Neighborhood Horrors are Brought to Life by Local Filmmaker David Schmidt

For local filmmaker David Schmidt, story ideas come from anywhere — even Cudahy library.

For many, Cudahy Library is a spot for studying, checking out books or catching up with friends. For indie filmmaker David Schmidt, it’s the ideal setting for a horror film. 

Schmidt, a recall and search assistant at Loyola’s Cudahy Library, has produced short films for his business Sword & Cloak Productions since the late 1990s. He began with screening them at film festivals and horror/science fiction conventions, but shifted to YouTube after the platform became popular. 

The name comes from a theater company he used to work for, with the sword representing action and the cloak symbolizing mystery.

For Schmidt, story ideas come from anywhere — even Cudahy itself. Schmidt recalled when the main elevator in Cudahy would constantly go down to the basement before it would go up to any other floor, no matter what button you pressed.

“I went, ‘Well, that’s a good idea for a ghost story in the library — that it’s trying to get people to the basement for some reason,’” Schmidt said.

This idea came to fruition through his 2017 short film “JORDAN DESCENDING,” which was shot in Cudahy over the course of a weekend and runs at eight minutes and 33 seconds.

For Briané Goodrum, who plays the titular character, “JORDAN DESCENDING” was a positive introduction to the horror genre. 

“It was a nice taste,” Goodrum said. “It led me to be like, ‘Oh, well, what type of horror would I like to write or be a part of?’ And I hadn’t thought about that until I worked on that film.”

The film motivated her to work on further horror projects down the line such as the webseries “Serial Dating” — a mockumentary about a woman who dates known serial killers. The show was scheduled to debut this fall, according to Ané Production’s website, but Goodrum said the release is now set for next year. 

But just as Cudahy’s basement can inspire horror in Schmidt’s mind, it can terrorize the actors as well, Goodrum said.

“[Schmidt] had us in the basement of the library and it actually looked really scary,” Goodrum said. “So I was concerned. I was like, ‘Are there real ghosts? I thought we were pretending.’”

“JORDAN DESCENDING” was screened during the library’s haunted house on Halloween this year. Schmidt said he heard students calling out advice to the characters on screen in fruitless attempts to mitigate the inevitable horror. 

“I sat in the back a couple times and watched people going, ‘No, no, don’t get in the elevator,’” Schmidt said. “And that’s the kind of response you’re hoping for.”

All of Schmidt’s short films are shot in Rogers Park. For Schmidt, the importance of filming in Rogers Park comes from the ability to reflect the diversity of cultures and identities in the community. 

His most recent film, “DREAMING THE WITCH,” released April 30, was filmed amidst the sandy dunegrass of Loyola Beach — a recognizable landmark for Rogers Park members like Jo Peer Haas. 

“I liked, of course, the fact that it was filmed in Rogers Park, because I walk down that beach a lot,” Peer Haas said. “I think people will watch it more because it was filmed here.” 

Like most of Schmidt’s work, “DREAMING THE WITCH” dabbles in horror, depicting The Thorn Witch — a sunken, skeletal figure with cracked, blackened hands. Her head is covered by white tulle, and a crown of spikes rests above her eyebrows. She’ll help those who ask it of her — but only for a steep, deadly price.

With “DREAMING THE WITCH,” Schmidt said he was inspired by the idea of folk horror being transplanted into an urban environment, and he hopes to film similar projects in the future.

Schmidt earned a bachelor’s degree in film and video at Columbia College Chicago in 1987, where he was a part of multiple “disastrous” feature film attempts, finding it difficult to obtain resources and funding for his projects. He said didn’t pursue film for many years before ultimately realizing his love for it. 

Schmidt’s stories begin on a storyboard, where he draws out every shot of each scene. (Courtesy of David Schmidt)

“I did theater in Chicago and I was doing creative writing, or storytelling,” Schmidt said. “But everything I was writing kept becoming screenplays, and so I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not going to be happy unless I’m doing this.’”

Schmidt said filming almost exclusively in horror has allowed him to dip into myth and metaphor in order to create more complex stories. He said he finds it easier to comment on and explore the human condition when working within a genre.

Schmidt has also done projects in science fiction and puppetry — the latter of which he found to be particularly challenging because everything needed to be handmade in order to be sized down to “puppet scale.”

Schmidt said his filmmaking process is meticulously front-loaded in order to prevent the need for lengthy shooting days.

“Script, shot list, storyboards, careful arrangement of props and costumes — all laid out,” Schmidt said. “We can just go in and keep very high energy and move along and get things done, and I find that a lot more productive and more fun.”

Goodrum said she appreciated the conscientious nature of Schmidt’s filmmaking and that the detailed aspect of the project was a major reason as to why she wanted to work on the film.

“I knew exactly what needed to be done as far as character- and production-wise,” Goodrum said. “I like to work with people who know what they want.”

A lot of the behind-the-scenes visual elements are done by Schmidt himself, like The Thorn Witch’s crown of barbs in “DREAMING THE WITCH.” For his 2013 project “SCREAMS ON PLANET ZERO!” Schmidt needed to construct the interior of a rocket ship in his own apartment.

“My office was filled — one side of it — with buttons and can lids,” Schmidt said. “I just had great fun with it.”

Schmidt doesn’t typically stand by and let genius find him — he hunts it down instead.

“I try not to wait for inspiration,” Schmidt said. “I think most good writers just find time to sit down regularly and spew stuff out. Write as freely as you can and then come in and be surgical and ruthless and hone it down to just what needs to be there to tell the story.”

But, Schmidt said, filming horror in a residential area prompts worried passersby to check in occasionally. In his latest project, “DREAMING THE WITCH,” there’s a scene in which a character who has been hit by a car is lying in an underpass. Blood leaks from the corner of her mouth and peculiar symbols have been carved into her forehead. 

“Four or five cars slowed down and stopped and checked to make sure that person was okay,” Schmidt said. “Which made me feel really good about living in Rogers Park — that the neighbors all care.”

Not all of Schmidt’s projects require film equipment. He has shot short films on his phone before and strongly encourages others to do so. 

“I think people, if they have a desire to tell a story, they should really not be afraid to grab their phone and learn how to tell it,” Schmidt said.

Featured image by Krisjanis Kaugars/The Phoenix.

Catherine Meyer

Catherine Meyer