Back on track
A local filmmaker rebounds from a tragic train accident, Sam Weller reports
FADE IN: Summer, 1986. Jerry Vasilatos, a 21-year-old film student makes his way down the damp concrete steps of the Harrison Street subway platform just in time to catch a waiting train. It is a locker-room sticky June evening and Vasilatos just wants to get home in time to catch an episode of "Hill Street Blues". The hollow shrill of the departing train's whistle reverberates down the corridor.

"All aboard," echoes the conductor's voice over a PA system. At that moment, Vasilatos drops a textbook to the concrete. He reaches to pick it up as his right foot slips and lodges in the thin, dark space between the train and the cement subway platform. The el stands at the Harrison station for a moment longer, as panic overwhelms the young student. His foot is trapped. He begins to pound anxiously on the doors. Englewood Northbound No. 713 commences forward, as Vasilatos hobbles along with it, terror stricken. Screaming for the train to stop, his pleas are enveloped in the roar of the subway tunnel. No longer able to keep up with the accelerating train and still unable to free his foot, the young man falls to the ground. Writhing and twisting, Jerry Vasilatos is dragged forty feet and then he blacks out.

FADE IN: The winter of 1992 finds Jerry Vasilatos standing on snow-laden Southport Avenue outside the Music Box Theatre. Vasilatos is wrapping up principal shooting on "Solstice," a short feature that credits him as writer, producer and director. Clutching a black cane in his hand and wearing a prosthesis on his right leg, he is thankful to be alive. He is also thankful to be pursuing his life-long dream -- to make movies.

Today, three years after completing "Solstice," Vasilatos' film has aired on the Lifetime Channel during the '94 and '95 holiday seasons. Just recently, the short feature has been released to video stores. Vasilatos' life has changed dramatically since that horrific night in the Harrison Street station -- for the better.

"When I came to in the subway tunnel that evening," he says, "the train was gone and I remember the first thing that came to mind was: `My God, I'm still alive. I might actually walk away from this.' Then, I rolled over and I realized my right leg wasn't responding."

Due to massive trauma, doctors at Cook County Hospital were unable to save Vasilatos' leg. He spent a good portion of the summer in the hospital coming to grips with what had happened. "The accident was obviously a big turning point for me. Through that summer recuperating in the hospital, there was a real reassessment of my life. For the first time, I was really aware of the limited amount of time we all have on this earth. At that point, I knew I had better get with it and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, because by all logic I really shouldn't be around. I really lucked out."

With new resolve, Vasilatos graduated from Columbia College in 1990. He began working as a production and location assistant on numerous commercials and feature films shot locally, including "Dennis the Menace" and "Home Alone II." During the Christmas of 1991, he wrote "Solstice" to "work out a few personal issues," never expecting that he would have the opportunity to produce his thirty-page screenplay as a forty-eight-minute short film. An out-of-court settlement with the Chicago Transit Authority gave Vasilatos the financial freedom to pursue his cinematic vision.

After twenty-six days of shooting, three months of editing (done entirely by him) and six months of sound work, "Solstice" was a finished project, shot entirely in Chicago and using only local talent.

Set in Chicago on Christmas Eve, it follows the story of a forlorn young man (played by Michael Kelly) who, through a series of encounters, manages to rediscover the true spirit of the holidays. Not coincidentally, the film bears a narrative relationship to the perennial classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

"Absolutely, there are similarities," Vasilatos says, while sipping a cold pint of beer at Guthrie's Tavern, a location used in his short film. "There was definitely an homage in `Solstice' to `It's a Wonderful Life.' I think that, in a lot of ways, everybody has a little bit of Jimmy Stewart in them at Christmas time."

Approaching a premise that has been flogged like a racehorse didn't scare the young filmmaker off. Neither did the cornball clichs associated with the genre of the "Christmas film." "I didn't think of it as a Christmas film when we were making it. I thought of it as a story of people set at Christmas time."

May of 1993 found Vasilatos with a finished product. Then came the long, tedious task of wading through hours and hours of 16mm footage while editing "Solstice." Renting an old Steinbeck editing table and lugging the behemoth up five flights of stairs into his North Side apartment, the filmmaker found his days and nights completely reversed. Appropriately, standing in one corner of the apartment is a life-sized figure of that vigilante of the night, Batman. "I slept during the days and worked all night, because you need a completely dark room to cut your film."

After cutting the picture, Vasilatos spent another three months laying down the sound and score. "Solstice" was now complete. "At times, the movie felt like this giant steamroller that I had climbed up on that just went completely out of control. When finally I had taken control, it just felt incredible. It was a great feeling of accomplishment."

Vasilatos set out to find a market for his film. "When I was done with the film I realized -- okay, I'm going to be able to put this in the festivals, but considering the amount of money I poured into it, it would be nice to get some back. I never intended to spend on the movie what I ended up spending." (He won't divulge the figure.) After three months of pitching it to cable networks, he finalized the deal with Lifetime.

Even now, with the video release, Vasilatos still seems surprised by the success of his film -- as if Scrooge or the Grinch may suddenly come along and pluck it away. "It still doesn't seem real. I made this movie almost as a Christmas gift to myself," he says. "And with everything that's happened with it, I really couldn't have asked for a better present."



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