Barack and Michelle Obama met in a Chicago-based law firm back in the summer of 1989 and the rest, as they say, is history. Director and writer Richard Tanne re-imagines the pair’s first date in the film, “Southside With You.” Besides it being about the president and first lady of the United States, the film is, at its heart, about a man and a woman getting to know one another and falling in love. The fact that we know who they eventually become only adds to the film’s multiple layers. “Southside With You” is a great date movie and more than that, speaks to several aspects of the Obamas as people who were shaped by their upbringing and circumstances. It’s also very relatable and, while obviously not an exact recollection, Tanne provides us with some insight and genuine entertainment.
Tanne, along with the film’s stars, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, who play Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, respectively, sat down with me and fellow journalists Nell Minow and Dean Rogers to discuss “Southside With You” and what it was like working off of real-life public figures.
You can read my review of the film here! “Southside With You” is in theaters August 26.
Dean Rogers: Richard, did you have any qualms about making this film? Especially since it’s the Obamas. How did you come by wanting to do this film?
Richard Tanne: Well, I think if I was a smarter person, I may have had qualms [laughs]. But the reason it came about was that I was really struck by the two of them as a couple in 2007, 2008. Just the way they looked at each other, the way that they flirted. There was something authentic about it and vibrant, even a little sexy. And I think that that is a rare thing in people, and it’s an even rarer thing in public figures. When I did end up reading about their first date somewhere in that time frame, it just got me really excited because the conflict was: She’s not interested and he has one day to win her over. And that felt like a very good romantic conflict to hang a movie onto. Not to mention, there’s another aspect of it. We know what they went on to accomplish together and the history they’ve made. The two characters don’t. So there’s dramatic irony running through the entire movie that whatever your relationship is to the Obamas, you’re going to bring that to it as well. There’s a tiny bit of suspense in the fact that if something had just gone wrong on that date, where would we be today?
Mae Abdulbaki: Tika and Parker, how did you both prepare to play the Obamas without going for a direct impersonation of them?
Tika Sumpter: When we started this process, Rich [Tanne] and I said, “We definitely don’t want to impersonate, we want to embody the essence of who they are.” For me, I took the whole “this is Michelle Obama” off and went back to the girl who went to magnet high school or was told she couldn’t get into Yale. Just back to that family essence. Her parents, who worked really hard… and related it back to my life. And I was like, “That’s a lot of girls who can relate to that.” She’s so accessible. Even in the dancing scene, the drumming scene. With all these things, you’re like, “That is Michelle!” [laughs]. Really her brother’s book, “A Game of Character,” really helped me to see who she is and who she was during that time. That informed me a lot about their family and how tight they were and how [Michelle’s parents] gave those kids so much confidence. That they could do anything they really wanted in the world, even if the world told them they couldn’t. That was part of my process.
Parker Sawyers: I took Richard’s note before I sent in my audition tape. He said, “You’re just a guy trying to get a girl in one day. That’s it.” [laughs] Obviously, I worked on Barack Obama as we know him now and dialed it back and then overwhelmingly used his [Richard Tanne’s] notes just to be a guy talking to a girl. I think that’s why it comes off like he’s really trying to charm her. He knows he’s going to graduate Harvard and do well. He knows he can work in a law firm. He knows these things in his life. He knows he can probably make a lot of money, but he doesn’t know if he can get this girl if he doesn’t act right and put his best foot forward. And so for me, that was the goal in the film.
Nell Minow: One of the big contrasts between the two characters is their relationship with their fathers. And that’s something that they talk about. So I’d like to hear from you a little bit about how their very different father experiences affected what they brought to their twenty-something selves.
TS: I think sometimes life brings you the person who needs to teach you something about yourself. And I think for her, she came from such a stable background and he kind of didn’t. I think she was a little bit wound up. She wasn’t used to telling people about MS [that her father suffered from]and all that stuff. There was something about him [Barack Obama] that made her feel comfortable enough to speak about that and the fact that, I think there’s an empathy there, as you go on in the movie, with the way he speaks about his father. I don’t know if there’s some kind of connection there where she felt comfortable enough and I think that affected her and enabled her to share about her dad and what’s going on. And her dad was a huge influence in her life.
PS: I think she helped him understand what a father could be. What he missed out on. And perhaps looking forward to the future and maybe not with her, but he thought [he]could be a good father, even though he didn’t have that. But then I listened to his interview with Marc Maron before we started shooting and in it, President Obama does say that Michelle had the family, the roots, and she had… not a perfect family, but a great support system. And that’s one of the things that attracted him to her. And he also mentioned that he was late. All the time [laughs]. And she had to stop him once and say, “Listen, my dad had MS and we would get to my brother’s basketball games two hours before so he could walk the stairs. He didn’t want to sit in the handicapped section and he wanted to walk up the stairs by himself. And he was always on time. So stop being late.” The way their fathers played a role or not played a role in their lives, it overlaps.
DR: After playing Michelle and Barack, what was the one thing that intrigued you about them after having played them?
PS: In order to play them truthfully and act well, I had to strip away the president and the first lady and the way I viewed them and what they’ve done historically so far. To normalize them and to realize how normal they are was the biggest thing. It just really hit home.
TS: I think what really intrigued me and what I got from her was that she didn’t apologize for who she was. She didn’t dumb herself down. She spoke her mind and a lot of the time, women say “I’m sorry” for things they shouldn’t be sorry for or trying to dim their lights so somebody else can feel greater. And it’s like, “No, if I’m going to be here, you come up here and we see each other eye to eye.” That inspires me to this day. I can say what I need to say without people looking at me and going, “Ugh, you’re such a bitch” or whatever. Nope, no, I’m actually smart and speaking my mind like you would. So, I think that inspired me and intrigued me.
MA: Richard, you wrote and directed this movie. What other than the Obamas’ interactions inspired you to take on this challenge?
RT: It really was about being inspired to tell a love story and to try my hand at a movie where it could kind of be an unfolding mood over the course of a day. I love movies that take place over the course of one day. One of them being “Do the Right Thing,” which takes place on a hot summer day. It’s one of my favorite movies. Obviously the [Richard] Linklater movies [“Before Sunrise”] and then those were sort of a gateway to Eric Rohmer’s films, which he invented the romantic walk and talk and philosophical ambling movies. But the opportunity to show all the little moments between two people that most romantic movies leave out. I wanted the moments on the cutting room floor, that’s what I wanted for this movie. Cutting it together from the quiet minutia that other movies might ignore, I really like that. And the great thing about these two actors, with Tika, I’ve said this a few times, but it’s so true, you [looks at Tika]could almost be a silent film star. Like you could be a Lillian Gish, but now. I think one of the great discoveries of the movie are her facial reactions, and her eyes, and the way she responds to things.
You know, in a way, I wish there was a way I could go back and rewrite the script and have less dialogue. The more we made the movie, the less the dialogue was important and just the way they were interacting was. And Parker, for this being his first leading man role ever, first time out, he was able to meet her [Tika] on that level and they were able to exist in the moment. And for a movie like this, you need to find those moments and they would just sit with each other and I could just roll the camera and wait for them to react and have those little moments where she looks at him and he is not aware she’s looking and then she looks away and he looks back. And they found those things organically. Some of them we worked on, but for the most part, it was found organically in the moment. It was really nice to do that.
NM: This is a movie that takes place in what in most movies is a pop song on the soundtrack as they’re walking on the beach and then they go to a farmer’s market.
RT: This is that montage.
NM: Which I absolutely love because people do fall in love by talking to each other. It had to be kind of daunting to write and to act the scene in the community meeting because now you’re not just a guy on a date, but you’re one of the most charismatic speakers in history. And also, you’re trying to impress this girl. Tell me a little about creating the speech and filming that scene.
RT: It actually wasn’t too daunting because by the time I got to that scene in the movie, which is the middle of the film, and I wrote it in order, I was really familiar with the characters. I knew who he was at this point in the story, I knew who she was at this point in the story. And the underlying goal was: He’s got to impress her with this speech. There’s a duality there because it’s not like he wouldn’t have been there if Michelle wasn’t there that day. But, it’s a benefit that she is. So, he may have even been showing off or hitting it harder that day because she was there. So I knew how powerful it needed to be. I also was aware that he was a bit rougher around the edges and not fully formed yet.
And I was familiar with the Gardens [in Chicago]at that time. I had done my homework and I just felt like I had a good sense of what a meeting like that could have been like. Without sounding too artsy fartsy, it sort of just wrote itself. And then in doing it, Parker actually came to me before we shot it, maybe a few weeks before, and he was like, “I think we should start working in the more practiced Obama mannerisms.” Because this is him in a different setting and it’s a public speaking thing. And he brought up how there was a video of Obama at 29 on the Harvard campus, defending a professor at a rally. He was already sort of fully formed as a public speaker at that point, so we figured this was a year earlier in the movie, so that was really the first point in the movie where we actively went after some of the mannerisms.
PS: I just practiced it quite a bit in my hotel room. My sister visited me the weekend before the week we shot it. I bought her a massage/spa day and she was like, “Oh my God, he’s so nice.” And I was like, “No, I need to practice!” [laughs]I rehearsed it, we walked it the first day I was there. I remembered the blocking, I wrote it down, and then I just rehearsed it. It was one of those things where if Barack speaks to the people the way he wants to speak to the people, to move them, that will indeed move Michelle. She’ll see who he is. So I wasn’t necessarily playing it for Michelle in the way I acted it, but it was more like, “If I do what I do, then she’ll see I’m not this bad guy.” I [also]like standing in front of people and speaking [laughs].
TS: Yes! I got to watch it the whole day [laughs].
RT: We must have shot that scene from seven or eight different setups. And all the way through, from beginning to end, he [Parker] didn’t trip up once on a single word. It was remarkable.