By Ed M. Koziarski
A late February rain melts the snow that blankets Humboldt Park. Gray and wet, yet Division and California bustles with pedestrians. It’s the first day above freezing in weeks, and the neighborhood is starring in its first major motion picture, called, fittingly, “Humboldt Park.”
In a black SUV in the shadow of the forty-foot steel Puerto Rican flag that arches over Division Street sits Bob Teitel, the man who brought the production here, cursing the rain.
“Humboldt Park” is a Christmas movie and the arctic conditions have helped maintain the seasonal illusion. Neighborhood residents have cooperated with the film crew’s request to leave their Christmas lights up an extra two months. But as brown grass peeks out of the ground, the spell is broken.
“We’re probably the only people that are happy there’s so much snow on the ground,” says Teitel, dressed in a black full-body rain suit. “The rain’s been a little tough. We tried to shoot in the car two or three times today with Alfred Molina driving, then it started raining, and we got him out and it stopped.”
Bucktown native Freddy Rodriguez plays a wounded Iraq War vet reuniting for Christmas with his parents (Molina and Elizabeth Peña), his New York yuppie brother (John Leguizamo) and his Hollywood actress sister (Vanessa Ferlito). The cast also features Debra Messing, Luis Guzman, Melonie Diaz and Jay Hernandez.
“The cast really got along,” Teitel says from L.A. after the shoot. “We went to Stanley’s for live-band karaoke. You don’t get that all the time in movies. Sometimes when you work with people that’s all you want to see them. But there was a good camaraderie. I hope that comes across on film.”
Today is an exterior shooting day and the crew huddles under tents in front of a brownstone across Division from the park. Teitel, the lead producer on the film, is running the show from the street, along with director Alfredo de Villa.
Teitel rolls down the SUV window and calls out to a man hurrying past. “Hey Marcus, how did it go with Jay?” “He’s got a big smile on his face,” Marcus Davis beams. Davis, who just finished cutting Hernandez’s hair for the shoot, is the set barber on all the films that Teitel and his partner George Tillman, Jr. produce in Chicago through their State Street Films. On “Barbershop,” Davis ran a haircutting boot camp for Ice Cube and his co-stars, and he’s been State Street’s go-to guy every since.
Teitel and Tillman are intensely proud of their Chicago roots, and they’re loyal to their regular crew, hiring many of the same people whenever they return from Hollywood to shoot here, from “Soul Food” to the “Barbershop” movies to “Roll Bounce” and now “Humboldt Park.” “It’s just fun, man,” Teitel says. “It creates a family vibe. Everybody’s in good spirits,” even though the weather on exterior days “takes a toll on you.” The fire department shut them down one day shooting outside the planetarium because of the hazardous combination of ice and strong winds.
“Humboldt Park” is Teitel’s baby, the culmination of a long-held dream to make a Latino family drama pitched squarely at mainstream audiences. Leguizamo was attached to a novel adaptation six years ago that never got off the ground. After years with Fox, Teitel turned to independent distributor Overture Films to finance the film. He says the studios aren’t ready to take the risk on a drama with a Latin cast, pitched at a mainstream audience. “The studios look at formulas—would do so much foreign,” he says. “There’s really no formula for something like this. I want it to appeal to everybody.”
As a suburban kid in the 1970s and 1980s, Teitel visited his mother’s family in Humboldt Park at holidays and stayed summers. “I remember not being able to go in the park without my mom and my cousins around,” he says. “Now I see people jogging through the park. It’s a whole different kind of vibe.” Teitel’s relatives came to the “Humboldt Park” set a couple times. “They said it’s about time I did something like this.” Teitel is proud of how the neighborhood has received the film. “So many people came up to Freddy,” whose parents live in Humboldt Park, Teitel says. “They remember him from school or they knew his family.”
There’s one interaction on the street that really stands out for Teitel, looking back on the shoot. “One day we were shooting outside and we had all the chairs lined up with the actors’ names on them. This 17-year-old kid came up to me and said, ‘I never thought they’d shoot a movie about a Puerto Rican family in my neighborhood. I used to do drugs on that corner but now I’m trying to be more positive.’ He gave me a CD of his music. He didn’t know who I was. He was just so freaking proud.”
Teitel, 40, grew up in Mt. Prospect. His mother is from Puerto Rico. His father, who is from France, owned an auto-painting shop where Teitel worked as a teenager. Teitel’s father took him to the movies every Sunday. He rode his bike to the set of “The Breakfast Club” at Maine North High School in Des Plaines. “The John Hughes movies stood out to me growing up,” Teitel says. “Even though it was a whole different class, Highland Park, I felt like I could relate to it.” Seeing his first movie shoot was pivotal for Teitel. “I started to think I could do this for a living,” he says.
Teitel went to film school at Columbia College, where he met Tillman. “Our first class, everybody was talking about what were your favorite films you saw over the summer,” Teitel recalls. “Everybody went into these real art-house films. George and I both said ‘Die Hard.’” The two men worked as production assistants on commercials including Spike Lee’s Michael Jordan Nike spots. “The same women who hired us for those spots are our production coordinators today,” Teitel says.
Tillman and Teitel became a director-producer team at Columbia. Their short film “Paula,” a drama starring Tillman’s future wife Marcia Wright as a struggling single mother, won a Midwest Student Academy Award in 1992. They shot music videos for underground rap and dancehall reggae acts, scoring with Terror Fabulous’ “Action,” which went to number one on the video-request channel The Box.
The partners raised $150,000 from forty-four investors to fund their first feature, “Scenes for the Soul.” Tillman’s script tells the intertwining stories of three families, two black and one Puerto Rican. They shot the film in 1993 and edited it until November 1994, when they decided they were ready for Hollywood.
“We packed everything we had in an ’89 Celica and drove out to California with six hundred dollars between us,” Teitel says. They shopped a VHS of “Scenes for the Soul” to agencies, landed representation and sold the film to Savoy Pictures for a million dollars two days before Christmas.
“It was after Spike and Robert Townsend and the Wayans, and they thought this was gonna be another one of those,” Teitel says. “They thought they were gonna release it in a thousand theaters. But this was more of an art-house film. It should’ve played a couple theaters in major urban cities.” They spent a year test-screening and reworking the film, but to no avail: Savoy shelved “Scenes for the Soul.” “That was the best lesson in Hollywood,” Teitel says. “We went from this instant being-in-the-circle to—once the film didn’t go out, the phone calls stopped happening.”
They moved back to Chicago, where Tillman completed his next script, “Soul Food,” the story of an 11-year-old South Side boy trying to hold his extended family together after the loss of his grandmother. In July 1996 they approached Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to do the soundtrack, unaware Edmonds had landed a development deal at Fox on the strength of his “Waiting To Exhale” soundtrack. By November they were back in Chicago to make their first Hollywood picture.
With a $7 million budget, “Soul Food” was under the studio’s radar in those days before the rise of the specialty divisions. “It was winter in Chicago and no one wanted to come out” from Los Angeles, Teitel says. “We used to joke about it was no adult supervision whatsoever. We had changes on the script that the studio gave us. As soon as we started we said, ‘Let’s go back to the original.’”
“Soul Food” grossed $43.5 million domestically in 1997. “It was amazing how it crossed all kinds of racial boundaries,” Teitel says. “That was the greatest feeling.” They signed a first-look deal with Fox for their production company State Street Pictures. Fox passed on the “Soul Food” TV series, but Showtime picked it up and it became the longest-running African-American drama ever at seventy-seven episodes. Tillman and Teitel were very involved at the beginning, reviewing scripts and visiting the set in Toronto. But then another opportunity arose at Fox.
The studio had acquired Scott Marshall Smith’s script “Men of Honor,” about the Navy’s first black diver, Carl Brashear. “We had to go to Robert De Niro and he had to like us” to get the film green-lit, Teitel says. “You grow up watching this guy… we used to joke it was like playing with Jordan.” De Niro took the role, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. signed on to play Brashear. Tillman directed on a $32 million budget.
“It was eighty days of shooting instead of thirty-six,” Teitel says. “It was an endurance thing. The last thirty days were underwater tank work—we had never done action. But we surrounded ourselves with the right people. They respected us because we bring this Midwestern working-class vibe to it. We’re here to work and there’s no bullshit.” “Men of Honor” grossed $48 million in 2000.
Teitel had been accompanying Tillman to barbershops for years and was sure there was a movie in the earthy repartee of these singular meeting places within the black community. So when he learned of Mark Brown’s script “Barbershop,” he snapped it up. Fox passed on the project, and State Street found a home for it at MGM under the stewardship of Chris McGurk. “Barbershop” shot in Chicago in 2002, with Ice Cube starring and Tim Story helming. It was the first State Street picture that Tillman produced with Teitel, rather than directing. “Barbershop” made $75 million at the box office, fueled by controversy over Cedric the Entertainer’s critical riffing on civil-rights leaders in the film.
MGM rushed a sequel into production. “That was one of those Hollywood experiences,” Teitel says. “We were like, ‘Do we really want to do a sequel? How many stories can you think of in a barbershop?’ It wasn’t as fun as the first one. The first one felt like you were doing something special.” The franchise spawned the Queen Latifah spin-off “Beauty Shop” and a short-lived Showtime series, with State Street playing a diminishing role in those productions.
They were back in Chicago in 2004 for the 1978-set teen roller-skating comedy “Roll Bounce” for Fox, State Street’s weakest box-office performer at $17.4 million. “Roller skating was another subculture we fell in love with,” Teitel says. “I thought it would perform better than it did. It was this really innocent period—the innocence with the kids today is not the same thing.”
Drawing on memories of family gatherings in Chicago, Teitel hired actor Rick Najera to write the first draft of a story about a far-flung Puerto Rican family reuniting over the holidays. Ted Perkins revised the script, then Teitel brought in his own wife, director Alison Swan, to write the final draft. “She took it home,” Teitel says. “She was looking at coming back with my family at Christmastime and going to my aunt’s house or my cousin’s house. She took it to a place where I felt happy with it.”
Fox passed on “Humboldt Park.” Teitel took it to Chris McGurk, who now runs Overture, a division of Starz. “Chris saw the potential to break new ground,” Teitel says. Overture green-lit the film for $10 million. Freddy Rodriguez signed on as star and executive producer, and his attachment attracted the rest of the cast.
When Teitel sees the first assembly of footage from “Humboldt Park,” he’s struck by the movie’s star power. “It feels a little bigger than I thought it would,” he says. “Every time you turn around, you see another face you recognize, then another face. But you’ve never seen a family like this on screen before.”
After “Humboldt Park” is completed, Teitel heads straight to New York to start shooting the Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious,” which Tillman is directing. State Street is working with Fox on the film. But they left their eleven-year first-look deal at Fox late last year to move under the Overture umbrella. At Overture they’re developing the Chicago-set vigilante-mom pic, “Stephon’s Corner,” for Tillman to direct. And Teitel’s thinking about a “Humboldt Park” TV show. Teitel sees better development opportunities outside the studio system. “It’s a totally different business from when we started,” Teitel says. “The people who are running the studios all come from marketing. It’s a different mentality.”