Filmmaker Richard Tanne describes “Southside With You” as “a classic boy-meets-girl story — but with the invisible sweep of history beneath it all.”
The movie, opening Friday, is set on a summer day in 1989. It’s about the first date between a Harvard law student and the young attorney who is his mentor at a big Chicago law firm. They share their first kiss outside a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop.
His name is Barack Obama. Hers is Michelle Robinson.
“Sometime in 2007 or 2008 — even before they were in the White House — I read an article about the Obamas’ first date,” Tanne said in a recent telephone interview. “It sounded epic, this never-ending jaunt across Chicago.
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“Michelle wasn’t interested in Barack for a variety of reasons, and he had one day to win her over. By her own admission, he did just that.”
Tanne, 31, has been more or less obsessed with the president and first lady for years. Part of it is their politics, but he is just as taken with the dynamics of their relationship.
“I’ve always been struck by the way they look at each other, the way they tease and flirt, but it was only after I read about their background, the courtship, that I began thinking about a movie.”
An award-winning playwright while still in his teens, Tanne said that researching the Chicago of 1989 (he was only 4 years old) and the Obamas’ first date was enjoyable.
For example, the young couple went to see Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” a film that some white commentators feared would spark riots among black moviegoers.
“That movie gave me a tremendous amount of material to play with,” Tanne said. “Especially if you look at it as a microcosm of the different ways in which black and white America perceived things.”
There was also Barack Obama’s car, a rattletrap yellow Datsun with a rusted hole in the floor that Michelle had to tread carefully around.
Enough has been written about that first date — in the Obamas’ own books and in interviews they have given — that Tanne had a wealth of details to work from. He considers the film to be historically accurate about 90 percent of the time.
Of course, specific conversations had to be created from his imagination. He had a head start because the Obamas’ personalities and manners of speaking are by now a part of the public record. Tanne simply had to imagine how they might talk as young adults.
While it is impossible to watch “Southside With You” without thinking ahead to the international role these two individuals would play, Tanne said he tried to concentrate mostly on delivering a satisfying romance.
“My M.O. — and everybody else’s — was that we weren’t going to worry about what would become of these characters. People will bring all that into the theater with them. Our job was to craft a credible love story between two people.”
Finding the financial backing to make the movie was a long and often frustrating process.
Tanne’s initial screenplay treatment fell into the hands of actress Tika Sumpter (the “Ride Along” movies), who would go on to play Michelle in the film — although she didn’t know that at the time. Her original role was that of a producer.
“Tika and I spent two years looking for the right financing partner,” Tanne said. “There was always interest expressed, but people just couldn’t bring themselves to pull the trigger. They were skeptical of me, and of Tika.
“And the people with money wanted name actors. But Tika and I were pretty sure we needed unknowns. We didn’t want audiences to first have to get past familiar faces playing these well-known individuals.”
Funding finally came from an old friend, Stuart Ford, the head of I.M. Global, an international entertainment company.
“Basically he fell in love with the script and took a gamble,” Tanne said. “We’d never done business together.”
More than 30 actors were considered for the role of the future president. Parker Sawyers was cast after sending in an audition tape.
“It was a spot-on commander-in-chief President Obama impersonation. So our job then was to work backward,” Tanne said.
“I told him up front, ‘You’re not the president here. You’re just a guy trying to impress a girl.’
“Once he dropped the impersonation and began playing the character, little residual bits of the future president slipped in. If I saw him trying too hard, I told him to pull back, to not think about Obama per se.”
“Southside With You” wowed audiences and critics when it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
The critics gushed, with The Hollywood Reporter describing it as “a great date and pretty damn good date movie.”
Variety called it “something unique, even audacious in American independent movies: a fact-based presidential ‘prequel’ that seeks to present two iconic world figures as convincing and relatable romantic leads.”
The movie is a game changer for Tanne. “I’ve done lots of other stuff before this — I’ve been a producer, an actor. I’ve written a lot of scripts that have been bought or optioned. But this is a whole new deal.”
In the months since Sundance, Tanne has kept busy preparing for the film’s national rollout. He’s also working on a script for animation giant Pixar “that I can’t say anything about.”
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at ButlersCinemaScene.com.