Todd Looby has served as BendFilm’s Executive Director since 2014. In those seven years, he has led the organization through a pandemic, tripled its scale, and directed the acquisition of the Tin Pan, BendFilm’s independent theater. Outside of BendFilm, he’s an award-winning producer, father of two, and spreadsheet wizard (thanks to his Master’s degree in Civil Engineering). We sat down with Todd to talk about the art that inspires him, from non-narrative film to binge-worthy TV.
Q: What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
A: I think 2001 was one of the biggest years for me, as far as film goes. My interest in film and filmmaking was at a particularly precarious stage. I had been working as a Project Engineer at Chicago’s biggest construction company and planning my exit from that, not too long after starting, but not knowing what to do. That’s when I saw Richard Linklater’s Waking Life at the Chicago International Film Festival and either right before or after saw his other 2001 film Tape.
Waking Life made me realize that anything can be a film. It’s the first real non-narrative film I had seen and it blew me away. Tape was the realization that you can make an engrossing film with three actors in one room in six days with no crew and a couple of digital cameras. That set me on the path of making my first film. Incidentally, that film was about the day in the life of a young construction manager working on a housing project on Chicago’s South Side, shot entirely in the construction trailer. No one who hasn’t seen that film will see it too, in case you’re wondering.
Q: What is your favorite BendFilm memory?
A: There have been so many, but I think meeting and hosting John Sayles and Maggie Renzi will always be my highlight. When I was making my first film, I read John’s book—Thinking in Pictures—about making Matewan and it really helped me get going. I (like so many young filmmakers) wanted to make socially conscious or relevant narratives in the vein of Sayles. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure his City of Hope inspired my construction movie. Wow! Now I just remembered that I think I saw Sayles’ Honeydripper at the Chicago International Film Festival and I tried to push a rough cut DVD of that first film on him saying it was like City of Hope meets Barney Miller. He was gracious enough to take the DVD which (hopefully) went right into the garbage.
John and Maggie are also the inspiration of my First Features idea and initiative wherein a now-notable director talks about the trials and tribulations of making their first feature and moderates a panel with festival filmmakers that are showing their first features at the Fest. John’s Secaucus 7 will always be one of the best “First Feature” stories wherein someone with incredible talent and belief in themself just takes a chance to go into incredible debt and risk to make their own film. Most of those stories have a Sundance connection wherein the filmmaker catches the eye of a critic—like John did with Ebert—and the rest is history. It’s also interesting to note that John and Maggie are still looking for financing for a film I think has to be made about the “Carlisle Indian School.” It’s such an important story that (like Tulsa) no one talks about–especially in the wake of the horrific news about the discovery of the bodies at the Indigenous School in Canada.
Q: When not creating, what keeps you busy?
A: Spending time with my kids–8 and 10–and family. This job is busy year-round and there aren’t a lot of down periods. Summer is also a bit busier than other times of the year, so I try as much as I can to get out with the kids. I hear over and over how fast it goes and it is true, but I’m trying to slow down by spending as much time with them as I can.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: I just picked up Oliver Stone’s memoir of his first 40 years, Chasing the Light. Stone will always be an influence. I grew up entranced by the ’60s and Platoon was one of the first films that I figured out critically in my young teens. If I ever get time, I’ll write about how genius that film is because I never read anything that understands that film in a way I believe Stone intended. Of course, being a ’60s-phile, I watched The Doors and JFK more times as a teen than I have most films in total.
Q: What is the last show or series you binge-watched?
A: The only thing that I binged and I was blown away by was Enlightenment. It is the only series brave enough to end after two seasons, and it’s brilliant. Trying a few others out, I found that they now build in these really contrived plot twists at the end of season one to ensure the series goes beyond two seasons. Most of these shows start out wonderfully because the characters are so rich, but then they get plot driven and I see through it too obviously to enjoy. Enlightenment is by far a standout in that it had something to say, said it and moved on. Mike White is also such an underappreciated genius of Gen X as well.
Q: With regard to the pandemic, how has this past year and a half changed you? How will it shape BendFilm’s goals as we move forward?
A: Operating the theater and BendFilm during this time only underscored and reinforced things we already knew or suspected: that if you as an arts organization or business are pivoting, inventing, and improvising with enthusiasm and purpose, that the audience will respond in overwhelmingly positive ways. The thing that is often undervalued or not fully understood, but should never be, is that arts nonprofits provide a direct service that is incredibly important, especially in confusing, difficult, and contentious times. And that direct service is one to our emotions. Many people suffered directly from COVID via the loss of health or of loved ones, many people lost jobs and careers, and many were incredibly lonely. What we heard time and time again over the past 15 months is that our efforts to bring people together safely, in the alley, in the theater, at the drive-in, in online discussions, even our communications and blogs about things to look forward to had an incredibly powerful impact. If there are no organizations specifically catering to bringing people together and stoking positivity, our community can be so easily siloed by other forces with more resources than us. But, gladly, our audience and supporters have been very clear that they back and support our efforts to counter those divisive forces, and luckily, it’s really fun to do–especially with the great board, staff, and community we have.