Producer Robert Teitel keeps bringing Chicago stories to the big screen

Teitel on the set of “Southside With You.”

Robert Teitel is a busy man. The producer of 21 films and television shows, including Soul Food, Men of Honor and the Barbershop franchise, his latest project — “Southside With You,” about Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date, will premiere in January at the Sundance Film Fest. Teitel is also working on getting a film together with Joe Shanahan and others on The Warehouse – the Chicago club where House music was born and where the late Frankie Knuckles ruled. In addition, “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” the fourth in the franchise, directed by his Columbia College pal and colleague George Tillman, is set to hit theaters in April.

Teitel, a 47-year-old native of Mount Prospect, chatted with The Chicago Ambassador by phone from Los Angeles, where he has now lived for 21 years, about his projects, his love for Chicago, and his quest to bring more Chicago stories to the big screen. We called him at the appointed time which he seemed to appreciate.

Teitel with Common on the set of Barbershop: The Next Cut.

Robert Teitel (right) with Common on the set of “Barbershop: The Next Cut.”

Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.

TEITEL) I love your Chicago promptness. I’m the same way, I haven’t lost that.

CA) It has to drive you nuts, living in LA –

TEITEL) Yeah, it’s freakin’ unbelievable.  Like, if you have a lunch or a drink scheduled, there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll skip.

CA) That would drive me up a wall. You know, I interviewed you and your Columbia College buddy [director and frequent collaborator] George Tillman back in 1997, so it’s fun to catch up with you again. Is George in Los Angeles also?

TEITEL) Yes, we share an office. He was just in Chicago filming a pilot, but I think I go back more often than he does. I go back to Chicago as often as I can.My mom is there, her family is all still there. My brother is there. A couple times, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I really missed the city. I went back home and didn’t tell anyone and just walked around for two days. I just soaked the city in and kind of needed that to revitalize. I just walked around, picked up the Chicago Reader to see what was going on. It sounds a little weird but I did it. Of course, if my mom reads this and finds out I came in without telling anyone I’ll get a lot of crap from her. (Laughter).

CA) We interviewed Joe Shanahan a few months ago and he told us you guys were still looking for a screenwriter for the House music/Frankie Knuckles/Warehouse film. What’s the status of that?

TEITEL) It’s more of The Warehouse story. I love Joe, I just talked to him last Friday. By the way, I always wanted to do a documentary about Joe and the Metro.

CA) That would be pretty cool.

TEITEL) It’s a great story. He’s a Chicago Rock and Roll pioneer and the Metro is still running 30 years later. It’s a great Chicago story.

CA) He’s one of a kind and the Metro is an institution.

TEITEL) It’s a total institution. I’ve been going there for years. You know, it’s funny, they filmed a lot of the performances, they were smart enough to do that. They have a lot of footage.

CA) That’s cool. You should talk to him about doing a documentary.

TEITEL) I do. I talk to him all the time about it. He’s so humble though, he doesn’t like people talking about him. I tell him, ‘Joe, you have to understand!’ It’s a story about rock and roll but it’s also a story about a Chicago business that endures. There are a lot of layers to it. I was in Chicago this summer doing a movie and got to hang out with Joe a lot. I went to a couple of shows with him. It was cool to walk around at Pitchfork with him because people from young to old were coming up to him. He’s still like the guy. He knows everybody.

CA) It must be like walking around with the mayor.

TEITEL) Probably better.

CA) Especially nowadays. (Laughter)

TEITEL) I follow all of that stuff by the way. I read the Tribune and the Sun-Times everyday. I never could really get into the LA Times.

CA) To get back to The Warehouse film, have you found a screenwriter for it?

TEITEL) We have one now out of Chicago. We’re kind of going back and forth and the hope is that he’s done very soon. He’s come up with a great story.

CA) Are you still planning on doing a film based on Disco Demolition night?

TEITEL) Absolutely, 100 percent. It’s called ‘Disco Sucks.’ I have the script and we have a great director, a guy out of Chicago named Scott Zabielski. He’s a really smart guy, he grew up in the Chicago area and used to listen to a lot of Steve Dahl.  I met him out here and he’s the perfect guy to direct it. I have a couple Chicago stories. I’m also trying to do the story of Del Close.

CA) Yes, I’ve read that. What the status of that?

TEITEL) We’ve tried a couple times but have never gotten to the finish line. It will get done. I just have to be patient and move it along.

CA) Is Barbershop: The Next Cut finished or is it still filming?

TEITEL) It’s in post-production.

CA) When is that scheduled to be released?

TEITEL) It will be out in April.

CA) I’m sure you’ve read about the controversy with Spike Lee’s new film Chi-Raq. It kind of reminded me of the controversy with the first Barbershop movie, about Cedric The Entertainer’s character Eddie who mocked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in the film. Does it remind you of what’s going on with Chi-Raq?

TEITEL) I look forward to seeing Spike’s film. I plan to see it this weekend. He’s addressing what’s going on with black males in Chicago today and it’s a story that I’m glad he has told. I think the Eddie character [in Barbershop] said things that no one agrees with. He was really there to push the hot button topics. He was catalyst for saying the things no one would say but then everyone [in the movie] jumped down his throat for saying it.

CA) At the time, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton wanted an apology from MGM and even wanted the lines deleted from the DVD releases. Did it prove to prove to be much ado about nothing?

TEITEL) Pretty much. Because when you really watch the movie, one person says it but the rest really jump down his throat.

CA) Do you think it helped to sell tickets?

TEITEL) We weren’t smart enough back then to even think that would help. We just did it. It was in the script and part of the comedy and part of the culture of the barbershop. It’s the one sacred place where people can speak their minds. It was more just based on that. I think people today may think it was in there to grab people’s attention, but back then we were young and didn’t think of that.

CA) Do you still talk to George [Tillman, the director of the Barbershop films] a lot?

TEITEL) Yes, we share an office. I was just with him two hours ago.

CA) Another project you’re doing is “Southside With You,” the story of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.

TEITEL) We were fortunate enough to get it into Sundance. It’s going to premiere in the dramatic film category. It’s a great honor.

CA) How did you hear about it? How did the script come about?

TEITEL) It’s interesting. It came to me about a year and a half ago. I met the actress who is playing the lead [Tika Sumpter] who is also one of the producers on the film. I read the script and I loved it. I told her I loved it but didn’t know how to get it financed. At the time, I didn’t have the resources to get it made but about 10 months after that, it came back up. I met with the director Richard Tanne and I loved his vision for it. It’s a real good story, it’s a love story.

CA) It’s fiction though, correct?

TEITEL) They [the Obama’s] talked about their first date, where they went — they went to a movie and the Art Institute. They have talked about that, so we took that and then obviously wrote fictional dialogue. She was actually his superior at the time. She was at the law firm and I think he was a summer intern or just working for the summer, so we kind of play off that as well.

CA) I’ve read that there’s a lot of dialogue in the movie, kind of like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset trilogy?

TEITEL) That’s what I use to describe it. It’s very much in that vein.

Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in 'Southside With You'

Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in ‘Southside With You’

CA) I read an article that you passed on Training Day. I’m sure if you ask any producer, there’s a movie that they may kick themselves about. Can you talk about that?

TEITEL) It wasn’t an official pass. It was more that it came my way but at the time I wasn’t familiar with that LA gang subculture. The movie turned out amazing, I loved it.

CA) Any other projects that you have plans to do that we don’t know about?

TEITEL) I still want to see a Chicago political movie. I always wanted to do one. The story to me is the Harold Washington/Eddie Vrdolyak story – the council wars. I think that would make a great political story.

CA) Tons of drama there.

TEITEL) I thought the first season of Boss was great. It was so well done, but there hasn’t been a Chicago political movie.

CA) There were a couple of plays. A guy named Neil Giuntoli did a show about Richard J. Daley called Hizzoner a few years ago that was really great.

TEITEL) There’s the JFK thing that I want to see.

CA) Yes, Assassination Theater. That was really good. We interviewed the writer Hillel Levin and reviewed it. 

TEITEL) I heard about the Hizzoner show but never got a chance to see it. I want to see the JFK show. I’m a really big fan of Hillel Levin’s writing. He writes about Chicago’s underbelly better than anybody. He’s a great writer.

CA) I think it’s pretty cool that a lot of your films have a Chicago angle. Not all of them of course, but many. Is that something that remains near and dear to your heart?

TEITEL) Yeah. I consider myself a Chicago filmmaker. If you look at someone like Nelson Algren, his writing is true Chicago stories. It’s not about Michigan Avenue. Like Alex Kotlowitz, the stuff he writes, or Steve James with The Interrupters or Hoop Dreams. That’s the kind of stuff that resonates with me.

 

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