Category Archives: Interviews

TIKA SUMPTER AND PARKER SAWYERS ON “SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU”

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“It was never Richard Tanne’s objective to write a political script. He was inspired in 2007-2008 by the look that they gave each other. He wanted to understand it,” said Tika Sumpter, who stars with Parker Sawyers in “Southside With Me,” writer-director Tanne’s film about the first date that Barack Obama had with his future wife Michelle Robinson in 1989, when both were working for a Chicago law firm. Sumpter and Sawyers stopped in Dallas recently to talk about the film.

Sumpter also served, along with Tanne, as one of the movie’s producers. “From the beginning I knew that I wanted to do it and help get it made. I saw a synopsis of it, which was basically two paragraphs, and it was so well-written that I thought I had to meet the writer. The script wasn’t even written, but his perspective and vision were so clear that I thought it was amazing—taking two people whom everyone knows almost everything about, but you didn’t see them when they were twenty-five and twenty-eight years old, going back to the origin story of why they look at each other like that.

“It’s also two roles that any actors would want to play, so rich and fulfilling. We don’t always get offered these kinds of roles. I knew that this was an opportunity to show a different side of me.

“Obviously in order to do this,” Sumpter continued, “we had to get the Barack correct or it would not work. It was all about that casting. There were names being thrown out, and where studios sometimes mess up is that a name doesn’t necessarily mean money…”

“Tom Hanks tried for it,” Sawyers interjected.

“…but when we saw the tape of Parker,” Sumpter continued after the laughter had died down, “and then he came in for a screen test, everybody was speechless. All the executives were in the room, and he walked out, and I was like, ‘It’s him. He’s it.’ He was brilliant. And I feel that if we didn’t get that right, it could have been a really bad movie.”

How did the actors approach their roles? Sawyers said, “I’d been working on an impersonation for a while. I myself enjoy smooth R&B! And then this popped up, and it was more about dialing it back and being just a young man who’s in school. He doesn’t have the weight of the world on him yet, and he just wants to get to know this woman a little better. Michelle was Barack’s boss, superior, but he had the confidence to ask her out to a community meeting. [I thought about] the humble beginnings—to see how simply they lived, even with their education. I just assumed he’s an intern, he probably reads a lot in his spare time, and he had so much on his mind. Adding all of that into it, you just develop a certain posture.

“I read nothing about Michelle. He barely knows her at the office, so I didn’t want to know anything about her school or family, but wanted to learn through what was in the script. It’s so well-written that I think all we had to do was just focus on the script, and we would find out things that way. [Richard Tanne] pulled from their biographies and books in his research.”

Talking about how she saw Michelle, Sumpter said, “For me it was her reluctance at first—the fact that she was so focused on her own career. It wasn’t about this hotshot guy who came in from Harvard Law, the first black editor of the Review. I thought that was pretty amazing, because at lot of times in these romantic movies you see the woman who’s always chasing after the guy or crying in the corner, or her clothes are off in the first ten minutes and then they get to know each other afterwards. It’s refreshing that the woman is a five, and she knew she was a five, and she knew that adding him on to her greatness would make them even better.

“I had to really go back to the South Side of Chicago—who is this girl? What was her family like? Her brother’s book, ‘A Game of Character,’ really helped me. She was so focused and driven, and didn’t take people’s nonsense and incompetence.

“[So] yes, there was some research, but I think the less I knew about Barack overall, besides him being first black Harvard Law Review editor and all the hotshot stuff, it was just getting to know him as it was unfolding.”

“Southside With You” was actually shot on location, and the residents reacted enthusiastically. Sawyers recalled shouts of “Yo, Barack!” from passersby, and Sumpter said, “They were so happy we were doing it. We literally shot on the south side, and sometimes we see images of the south side of Chicago, and hear about the murder rate, but we just felt love and warmth. The people were just normal, everyday people—they’re part of that story.”

When asked whether the President and First Lady approved the project, Sumpter said with a laugh, “The blessing was that nobody shut us down—as could easily happen in Chicago! Hopefully, they’ll love it—but we did it because it was just a good script, done with integrity and love and respect.”

She added that John Legend came on as an executive producer after seeing some early footage: “When he saw it, he said that he forgot it was us and felt like he was watching Barack and Michelle. And he thought it was such a loving story, and positive, and he was inspired to write an original song and be part of the team. He’s been very encouraging and helpful.”

Sumpter emphasized again the essentially non-political character of “Southside With You,” saying, “It’s a love story, an origin story. I think a lot of people see themselves in these two. I think this story is pretty universal.”

Sawyers remembered a showing with a mixed-race audience and said, “After that screening, it wasn’t a black film, it was a film, and it wasn’t a film about two black characters, it was a film about two characters.”

Sumpter added, “People go in thinking one thing, and come out saying, ‘That was refreshing.’ I’m just proud…that it’s being loved by so many different kinds of people. That makes me feel we did something right.”

IRA SACHS ON “LITTLE MEN”

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Writer-director Ira Sachs is open about his debt to previous films: when he visited Dallas for a festival screening of his film “Little Men,” about two thirteen-year old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose friendship is threatened by a rental dispute between their parents in gentrifying Brooklyn, he explained how he and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias look for stories for a new project. “We begin by talking about our lives, what’s happening today—usually that means something with our parents, and our relationships—and we talk about movies,” Sachs said. “Here we began with two films by [Yasujiro] Ozu, ‘Good Morning’ and ‘I Was Born, But…,’” in both of which children go “on strike” against their parents.

“I thought that somehow that tension between parents and children and children and parents—I liked it in [Ozu’s] films, and I wanted to make a film about those dynamics. And specifically I wanted to make a film about friendship, and what it is to be young in a certain kind of way that allows you to cross boundaries that people of different ages don’t cross.

“We had this idea about the kids going on strike,” Sachs continued, “and then we were also talking throughout this process…[about] his family in Rio: they own a shop and they were trying to get a tenant out. So I think the interaction of those two things, along with my experience of moving to Brooklyn…all of that came together.

“One of the things about the film is how difficult it is for kids to understand the details of adult life though they try.” He made reference to another film, Carol Reed’s “The Fallen Idol”: “The kid in that movie, at the end, after everything is actually all finished, he tries to get involved because he wants to fix it all. It’s actually all fine now, but he doesn’t understand it—he can’t. And there’s this incredible compassion you feel for him because of that distance.”

The other element of the plot is the cause of conflict—a rental raise that will put a property out of one character’s reach—precisely the sort of issue that also drove Sachs’ last film, “Love Is Strange.” He explained, “I’m interested in how people deal with money,” Real estate is just a symbol of the tensions people have around income and economics, which to me are character traits—they’re ways in which you see people’s character. How do they deal with these problems? All of Jane Austen, for example, is about love and money. You reveal a lot about yourself, and hopefully as a writer about your characters, when you think about how they face questions of intimacy and economics.”

That intersection, Sachs noted, also led to the choice of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” as the play that Jake’s father Brian (Greg Kinnear), an actor, is rehearsing for an off-Broadway run: “It was really resonant to the story—this story of property and dreams and wanting to be an actress. And I think that Chekhov in general meant to find very profound truths in the stories of everyday life, and hopefully I could get a little run-off of that—that Chekhov believed and valued the story of domestic life as being big. He didn’t need to find his drama in things that were outside, that were extraordinary. He found drama in the ordinary. The dram [of the film] really centers around a deed, a lease, and you needed to have it be very modulated in terms of the building emotions. It’s not melodrama—nobody dies—so you have to be very precise.”

Brian is trying to raise the rent that Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina Gsarcia) pays for the shop space beneath the apartment Brian has just inherited from his father. “We wrote it for her,” Sachs said. “That doesn’t mean if she hadn’t taken it we wouldn’t have found somebody else, but we were lucky and I had a great collaboration with her. She’s fascinating. She’s also not just a realistic actress, she’s also a theatrical actress. You feel that. As an actress she wasn’t frightened of [playing the part coldly].. She doesn’t need for you to like her at every moment.”

Finding Taplitz and Barbieri, Sachs recalled, was “not as difficult as I might have thought, because very early on in the casting process, I realized in the films that I love with kids in them, it’s not that they found the one kid out of a million—it’s not like finding Judy Garland for ‘The Wizard of Oz’—it’s about finding an interesting kid that you can build a movie about, who somehow seems like he’ll be memorable when you leave the theatre.

“So I worked with Avy Kaufman, a casting director who had done a lot of good stuff—she did ‘The Sixth Sense,’ she did ‘The Ice Storm,’ she did ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer,’ she did ‘Life of Pi.’ It was a good collaboration.” Of Taplitz, he said: “His parents are both in the business, and he sent in an audition from Los Angeles and I watched it, and actually it felt like it was a documentary—he was so incredibly comfortable. There’s not a bad line reading. He’s just completely absorbed the writing. That kid is very precocious, in terms of his emotional sophistication, and I think that’s an interesting part of Jake.” Barbieri is an aspiring actor himself, and his acting classes were written into the script. “That was his acting teacher,” Sachs said of a sequence in which Tony does improv exercises with the class. “In the script [Tony] did capoeira, and this boy was not going to do capoeira, which is Brazilian martial arts. He just couldn’t. And so I asked, ‘What do you do?’ and he said, ‘Well, I act.’ So that was his acting school, which is Lee Strasberg, and that was his acting teacher. So there was a lot of comfort there for experimentation.

“Actually,” Sachs added, “the parents were harder to cast than the children, because in making a film about kids, a lot of actors want something different—they want the film to be about them! And this was a really great moment to work with Greg Kinnear, because I think he’s interested in taking risks different from what he had previously, and he’s a really amazing natural actor. He understood the character, and he understood the hopes of the character.

“I think the film is as much a coming-of-age film for Brian, Greg Kinnear’s character, as it is for the boys. When you lose a father, at whatever age, you have to figure out who you are as a man, or a woman. To me there’s a kind of shift that happens, and eventually…whether you think [his choice] is morally right or wrong, it’s one that seems very complete for him.

“That’s the drama of the film as well—coming to terms with who you are.

“I’ve made three films about male relationships in New York. The first was about two men in their twenties, then there was the film about two men in their sixties and seventies, and this is about two boys. I’m fifty, halfway through a century—I have four-year old children, I have eighty-year old parents. So the questions of generations are very front and center. At this point I think I’m able to think about stories that show there is a connection between generations that can’t be lost. So I’m more inclined now to make films that have a multiple perspective.”

It was also more difficult to film the adults than the kids in the Brooklyn streets, Sachs said: “It was much harder to shoot Greg Kinnear in the middle of New York City than those kids because people kept saying, ‘That’s Greg Kinnear!’ I’d worked with Alfred [Molina] and John Lithgow, but I didn’t have the same exact problems as I had with Greg Kinnear on 42nd Street. [The onlookers] ruined my takes.”

In discussing the bittersweet close of “Little Men,” Sachs returned to his comparisons to other movies. “The ending was different in the script,” he said. “We had a Hollywood ending and a more honest ending, and we ended up with this one—because the other one, the very Hollywood ending, seemed completely inauthentic with the film we’d made. It didn’t make sense with characters in the story to resolve everything that way.

“The other movie that was very important to us,” he explained, “was ‘The World of Henry Orient,’ with Peter Sellers. In that movie, at the last minute, the girls become best friends again. We tried to do that George Roy Hill ending, and I was like, ‘But we’re not making a George Roy Hill film, we’re making the French version, or whatever.”