They say write about what you know.
And since Steven Piet knows Chicago and Erik Crary knows Central Wisconsin they wrote a composite of both places and called it Uncle John.
The atmospheric rural mystery filmed in Lodi and Prairie du Sac runs parallel with a Chicago workplace relationship story. It begins with the crime and builds a solid character-driven genre tale around it.
“It’s a slow burn, which is asking a lot from an audience,” said Crary a Lodi native and UW-Madison alum. “But it’s a fun way to reveal something.”
Crary, who produced Uncle John, and director and co-screenwriter Piet do advertising production work in Chicago and met at a job seven years ago.
They shared a desire to make a film and the Uncle John screenplay emerged about three years ago.
As it developed South Side of Chicago native Piet became intrigued by life Crary’s hometown.
“In the city there’s an insane amount of horrible things and secrets within a five block radius that you never know about,” said Crary. “But in a small town they know what you did forever.”
After saving money to make the film and using investor money to get a top of the line camera they filmed for ten days in the Lodi area and six in Chicago.
Casting John Ashton in the title role came about while watching him in Beverly Hills Cop on Netflix as they wrote the script.
They found his email address using Google and soon they were talking to him on Skype. Crary described Ashton as “salt of the earth” and said the actor “really got into” the internal nature of the character.
He even drove from his home in Fort Collins, Colorado instead of flying because he wanted three days on the road alone to think about the role.
It worked. He creates a dark and complex character.
The likable younger characters are played by Jenna Lyng, an L.A. based writer and producer, and Alex Moffat, who has Second City experience and is “extremely talented in improv,” said Crary.
After leaving UW Crary ended up in Los Angeles working for David Lynch for eight years during the making of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
Lynch gave Uncle John the thumbs up on Twitter.
Lynch spent a year or two vacationing in Wisconsin – “he had a wooden boat on a lake” in Madison, said Crary – and filmed some of the similarly regionally evocative tale The Straight Story” in the state.
“He really dug it and has been incredibly supportive for us,” said Crary.
“It was incredible to show it to him and have him like it.”
Uncle John, a Spotlight Presentation of the Milwaukee Film Festival, shows Thursday and Oct. 8 at the Oriental Theatre. Crary, Piet and Ashton are scheduled to attend the Thursday screening.
Uncle John is also available on iTunes, Vimeo, GooglePlay, XBox, XFinity and Time Warner Cable On Demand.