Both the Illinois Film Office and Chicago Film Office got new bosses in 2019, with filmmaker-teacher Peter Hawley stepping in for the state and Chicago film veteran Kwame Amoaku taking the reins at the local office. As they talk about their jobs, the pair almost sound like they’ve worked together for years, which, in ways they elaborate on in our conversation, they have. We spoke in early September in an artifact-packed hidden-away aerie at the Cultural Center.
Were you able to get a running start? Peter, you’ve been in the job since May, and Kwame, since July. Christine Dudley was at the Illinois Film Office since 2015, and Rich Moskal was at the Chicago Film Office for twenty-three years. Are you close to making the job your own?
Amoaku. I had been speaking to Rich about this the entire time [before taking the job] and Rich let me know that the job is twofold. There’s the mechanics of what has to happen in the permit office, permitting all these films and projects, from student films to major motion pictures. They all have to go through a process that is pretty intricate; it involves a lot of city entities signing off all these agreements and whatnot. But there’s also the cultural development of the film industry itself, which is a totally different track, so it’s a lot to do for one person, or one office. I’m glad that we [he and Hawley] have the relationship there; we could tag team on these big-picture things that we’re looking at. He has to administer the tax credit; I have to put out permits. But at the same time, we have to look at the larger picture and figure out how we can better the process.
Hawley. We think very similarly about Illinois and Chicago film business and industry and how we would like it to grow and what we would like it to be and there is certainly a cultural aspect to it. It’s making Chicago and Illinois a great place to make films, see films as part of the arts world, but it’s also about building infrastructure, which is stages, more crews, developing the workforce.
When are you crewed out? It isn’t just locations and bricks and mortar. It isn’t just a community getting along and sharing their dreamy dreams and storytelling, it’s simply, are there enough people to sustain the needs of a growing industry?
Hawley. That’s almost the first question I get when Hollywood calls. What’s your crew situation like, are you all booked up, I hear you’re all booked up, things like that. We’re fighting the perception, and we’re working hard to build the workforce.
Amoaku. People underestimate the depth of the crews here and the capacity that they have to make high-level projects. It’s for us to make sure people understand that they can come here and get their stuff done, there’s enough crew and infrastructure.
Hawley. More crew people are seeing that there’s consistent work here, so they’re not like, oh, once this show’s over, I’m done. There’s nothin’ else coming. They’re seeing that pilot season rolls around and two or three more shows will come. It’s consistent. I mean, we’re growing, we’re not plateauing, we’re certainly not going down. That keeps them here. That will also allow people to move to town, to move to the state.
Amoaku. Within the tri-state area of Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, they’re starting to come here and set up roots. We have these episodic shows, which create sustainability for them, for jobs. They end up getting apartments here, taking homes here, spending money in the state of Illinois. We want to draw people from other places and make them Illinois residents.
I used to follow the Canadian film industry and smaller cities would brag, other than Vancouver and Toronto, Calgary would say, “It’s amazing, we’ve got two “C”-level crews and one “B”-level crew, Winnipeg would say, we can handle two movies and part of a Canadian TV show with our crews!” [Both laugh heartily.]
Amoaku. Canada’s a horrible place to shoot!
The floor is yours.
Amoaku. Chicago’s a much better place to shoot. Illinois is a much better place to shoot than Canada! I think as for Canada, the crew on both sides of the call sheet, the front of the call sheet especially, they would say they would rather be in the States. They would rather be in a city like Chicago than Winnipeg or Toronto or Vancouver.
Hawley. There are very real differences, Chicago versus Toronto. Our exteriors look different! There’s a major TV series coming here that’s just about to start filming, that will be on next year that was looking at a variety of cities, including Toronto. The issue they had was Toronto doesn’t look like early twentieth-century Midwest at all, and they had a large amount of African-American extras and cast members and they would have to import that cast to Canada, which didn’t have a look that worked.
Amoaku. It’s the variety of neighborhoods and whatnot. I mean, here, you have very urban environments, you have the Gold Coast environment, you have the beach, you travel outside the city, you have rural, you can go into the deepest forest or the cornfields… You can tell your story a bunch of different ways that Canada can’t offer.
Hawley. You’re talking about cornfields, forests, that sort of stuff, I think we’ve seen an uptick in shows that were going to go to Georgia coming here now, because you can look at—Well, the reason, of course, is the “heartbeat bill,” their “heartbeat bill,” a lot of those shows shooting in Georgia are not shooting in Atlanta, or looking to double Atlanta. “Ozark” is a good example. “Walking Dead.” They’re shooting in rural Georgia, which they can get quickly. I want them to shoot that here, for shows to look beyond immediate Chicago.
The diverse looks aren’t there in the Canadian cities. A production designer and a cinematographer for a series like “Chicago Fire” can impulsively say, let’s point the camera over there. That’s still a “Chicago” look, whereas you can’t whimsically turn the camera around in foreign locations.
Hawley. Or too modern—
Amoaku. It’s a weird-looking city.
Toronto makes a great Toronto! What are the most surprising requests you’ve had so far, in terms of producers hoping to make this city look different or strange?
Amoaku. I’ve got some requests, one particular request, to shut down a portion of a commercial district and convert it to the 1800s, with dirt roads and wood planks and horses and buggies, all that. It’s challenging in a working city to make that happen, it’s not a backlot.
That would be building upon existing architecture, akin to Quentin Tarantino’s Hollywood Boulevard in “Once Upon a Time…”?
Amoaku. Correct. Exactly. Using what already exists, which is a lot of that architecture. Being able to exploit that architecture and turn it into period pieces is definitely an asset that we have.
Hawley. “Fargo” was looking at shutting down a section of the central business district of Blue Island, lock stock and barrel, because it’s early-twentieth-century looking.
Did this seem like a “dream job” before you began and now, a few months after starting, does it seem like that or something else? [Even heartier laughter]
Hawley. You want to go first on that one? [Both laugh]
What most people see is the evangelism for the state and the city, negotiating the outrageous location work, but there are tax incentives, permits, paperwork, a less “magical” side.
Hawley. I have known the last several State of Illinois film office directors, and I’ve liked them. I’ve known Betsy Steinberg for a decade, I knew Christine Dudley, I knew Brenda Sexton, who preceded Betsy. I always thought it was a really interesting job, a job that worked with my skills. Workforce development, that’s what I was as a college film teacher for years. I’m a filmmaker, I thought I could do a good job. Then I got into the job, and it was a surprise to me, but it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, that government is just so different from business. You could have a great idea, and a hundred people say, “This is a great idea,” but you can’t make it happen overnight, I can’t change the law overnight. There are issues that I talk about in my office, and that Kwame and I talk about together, that everyone agrees. We’ve got an issue, argh, now that we all think would be best for the film business in Illinois—it’s a safety issue, but we can’t move on. We’re waiting on three or four other people to act. Our hands are tied. Intellectually, I knew it, but I wasn’t expecting it.
Amoaku. For me, when Rich approached me about the job, I had trepidations, but he instead thought that I was perfect for it. So I started to believe him!
Hawley. I didn’t know Rich approached you.
Amoaku. Yeah, yeah. He asked me, “would you be interested?” Everyone was kind of like, you’d be really good for that, and I started thinking, maybe I would, just based on the amount of experience I have, and the amount of different jobs that I’ve held in the business. I’ve been on both sides of the camera, as an actor, as a procurer, a location manager, a production manager, assistant director. I started out as a production assistant and worked my way through the system. It allowed me to enter into a lot of different areas: commercials, music videos, major motion pictures. It gives me a unique perspective, and it allows me to work with these production companies in a way that somebody who didn’t have that experience couldn’t really understand the language they were speaking, the shorthand. It gives me an advantage, but also, I love the city. Genuinely. I have a genuine love for the city and I have a genuine love for the film community here, I feel like it’s been a family to me. It’s supported me. I raised my kids… When tragic things happen in my life, it’s the film industry that’s come to my support. It’s a family affair, and this is a way for me to pay back everything the film business in Chicago has done for me. I feel like an evangelist, I’m preaching the gospel, I can reach and touch a lot of people and make a lot of positive things happen for everybody. But then I ran up against the bureaucracy! I realized that it’s not like production work, where we see something and we just do it, we make it happen. The whole “make it happen” thing, “make it happen” is a little different here. It’s taken some adjusting to, but I’m learning. It’s like being on another planet and having to learn a whole alien language and customs. I enjoy working with the people in Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the mentality of the department of bringing culture, making people in the city happy. I was joking with someone, saying, I think we’re the only department in the city where people genuinely like us. Because we’re making people happy! You get a letter from us, it’s probably a nice event that’s going on. You get a letter from someone else… I worked with Rich a lot in my career, and I learned from him over the years, the careful balance between the community and what we do in the film business. And how to make that balance work.
Hawley. You find the middle, you make the middle.
Amoaku. When you’re in the business, all you want to do is what you want to do. You don’t necessarily think about the effect that you have. What he made me understand is how the city is like a living organism. The streets? When we do things that cause heart attacks! [laughs] It’s for us to fix that. It helped me understand how we have to come to a happy medium where production companies get what they need, but then also people can get up and get to work on time, we’re not causing disruption and we’re not putting a bad taste in peoples’ mouths about the experience. He taught me that, and that’s what I want to do to maintain the balance so the city can grow, but at the same time, not too fast for residents and businesses.
Hawley. Something Kwame said, talking about the city, but also the state, we’re putting the word out there that we’re film-friendly. I had an issue a week ago, “Shameless” was shooting and they needed to lock down LaGrange Road. That’s a state of Illinois district, and the Illinois State Police got involved. There’s an issue, and it was the day before and they called me, and I called the director of the Illinois State Police, a man I’d never met, he’d just started [his job] as well. Nine o’clock at night, he called and his first words out of his mouth were, “I know the governor wants more film here, be film-friendly, I’ll make a few phone calls.” This is nine o’clock at night, and by nine o’clock in the morning, LaGrange Road was all good to go, Warner Brothers was happy, “Shameless” was happy. Probably ninety-five percent of the people involved, both on the government side, the police side, the production side, had no idea anything happened. It just got done. That is a good thing. He made it work.
Amoaku. Some of these requests that come in are on the surface, ridiculous. Can you imagine the first “Transformers” meeting? “We’ve got giant robots, we’ve got explosions, paratroopers, and we want it on Michigan Avenue and Wacker during the day.” Initially, people had to say, you’re nuts! There’s no way you can do this. But, no, you have to sit down and figure it out, piece-by-piece—
Hawley. Yeah, yeah—
Amoaku. —and figure out a way to make this stuff happen. You’re in a competitive market! You gotta understand, Atlanta will say yes to this. They will have no problem shutting down their downtown, they do it all the time. We just had “Batwoman” here, and they had to shoot in the central business district, but at the same time as the Air and Water Show, so it created logistical nightmares. Initially people in the city said, absolutely not. Nothing can happen during the Air and Water Show. But we were able to sit down with them and say, if we schedule it from this time to this time, do this corner, do that corner, we made it happen. “Batwoman” ended up getting a lot of extremely awesome footage, in the central business district, and it encouraged them to sincerely look toward moving the show from Vancouver to Chicago. Not only that, but establishing Chicago as Gotham—for the DC Universe on the CW. So not only is it “Batwoman,” but any other show that needs a Gotham setting, they’ll look seriously at Chicago. So it’s because we were able to acquiesce, and because we were able to make it happen, it’s gonna draw more filming here.
“Logistics” sounds dry, but you’re describing a negotiation, a dance, a form of creativity—
Amoaku. Oh absolutely.
Hawley. I always say, creativity is problem-solving. That is the definition of creativity, that’s what we do all the time. First off, as a filmmaker, you can say, “I want to do this,” but then you have to figure out how to do it. The simplest scene. Two people, talking at a table in a restaurant. All right, what kind of restaurant? What time of day is it? How crowded is it? Do we need hot food? Do they actually eat? Who’s in the background? Yes, those are production issues, but you go outside that. That’s one scene. One day. It happens day in and day out. Some problems are relatively minor, as simple as, they didn’t know who to talk to. Other problems, you need to go to two or three people and it’s not cool to cross departments. I can’t call CPS. The deputy governor used to be at CPS, and I can talk to him, but I can’t go to CPS.
You have a wealth of personal contacts and relationships from down the years, but you’re describing something missing from far too many industries now—notably newspapers, newsrooms—and that’s institutional memory. You know how things worked and how different figures worked it. Top of your head, tip of the tongue.
Hawley. For me, yes, institutional memory and having worked on a lot of projects, as a filmmaker, supervising students, a lot of them, you’ve been around. I’ve been a working filmmaker in Chicago for thirty years and done a lot of things. The people I know, just from relationships. You mentioned “Batwoman,” we didn’t get some of their call sheets, which are backup for the tax credit, to prove, on September 5, you shot here and here. I happen to be friends with the first A.D. on “Batwoman,” and I called him. He was working on something else already, but I said, we’re not getting call sheets. And he said, I can get them if you really want them from me, but you should talk to this person, and five minutes later? I had a week’s worth of call sheets.
You knew the guy who knew the guy.
Hawley. Connectors. Like Lois Weisberg, who worked in this building [the Cultural Center]. My favorite part of the job, honestly, a couple of people from my office are going to the set of a film today, but I like going to the production offices. I like meeting the UPMs [unit production managers], location scouts, the location managers. I like talking to those people, because they’re the ones who actually have the problems. Once you’re on the set, the problem’s solved, you’re just shooting. I like to know them before they have a problem, so they can call me when they do.
My limited experience in production offices included a major star firing his leading lady in front of the director and daring him to do something about it. This power dynamic you’re not supposed to witness or not to be watching.
Hawley. We just had interviews for the assistant director of the film office and one of the questions is essentially that. You are in a meeting with two of your clients, two customers, and they have a disagreement, what do you do?
Amoaku. Gotta know that stuff.
What’s the answer? Take out a folder of menus and study them?
Hawley. Excuse themselves? If you’re driving the [location] van, the invisible wall goes up: I did not hear that, I have no idea.
Amoaku. “Water, anybody?”
Hawley. Going to Starbucks! That whole hear-no-evil, see-no-evil. Some people went the other direction, “I’d try to fix it.”
Amoaku. Nooo! Absolutely not!
Let’s hear more about connections.
Amoaku. To me, the entire business has been those connections. The fabric of the film industry in the city or anywhere, really, is those interpersonal connections. That’s how things happen in business. So the more of those you have, the better you can leverage it to make things happen. I’ve been blessed enough to know a lot of people from a lot of different sectors. Not only that, but to have a degree of respect from them, that they can trust what I’m saying, they can believe what I’m saying. When I was a location manager, that trust was essential in doing my job. I’m coming to your house, I’m asking to photograph everything in your house and set your house on fire. You have to trust me. Then everyone else has to trust me to make that happen. I’m able to look at things from the perspective of crew, location managers, et cetera. But also to know what the city requires and what they need. I’m definitely using interpersonal relationships now more than ever. Because sometimes I have to get people to do things they don’t want to do, and they have to trust me and believe what I’m talking about.
Hawley. Yeah. Yeah. Talking from the state of Illinois perspective, we wouldn’t be sitting here with you, we wouldn’t be having these conversations, if it wasn’t for the tax credit and the tax credit incentive. Because that’s what’s keeping the shows here, that’s what’s bringing films here, that’s what keeps people coming here. When the governor signed a bill on August 1, Dick Wolf spoke, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Y’know, if not for the tax credit and the extension, we would not be here.” There you go. There goes an industry. You can network all you want, but if there’s no work here, you can’t collaborate and get people to do things for you The business side of things, that’s why we can build a workforce, that’s why we can talk to the unions to say, hey, let’s do workforce training and we can go to colleges, show young people who are about to graduate that they can stay here for jobs. When “The Package” was here, that was like the one show in town. You wouldn’t move here on the chance that next year another movie’s gonna come.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.