By Lee Shoquist
Michael Glover Smith’s Relative, a Chicago-set family reunion story about coming to terms with the passage of time and life between parents, adult children and siblings, offers the distinct pleasure of watching terrific actors deliver insightful dialogue in an engaging picture about binding ties.
A through-and-through Chicago production filmed on the city’s eclectic far north side, Smith has crafted a funny and wistful observance of how you really can go home again—but in doing so you must also deal with your baggage. For the Frank family, Rogers Park denizens led by veteran stars Francis Guinan and Wendy Robie, getting the band back together is both a source of enjoyment and anxiety, and often poignant.
Generously giving voice to an assortment of distinct characters, Relative finds homegrown filmmaker, critic and academic Smith (Mercury in Retrograde, Rendezvous in Chicago) leaning directly into his area of expertise—illuminating imperfect people at personal crossroads while ensuring that, like life, no solutions come easily.
I caught up with Smith recently to chat about the film’s estimable cast, notions of adult parents and children, terrific performances and the great value of making feature films in Chicago, which on this outing happened to take place in a neighborhood both he and I call home.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi begins each project with a single image in mind. In the case of his Oscar-winning film A Separation, it was the image of an adult man with his aging father. Where did you start with Relative?
Michael Glover Smith: I frequently start with a single image as well, and for me it was the image of a two-story Victorian house. I live in Rogers Park and there are many beautiful old homes; some more than a century old. In my last film, Rendezvous in Chicago, I included a montage of front doors from beautiful old homes that ends on a shot of a doorway to an ordinary apartment from which the protagonists exit. I thought this time I could explore who might come out of the front door of one of those nice houses!
I live in Rogers Park also and close to your Relative shooting locations. Years ago I believed the neighborhood was so far removed from what I considered Chicago. I had lived downtown at the time and traveled to Rogers Park for a film shoot and it felt like an exceptionally long train ride. When I arrived, the neighborhood seemed like a place all its own. In truth it may be the most diverse of Chicago’s neighborhoods as well as home to a multigenerational mix of student renters, long-term family homeowners, young professionals in condos and an overall broad mix of cultures. As you feature in Relative, there are also these large, single-family homes, especially on Newgard Avenue near where you and I live. It is a bit of an eclectic neighborhood.
The house we used in the film is actually on Newgard and was built by a man named Henry Newgard! He built the house in 1893 and he was an electrical contractor. They named the street after him. It’s a cliché to say that location is character, but to me if I wasn’t writing scripts specifically for this neighborhood then the film would not have turned out as it did. Like you, I never really came up here until I lived here because it is so far north; it is the northmost neighborhood before you reach Evanston. A lot of people think it’s so far from the action. But as soon as my wife and I moved here we both agreed it was the best place we’d lived in the city, and we had lived all over. So as you say, it is an incredibly diverse neighborhood and I have heard it is the most diverse in the city. There are also many artists up here and the neighborhood also has a long history of progressive activism—that found its way into the script.
I would say that characteristic extends to the Relative family, which is not quite the same as one we might find in Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast, for example. There’s an eccentricity to our neighborhood that extends to this family. Can you talk about giving voice to so many interesting, distinct characters in this offbeat family?
When it came to creating the characters I started with the parents because these homes were all built in order for people to raise families in them. These houses tend to stay in the same families for generation after generation and get passed down. You are supposed to have children and raise them in a house like that because there are a ton of bedrooms. So I started thinking about who the parents would be. That is where I started. I imagined a sort of elderly, semi-retired couple who would be progressive activists. And then imagined who their children would be.
So we started with the parents, and I began thinking about the ways in which some of the children would be like their parents and how some might rebel against the parents, because it is natural to rebel against parental expectations. I thought about my own family. I am from a conservative, southern, religious family in North Carolina. I thought that in a family where the parents are liberal they would probably push their children into the arts from a very young age. When my father tried to push me into sports I rebelled and went into theater. So that is why we have a line of dialogue where the family matriarch says that her kids became math and science majors.
But yes, there are many characters and to have an ensemble this large was new for me. I wanted to create several distinct characters that would be fun for actors to play and where every character would have an individual moment. One thing I am very proud of is that many who have seen the film have remarked that a certain actor gave their favorite performance, and that has referred to a number of different actors. I wanted every character to be memorable and every actor to really have at least one moment where they would really shine.
I think the test of a well written ensemble is that if you were to take each character and make an individual film about that person it would be compelling; the character could support its own narrative. I would happily follow any of your Relative characters into their individual lives.
Yes, they all have their own independent lives. Honestly, I am writing a script right now about the character of Hekla and it’s about a day in her life as an actress going on auditions. What I liked about writing this script was that I had all of these individual characters and the narrative hook was how to bring them all together. I needed an excuse to have a family reunion! I had gone through all of the potential reasons why a family would get together, and I realized that I could not do a holiday because all of those had been done; the same with weddings and funerals. And then I landed on the idea of a graduation because there has never been a movie that has centered on that one!
Anchoring this reunion ensemble are two indisputably accomplished veteran actors, Wendy Robie and Francis Guinan. I’ve loved Wendy since way back, especially in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stars, in which she delivers one of my favorite moments in any horror film which involves scalding bathwater. She is spectacular. Of course Francis is highly accomplished as well. Can you share a bit about how you worked with them to create that real, lived-in marriage with such believability.
It was a dream come true to work with both of them. I like to be able to offer roles to actors that I admire and that I have seen in films, television shows or theater, and that is the case with both of them. I did not know either and had never met them, but like you I’m a fan of The People Under the Stairs and a huge fan of Twin Peaks, so Wendy was someone I thought of right away when I was trying to figure out which actress might be in the character’s range and have the qualities I needed. I sent the script to her agent, and she got back to me pretty quickly with an offer to meet me for coffee to talk it over. Right then I knew she was interested in doing it.
The only thing that made me a little bit nervous was I thought perhaps she did not realize that this was truly a micro budget production. This was not long after Twin Peaks: The Return and I thought maybe that she was used to being in a Showtime production and was uncertain if she understood how small-scale Relative was. But during coffee I mentioned how low the budget was and she did not care. And that is the remarkable thing about both her and Frances, which is that at their ages they only do what they genuinely want to do. It is not about money or trying to advance their careers, but about playing roles that they think are interesting and about working with interesting people.
When I mentioned to Wendy that I wanted to cast Francis she became excited, and it turned out she was a huge fan. So that made me more excited about offering him the part. Much like how I was a fan of hers from seeing her in Twin Peaks and The People Under the Stairs, I had also seen Francis in many plays and movies, including a show at Steppenwolf called Grand Concourse in which he played a homeless man and was simply phenomenal, all but stealing the show.
So working with them was amazing. To be honest, the best part of shooting Relative was that I was able to create an atmosphere that they enjoyed and a project which they found to be a creatively fulfilling experience, which meant the world to me because they have been doing this for so long. I wanted them to have fun and flex their creative muscles. I think they had a blast. For example, in the scene where they are in bed talking about their kids I wanted to give them the opportunity to do drama and comedy and move from one to the other, and we did all of that in that scene.
Francis beautifully delivers my favorite line of dialogue: ‘Maybe if I didn’t always ignore the shortcomings of our children they might have turned out better.’ That is a complex statement expressing regret over how he has raised the kids as well as frustration and disappointment at how they turned out. But at the same time it is also coming from a place of love. So that is the kind of complex emotion that I wanted to explore in this film. He delivers the line so subtly and in such an understated way, which is exactly how it should be done. It blew me away watching him do it. And then within the same shot Wendy asks, ‘Do you think our kids are that bad? It’s not like they became Republicans.’ That always gets a huge laugh. So they knew how to play all of those beats and it was amazing for me to just be on set witnessing them deliver those lines.
What is your style of directing actors? Do you work closely to shape their performances or let them do their thing and maybe adjust a bit as needed?
I let everyone do their own thing. With the younger performers the audition process is pretty intense but once I know I have hired the right people I always let them do their own thing. I may ask them to modulate slightly to get them where I want them to be, but they have a great deal of freedom to interpret the roles. That is the best way to get the performances. You really must allow the actor to feel ownership over the character.
With Wendy, I did a Zoom rehearsal with her and Clare Cooney, who plays her daughter, Yvonne. The scenes between the two of them late in the film are some of the most emotional, and I felt we could not delay rehearsals until we were on set and that we should do them earlier because we did not know what was going to happen between them. If we had not been in the midst of COVID we would have rehearsed in person rather than on Zoom. But they were fantastic. I think we did one run through of each scene and we might have talked a bit about how to play them, but they were so very good that I had no worries.
Wendy is really a consummate professional with this extensive theater background and is very used to doing the scene work and breaking the character and lines down. At one point she texted me and asked if we could have a meeting about the character. She was digging into the script and wondering about her interpretation and my intention. She saw the character as being compassionate and introverted and her husband as an extrovert, and that he made her feel safe. I told her that was 110% correct. That, of course, is just subtext and not explicit in the script—she brought that. She is a highly intelligent and perceptive woman.
She did have one question for me which was how they were able to afford the house! I thought it was a great question and I had an answer for her with an entire back story. I told her they had met in college in the 70s, fallen in love and gotten married and started a magazine dedicated to vegetarianism at a time when vegetarianism was exotic, especially in Chicago. But they nonetheless started it here and it took off so successfully that it allowed her to go back to school and get her master’s degree in library science. If you recall, the scene where David and Rod are walking down the street returning from the store they are talking about vegetarian food. That was the genius of Francis improvising, who took what I had told him about the backstory of the character and just wove it into the film.
On one side of the ensemble we have the seasoned pros, and on the other a bright young cast featuring a winning young actress named Elizabeth Stam, who is funny and alive onscreen. She has charisma and one could imagine it might be fun to know her character in real life.
A star is born! I have heard that a lot. Many people think she gives a scene stealing performance and I knew it was very important to make her character dynamic and unpredictable and quirky because when making a movie about family, the best way to show who they are is to show how they react to other people outside of the family, and that also includes how they react to the character of Lucia, played by Melissa DuPrey. It is like a chemistry experiment as you are adding chemicals and seeing what kind of reaction will happen, like having Norma ask Lucia if they have experienced any racism in Wisconsin—cringe-inducing.
But going back to Elizabeth, I wrote that role for her. There are only two roles in the film that I wrote specifically for actors, and the other was Yvonne, who I wrote for Clare because we have a history working together and have a great working relationship. I know what she can do as an actress. Early on, I knew Relative was going to be about a kid who graduated from college and on the day of his party he was going to skip out for a date with a girl he had met the night before. I knew that was the story, but I did not know who she was. Then I was in Alabama at a film festival and saw a film called Bleed American, a gritty, realistic independent film in which Liz has a supporting role. Similar to the work of Larry Clark, it is about white trash teenagers living in trailers in Indiana. When it was over, I introduced myself to her and told her I enjoyed her performance.
It turned out we both lived in Chicago, and I suggested that we should work together at some point. I quickly realized it she was the funniest person I had ever met. Talking with her is what I imagined it would have been like to hang out with Lucille Ball. I wanted to create a part for her that would allow her to use her natural comedic ability and that’s when this character was born. Before meeting Liz I did not really plan on the character coming to the climactic party, but when I met her I realized her Hekla character could bring a certain color to that celebration. It was a great pleasure to write that part for her and to encourage her to be as goofy in front of the camera as she is in life.
You mentioned Clare Cooney, who could perhaps be considered a bit of a muse. You certainly write substantial roles for her. I very much enjoy seeing your collaborations, and I hope there will be more on the horizon. This time, right from the opening shot of her face in close-up, she conveys compelling gravitas.
I love collaborating with her and I think I will forever. One of the reasons I do is that she brings a directorial sense to her performances and is hyper aware of herself at all times, including where she is in the frame in a way that no other actor I’ve ever worked with has been aware of themselves. Most actors just try to be believable, but Clare comes with her sense of what filmmaking is, and this is evident in her performances and often through her stillness; she knows when to move and not to move. She’s very good at self-choreographing. Here it was fun to have her play a new and different type of person.
Her character of Yvonne was conceived as being someone who was struggling with mental health issues, and I thought that would be intriguing for Clare to do, especially because her Rendezvous in Chicago character was such a confident, type A personality; a quick thinker with an answer for everything. This time we did the opposite and gave her someone completely and deeply insecure to play. The character suffers from depression, which we later learn she inherited from her mother. Clare is so smart onscreen and off, and her emotional intelligence is so high that she knew not to play the character as always depressed. In fact, at certain points she would tell me that she did not feel she should cry each time the script denoted such, and that she should also laugh in certain places. As an actress she is a very good arbiter of when to show emotion and how much to show.
There are two moments in the film where I saw that happen. There’s a late revelation which is unexpected and could have been big, and she plays that realistically with matter of fact-ness. There’s also a final moment where she says goodbye to her parents, and she offers some small gesture with her hands that is quite subtle. She knows not to be compelling without overselling.
Yes, she’s an incredibly naturalistic actor!
In some way, this film reminded me of Olivier Assay’s Summer Hours, about adult siblings who come back together briefly, a sort of commentary on a modern adult family that is disconnected in many ways. I suppose as adult siblings we inevitably move on to other places and our own lives. In this film that might mean Madison, Iowa or just living in the basement of the Chicago house in which you were raised. There’s something about this sort of reunion that is gratifying because you are back together yet poignant because lives have taken their own paths. You wrote a line of dialogue addressing this as the parents express gratitude that they still have their children close in the Midwest.
Absolutely. That concept of the relationships between adult siblings and the passage of time was very much at the forefront of my mind during the making of the film. I was not consciously thinking about Summer Hours, but I think that’s an excellent comparison and honestly it’s very flattering because I love that film. There was another French film that was an explicit influence and that was Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. But I think family relationships are tricky. That is what I wanted to explore. I wanted to examine the love that exists between family members when you know that it’s a relationship you will have for your entire life, which is a different kind of a relationship than a friendship, for example. I love the scene near the end of the film where Rod talks about how he could move to another country, but family would still be forever. As Lucia says, “together for life”—that is what the film is about.
I have two brothers and I know those kinds of relationship dynamics. We live in different parts of the country and see each other typically once a year. It is always very emotional to see your family knowing that you are not going to see them again for another year. And the final scene of the film, to me, was really the most important, choosing to end with Norma unexpectedly displaying emotion. This was really important to me as a concluding note for the film and through that particular character. When I think about saying goodbye to my own family that is the emotion that I feel.
It is effective how Emily Lape plays that moment as she looks into the rearview mirror before getting out of the car and then meeting Mike McNamara, as her husband, who comes out on the porch and essentially welcomes her back to her ‘regular’ adult life. I also thought the relationship between Rod and Sarah, difficult as it is, does reach a dramatic resolution, giving Heather Chrisler some key moments as a peripheral yet integral character.
Heather Chrisler is one of the best actresses in Chicago. I felt guilty about offering her a role that only had three scenes. But her character does have an arc in those scenes, and she blew me away with that scene on the porch. She was just so incendiary. Heather really knew what to do with that part. She wrote all of the dialogue for the final scene where she is in bed with her son. While she is only onscreen for about 5 minutes throughout the film, logistically we had to shoot all three of her scenes on three different days.
Her final scene we shot last, and I did not want her to have to travel all the way to our Skokie location if all she was going to be required to do was kiss the boy on the forehead, which is how it was the scene was described in the script. To make her moment more substantial, I asked her to think about something that she would like to say to him, and I told her we would shoot whatever she came up with and if perhaps it did not quite work we would leave it out of the film. I recommended that she give herself a bit of a monologue where she could say whatever she wanted to her son. She created it and we did not rehearse it. At that point in the shoot I trusted her so much that we just rolled on the first take and probably did two or three.
Can you share a bit about the music in the film? There were moments where I thought the music was highly effective. For example, the scene on the train ride from Madison has a minimal score, but it suggests something melancholy. Also, near the conclusion there is a scene on the porch where the camera is moving around certain faces and the score is bittersweet.
That’s a great observation and I’m glad you asked me about it. Finding the music for this film was likely the most difficult aspect of making it. I hired an incredibly talented music supervisor named Cait Rappel who found about half of the music while I found the other half. We actually worked with a record label in Louisville called SonaBLAST! and they gave us a very good deal. The owner of that label has a sort of ‘pay what you can’ policy and allowed us access to his entire catalogue, which included every genre. We even found a hip hop song which we used. Finding the songs that had the right emotional quality for each scene was really important. There is actually only one piece of score in the entire film and that is the song that plays during the montage at the end when Yvonne and Karen are jogging. That piece of music was created by Devin Delaney, who wrote and recorded it and brought in a very soulful female vocalist named Sonya Major who laid down a track on that song.
Let’s talk a bit about Chicago as a location for making independent films. Often there is this feeling that one might have to leave Chicago and head to one of the coasts to be successful as a filmmaker. Certainly you are demonstrating that is not the case as you’re doing it your way here. The DNA of Chicago is in everything that you create.
Chicago is a wonderful place to make independent films and I say that exclusive of my love of Chicago as a city. It is a very fertile ground for independent filmmakers because unlike New York and Los Angeles, it is not as congested with people that are trying to do it. The filmmaking scenes in those cities are much more competitive. Chicago is far more laid back and the people who make movies here all tend to know each other and get along and borrow collaborators from each other. It makes me sad when people I know who are making independent films here end up moving to New York and Los Angeles. I would never do that. I actually think Los Angeles is really gross. Also, as an independent filmmaker it does not help you to be there. Just because it is the filmmaking capital of the world it is not like you can go and apply for a job and get hired. Moving there to make independent films makes no sense because the funding can often come from people back in the Midwest. Many people that I know have gone out there to ‘make it’ and become very disillusioned, ultimately moving back home. You do not need to be there. Chicago is the best place to be.
When we look at mainstream American films today we see a dearth of movies about people and human relationships. It continues to get worse, as you know, and often we will criticize escapist films—products, really, not films—as culprits in this downward trend for big screen, adult-level filmmaking. Whatever the industry and economic factors, movies about real people are a vanishing art form. Yet you are creating them. As Roger Ebert once said, movies are ‘empathy generators,’ or at least are supposed to be when they are effective. I know you believe this and from my lecture groups I know that most people want to see life reflected back to them or otherwise engage with meaningful content where they feel a connection or common humanity. You remain focused on making films about the human experience in an industry obsessed with escapism, genres and meta narratives. I think we have to remind ourselves that while film is a dynamic visual art form, it is foremost a storytelling medium. I think you write from that place.
Yes, I think about that every day. All I am interested in is character. I do not care about plot at all. And most American cinema today—even many independent films—is about emulating Hollywood formulas. Unlike European or Asian cinema, for example, American cinema in general is just extremely plot-driven and genre oriented. So what I want to do is create characters that I think are interesting and place them in compelling situations and observe them without forcing them into complicated narratives or impose genre conditions upon them. Not only does American cinema today not do characters well, but it especially does not do family relations well. It is hard to depict those complicated bonds I was talking about earlier and in order to do that well a film cannot be plot driven. To do those things effectively a film has to be a character piece. My film is about a family where all of these characters at crossroads are faced with dilemmas. I wanted to show how they are navigating these dilemmas without having any real resolution. In life, there are rarely definitive resolutions to any of these things; we might go one way or another way. I like ending a movie by having my audience feel like they have spent time with real people, not knowing what is going to happen to them next. I don’t even know what is going to happen in my life.
I think what you are advocating for is an investigation into who people are rather than what they do.
That is exactly right! If this was plot driven it would be about the Benji character working at Google and getting involved in some sort of corporate corruption, and then you would meet his family and they would be stereotypical characters because they would have so little screen time so we would have to communicate things in a shorthand way. That is what Hollywood always does. When you need characters to solve narrative problems you can often fall back on cliches and stereotypes. Whether you like or don’t like my work, I feel like I always avoid cliches and stereotypes.
Most American films will put characters in service of plot. What you are doing is ensuring that any plot serves your characters.
Exactly right! Any plot must serve the characters.
Michael Glover Smith has dedicated Relative to the late Facets curator, founder and champion of cinema, Milos Stehlik, whose indelible contributions immeasurably shaped both Chicago and global film cultures.