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Macomb filmmaker documents local antihero

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Macomb filmmaker documents local antihero

Henry Wagle and his wife Beulah Wagle, who Henry is suspected of murdering in 1919.

Henry Wagle and his wife Beulah Wagle, who Henry is suspected of murdering in 1919.

Henry Wagle and his wife Beulah Wagle, who Henry is suspected of murdering in 1919.

Henry Wagle and his wife Beulah Wagle, who Henry is suspected of murdering in 1919.

Baylee Brynteson

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In a town where the most common tragedy was an accident in the coal mine, Henry “Kelly” Wagle was gunned down in the street, a grisly scene you might have expected to see at the Valentine’s Day massacre. What happened in Kelly Wagle’s life that would warrant a gangland-style slaying in a small mining town? Ryan Walker and his film “The Bootlegger” may have the answer to that very question.

 “The Bootlegger” is the story of Henry (Kelly) Wagle, a small-town gangster and booze-runner who lived in Colchester, Illinois, in the early 20th century. For reasons likely not related to Wagel, Colechester is still a dry town today.

 Walker’s inspiration for the film came from a local historian and family friend of his.

 “I was inspired by John Hallwas’s book,” Walker said. “Its combination of true crime, local history, and biography is right up my alley.”

 Wagle is well known throughout the town to this day, even though he died 87 years ago. His good deeds seem to be what most of the older residents of Colchester remember him by, but “The Bootlegger” reveals that he was also notorious for having a violent temper and his infidelity, along with being the primary suspect in two unsolved murder cases.

 Ryan Walker, director of “The Bootlegger,” is from Macomb, Illinois, and grew up hearing stories about Kelly Wagle, but it wasn’t until he was older that he decided to delve into Wagle’s past and research the
many ways he impacted McDonough County in the early twenties century.

 Walker also talked the aspects of community touched on in Halwas’s book, and how he understands why Wagle is so beloved despite his
nefarious deeds.

 “His theme of the decline of community really hit home for me,” Walker said. “Even though I am from Macomb instead of Colchester, this story felt personal. I also related to Kelly Wagle — he is a sympathetic character as well as a highly flawed person.” 

 When discussing other films and filmakers that influenced “The Bootlegger”, Walker stressed his apprication for  intuitive use of
modern scenes.

 ““Leviathan” (2012) and other observational nonfiction films made me want to incorporate present-tense ‘action’ scenes.” Walker said. ““Kurt Cobain: About a Son” gave me the idea to lean heavily on shots of present day locations.”

 The film itself took about seven years to shoot and three years to edit. Walker and his wife, Kate, took many steps to find out who Wagle was, including interviews with Colchester locals who were children at the time that Wagle was around and researching locations around the town where Wagle was known to have frequented and places like the house he lived in. Their comprehensive knowledge of Wagle coupled with the knowledge of author John Hallwas really comes through in the film. The viewer walks away feeling like they understand every aspect of Wagle’s life despite likely hearing about him for the first time.

 While Walker grew up in McDonough County, he had never payed much attention to towns surrounding Macomb.

 “The fact that I knew some of the places and names in (Hallwas’) book really stoked my imagination,” Walker said. “It made me want to go exploring. At the beginning it was tough because I didn’t really know anyone in Colchester… Now I am happy to say that I know lots of people in Colchester, and they are a wonderful group. With their guidance I was able to include hundreds of historic locations in the film.”

 Similar to his interest in the history of Western Illinois, Walker wanted to showcase the natural beauty of this part of the country, an area often overlooked by other filmmakers.

“I’ve always thought this part of the country was uniquely photogenic, and ‘The Bootlegger’ was a great opportunity to express that. Through the process of making the film, I feel a much deeper connection to McDonough County, its history and its people.”

 Walker’s use of historical artifacts, such as newspaper clippings from Wagle’s time, added to the authenticity of the entire film. The timeline was easy to follow, even though it covered 1886 and went all the way until 1929, the year Wagle was killed. 

 The locals of Colchester, who were alive at the time of Wagle’s life seemed to mostly remember him as a Robin Hood character for the town.It was only after Walker gained thier trust that some of the older members of the community were willing to mention the more nasty rumors surrounding Kelly Wagle.

 Walker mentioned after the screening of the film that some of the locals they interviewed were afraid to say anything bad about Wagle or anyone involved in his affairs because they didn’t want to offend an ancestor of a family still living in Colechester, even though most of the people involved have died.

 Walker’s use of music was engaging, but was also somewhat abrasive. Trying to get away from the typical “documentary” style, Walker wanted to make a soundtrack that didn’t fall into the tropes of a typical documentary. He used more modern music instead of music entirely from the period to help connect the events of the early 20th century with the modern day. The bass-heavy, energetic songs added some drama to the more suspensful moments of the film. For example, when discussing how Wagle may have murdered his wife, the music was foreboading yet driving, and fitting to the moment. While the mix of modern and period music is novel and helps parralel the thematic elements of the overal story, there are a few points in the film where the almost techno-sounding music breaks that careful balance of past and present, thrusting the viewer into the modern day, but this is really the only point in the film where Walker’s artistic decisions don’t work wonderfully.

 The music adds a lot to the film, but the visual glue that brings the entire experience together is Walker’s keen eye for cinematography. The film opens with some establishing shots of modern-day Colechester in the morning fog, but the way Walker utilizes the surrounding flora and modern sights obscured by the thick fog let the viewer know that Walker wants to bridge the gap between past and present without him needing to say a word. The historic nature of the film would have allowed Walker to simply use talking-head interviews and newspaper clippings, but he takes an extra step by following up almost every historical document with a tasteful shot of its modern-day analog, allowing for a seamless connection between the viewer and Wagle’s time period.

 Walker said that he has learned a lot from the time he spent on “The Bootlegger,” his advice to aspiring filmmakers is simple, memorable and might be familiar to some.

 “I’m no expert, and I’ve got a lot to learn myself. But during the making of ‘The Bootlegger,’ one of my guiding principles came from ‘Mad Men,’” Walker said. “During season one, Don Draper says something like, ‘You feeling something — that’s what sells.’ He’s talking about an ad campaign, but I think this also applies to making a film. If it moves you, it’ll probably move others, too. Make something personal. Make the movie you’d want to see.”

 Ryan Walker’s film “The Bootlegger” definitely gave an insightful and fascinating look into who Kelly Wagle was as an individual and as a historical figure. Regardless of whether he was the Robin Hood of Colchester or a violent criminal, he left a mark on the small mining town that is still felt today.

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Macomb filmmaker documents local antihero