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Richard Tanne’s directorial debut is a simple first-date movie about a boy and a girl. The boy and the girl just happen to be the president of the United States and the first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama.
Southside With You tells the story of the first couple’s first date, on a summer evening in 1989, when both were young lawyers in Chicago. Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter star as the late-20s Barack and Michelle (then Michelle Robinson), who in the film do typical first-date things such as grab a drink, take in a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) and cap it all off with ice cream.
Inspired by walk-and-talk romance films from directors like Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise) and French director Eric Rohmer (Claire’s Knee), the director told The Hollywood Reporter that he worked very hard in the scripting and directing process to ensure that the notoriety of his film’s subjects doesn’t overshadow their unique relationship.
In his Sundance review, The Hollywood Reporter‘s chief film critic, Todd McCarthy, wrote, “Tanne’s impressive accomplishment rests in not having been intimidated by his protagonists’ stature, thereby opening the door for him to create a living and breathing picture of two people spending a few hours together.”
Tanne talked to THR about finding his Michelle, shooting for only 17 days in Chicago and where his presidential first-date flick fits into the craziness of the current election.
What drew you to this specific time in the Obamas‘ lives?
I was never looking to make a biopic about President Obama. I was never looking to make a biopic about Michelle Obama. It’s not that I was searching for a right entry point — back in 2007/2008, I was just very taken by them as a couple. I was really struck by their love and the connection they had. And then I read about their first date, where she gave him one day to prove himself, and by her admission he had done just that. It felt like a relatable conflict to me and a conflict worthy of a romantic drama. My interest always and only stemmed from telling the story of this first date.
Were you a fan of the romantic-drama genre prior to making Southside With You?
Yeah, the movie gets compared to the Before trilogy, and I welcome the comparison, because I love those movies and I love [Richard] Linklater in general. His movies have been a big influence on me. Years ago, his movies, for me, were a gateway to films by a French filmmaker named Eric Rohmer, who is credited with inventing the walk-and-talk drama, and I love those. Of course, you can’t beat the good Hollywood romance films that have come out. The big one for me is Casablanca.
Tika is both your lead actress and your producing partner. How did that come to be?
I came up with the idea for Southside in 2008, but I didn’t get serious about it until 2013. I wrote an outline and casually showed it to a friend and said that I am thinking about going and making this movie, and that friend showed it to Tika. She asked to meet, and she expressed her desire to play the role, but she also told me that if I didn’t cast her, she still wanted to tell the story and get it made. I was really struck by her passion and intelligence and ambition, so I said, “Look, let me go write this, and then you can see if you are still interested.” So I went off and wrote the script with her in mind, hoping she would still be interested. I knew she would be a great producing partner, and after that meeting, I saw that she had so many qualities that I had identified in a young Michelle. She was backing me as a first-time director, and I was backing her in her first lead in a movie.
What type of research did Tika and Parker do to play Barack and Michelle?
I gave both of them a list of books and links to articles and interviews. I know Tika pulled quite a bit from Craig Robinson’s [Michelle’s brother] autobiography, A Game of Character, which has passages devoted to the Robinson family upbringing. I also set Tika up with a vocal coach who worked with David Oyelowo when he played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. I know Parker had been working on a Barack Obama impersonation for years, and he reacquainted himself with Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. There are also a couple of videos of Barack Obama when he was 29 at Harvard Law, so he looked to those for guidance.
What was the rehearsal process like?
It was exhaustive. As soon as Parker was cast, about four months out from shooting, he went back to London. Tika was in Atlanta, and I was in Los Angeles, so we started doing Skype rehearsals. I told them that they needed to be off-book by the time they go to Chicago that summer because we would be doing long takes and limited camera setups because of the style I was trying to achieve and also because our lack of budget and time.
How was the production?
We had 15 days of principal photography and two days of pickups, so 17 days total. I told them: “You guys are performing a play called Southside With You every night for the month of July.” Once we all got to Chicago a couple of weeks before shooting, we started going around to all the locations with our DP, and we blocked out all the camera movements, and then we would rehearse the scenes on location.
I think it’s probably going to be a refresher in this election season. It’s a very humanizing portrait of these two people. It’s not that I intended to humanize them so that people would take another look at them politically — I was just trying to tell another story about their lives, and that requires showing humanity. I’ll be really interested to see if it does become a part of the great conversation.
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