Last spring Coat of Arms created the introductory titles for the Midwest Independent Film Festival (read more about the titles here). Over the past few years, we’ve had the pleasure of working with one of the Midwest Independent Film Festival’s prettiest faces, Producer/Actor Mary Kay Cook. Cook is an influential force in Chicago’s film scene with a lot of valuable knowledge for fellow producers, actors, and filmmakers. Read on, friend!

COA: You are the Midwest Independent Film Festival’s Advisory Council President and Associate Producer. How did you get involved with the Festival and what does your job entail?

Cook_MIFFlogoCook: The Festival is a wonderful showcase for talented Midwest artists, and we truly appreciate being able to share the talented work of our community. I got involved with the Festival as a patron, a film I was in called Casting About was featured one month. I loved the experience and knew Executive Director Mike ‘Mac’ McNamara as a fellow actor in Chicago. After attending for many months, he asked me to join the Advisory Council, and I found a real passion in bringing together the indie filmmaking community. I was asked to lead the Council as President after a year, and I am proud that the Festival has grown so much in the past four years.

COA: At the November Festival, Directors Peter Weller and Alex Beh were featured for the ‘Producers Panel.’ How do you get such great names and talent for these panels?

Cook: Our Advisory Council members are instrumental in doing outreach and advocacy work within their own professional networks to get us access to the talented people living or working in Chicago. But most of all, Mac’s tenacity and passion to provide our audience members with contact to these amazing talents is really key – he just won’t take no for an answer!

COA: Any funny or interesting behind the scenes stories about the Festival?

Cook: Fit for print? Seriously, most film festivals have a stressful couple of months to secure programming and guests, and then that’s it for the year. We do it every month, and there is always a unique challenge. The Snowpocalypse of 2011 is a great example. Our filmmakers couldn’t fly in because the airports were shut down. So we Skyped them in from the comfort of their living rooms. When we walked out of the theater there was over 2 feet of snow on the ground, and the entire city was shut down. But we were definitely the busiest place in Chicago that night.

COA: At Potenza Productions you are a Producer, and we’ve had the pleasure of working with you and your team. Potenza recently completed a short entitled ‘Wednesday’s Child.’ What is the short about? And where can we see it?

Cook: It’s a black comedy about a nine-year-old girl who never really meant to kill her parents. It’s currently on the festival circuit and we are having a great run with it. We’ve won the IL Shortcuts and Elgin Short film festivals, and recently screened at the Austin Film Festival, DC Shorts, and Chicago International. Because we’re in the middle of our festival run, it’s not available online but you can check out a trailer. We also have screeners available, so anyone interested can email me at mkc (at) potenza-productions (dot) com to request one.

COA: How did your team fund the short and decide on the material/concept?

Cook: Potenza Productions funded the film, mostly by calling in a lot of crew favors! We were also able to work with an amazingly talented cast, thanks to the SAG Short Film Agreement. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for access to professional talent to make their films the best they can be. Working with the Chicago SAG-AFTRA office isa breeze – we were even able to use the KMRC studio for casting, free! Payments on shorts can be deferred, so it really makes sense as a producer to use union talent for your film.

Cook_PotenzalogoAs far as the material, director Rocco Cataldo and DP Mike Kwielford brought me the project as a narrative calling card for Potenza Productions. Wednesday’s Child had the perfect balance of story and character that we were looking for in a script. Most importantly, it had the message of that ‘a-ha’ moment where you discover the wool has been pulled over your eyes, and you MUST do something about it…that really resonated with us all. We had a common passion to tell this story, so we did.

COA: Your IMDB site lists you as an actor in addition to producer. Do you find yourself more attracted to acting or producing? Why?

Cook: I find enjoyment and fulfillment as both an actor and a producer. The only struggle can be juggling both in my schedule! Creatively, I enjoy the freedom of acting on set, exploring the arc of my character’s story. Ultimately though, as a producer I have more ability to impact the film as a whole. Honestly, acting is a lot easier, once you are cast. Producing requires a lot more paperwork! Also, as a producer I am responsible for making sure the story works as a whole and fits within the director’s vision, rather than just representing one character within a story. Both attract me for different creative reasons.

COA: When and how did you discover producing and acting were right for you?

Cook: I started out as a child actor in professional musical theatre. Then I got my BFA at the Theatre School at DePaul University. After graduation, I worked a lot in front of the camera and got to know the amazing crews we have here in Chicago. When a first-time director approached me to star in and help produce his feature film, I was happy to help because of all my resources within the local filmmaking industry. So I sort of fell into producing, but I like the challenge of using both sides of my brain on projects. I find it rewarding to test myself creatively on different levels.

Producer/Actor Mary Kay Cook

Producer/Actor Mary Kay Cook

COA: As a woman in film, what are some of the best ways to succeed in Chicago’s film industry? And who are some of your favorite female faces (inside/outside Chicago) in film?

Cook: Utilize every resource available to you. Never, ever, ever give up. That’s it, as far as I can tell. Join the many networking groups: Women in Film, Chicago Filmmakers, Chicago Screenwriters Network, become a member at the Midwest Independent Film Festival. Most of all, do your best work every time, push for it to be better, and never take no for an answer.

My favorite faces… hmmm that’s a bit harder. Women who are really making a difference locally, I’d have to say Betsy Steinberg, Megan Maples, Justine Nagan, Kathy Byrne, Ilyssa Fradin, and Melissa Thornely. Of course, there are many other local women who inspire me with their talents in front of and behind the camera, we could do an article just on them, and maybe we should! Outside of Chicago, I love Kathryn Bigelow and Catherine Keener. Drew Barrymore straddles the acting/producing fence with grace.

COA: We admire you and Potenza Productions for your active role in support of the local Chicago film community. There’s been a lot of chatter about Chicago’s expansion both in the commercial and the film industries. And yet according to Reel Chicago and the Chicago Tribune, the Wachowskis recently lamented that Chicago lacks a large enough infrastructure for their films. What are your thoughts on Chicago’s growth or lack thereof? How can people help grow and foster the film community of Chicago?

Cook: Certainly we have a great infrastructure to accommodate a burgeoning television and film industry. We have a very fiscally responsible 30% tax credit, some of the best crews in the country, very supportive city and state film offices, and Cinespace has really added to those benefits. Is there room for improvement as the Wachowshis suggest? Of course. One of the obstacles we need to overcome is this inherent idea of flight to the coasts in order to succeed. We are a breeding ground for talented people in front of and behind the camera – see Second City, the theater scene, and film schools like Tribeca Flashpoint and Columbia. In my opinion we need to focus on the psychology of the talent we’re cultivating – why not live and create your work in Chicago? Let’s make it a no-brainer to stay here.

As far as fostering the community, I would like to see more cultivation across the lines. Right now we are all pretty separate: actors, crew, directors, production houses. The Illinois Production Alliance started to bridge that gap and it was great that we all came together for the common goal of supporting the IL tax credit. But the work needs to grow from there, in terms of finding common ground to relate as a community. We are definitely trying to foster that at the Midwest Independent Film Festival.

Most importantly, a Chicago-based film fund would be instrumental to grow the work opportunities and the community here. It’s the biggest thing we lack. We need local investors willing to support a multitude of projects, modeled after a studio, as opposed to smaller investors putting all their eggs in one basket of one film, if you will. That will be the biggest opportunity for growth.

COA: What projects are you working on now? When and how can we take a look?

Cook: We are developing other shorts and features at Potenza Productions. We also have a healthy roster of clients for whom we produce commercial and corporate work. You can see some samples at potenza-productions.com.

COA: When is the Midwest Independent Film Festival and how can folks attend?

Cook: Year round, every First Tuesday of the month, we showcase and celebrate the work of Midwest independent filmmakers at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Our year is peppered with features, documentaries, and shorts programs. Up next is our end-of-the-year Best of the Midwest Awards (BMAs) where we honor the finest of the works in nine categories. The BMAs are Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at the Underground, and I invite you all to join us for a fantastically fun evening. Tickets (which anchor our 2013 operating budget) can be purchased at midwestfilm.com.

COA: We’ll see you there! Thank you, Mary Kay.