When we first met Oak Park filmmaker Jeff Smith, he was about to show his documentary, Tony's Song, at the Oak Park Public Library. At age 52, Smith had left a safe but mind-numbing career at Amtrak to pursue an MFA in film and video at Columbia College. Last March, he was at full speed, with projects bubbling and the degree just a thesis film away.
That film, The Miracle, is now well on its way. Smith reports that the "long and arduous" six-week shoot is done. Since 2000, he's written and directed 18 short films, but this one was the most elaborate, with more than 100 people involved in its production.
Smith shot the film in August and September at locations in Oak Park and River Forestâ€"Dominican University, Lindberg Park, St. Edmund Church and Ascension Churchâ€"as well as on a Columbia College sound stage. It's based on a theatrical monologue of longtime friend and collaborator Tekki Lomnicki; Smith's screenplay adapts the true story of a trip Lomnicki, a little person, took with her mother to Lourdes.
Lomnicki plays herself in the film, ranging in age from 5 to 48 as the story "plays games with time" and weaves together fantasy and reality, explains Smith.
There's a bit of fantasy in the use of some of the locations, too. Lomnicki attended Dominican University (when it was Rosary College), and the campus figures prominently in the story. But Smith also used Aquinas Garden in Dominican's Priory Campus as a stand-in for Lourdes. And local viewers might be a little taken aback to see Lomnicki go in the door of Ascension and end up standing in St. Edmund. Movies do that all the time, notes Smith, although he'll understand if parishioners are a little miffed.
Filming here was great, he says. "Everyone was wonderful. Tom Gull at Ascension was incredible. There was a new priest, Father McGivern, at St. Edmund who was also wonderfulâ€"he helped so much and was so gracious."
In one of the fantasy sequences, Lomnicki imagines herself in a baseball game, playing center field and making the winning catch. Smith filmed that scene in Lindberg Park, his "favorite Oak Park place," he told us last March.
"It's such a beautiful location; I'm amazed more people don't use it [for movies]," says Smith. Well worth the trouble it took to get a permit from the park district (for use of the park) and the village (for parking the vehicles needed for the complicated shoot), especially since everyone he dealt with was so gracious, he adds.
Smith went to Oak Park Youth Baseball to recruit a "team" for the scene, and was thrilled to get 18 10-year-olds, who showed up in full baseball regalia. (His costume designers borrowed a uniform from the league and made a matching one for Lomnicki).
The scene took two long days to film, and included a complicated crane shot with the boys carrying Lomnicki off the field on their shoulders. "The kids were amazing. They were very patient with all the complicated, tedious stuff," recalls Smith. "They got jaded by the end, though, asking, 'All this for a 30-minute movie?'"
With filming done, Smith is in the middle of the editing process. He expects to have the visual cut done in a couple of months, with sound and special effects to follow. It's an expensive process. Even with "very professional people donating their time," he expects to hold a fundraiser this spring to cover remaining costs, he says.
If everything goes as planned, Smith will screen The Miracle at the Lake Theatre next summer. It's a family filmâ€""not a single naughty word and Pollyanna compared to Desperate Housewives," he saysâ€"so all the kids who appear in it will definitely be invited. He hopes the film will then go out to festivals well into 2005, and "perhaps have a life after that."
Along the way to becoming a filmmaker, Smith has discovered that he loves to teach. This spring he'll teach two classes in Columbia College's screenwriting department, and he's planning to do three in the fall, perhaps branching out into critical studies, too.
So if Hollywood beckons, that's fine, but Smith says he's "very rooted in Oak Park" and will be satisfied with teaching and making independent features. "I'm working in art, at what I love. I'm a happy guy."