On Film: super-size thrills on an indie budget | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Film: super-size thrills on an indie budget 

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After a six-month search that included four open casting calls, producers Lee Alan and Jennifer Erfurth found the 18-year-old lead actress for their first feature, Lizzie, in a bar. "We didn't know anything about her, except that she looked too young to be in the bar," says Alan, who also wrote and directed the digital-video thriller. "She was talking to my friend, who's a bartender there. We said, 'Sally, who's that girl?' and she said, 'That's my daughter.'"

The girl is listed as "Anonymous" in the film's credits--to create mystery, says Alan. Although the most acting she'd done was a tiny part in a high school play, she turns in a disturbingly realistic performance as an outsider who spends her time doing drugs with her slacker pals, arguing with her father, cutting herself, playing tricks on her best friend, engaging in the occasional bout of autoerotic asphyxiation, and capturing it all on tape for her senior-year video diary. The film's story is told through the diary, which is introduced as evidence in the murder trial of Lizzie and her three friends, who, as the film opens, stand accused of killing her family. That footage is framed within the story of the ill-fated debut of TrialVision, a low-budget cable channel broadcasting courtroom coverage.

Lizzie was shot in August 2000 in the northwest suburbs, where Alan grew up, for around $500,000--some of which he charged on his credit card and has yet to pay off. Though the film won the jury prize for best thriller at the 2001 New York International Independent Film Festival, the actors won't see a cent unless it makes money.

Alan calls the film a "reality fiction" along the lines of Kids and The Blair Witch Project. He and Erfurth have set up a Web site (www.lizziefilm.com) that includes links to a fake TrialVision site as well as the title character's fictional home page. The narrative draws on the story of 19th-century alleged ax murderess Lizzie Borden, but it's also inspired by Columbine and other contemporary high school shootings. "People still ask me whether the film is real or not," he says, adding that it was informed by his work editing videotaped civil court depositions in the early 90s.

The video diary leaves out as much as it shows, and is meant to raise questions. "I tried to make a puzzle that doesn't necessarily have an answer," says Alan. "People are so quick to judge and so quick to point the finger at one direction or another as the cause for things. It could be the parents, the kids, sex, drugs, rock and roll, the Internet--whatever. The whole point is that it's not just one thing."

In addition to developing other scripts and planning their upcoming wedding, Alan and Erfurth oversee the long-running screenwriting contest the Screenwriter's Project. In August Alan plans to launch Indiefest, a film festival and convention in Chicago that would bring together buyers, distributors, and filmmakers in a single setting, and would be a first for the midwest. It would also be the only such U.S. marketplace to focus on independent films. But he's hoping to find a distributor for Lizzie before then. "We've got a lot of interest, but the film is not for everybody," he says. "It's definitely a little out there for mainstream theatergoers. I've had people say that every parent should see the film, and I've also had people who've said they didn't get it--what was the point?"

Alan, Erfurth, and some of the cast members will appear at the 8 PM screening of the film on Saturday, March 1, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Weinstein.

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