Film News: ‘For Grace’ is Top Film at 2016 ‘Best of the Midwest’ Awards Night

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CHICAGO – On Tuesday, December 6th, the Midwest Independent Film Festival gave out their 2016 “Best of the Midwest” Awards with a ceremony at Rockit Bar & Grill in Chicago. Best Feature honors went to “For Grace,” directed by Mark Helenowski and Kevin Pang. Best Female Actor was Amy Frazzini of “Guidance,” Best Male Actors were T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi of “T.J. & Dave,” and Best Screenplay was Robert Putka of “Mad,” among other categories.

The evening was hosted by Festival Director Mike McNamara, and included presenters Betsy Steinberg – Executive Director of Kartemquin Films, Christine Dudley – the Director of the Illinois Film Office, Amy Guth of WGN Radio and Christian Stolte of TV’s “Chicago Fire” The event took place in the upstairs nightclub area of Rockit Bar & Grill in Chicago.

Best Female Actor Amy Frazzini (‘Guidance’), with BMA Host Mike McNamara
Photo credit: Midwest Independent Film Festival

The Midwest Independent Film Festival is a year-round movie event in Chicago that takes place the first Tuesday of every month, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. The festival has been recognized by Chicago Magazine in their “Best of Chicago” issue, and has become one of the top places for local filmmakers, producers and actors to network in the city, as evidenced by the heavy hitters in attendance. was there at the “BMAs,” and talked to a few of the honorees, with their interviews underneath the award category.

StarBest Music Video
“My Day,” directed by Eric McCoy for Devin Kirtz

Eric McCoy is a Chicago native, who started his own production house in Los Angeles. Four years ago he was working as a volunteer at the “Best of the Midwest” Awards, in 2016 he takes home a trophy. Four years ago you were working at these awards, and now you’ve won for your music video. How does this relate in the context of the journey from here to there?

Eric McCoy: It means a lot. What I learned is that no matter how good your film looks, if you don’t have a good story it won’t work. People do have a platform to tell a good story here…you don’t need a million bucks, a big star or a techno-crane, just go and shoot your story tomorrow…that platform we have here is a beautiful thing.

StarBest Short Film
“No Other Way to Say It.” directed by Tim Mason

This film came out of the Midwest Independent Film Fest’s Advertising Shorts Night, and is a killer exploration of a studio voiceover project, and the disconnect between a client and talent. What is the origin of this amazing short film?

Tim Mason: I was allowed free reign, as long as I shot the film at Optimus [video editing and post production house]. I walked into an audio booth, and thought, ‘I could make something funny in an audio booth,’ because I’ve worked both as a talent and a creative director. I wrote it in one night, called some friends and then shot it the next day in two hours. We’re also going to show it at Slamdance next month.

StarBest Editing
Josh Hyde & Evan Smith, “My Best Friend’s Rubber Ducky”

Nice cutting in this made-in-Chicago comedy. Click here for a interview with director Josh Hyde.

Best Male Actor David Pasquesi (‘TJ & Dave’) with Presenter Christian Stolte of TV’s ‘Chicago Fire’
Photo credit: Midwest Independent Film Festival

StarBest Cinematography
Christopher Rejano, “Crystal Lake”

Maximum daylight and zero boys – a group of girls band together to help a friend in need. This film is a “grrrl power” anthem, and beautifully shot by Christopher Rejano.

StarBest Artistic Specialization
Cristen Leifheit, Stop-Motion Animation, “Yellow Gold”

“Yellow Gold” compares living cycles in agriculture to question the lengths in which we implement technology and the results observed when we push too far. This stop motion animation, by Cristen Leifheit, gives voice to a landscape affected by the strain of economics and technology.

StarBest Screenplay
Robert Putka, “Mad”

“Mad” is a great film, exploring the difficulties of two daughters dealing with their mother’s hospital stay after a depression episode, and the fine line between reality and the mental condition. Mr. Putka also directed, and his story is authentic. “Mad” is available on iTunes. You mentioned that you’ve lived this story. What is the origin of “Mad.”

Robert Putka: One of my parents has been hospitalized throughout my life, and I’ve had to deal with it, which caused some resentment and anger over the years. I wasn’t proud of these emotions, and needed to find a way to cope with it. I finally found some empathy by telling the story, and created the film.

StarBest Female Actor

Amy Frazzini, “Guidance”

This was Ms. Frazzini’s first film role as an actress, and because of the experience she has worked thereafter in the film industry. “Guidance” was directed by Josh Wolff. Which layer of this high school girl character did you understand the most?

Amy Frazzini: The reason I was able to connect to the character, was because of Josh’s guidance as a director and at the age and time in life I was portraying, I was also in that position. At 16 years old, I was confused, and was upset at people for no reason. I can appreciate and be grateful for the role for that reason, because looking back it kick started my young adult life.

StarBest Male Actors
T.J. Jagodowski & David Pasquesi, “TJ & Dave”

Two Chicago treasures in improvisation, T.J. and Dave are expanding into the short film world. Presenting the award to Mr. Pasquesi, as T.J. was on assignment, was their long-time collaborator and “Chicago Fire” TV treasure, the one-and-only Christian Stolte (who portrays Randall “Mouch” McHolland). How does working in improvisation, as you have expertly done over the years, make you a better actor?

David Pasquesi: I don’t know if it gives me a huge advantage, but my training in improvisation does make me pay attention more, and that helps to stay present. Whenever I take on a role, for example, I always figure it’s just me. I approach the role assuming that first. Congratulations on reaching the magic 100 episode mark with ‘Chicago Fire.’ If Christian Stolte were to sit down with the character you portray, the amazing ‘Mouch,’ what do think you both would have in common?

Christian Stolte: We both have a stunning lack of ambition. [laughs] We definitely share that. He’s a guy who has 30 years in the department, who has no interest whatsoever in taking the lieutenant’s exam. I am the actor equivalent of that. But I do think I’m smarter than he is, I’m often frustrated about what he doesn’t know or understand. How is the background of a TV character established…is that all the show creator or do you have a say?

Stolte: The creators did it, but here’s the way I think it works. When I auditioned for the part, I was trying to be him. Once I got the part and was him, they write the character to be more like me, assuming that serves their purpose. All the roles on a long-running series has to grow in specificity. There are 11 regular roles on the show, and that’s a lot of specificity to conjure up. It’s helpful to the writers once they got to know me, to take pieces of my personality and apply it to Mouch.

Best Feature ‘For Grace’ Directors Kevin Pang & Mark Helenowski, Presenter Betsy Steinberg and Mike McNamara
Photo credit: Midwest Independent Film Festival

StarBest Directors
Mark Helenowski & Kevin Pang, “For Grace”

A poignant documentary, focusing on Curtis Duffy, a two-star Michelin Executive Chef and restaurateur, as he concentrates on making his Chicago eatery – aptly named GRACE – the best in the country. The film revisits his turbulent childhood, his development as a talented chef in his teenage years, and how cooking has taken as much from him as it has given him. Available on Amazon Video.

StarBest Feature
“For Grace,” directed by Mark Helenowski & Kevin Pang

It was a twofer for the directing team of the documentary, as “For Grace” also won Best Feature.

After the holidays, The Midwest Independent Film Festival kicks off again on the first Tuesday of the new year, February 7th, 2016. Click here for details about the festival and how you can participate in what Chicago Magazine called “the place to be and be seen for veteran pros and up-and-comers.” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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