The Chicago International Film Festival just announced its “sneak peek” for the 2019 lineup and Chicago area filmmaker McKenzie Chinn’s debut feature film Olympia will be featured in the “City & State” category. Chinn creates an undeniably compelling story inspired by her own question of what it means to make the transition into true adulthood.
Chinn writes and stars in the film portraying a young woman on life’s journey as she copes with a dying mother, faces her commitment (or lack thereof) to her boyfriend, and looks to the future. The story is filled with love, insightful humor, and artistic creativity as we connect with rich and layered characters and walk along side of Olympia on her journey of self-discovery.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with Chinn, a vibrant young woman from Baltimore who moved to the Windy City in 2008 to attend DePaul University’s School of Theater to study acting. She lit up the small coffee shop with her energy and smile as we openly discussed her background, the genesis of Olympia, and what it means to be not just female in the world of filmmaking, but also a woman of color.
By the end of the interview, Chinn seemed wise beyond her years and from my perspective, she is now standing firmly in the land of adulthood.
PP: When did you first start telling stories?
MC: I’ve always been a storyteller ever since I can remember. One of the things I loved doing when other kids would play outside, I would just be writing little stories. One of the first stories I ever wrote, I’ll never forget it … was about a unicorn that got kidnapped. And my sister did the illustrations.
PP: Do you still have the book?
MC: No. I wish I still did. I can still see my sister’s illustrations and we took it very seriously. For the longest time, I thought I was going to be a writer. I was going to study journalism, but then got pulled in the direction of theater which I found incredibly exciting and intoxicating. Then I went to graduate school and that was incredibly consuming. So, writing was just an activity that got back-burnered in a really major way. But when I finished school in 2011, I finished unemployed [and] we were still recovering from the recession. I had all this time and all this expressive energy and so I started writing [again].
PP: That brings us to your film, Olympia.
MC: I got a fellowship that funded a large part of Olympia. It’s called the Annenberg Artist Fellowship and a component … of that fellowship is having an artist mentor and Tarell Alvin MCCraney (Moonlight) was my artist mentor. It’s so exciting to be in a moment where people get to encompass fuller selves, not just stereotypes and not just best friends, but to actually have a voice and have a story in an arc … regardless of where they come from …
This was my first foray into filmmaking. I think I only take really big steps. [Laughs] Like Burnham, one of the architects of Chicago said, ‘Make no small plans,’ and I think that’s just a part of my DNA as an artist. It never even occurred to me to make a short. It was a huge learning curve, but I was smart enough to surround myself with people who I knew had much more experience and could help the vision come to life.
PP: Tell me about writing Olympia.
MC: I wrote Olympia shortly after turning 30 which felt like a major milestone in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I feel like folks in my generation, the millennial generation, that we don’t have the same milestones that our parents had to move us into adulthood. You know, my parents’ generation, sometime in their twenties, maybe their thirties, they got married, started a career that they would have for thirty or forty years, got a house, [and] had children. These are very recognizable mile markers that confer adulthood. I felt like by the time people in my generation got to those same points, the rule book had completely changed… The economy had changed and what we’re able to do had changed. If those things that were mile markers aren’t really the same anymore, then, what does it mean to be an adult?
PP: In the film, Olympia is very connected with her mother who is dying. Can you explore this topic a little further from a personal standpoint?
MC: While this story is not autobiographical, I definitely pull from my own sense of what’s important and what resonates for me. One of my most cherished relationships is with my mom and fortunately she’s still with me. I think it would be so incredibly disorienting to me to not have that figure in my life… I remember feeling like that, for me, would be the breaking point. You have to make a choice now because you don’t have this thing you can lean on, you don’t have an escape hatch. It’s you now. For me, that’s adulthood.
PP: I loved the Chicago drone shots and graphic art!
MC: The drone shots were Greg Dixon. He was dead set on having those kind of shots. The animation was his idea [too]. It’s collaborative…lifts it to a level that you never imagined. It changed the whole tenor and tone.
PP: Tell me about your cast.
MC: As a person of color, it was just very important to me that the story be … around other people of color. That was very intentional. I think so many times when you’re a person of color in media, you get asked to lean into a stereotype or the tired type of idea, like a maid. Or how many times have I auditioned to be a slave? I’m just over it. It felt really good to write and perform in a story that, yes, I’m fully black, all the time … I’m just a person living my life. You don’t have to divorce those things. They can both be true. And that every single thing doesn’t have to revolve around oppression and marginalization.
PP: To be honest, I didn’t even realize that everyone in the primary roles were of color in the film.
MC: Isn’t that great that we’re in that place now? I think so many times we see movies where the cast is mostly black or people of color and people write it off as a black movie. No, actually it’s just a movie. It’s really so heartwarming to hear you say that!
PP: Do you think things are truly changing quickly thanks to the #MeToo movement or do you think things began changing prior to that?
MC: I think a little bit of both. I think the way that we get to tell our stories is changing very rapidly and the ways in which we get to tell them differently, that has been precipitated by the #MeToo movement. … I feel like we are getting to encompass more of ourselves, we’re able to be more faceted and more nuanced and way less apologetic about how we present. I think the attitude about it is deal with it. That’s not my problem anymore, that’s your problem. It’s incredibly empowering.
Check back for dates and times to see Olympia at the 2018 CIFF.
© Pamela Powell (8/21/18) FF2 Media
Top photo: Shane Kenyon, LaNisa Renee Frederick, Ericka Ratcliff, Charles Andrew Gardner, Gregory Dixon, Sadieh Rifai, and McKenzie Chinn in Olympia (2018)
Bottom photo: Christine Sciortino and McKenzie Chinn in Olympia (2018)
Photo credits: IMDb