Southside With You: Filmmaker Richard Tanne on the Obamas’ First Date Film

We chat with filmmaker Richard Tanne about his directorial debut, Southside With You.

Few knew who Richard Tanne was before his debut feature Southside With You premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, but ever since it debuted, there’s been a lot more interest in the filmmaker and his connection to the material.

Southside with You purports to tell the story of the first date between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), as the co-workers at a Chicago law firm spend a day together in her Southside neighborhood during the summer of ’89. Den of Geek got on the phone with Tanne earlier this week to find out how Southside with You came together and try to learn how he created such authenticity without actually knowing the First Couple. Obviously, Hollywood has been paying attention, as Tanne told us he’s currently writing something for Pixar Animation, which he couldn’t tell us anything else beyond that.

Den of Geek: What got you started wanting to write a movie about the Obamas and their first date? Richard Tanne:  

Well, it really was the first date that got me interested. I would say that on a broader level, I was really taken by the way they look at each, by the way they flirt. Back in 2007, just seeing this really beautiful connection between these two people that was on display for all the world to see. It felt authentic. It’s a rare thing in people that you meet and friends and family.  I think it’s even rarer in public figures. I was just interested in them as a couple, but reading about the date, it just had the makings of a movie, because the conflict was such that Michelle was not interested at first and reluctant for a myriad of reasons.

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She gave Barack one day to make his case, and by the end of the first date, he had done just that. So it really had that classic boy-chases-girl storyline that was always appealing and relatable to me in everything that I’ve seen over the years in all the romantic movies, whether you’re talking about the Ernst Lubich movies or Preston Sturges or the Woody Allen films or When Harry Met Sally—getting into more modern romantic comedies. It’s always that opposites attract, and the more I read about them, the more their opposites seemed to be what brought them together. It was really interesting.  

So they actually went to see “Do the Right Thing” on that date? That’s one of the more factual aspects of the movie?

Yeah, they did in fact go to see Do the Right Thing. It was in its opening weekend, and that’s one of my favorite movies of all time, which was another draw for me to tell this story.  

It’s a great movie. I wouldn’t consider it the best date movie, but I guess it worked out for them.

It sort of seemed to make sense to me, because they were both such intellectuals, and there was a big sort of controversy at the time around the movie, but also, at that point in time, there were not a lot of African-Americans making movies. Spike Lee was really a pioneer. Before them, Charles Burnett had been around making independent movies, but here was this young, African-American guy Spke Lee, and it was only his third movie and it was a studio film that was being released, and it was about race. It does make sense to me that these two African-American intellectuals would want to go see that and talk about it on their first date.  

Had you been researching or writing and developing this since 2007? Has it taken that long to get this movie made? Or was it an idea you had back then that you only started working on a couple years ago?

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I had the idea in 2007 and I kind of filed it away in my drawer of ideas, and I would think about it from time-to-time and over the years, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the Obamas, not necessarily to write the script—although I did think, “One day, I’m going to write that.” It wasn’t until 2011 that I actually really started gravitating back to the idea in a serious way. I had some other writing obligations over the course of 2011 and 2012, but they weren’t my own stories. They weren’t personal stories. They were gun-for-hire jobs, and I kept going back to this. This was the thing I wanted to spend time on. I think that’s because I fell in love for the first time myself around 2011, and I felt that I finally had something to contribute.

I had an amazing first date with my girlfriend, and we’d been together for a couple years by that point. Now it’s five years, and I saw myself becoming better because of her. I felt that was what the movie was going to be about. It wasn’t going to just be a cutesie love story—it’s going to be about finding that person who can hold up a mirror to you and show you not who you are, but what you can be. Then I felt really passionate about sitting down and writing this script, so I started to do that in 2013.

You probably read all the books as part of your research, but did you spend any time in Chicago and try to meet some of the people who knew Barack and Michelle back then who you could talk to?

I’m a nobody now. I was even more of a nobody three years ago, so I had no means to access anyone that knew them. I didn’t have enough money to fly myself to Chicago, so I actually wrote the script from my Dad’s living room in Roseland, New Jersey. I just wanted to get out of Los Angeles and just focus on writing it. Long story short is I wrote it in obscurity, and then it wasn’t until a couple years later.

I was actually in prep for the movie in Chicago that I got to do location scouting, and I got to really meet some people that knew him from communities and knew Michelle from the neighborhood. That’s when I was able to change the script…  I didn’t change too much. I got a lot of it geographically right but the locations did sort of help shape the story in a way and shaped the way that I approached scenes.

That makes sense. How did the two actors come on board? I think I read that Tika was first and then Parker?

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Tika had gotten a hold of the outline that I wrote for the movie before I even wrote the script. We met, and she expressed her desire to play the role. What impressed me even more was that she expressed a desire to get the movie made and get the script into the hands of the right people to get it made, just because she felt so passionate about the story being told. I said, “Well, wait, let me go write the script first. We’ll see if you still like it and then we can talk.” I went away, I wrote the script. She loved it, and we teamed up as producing partners and barnstormed it down to try to get it made. Look, after meeting her I knew she would be a great Michelle, and I wrote the part with her in mind. I just hoped that she’d say “Yes” and she did, so the part was sort of written for her in mind, and I knew she could pull it off. 

Then Parker came about in a more traditional manner. We were reading different people in Los Angeles and some audition tapes were coming in from around the world. An agent that we had been talking to in the UK said, “You gotta see this guy Parker Sawyers. He hasn’t really done anything, but we tell him all the time he looks like Obama.” I looked at his tape and the resemblance was uncanny, but he was really doing more of an impersonation. That was exactly what I wasn’t looking for, but he resembled the President so much that I gave him a call, and the note that I gave him was, “Drop the President completely—forget the guy you see on TV every night. You’re just a guy trying to get this girl to go have a cup of coffee with you. That’s the mentality you need to have. The tape came in the next day, and it was just spectacular, because he dropped the mimicry and played the scene, but the Obama-isms, if you will, still bubbled to the surface in an organic way. 

You really captured the voice of the President and First Lady, and you had to captures those voices how they might sound almost 26 years ago. Was that you were able to get out of reading about them, trying to figure out how they might speak back then before they were in the public eye?

There were a couple videos of Barack Obama when he was 29 or 31, and he spoke largely the same way that he speaks now, so we were only a couple years earlier—the events of our movie took place a couple years prior to those videos. But he was doing public speaking in those videos, so what I wanted was, “How was he when the cameras are off? Maybe he drops the affectation just a little bit and just sort of relaxed.”

So I wanted Parker to bring more of himself to the way that he spoke. With Tika, it was a similar thing. She worked with a vocal coach and got the patterns down, but then we would drop it and just let it come about naturally. In the writing of it, it was really more just instinctual. Once I did my homework on who they were, I just got the characters talking and whatever came out, I just sort of followed my gut.

Before you met Tika, did you have an agent or other producers involved? How did the outline get into her hands originally?

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I did have an agent at the time, but the agent was not a part of this. I was writing very different material then this kind of movie. At the time, I didn’t think it would even make sense to show it to my agent. What happened was that I showed it to an actor friend, and that friend is a mutual friend of Tika’s. It was one of those serendipitous events where I told my friend, “Please don’t show this to anyone” and thank God, he didn’t listen to me. It went from there.

If you’re going to film in Chicago, Robert Teitel (“Barbershop”) is one of the better producers to have on your movie, so did you bring him on board once you knew you had to film in Chicago? Or was he another person who read the script and wanted to be involved?

Bob had read the script and he liked it, but admittedly, he didn’t know if he could get it financed. He didn’t know how to put it together, and I think maybe at first it felt too small for him. I never even had an initial meeting with him when the script first went out. He just passed on it, even though he really liked the script.

Right before we went in pre-production and the financing was in place, the company that financed the movie said, “What about bringing Bob Teitel on?” so I met with him, and Bob was great. He’s very experienced, so he produced it alongside me and Tika, and he was really helpful on the 17 days that we were actually filming the movie, kind of being on set and being a helping hand, and using his relationships in the city to help facilitate things that we needed. Yeah, it was very helpful to have him on board. 

What was it like visiting Chicago for the first time and going around trying to find locations after already having written a screenplay without having been there?

It definitely exceeded my expectations, because once I got there and the environment was tactile and I could interact with it, I really started to see how I wanted to shoot it, and how I wanted the city to play sort of a third wheel to the characters, the two actors. One anecdote was that I wrote the scenes that take place in Altgeld Gardens, which is where the President used to organize and that’s where he takes Michelle on the date in the movie.

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I had no way of knowing this while writing it in New Jersey, but when I went to the location, one of the residents that was showing me around, showed me the yellow brick wall, which is this memorial that is in the middle of the community, and it has all the names of the fallen brothers and sisters that have died by gun violence. I was told that it’s been painted and repainted with many iterations with many different names over the years, and it was so powerful to walk past that wall and so tragic that I knew I had to include it in the movie. That’s the difference that actually being there can make is when you’re there, the city starts to tell you what the movie needs. 

I’m sure you’ve been asked this since Sundance, but the movie’s going to be out there on Friday, so have the President and First Lady been invited to see the movie? Have they seen it already? Would you want to know what they think of the movie?

Well, John Legend is one of our Executive Producers, and he knows them pretty well, and he said he had a conversation with the President about the film, so they’re definitely aware of it. I think the invitation is out there for them to see it. They may even have a copy. A few days ago at the premiere, John was saying that he hopes they get a chance to check it out while they’re on vacation. We’ll see. I hope they get a kick out of it.

I was wondering what you’d hope they get out of it, because it must be a strange thing to see one person’s interpretation of your life or your first date. Not many living Presidents get to see movies about themselves.

Right, right. It’s funny, because the last three Presidents have had movies made about them while in office. This being the one for Barack Obama, W for George W. Bush, and Primary Colors for Bill Clinton even though the names were changed. As it relates to them, I would never presume to tell them what to think of the movie or expect anything from them, either a response or thumbs up or thumbs down. I was really taken by the story, and I felt moved to tell the story of their first date. I think the best I can hope for is that they would just get a kick out of it. It must be so bizarre, so it’s hard to even imagine. 

How do follow this up? Do you have another idea that you’ve already started developing?

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Yeah, I do know what I want my next… it’s going to be an original script again and something I want to direct, and I know what I want that to be. I haven’t really been able to put all attention to that. I’ve also been writing a movie for Pixar, and I can’t really say too much about it—actually I can’t say anything about it, except that I’ve been writing a movie for them. 

Southside with You opens nationwide on Friday, August 26.