Marie Ullrich wants to deliver a feature-length movie about bike messengers

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Marie Ullrich on Milwaukee Avenue.

It’s annoying to see your job or your city portrayed inaccurately in the media, but as someone who spent years as a Chicago courier I was pleasantly surprised by Faster!, a short by filmmaker Marie (“MAH-ree”) Ullrich, which has played several international festivals. Although it’s a work of fiction, the writer/director/producer did a solid job of realistically depicting the nuts and bolts of Chicago’s bike delivery business. You can view the trailer for Faster! here (embedded below). Other locally filmed, bike-related projects she’s completed include an award-winning ad for Chrome messenger bags and an experimental short about ghost bike memorials.

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Now Ullrich is trying to raise $35,000 via a Kickstarter campaign to shoot The Alley Cat, a full-length movie starring Jasper, the female messenger who is the main character from Faster!, played by Jenny Strubin. While the short follows Jasper on a rough day of courier work, the action in the feature film would revolve around a late-night alleycat (underground courier race) gone awry. Ullrich hopes to shoot the movie this summer before she leaves town for a full-time gig teaching in Michigan. I recently sat down with her at Café Mustache in Logan Square to get some background on her work and the deets about her future plans.

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Jenny Strubin as Jasper in Faster!, under the Wabash Street ‘L’ tracks. Photo by Christopher Dilts.

What’s your background with biking?

I find cycling to be really empowering. I started biking just as a means of transportation to get to work and back because buses were annoying and biking was a lot easier. From there I started noticing bike messengers. It’s definitely not the only thing that I’m interested in making films about but it’s just kind of been the most exciting thing for now.

How did you get started doing movies about messengering? Do you have friends who are couriers?

I do. It was just an idea for a character that I had. All of my films start with an idea about a character and what interesting problems that character might have.

In a nutshell, what is Faster! about?

Faster! is a short that I made in 2010 about a bike messenger who’s having a really terrible day. She’s having bad luck and she’s also continuing the chain of bad luck by her own behavior and then she has a moment of reckoning and decides that something needs to change.

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Jasper gets harassed by suits in an elevator. Photo by Christopher Dilts.

And what’s The Alley Cat about?

The Alley Cat is the same main character from Faster! but in a completely new set of circumstances. It begins with a nighttime alleycat. There’s fun and drinking and tomfoolery and then it takes a hard turn and just becomes really splintered and different groups of messengers go in different directions because they’re sort of arguing about what to do. We follow Jasper, the main character as she goes on a long spiritual and physical journey. I can’t really tell you too much because it will give away the ending.

It sounds like maybe someone gets hit by a car?

Possibly [laughs].

Have you participated in alleycats yourself?

I’ve been a checkpoint person at a couple. I don’t really race. I recently worked a checkpoint at the Tiny Fix Ace Race. That was really fun and I think they had a good turnout. I got my first spoke card.

One of your press releases has a provocative headline: “Chicago is 5th best city for – Road Rage and Drunk Driving”. Why did you use that headline?

I completely made that up because Chicago was recently named the 5th best city for bicycling in the U.S. [by Bicycling magazine] but I still notice a lot of road rage and drunk driving. But that was clearly just a provocative, made-up statistic that perhaps I should change. But I want to reinvigorate the conversation about cycling and urban cycling in particular, and how it can be safer, and how it takes everyone’s awareness, not just drivers’ but cyclists’ awareness also.

Will The Alley Cat will address some of these issues about drivers’ and cyclists’ behavior?

Yeah, I want it to. I didn’t shy away from some of the controversy. In an original version I wrote, the cyclists were not drinking [alcohol]. They were drinking energy drinks or something because I didn’t want to show messengers in a bad light by saying, “They’re drinking and cycling.” But then when I met up with some messengers and was talking to them they said, “Don’t worry about making messengers look bad. We can do that ourselves.”

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Photo by Christopher Dilts.

But it’s not only about politics or preaching. Cinema is about emotion and I hope that people will be really engaged and feel strongly for the main character in the story. But also through that I do hope to open up a little more discussion about cycling. Because I see a lot of, especially on websites, back-and-forth between motorists and cyclists and it gets pretty heated and then it just sort of ends. So I’d like people to have those conversations in person.

What kind of research have you done to find out about the messenger job and the messenger lifestyle?

I read blogs, like J. Dot used to have a blog [about local bike messengers], Dispatch 101 and I think I read that from the very beginning all the way until he took it down. I read the controversial book The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power [a memoir by former Chicago courier Travis Hugh Culley.] I know some people. One of my original consultants for Faster! was Rene Cudal from Four Star Courier Collective,who has been a messenger for a long time. And I’ve just been meeting with people and talking to them.

So what did you think of The Immortal Class?

I thought it was great. Personally I loved it. However, I heard through the grapevine that perhaps some of the events he presented as his own were things that happened to other people.

You know there’s a new feature film coming out soon about bike messengers called Premium Rush. So The Alley Cat is sort of my answer to that. Because Premium Rush is a film about a bike messenger, awesome, but I’ve seen the trailer and to me it looks a little cheesy. So I hope my film will be the antidote to that [laughs].

Do you think it’s going to be any better than…

Quicksilver?

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Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver.

… A short-lived TV series called Double Rush?

I never saw that.

Quicksilver is kind of a classic in its own right.

So bad it’s good?

It’s the equivalent of an Old El Paso hard-shell taco with ground beef, cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato and sour cream. It’s completely inauthentic but it’s sort of its own thing.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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