On Tuesday night, Chicagoans have the opportunity to see the 25th Anniversary restoration of ‘Solstice,” a film made by Jerry Vasilatos. It will be shown at the Music Box Theater, which was featured promitently in the film.
For Vasilatos, it’s the culmination of a long journey. In 1993, Vasilatos was a first-time filmmaker who wrote and directed “Solstice,” a largely autobiographical story of a man (Nick Allman, played by Michael Kelley) lacking the Christmas spirit and his quest to find it. It was financed by Vasilatos, who used a large portion of a $200,000 personal injury settlement he received after losing one of his legs in a CTA accident. Shot in Chicago with a cast of unknown actors, Solstice had the good fortune of being picked up by the Lifetime Network which featured it as it’s 1994 Original Christmas Movie and again the following year.
While good timing may have led to Lifetime picking up Vasilatos movie, lack of timing may have stalled his directing career. The movie was originally made by Vasilatos as a calling card — to have something to show Hollywood decision makers as an example of his work — but by the time he actually moved to Los Angeles, 1996, the buzz around Solstice had largely wore off. Vasilatos has worked in the industry in the 25 years since making Solstice, largely as a film and television editor — and has come close to making more features — which is a quest he is still on and optimistic about.
In 2007, Vasilatos moved back to Chicago but continued working in the film industry. Named by New City as one of the top 50 people in Chicago’s booming film industry, Jerry’s credits include a wide variety of projects including commercials, music videos, documentaries, short films, and 4 episodes of the History Channel series “Gangland” in 2007 and 2008. He is presently the Chicago City Producer of the world renowned 48 Hour Film Project while developing several projects for his company Nitestar Productions at Cinespace’s Stage 18 in Chicago.
In addition, in 2007 Vasilatos invented the SandPad all-terrain stabilizer, a mechanism that helps people with crutches, walkers and canes navigate easier in grass, sand, gravel and snow. In keeping with his dreams, Vasilatos said he is using proceeds from that to finance future film projects.
Over the past two years, Vasilatos has digitally restored the film from the original camera negative in 2K to a point where he says it looks better than it did in 1993 when it was completed. He has also added a completely new musical score composed by Balint Sapszon and performed by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra.
Recently, Vasilatos spoke with The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito about his journey and his movie, Solstice, which will be presented Tuesday night at the Music Box Theater.
CA) How are you doing?
VASILATOS) Busy, but good. There’s so much I want to make sure goes right for the showing. I feel like the important elements are in place. They have the digital cinema package, the posters, the Toys For Tots bin in the lobby, but I’m still trying to edit the 10-minute featur-ette that I’m going to show before the movie that is a retrospective of it. It’s almost done. Last week I got the DVD’s and CD’s pressed so I’ve kind of been like a one-man band lately.
CA) You’ve done a lot in your career but it sounds like you’ve been like the 25-year-old first-time filmmaker that you once were when you made Solstice with all the stuff you’ve been doing for the 25th Anniversary screening.
VASILATOS) Yeah. It’s funny for it to come full circle because I am totally reflective on this and transparent. This movie was probably the biggest thing I’ve done in my career. I’m very proud of it. I was 25 and I had the money of my own to do it. It’s tough getting a feature off the ground if you don’t have the money. I think it does stand the test of time as a nice Christmas movie. People say, ‘Wow, so you did this 25 years ago, what else have you done?’ I’ve done stuff in the biz, I’ve produced and directed but primarily worked as an editor. I want to tell people that I have other feature scripts that I’m trying get off the ground. If you love Solstice and recognize what I could do at 25, I’m capable of a lot more, bigger and better stuff.
CA) I recently watched it. You filmed it in 1992 and 1993, right?
CA) Right off the bat I noticed the hair styles and the fashions were pretty horrible. Nobody had a cell phone and a lot of the stores on Clark and Diversey where you shot some of the film are now gone, replaced by something else.
VASILATOS) It’s like a time machine.
CA) That all said, I think the movie has an evergreen sentiment or feeling to it.
VASILATOS) I’m grateful to hear that. One of the things that struck me while reading the news last week was the story about one of the auto plants laying off 2,500 people. Immediately, I thought this is just like Nick picking up his newspaper back in 1992. We saw the homeless people on the streets in 1992 [in the film]. That was really becoming more of a thing because at that time so many of the mental institutions had closed. We didn’t pay attention to it as much as now because now we have social media to show what an epidemic it is. Some of the things that troubled Nick in the movie back then are still prevalent today. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. It was a little movie that played on Lifetime for two years, had a couple million viewers for each showing but then kind of disappeared. Now, when you see it, you realize it’s not about the 1990s. It just happens to be set in the 1990s. It deals with topical issues, emotional issues and things that we can still relate to.
CA) Even early in the film, you have Nick listening WBBM radio and there is a story about violence in the Middle East.
VASILATOS) Yeah. That’s probably what will be on the radio this Christmas Eve.
CA) You mentioned the Lifetime thing. You were a 25-year-old first-time filmmaker with a movie that didn’t have any big names. Yet, it was shown to millions of people on Lifetime. How did that happen?
VASILATOS) You may have read that I suffered a personal injury and after the dust settled, I was awarded $200,000 after my attorneys fees. I joke that after I blew $130,000 producing my film with the simple goal to go to film festivals and jumpstart my directing career, my friends were taking me by the hand saying, ‘Jerry, this is great but you need to make your money back.’ I was very starry-eyed, I was focused more on the artists dream. But, thankfully I got some common sense knocked into me and I reached out to an old instructor of mine from Columbia College named Dave Sikich, who along with his partner John Iltis were responsible for the success of the documentary Hoop Dreams. They were independent film reps. David looked at Solstice and really liked it, but said it was a tough sell because it was only 48 minutes. I told him that I felt the story told itself in 48 minutes and frankly thought this movie was only going to be a calling card at film festivals. He told me that it would be difficult for him and John to get it on the festival circuit but that they had a friend named Shel Buegen who specialized in placing movies for television. Shel really loved it and pitched it to Showtime, USA and Lifetime and at the time. Lifetime wanted to kick off an annual tradition of having an original holiday movie. So, Shel had this 48-minute movie that could fit perfectly into an hour time slot with commercials, they could stamp Lifetime Original movie on it and suddenly I’m a Lifetime Original movie. I think it was timing, and also that I had a really solid cast and leading man. Also, keep in mind that I had been working on features in Chicago with John Hughes as an assistant. Although I went to Columbia College and learned my tech skills at Columbia, it was really my time spent on big film sets where I learned how to create something to scale. So, even though it was a short movie, I wanted it to have a real cinematic feel. Which is why we used big intersections and grand locations like churches and theaters filled with hundreds of extras to really give it theatrical scale. I remember when I screened it before it went to Lifetime, someone asked me how much I got in my settlement and how much I spent to make the movie. I told him I received $200,000 and the film cost $130,000. He said it looked like I spent a million dollars.
CA) You have done a lot in your career. You also said you made Solstice as a calling card to jump start your career, but it’s kind of defined you in many ways. It sounds like you’re okay with that?
VASILATOS) Well, yes and no. I told people that putting all the effort into restoring the film to 2K and giving it the orchestra score that I always wanted it to have — If this is the only movie that I leave behind, at least it’s going to look and sound as good as I wanted it to for posterity and that makes me happy. But, it’s been a bit of a mixed blessing. Nobody wants to peak when they are young and I have so much more I want to do. It’s difficult. I didn’t get out to Los Angeles soon enough. The film was on Lifetime in 1994 and I didn’t realize the urgency of getting to Los Angeles in 1994. I didn’t move there until 1996 and in 1996 no one cared that it was on in ’94, despite the success it had. They wanted to know what I had done lately. So I kind of drifted into my other career which is film and video editing, which I love doing. But my primary love is directing. I was trying really hard to get a couple features off the ground and came close a couple times, but it’s all in the financing. I joke that most movies cost an arm and a leg and that one [Solstice] just cost a leg.
CA) Does having it shown at the Music Box feel like you’re coming full-circle considering a huge scene in the movie was shot inside the theater?
VASILATOS) Absolutely. I share this without any bad feelings. That scene in the movie was inspired because I went through a really shitty Christmas and I went with some friends to the Music Box and participated in the sing-along. Ironically, at that time the organist is the same organist that is still there now, Dennis Scott. That event inspired me when I wrote the script. The Music Box sing-along is a really fun event and I don’t think anyone outside Chicago knows about it. Participating in that event ended up in the script because I needed to get Nick on an artificial high before I brought him back down for the scene with the little girl. At the time we finished Solstice I really wanted to screen it at the Music Box but then they had different owners who weren’t interested in exhibiting it. It ended up premiering at the Gateway Theater on Lawrence Avenue which is now the Copernicus Center and that was great, but I always wanted it at the Music Box.
CA) I’m going to try not to give spoilers to the readers, but obviously It’s A Wonderful Life was a big influence in the movie. Was it also a big influence on you?
VASILATOS) It was and it is because as I reflect on the course my life has taken… I read this interesting article about George Bailey and I’m no George Bailey, but there are similar themes that I can relate to. George’s life intersected with a lot of people who went on to do a lot of things. He stayed in Bedford Falls and he did some good there, which I like to hope I’m doing some good as well. Harry Bailey went off to fight the war. My friend Mike [Kelley] went to L.A. and he’s a successful producer now. I had alumni from my film who went off to do things that I’m so proud of. I went to L.A. for ten years myself but I came back because of some personal reasons, but you have to recognize the whole It’s A Wonderful Life theme. That whatever encounters you have in our life with people, good and bad, take comfort in knowing that hopefully you’ve impacted people’s lives in positive ways. I’m not saying that I had anything to do with anyone else’s success, but there was a moment in time when we were all together and we all had this great dream and I do like to think that coming together like that and teaming up and recognizing what our passion was helped everyone find their way in one way or another. I hope I had something to do with that because I’m very proud of my friends. That’s the It’s a Wonderful Life connection for me.
CA) I think it’s cool that you still have that hunger to do more, to do more projects.
VASILATOS) I’m stupid that way. [Laughter] I don’t know what else I’d be good at.
Solstice 25th Anniversary restoration will show Tuesday at the Music Box Theater. The evening will begin with a musical set by the acoustic duo of Christina Vasilatos Ballester (Jerry’s sister) and Tom Mulroy. It will continue with an audience sing-along featuring Music Box organist Dennis Scott, (the same organist featured in the movie) followed by a presentation of the vintage, Chicago-made, stop-motion animated Christmas short, Hard Rock, Coco and Joe.
After screening a behind-the-scenes featurette titled, Spirits of Christmas Past and the Making of Solstice, the Solstice 25th Anniversary restoration run.
Paul Ciolino, host of the Popo Report on WLS Radio, will emcee the festivities.
Vasilatos is also coupling the event with a Toys for Tots campaign. He encourages attendees to bring new, unwrapped toys to add to the collection box that will be presented to the organization on the following day. For tickets and more information, click here.