Southside With You

5 Things We Can Learn From New Director Richard Tanne

The year 2016 has been very kind to Richard Tanne. In January he debuted his first feature, “Southside With You,” an unauthorized bio-pic of White House royalty; the current first couple’s first date. He secured two up-and-coming actors, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyer, to portray the young Obamas. Tanne even got the film into John Legend’s hands: Legend signed on to executive produce and wrote a song for the film entitled “Start,” coming off his Oscar win for “Glory,” a song he wrote with rapper Common for the film “Selma.

Tanne is on a roll, and there’s a lot aspiring filmmakers, writers, and producers can learn from the actor-turned-director. If you are an aspiring filmmaker looking to learn, we always recommend a combination of learning by doing, and learning from the best. There is always some wisdom to be gleaned from the successes of others. Here are five simple, universal lessons we think our students can learn from Richard Tanne’s recent project, “Southside with You.”

1. Follow Your Passion

Tanne first heard the Obama’s love story during the 2008 election, but it wasn’t until he fell in love himself that he began to revisit the story. “There’s something special about the way the president and the first lady look at each other, and it’s something we’ve seen since the beginning of their rise to prominence. Their connection seems authentic and deep and vibrant. That’s a rare thing in life, and I think it’s an even more rare thing for public figures.”

Years later, after falling in love himself, Tanne realized, “…it wasn’t just kind of a meet-cute story about falling in love. It was also about finding that person who makes you a better version of yourself.”

Producer Robert Teitel said, “When I first met Rich, I remember telling him: ‘I think you were born to do this movie.’ I sensed very early on that the film had been completed in his head for such a long time. There’s nobody but Rich who could tackle it.”

Tanne took the opportunity and ran. He started searching for partners to produce the film with him, which leads us to another valuable lesson…

2. Share Your Work

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Tanne began to pitch the character of Michelle Robinson to Tika Sumpter. He sent her a one-page, handwritten outline, and Sumpter was instantly interested. The actress says of that time, “I don’t care if I play Michelle or not. My main goal was to get the film made.” But, if Sumpter did get the role, she already knew whom she wanted to play her character’s mother.

She had been friends with Vanessa Bell Calloway for some time. At one point Sumpter drove over two hours to see Calloway perform her one-woman play “Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words.”

The two actresses had been told over and over again how similar they looked to one another. It seemed like a natural fit.

Once Calloway read the script, she flew herself to Los Angeles for a sit-down meeting with Tanne, saying, “If you think anyone else is playing this part you’re crazy.” Tanne couldn’t believe Calloway was still auditioning. “Just look at ‘Coming to America,’” he said, “look at ‘Love Don’t Cost a Thing.’” Tanne cast her and, with just Mr. Obama left to cast, most of the hard casting work had already been done for him.

3. Work With What You’re Given

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Speaking of micro-budgets, it’s rare to do a period piece on a small budget. Even more scarce is a good period piece done with little money. “Southside With You” is set in the summer of 1989 in Chicago. Tanne’s hands were tied as far as locations. The date was real and many people know all the stops the first couple made. The museum was easy enough to retro-fit, as museums often don’t really change. The old community center and movie theater are, for the most part, fixed in look, too.

But what really sells the era is the soundtrack. “Since we didn’t have the money for tons of period details,” Tanne said, “We had to evoke the period in subtler ways. One way to do that was to make the movie look and sound like a movie from the 1980s, so you’d already be in the space.”   

“We knew we wouldn’t have large crane shots, showing us whole neighborhoods where we would need tons of kids wearing retro clothing and streets lined with vintage cars. We just had smaller moments, smaller details to evoke the period, everything from the blanket fabrics on Barack’s chair or Michelle’s family’s couch to the cassette tapes in Barack’s car. We used the 1980s-era Baskin’ Robbins sign in the ice cream store. And there are certain parts of the city that have not changed at all.”

4. Be Prepared

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Tanne knew time was going to be of the essence. Shooting a feature on location, with a micro-budget, in 17 days, meant that not one second could be spared. He asked the actors to be off book weeks before they came to set. Across continents, the actors rehearsed over Skype. When they came to set everyone was prepared. Instead of covering two to three pages a day, they were able to cover 10. The film finished on time and on budget.

5. Use Your Success as a Springboard

Tanne isn’t resting on his laurels.

Yes, “Southside With You” won big at Sundance. It’s Tanne’s first feature. It’s hitting theaters this weekend, and many might be tempted to kick up their heels and revel in their success — but Tanne is already working on two new projects.

First, Tanne is working on an unannounced Pixar film that he has been writing for the past couple of years. Second, Tanne is already writing his next feature, “The Roman,” about Julius Cesar. IMDB describes the project as, “An origin story in the vein of ‘Batman Begins’ that envisions the future dictator as a young general in the Roman army in a rarely discussed period of his life. Kidnapped by Cilician pirates and enslaved on their prison island, Caesar escapes with his men, and the decisions he makes during this time directly affect the political and social upheaval happening in Rome.”

Any more great insights for new directors? Share your tips in the comments below!