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updated: 10/8/2013 11:34 AM

Winnetka native making his directorial debut

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  • Winnetka native Jason Chaet consults on the set of his first feature film "Putzel," a $200,000 production that attracted stars Melanie Lynskey and John Pankow.

      Winnetka native Jason Chaet consults on the set of his first feature film "Putzel," a $200,000 production that attracted stars Melanie Lynskey and John Pankow.

  • Walter (Jack T. Carpenter), right, and a pal lament their romantic lots in life during Jason Chaet's comedy "Putzel," coming to the Wilmette Theatre.

      Walter (Jack T. Carpenter), right, and a pal lament their romantic lots in life during Jason Chaet's comedy "Putzel," coming to the Wilmette Theatre.

  • Video: "Putzel" trailer

 

The performing arts are in his blood. At least that's the way Jason Chaet explains it.

The Winnetka native's dad, a retired insurance broker, has strong family ties to New York's Yiddish theater.

So when the New Trier High School grad headed east to became a New York theater director, "My parents weren't exactly shocked," Chaet observed.

After 20 years working in the New York theater scene -- alongside such theater giants as David Mamet and Arthur Miller -- Chaet has branched out into directing motion pictures.

His directorial debut, the bittersweet story of "Putzel," will have its local premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Wilmette Theatre, 1122 Central Ave., Wilmette. An encore showing will be presented at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13.

"Putzel" (even the title sounds endearing, right?) tells the story of Walter (Jack T. Carpenter), nicknamed "Putzel," a recessive personality whose world extends only as far as his family's fish store on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

His world changes upon the arrival of a woman (Melanie Lynskey) who becomes romantically involved with Walter's very married uncle. The movie's promo slogan: "Sometimes you have to cross the street to find true love."

"Putzel" also stars Park Ridge native John Pankow, a TV, movie and stage actor.

"When we met, we hit it off right away," Chaet said. "We recognized very quickly that we were both from Chicago."

How so?

"There's something about a Midwestern work ethic," he replied. "A sense of integrity. I don't know if that's uniquely a Chicagoland trait, but it certainly runs through a lot of people from that area.

"I've lived in New York for 20 years and people here work really hard. But Chicagoans really have a sense of character, a sense of integrity, and what I call an old-fashioned work ethic."

Chaet himself hasn't been much of a slouch since graduating from New Trier High School, an institution known for producing some notable performing talent (Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret, Rainn Wilson, Edward Zwick, Rock Hudson and Michael Shannon among them).

In 1994, Chaet headed to Syracuse University after New Trier, majoring first in musical theater before switching to directing and acting.

He eventually made the big move to the Big Apple. He did some summer stock. Booked a children's show tour. Worked as assistant to the artistic director of New York's famed Ensemble Studio Theatre. Became a teacher at New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

And, of course, has now become a feature director, a major elevation from his early film work as a creative consultant on the indie picture "Kissing Jessica Stein."

"The process is very different between the two media," Chaet observed. "Theater requires weeks and weeks of rehearsals to open a show that will run over and over. Movie production is highly compressed to capture moments on film.

"I think of it this way: Theater is a language medium. Film is a visual medium. Theater is all about the dialogue. For film, you come up with a good story and look for ways to tell that story visually. I think that's the trickiest thing, remembering to tell the story visually, concentrating on people's faces, their reactions."

Chaet has another production he's proud of, his 6-year-old daughter. He met his wife, Heather, at a theater audition where he was selecting the actors. He didn't cast her for the show, but she still stuck around to work on the production. They got to know each other and eventually married in Chicago, where many of Chaet's relatives live.

So what's the big deal about working in the performing arts?

"I love the collaboration," Chaet said. "Being creative, doing introspective work. I love teaching. It's challenging, interesting and fulfilling. You work a lot of hours.

"But I love collaboration. I like to tell stories. People love stories."

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting column, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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