Interview: Director Richard Tanne – Southside With You


Southside With You follows the President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, on their first date one summer day in 1989. Director/writer Richard Tanne is the person behind telling this story. We spoke about the pressures of making this film, the amazing Tika Sumpter, and seeing our President as a bachelor.

On a scale from 1-10, what kind of pressure were you under making this movie?

Richard Tanne: It was a 10 but not because it was a movie about the President and First Lady when they were younger. It was a 10 because I don’t know any other way to make a movie [laughs]. If I’m lucky enough to be sitting with you again – talking about another film – that’s going to be a 10 too. Movies are hard to make and there’s a lot of money at stake. You want to wake up every day and do your best.

The big takeaway in this film was Tika Sumpter’s performance. How did you get her involved in the film?

RT: Tika got a hold of the outline I wrote before it was even a script. A mutual friend passed it along to her, she got in touch with me and wanted to meet. We had breakfast and she said she wanted to play Michelle, but even if she couldn’t she wanted to help get the film made. I was blown away by her. I saw her in Sparkle and I saw her in Gossip Girl, and I really liked her. It was after that meeting when I saw her as a business woman, and I saw her intelligence and her ambition that I thought she could be a great Michelle. So then I had to go write the script. She liked the script and we teamed up to produce it together.  Not only did she give a really special performance, she helped get the movie made. The fact that she was able to give such a great performance, it makes it that much more impressive. I really hope she gets to go have a career like Margot Robbie or whatever “it” girl of the moment is, because she has “it”.

How factual are the events in the movie?

RT: Mostly all the biographical stuff they share is accurate. A few things here and there are creative license, but nothing major. The locations in the film are all part of the first date. A community meeting, like the one in the film, happened at some point during their courtship, but not on the first date.

The storytelling reminded me of Linklater’s ‘Before’ series. You track two people for a long period of time. That has to be difficult to shoot.

RT: In some ways it made it a little easier. While writing it, I didn’t have to keep track of the characters over an extended period of time. Or if you were doing a traditional biopic of their lives, you’d be following them for their entire lives up until now. I would lose my footing. Who are these characters five years from now? Who are they five years from then? This allowed me to target moments throughout the course of a day. How did we keep it interesting with just two people? That credit goes to Tika and Parker [Sawyers] and the chemistry between them.

Have you heard from the President and First Lady about this movie?

RT: Not personally. There are a few people who’ve been a part of the movie or seen the movie and they’ve spoken to them. What I heard back is that they’re aware of it and they’re confused that it exists [laughs]. But also, there was a sense that maybe it would be nice is Sasha and Malia were able to see it. I hope they like it if they do see it.

You’ll know there’s a problem if a drone shows up outside your house with a note, “Why was I smoking so much in this film?

RT: [laughs] Everybody notices that because we don’t see Barack smoking and we don’t see characters smoking in movies much anymore.

We never get to see our presidents as bachelors even though we know they all were at some point. In that opening scene his house is a mess. There are dishes everywhere. He’s not the polished guy we see now.

RT: Thank you for noticing the apartment. At a Q&A at a festival, someone asked me where the character Barack is in life and where Michelle is. I replied, “It’s pretty clear she’s way more impressive at this point in life.” Somebody in the audience yelled out, “She still is.”

The thing we’re going to miss most when the Obama’s leave office is Michelle.

RT: She’s been a wonderful role model for girls and women. It’s going to be sad to see them go.

There were three scenes that I absolutely loved. The first is when Michelle is telling Barack why she can’t date him. The second scene involves Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The last scene is when they go to the community meeting. How did you capture the authenticity of those moments?

RT: They’re real people. I did a lot of reading about them, trying to get a handle on who they were and how they were thinking. At a certain point, the characters just start talking to each other. The Do the Right Thing scene is really interesting to me. It’s one of my favorite movies and I’ve had that scene in my head for a long time. I’ve had the comical idea of how white people interpret the ending and how black people interpret the ending. It’s not monolithic, but I did find it interesting that people try to give Mookie a rationale. It goes beyond that. As white people, sometimes these things have to be pointed out because we have different experiences. I always found it interesting when Spike Lee would always be quoted saying, “All black people know what that ending means.” It’s one of my favorite movies so when I read about Barack and Michelle seeing it on a date, I knew I had something interesting there. I was trying to find those moments and hoping the time, places, and characters served those moments.

Did you learn anything new about either of them?

RT: I learned a ton. I had no idea the President worked at Baskin-Robbins in high school and it turned him off of ice cream. I didn’t know the First Lady was dissatisfied at her law firm at the time. She started to feel like she wasn’t fulfilled and had a greater purpose. I read that about her and that was dovetailing with him leaving community organizing to go to Harvard Law. They were both at this point of wanting more. It’s interesting they met each at the point in life when they were both starting to strive for more. That’s something that connects two people.