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Back Story: Balancing Act

mark vadik on set
Director Mark Vadik, right, on the set of A Chance in the World.

Fall 2018

Mark Vadik ’89, ’04 MA has proved you can balance creative talent with a practical, business-savvy approach to life. After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in performance studies, Vadik became a lawyer and started his own entertainment law firm in Chicago. Eventually he went back to Northwestern for a master’s in theater, focusing on arts marketing and management, and then spent the last 14 years adapting, directing and producing theatrical productions — and feature films. His latest endeavor: He directed and wrote the feature film adaptation of A Chance in the World, the true story of corporate executive Steve Pemberton, who overcame an abusive foster family to find personal and career success. The film premiered on more than 600 screens nationwide during National Foster Care Month last May, and afterward Vadik moderated a live panel discussion on the U.S. foster care system at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

My mother sort of guilted me into going to law school. She said, “You can be an actor any time you want.” I practiced entertainment law for a while — as a litigator — but at a certain point I got tired of making money. 

The more entertainment law I did, the more I missed the creative side of the business. I made a big decision to go back to Northwestern to see if I could make a living doing the creative stuff. 

I didn’t start with horror. I was actually directing a version of Richard III at the Bailiwick in Chicago, and I had never thought about doing film or TV. But a producer came and saw the show, and afterward he said to me, “That was super visual! Have you ever thought of doing a film?” So, we went out and had drinks, and that’s where it all began.

I got started in horror because it’s a pretty safe genre, financially. That’s why they like to test new people in it. Outside of classics like
The Omen and The Exorcist or the standard fare Friday the 13th stuff I saw as a kid, I didn’t really know much about it.

For me, as a filmmaker, as long as the stories are attractive, the issue of genre is kind of secondary or tertiary. If you think about theater, you don’t go, “Oh, my God, I did an O’Casey play, so I can’t do a Genet or a Pinter; I can’t do an absurdist play if I do one based in realism.” 

A Chance in the World was a unique experience, because as you’re putting the story together in your head, you’re realizing that Steve Pemberton is a real person, and sometimes the imaginary world you’re creating runs headfirst into reality.

One of the projects on my back burner is another adaptation, but it’s of an Ibsen play. If you want to shut down a venture capital pitch, just mention that.

I still use my legal background daily. We were at the American Film Market once and got a lot of offers for The Thirsting, which was my first movie and will always have a dear space in my heart, even though it was kind of a cheesy B-list horror movie. And we were talking to this woman, and she pulled out the contract and offered us a distribution deal right there. I started to page through it, and she said, “Oh, you’ll probably want to have your lawyer read that.” I said, “Well, actually, I’m an attorney.” Without skipping a beat, she took it out of my hand and reached into her bag to give me a different contract. “Oh, I didn’t realize you were an attorney. You’ll never sign that one.”

When you talk to some of the younger directors, you see they don’t have an inkling of how the business side works. And that’s horrible, because the business is unforgiving. If you go out of the gate with a financial disaster, you’re going to have a very hard time getting a second film. My old manager, Kevin Pawley, used to say, “The two hardest parts about making a movie are getting the money [to produce it] and getting the money back [for investors].”

Interview by Stephanie Russell, executive editor of Northwestern Magazine. Text by Daniel Fernandez, a Medill senior from Saratoga, Calif.


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