The Handshake Conversation with Dmitry Samarov and John McNaughton
Edited by Dan Duffy / Art by Dmitry Samarov
John McNaughton’s first feature film, made in 1986, was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—a film which made Time magazine’s and Roger Ebert’s “ten best” lists and won Best Picture honors at Fantasporto and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film. McNaughton—a Chicago native who studied fine arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and graduated from Columbia College Chicago—later went on to direct several television episodes and films, most notably Mad Dog and Glory and Wild Things, the documentary Condo Painting, and episodes of Homicide: Life in the Street.
Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, McNaughton formed what he refers to as a “little club” with iconic Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick and “a few other screwballs.” The group would go out on Saturday nights and have dinner and drinks, mostly at Avec. Tony Fitzpatrick, at the time, had a de facto cab driver by the name of Dmitry Samarov, who he would frequently call for rides around town. Fitzpatrick loved Dmitry, and had some of the cab driver’s artwork on display at his gallery. Eventually, McNaughton got to know the young man’s work, and then he got to know the man himself. Every once in a while, Samarov and McNaughton would drive around, or they’d go to the Rainbo Club to bullshit over a few drinks.
The Russian-born Dmitry Samarov is a prolific painter, watercolorist, and sketch artist, and is the author of Chicago Hack, an original blog brimming with the cab driver’s art and his dry, empathic, often hilarious stories. One night at the Rainbo, Samarov turned McNaughton onto his blog, and McNaughton was hooked. Then John found out that Samarov’s first book, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, was to be published by University of Chicago Press in October 2011, and he approached his friend with a question: “Dmitry, have you ever thought about writing for television?”
In this conversation, McNaughton and Samarov met at Samarov’s apartment and talked about turning Hack into a television show. They also talked about art school, influences, moving pictures and television shows, Chicago and New York, horrible people, good actors, and bad jobs. –Dan Duffy
John McNaughton: So, let’s take it from the beginning. Why did you become a cab driver? I mean, when you moved to Chicago, you had already been a cab driver, in Boston. So that’s no big deal. But why, in Boston, did you decide to become a cab driver? You just needed a job?
Dmitry Samarov: I had graduated from the Art Institute here in Chicago, and one thing I definitely knew from the start: I had a bachelors degree in Fine Arts. I wasn’t going to get any kind of a job. But there are a variety of reasons why I moved to Boston. A relationship ended, and I had a baby brother who I hadn’t seen that much of. I wanted to watch him grow up a bit. I stayed with my folks for a couple of months, you know, looking for work, and I was flipping through the paper one day and an ad said “Drivers Wanted.” I just went from there.
JM: So it wasn’t like you watched Taxi Driver and thought you must…
DS: (laughs) Well, no. I’d seen the movie a bunch already, though, so it was definitely a touchstone.
JM: Taxi Driver never made me want to be a taxi driver.
DS: Like I wrote in the blog post for The Handshake, sometimes I’ll tell passengers that I was inspired by the movie Taxi Driver, and they get this worried look on their faces, you know? (laughs) It wasn’t the vigilante part that really caught me, though. It was that car, going through those streets.
JM: Well, yeah. New York at that time… I remember when I was working for Scorsese…
DS: When were you working for Scorsese?
JM: Mad Dog and Glory.
DS: Oh! Right. He was the…
JM: He was the producer. We were working in the Brill Building which is where…
DS: Where all the songwriters were!