Of all the films playing in the UW-Cinematheque summer-long tribute to the late Roger Ebert, from “The Third Man” to “The Producers,” the one you’re most likely not to have heard of is “Kwik Stop.”
But Ebert wanted you to know it.
So, while the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic’s passing in April is an unfortunate occasion to revisit “Kwik Stop,” he would probably have liked the fact that the sparkling and surprising 2001 indie film is getting another shot on the big screen. The film will screen for free at 7 p.m. Friday at the Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St., with writer-director-star Michael Gilio talking about the film and Ebert’s impact on it.
For Gilio, now a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, it will be the first time he’s seen “Kwik Stop” on the big screen since Ebert screened it at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago in 2005.
“It’s going to be fun,” Gilio said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to talking about Ebert and remembering the whole thing.”
Ebert’s impact on Gilio’s appreciation for film came at an early age, growing up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and watching “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel on Saturday nights.
“I would read his movie book every year,” Gilio said. “I would read all the reviews and being kind of in rural Illinois, you didn’t have access to all these films. A lot of the introduction to film for me was just reading his reviews, and I would imagine the movie in my head when I would read them.”
As an actor and screenwriter, Gilio moved back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. For his first feature, “Kwik Stop,” he decided to film in his home city, using the convenience stores and motels and corner bars of working-class suburbs as his landscape.
The film kicks off in a way that makes the viewer think this will be a Calumet City update of “Breathless.” A teenager named Didi (Lara Williams) catches a sharp-eyed drifter named Mike (Gilio) stealing a tube of tartar-control toothpaste from a Kwik Stop. Mike brags that he’s heading to Hollywood to become a famous actor (in a car that seems like something out of a movie, with a cutout of Harvey Keitel in the rear-view mirror). Didi begs to go along.
But instead of being a road movie, or a crime movie, or a love story, “Kwik Stop” contains pieces of all of them, playing with genres before subverting expectations. Mike and Didi’s journey together goes to unexpected places, eventually involving Mike’s ex-girlfriend Ruthie (Karin Anglin, who may be at Friday’s screening) and a surly widower (Rich Komenich).
“Poignancy comes into the movie from an unexpected source,” Ebert wrote in his 2002 review. “Depths are revealed where we did not think to find them. The ending is like the last paragraph of a short story, redefining everything that went before.”
Looking back, Gilio says “Kwik Stop” was made in one era in American movies and released in another. When he began making the film, independent films were hot, and in addition to independent distribution houses like ThinkFilm or Newmarket, studios had their own thriving distribution arms like Warner Independent or Paramount Vantage.
“It was just a totally different age,” Gilio said. “The narrative went if you could get a couple of dentists to contribute you could od a little movie on the cheap, and then you could break out at Sundance and get picked up by one of the independent companies, and you’d be on your way.”
By the time the film was released in 2001, that independent market had largely collapsed, and distribution sources dried up. Even “Kwik Stop” looked different than the other films it would play with at festivals, shot on Super 16 film rather than low-quality digital video.
“It was already a dinosaur,” he said. “Most of the films being shown were all on video. But this was before HD even, so the quality of the movies wasn’t that great, but everyone was shooting on the cheap. And our movie was still on film. It was a weird time. The movie premiered at a time when things were radically changing.”
It also didn’t help Gilio’s cause that “Kwik Stop” was so hard to identify, mixing comic and dramatic elements, following one character and then the next. It’s a hard film to sum up in a movie poster slogan.
“The things that I feel make the film special and unique were the very things that made the film difficult and challenging to get seen and marketed,” he said.
Luckily for Gilio, the film was accepted into the Chicago International Film Festival, and when Ebert got a private screening ahead of time, he loved the film. He began talking it up to other critics and film people, and Gilio began getting invited to more and more film festivals in the United States and Europe.
“He just became a huge champion for us,” he said. “He had such a large national and international voice that it brought a lot of attention to this little film that could.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for “Kwik Stop” to get a broad distribution deal. It had a small theatrical release, enough that Ebert could then write a formal review praising the film and Gilio. He invited it to play at his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, which Gilio says was one of the best professional experiences of his life. When Chicago’s Siskel Center asked Ebert to select one of his Overlooked films to play there, he chose “Kwik Stop.”
The film finally came out on DVD in 2005, and Charles Taylor wrote in Slate that the shabby treatment such a good film received in the industry underscored how much had gone wrong with the independent film scene.
Still, Gilio remains grateful to Ebert for his unwavering support of the film, and has fond memories of spending time with Ebert onstage and off, talking about movies.
“When he embraced the movie, it was a really big deal for me and my family,” Gilio said. “Just a very kind, generous guy who went well beyond. He was very passionate about film and about the little guy.”