Thursday, January 18, 2018
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Interview: 'Southside With You' director Richard Tanne talks casting the perfect Obamas

What this election year needs now is love, sweet love.

Richard Tanne's feature debut Southside With You, dramatizing the first date of first couple Barack and Michelle Obama, could have moviegoers holding hands across the aisle.

Tanne, 31, wrote and directed his $1.5 million indie with bipartisan romance in mind. Days prior to its release, Tanne's film hadn't been targeted much in social media by politically motivated critics of his subjects.

"I'm sure it's coming," Tanne said by telephone. "I fully expect that.

"But I don't know that too many Republicans or conservatives or anti-Obama people will be interested in seeing the movie. Maybe some will out of curiosity. They'll be surprised, if and when they do see it, that it is so apolitical."

Despite the timing of its release, Tanne's project began taking shape in 2007, as Obama's first presidential campaign took shape.

"I was really struck by their relationship," Tanne said, "the way they look at each other and flirt, the authenticity in their love. But it wasn't until I read about the first date, this epic jaunt across Chicago, that I started thinking there could be a movie there."

REVIEW: 'Southside With You' a sweet romance that just happens to be about the Obamas

Set in a single day in 1989, Southside With You follows rising law associate Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and a summer associate named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) on what she insists isn't a date, while he tries changing her mind. They browse a museum, eat lunch, visit an inner city community meeting, see Spike Lee's then-new movie Do the Right Thing, get ice cream.

More importantly, they get to know each other, as we gain a sense of the leaders they'll become.

"She wasn't interested in him at first, and she gave him one day to prove himself," Tanne said. "By her own admission, he'd done just that. That dynamic felt like it had the makings of a movie … a classic boy-chases-girl story."

Except the chasers and chasees aren't usually so recognizable. Sawyers' and Sumpter's portrayals don't depend solely upon close resemblances to real-life personalities.

Sumpter was involved early, when Tanne's outline for the movie reached her agent. She wanted to play Michelle but told Tanne that even if she wasn't cast, she wanted to help the movie in production.

"Seeing how seriously she jumped in, convinced me she could play Michelle," Tanne said. "I ended up writing it with her in mind."

Sawyers' casting followed a more conventional path; his agent's recommendation to Tanne, and a video audition that displayed promise.

"His first tape came in and the resemblance was uncanny," Tanne said. "He was doing a spot-on impersonation but it was just that; an impersonation of commander-in-chief Obama. That's exactly what I didn't want."

Tanne replied to Sawyers with a suggestion: "Drop the president completely. You're just a guy trying to get a girl. It totally clicked for him.

"The next day (another) tape came in, and Parker was just spectacular. He was playing the character on the page but the Obama-isms, if you will, were sort of bubbling to the surface in a more organic way, a very uncalculated way."

The results are warm and humanizing, not unlike Richard Linklater's Before trilogy in its walk-and-talk romanticism. Viewers taking a chance likely will feel rewarded.

Which brings up the movie's most important target audience:

Have the president and first lady seen Southside With You?

"To the best of my knowledge, they have not yet," Tanne said. "John Legend, one of our executive producers, is friends with them, and works with them on different initiatives, sees them quite a bit. He's had a conversation with them about the film, about how much he loves it, and how he thinks they'll really enjoy it.

"So, the invitation is out there."

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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Published: 01/18/18