Four years ago, producer, comedian and actor Jeff Garlin caught a "Chicago Tonight" segment on collector John Maloof's accidental discovery of street photographer Vivian Maier, who worked as a North Shore nanny and housekeeper for much of her life. Garlin loved the segment. He loved the late Maier's work. And he loved the mysteries informing her life, her early years and her dedication to capturing the citizens of Chicago unawares, on camera, with an unnerving directness.
Garlin got in touch with Maloof, the man who paid $380 for the unknown Maier's storage-locker effects in 2007. Those effects included hundreds of undeveloped film rolls. Once scanned, the images took on a life of their own. And now there are several obsessive Vivian Maier experts and archivists getting the work out into the world, sometimes working together, sometimes in a more competitive vein.
The documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" opens in Chicago Friday, and it comes from two directors: Maloof, and Charlie Siskel. "I came on as executive producer reasonably early," Garlin told me the other day. "I got ahold of John and told him: 'I will do what I can do to help you. And then I'll stay out of your way." Charlie Siskel came aboard as co-director.
After the film's completion, years later, Garlin was in a marketing meeting with IFC Films in New York, for his movie "Dealin' with Idiots." "I asked everybody to come into the other room," he recalls, with that familiar, tight, gaspy chuckle of his. "And then I showed 'em 'Finding Vivian Maier.'" They bought it, the film premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival and now it's circulating, as it deserves to.
Garlin says he is drawn to Maier's work because "it captured what was happening in my childhood, even if I wasn't actually there. I grew up in Morton Grove. Her pictures show us what was happening in the Loop, in the South Loop area, the stockyards, before I was born."
Maloof adds: "What we see in her work, the bustling quality, the cabs, the theaters lining the streets, it's just an iconic way of looking at Chicago."
When Siskel joined the project, its ambitions, he says, were "very humble. John, on his own, had started to shoot interviews when he first realized this could be a documentary. Vivian's photographs are undeniably the work of an artist. And I thought this should be a bigger, maybe even popular film. How often does the work of a photographer break through and capture people's imaginations in this way? She was not just some strange hoarder, a nanny who just sort of stumbled into taking 100,000 incredible photographs. She was a singular personality."
Siskel says he "never meant this to be a story about John Maloof" and that there was plenty of discussion between himself, Maloof and sounding board Garlin about the focus of the documentary. "There was a time," Siskel acknowledges, "when I thought it'd be interesting to explore the Vivian Maier industry that is growing. It would've been interesting to include that." Another documentary, perhaps.
"Finding Vivian Maier" broaches the subject of Maier's apparent bouts of cruelty toward at least one of young charges. Siskel says: "To this day I have doubts about that story," though it seems plausible enough. Maier's years in Chicago will forever stoke debate. Her work's quality is far less debatable.
Co-directors Maloof and Siskel and executive producer Garlin will appear in person on Friday for a Q&A after the 5:40 p.m. showing of "Finding Vivian Maier" at Landmark's Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Siskel and Garlin will appear on Friday at the 7:30 and 10 p.m. shows at Landmark's Century Centre in Chicago. Maloof will appear in person on Saturday at the 7:30 p.m. show, and will join Siskel at the 10 p.m. Century Centre Cinema screening Saturday.
Movies on the radio: Filling in for Adam Kempenaar, Michael joins co-host Josh Larsen to spend some time with "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and II" on this week's "Filmspotting," 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday on WBEZ-FM (91.5). For the podcast edition, go to filmspotting.net.