level. For the top one, $5,000 or more, “A single frame with the content of your choosing will be spliced into the final film,” she promised on the Kickstarter website. At the next lowest level, $2,500, the premium was a piñata made in the donor’s likeness, “ceremonially smashed before the first shot of that day of filming,” the Kickstarter site promised. No one took her up on those two offers.

“It’s been really humbling to basically beg for money,” she said. “Using Kickstarter was great, but I don’t want to rely on it.”

Work on “Blood Below the Skin” comes close on the heels of her last film, the 28-minute “A Million Miles Away.” The film won her the “best female filmmaker” award at Oberhausen, a German short-film festival, and took awards at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Chicago Underground Film Festival.

“It’s doing so well — it’s thrilling,” she said.

The lead actor in that film and her next one is Jennifer Estlin, founder and director of the Annoyance Theatre. Reeder likes to use the same actors for each project. “I know they’re directable and what their range is,” she said.

She’s planning her first feature-length movie, “As With Knives and Skin.” It will be in “pre-production” next year, she said. Why move to a longer form after her short work?

“I’m invested in a certain character type — teenage girls — and I want to make the characters more complicated,” Reeder said. “They will interact with more people, in more situations, in more locations.”

The feature likely will cost $75,000 to $100,000. “That’s a huge budget for my standards, but meaningless in terms of a Hollywood production,” she said.

Last year Reeder founded the Tracers Book Club, a social justice collective. “It employs aspects of feminism to promote gender equality and human equality in general,” she said. The club sponsors art exhibitions, panel discussions and book discussions. Its first book was Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminist Mystique. Another was “kind of a reprise” of the Friedan work, Reeder said, called Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards.

Reeder, originally from Columbus, Ohio, earned a bachelor of fine arts from Ohio State University and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute. She started at UIC in 2000. “I love being in a classroom with enthusiastic young people,” she said. “The students at UIC are so rad and so curious and really committed, and teaching also forces me to keep current. I don’t ever want to teach the same syllabus every semester.”

Reeder lives in Hammond, Ind., with her partner, Nathan Beverly, a part-time bartender for a Chicago catering company and a stay-at-home dad. She has three sons: Jedediah, 10, and Levi, 7, with her ex-husband, and Atticus, 2, with Beverly. “My family is a big fan of To Kill a Mockingbird,” Reeder said of her youngest son’s name. “At one point my brother had a dog named Scout and my parents had a dog named Jem and a cat named Dill.”

Having three sons has made her consider doing a film about boys. “Maybe even with my boys; they’re really wild and active kids,” she said. “Unfortunately, they want to make a zombie movie, which is not really my jam.”

Asked about films she likes, Reeder cites more obscure titles like Eliza Hitman’s “It Felt Like Love,” Liza Johnson’s “Hateship Loveship,” Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s  “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” She describes such popular fare as “Blue Jasmine,” “American Hustle,” “Black Swan” and “Argo” as “pretty dreadful.”

“I don’t like simple, predictable storytelling. Good filmmaking is artful. I don’t watch films as pure escape,” she said. “And I do like a lot of mainstream films — I love the first ‘Iron Man’ and I love ‘Bridesmaids.’”

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