All the extraneous folk disappear from the set, built to resemble the interior of an Oak Park home, filled with graduation photos and baby pictures. Meanwhile director George Tillman Jr., a mild-mannered, spectacled 27-year-old Columbia College graduate, huddles with his actors, serving up a pep talk before sending his players out for battle.
"I'm getting ready to shoot this scene," Fox says later, "And I'm like, `Who's Uncle Pete?' "
Uncle Pete, as it turns out, is John Watson Sr., a Chicago actor and musician who nails the scene playing opposite Fox in a few quick takes, raising the eyebrows of a blond assistant.
"He is good," the assistant says. "I told you," Tillman answers, watching the action through a monitor from the director's chair.
From casting Uncle Pete to making sure that he directed his own film instead of some Hollywood big shot, Tillman is enjoying being able to say, "I told you so" about his baby, 20th Century Fox's "Soul Food," which hits theaters on Friday.
At his insistence, the $6 million film was shot in Chicago--"I didn't understand the Los Angeles atmosphere"--from the Green Mill to Oak Park to a glitzy, $5 million Lincoln Park condo that once belonged to Christie Hefner.
"I wasn't about to give up the script," says Tillman, who wrote the film based on his experiences growing up black and middle class in Milwaukee, gobbling up love around the family dinner table. "The script was very important to me. I didn't want to sell the script and have another director do something that was about my life, my family."
"Soul Food," which stars Fox, alongside Ina P. Hall, Vanessa Williams, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Jeffrey Sams and newcomer Brandon Hammond and features a soundtrack from executive producer Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, tells the tale of a Midwestern African-American family who get their sustenance, both tangible and intangible, from the sumptuous Sunday soul food dinners prepared by their matriarch, Mother Joe. When diabetes sends the stalwart Joe into a coma, the lives of the three sisters and their sometimes vexatious husbands start to look like a serious soap opera.
Which is exactly how Tillman remembers his childhood, watching his grandmother, mother and six aunts sort out the dramas of everyday life while fussing in the kitchen over collard greens, chitlins and fried chicken. There was jealousy. There were infidelities. There was competition. But mostly, there was love.
The men of the family worked, and they worked hard. But it was the women who ran the household.
"I used to get so upset with my father," Tillman says with a laugh. "I'd ask him, `Why do I have to be around all these women all the time? But in time, I learned that was an advantage."
After he left Milwaukee, Tillman moved to Chicago and Columbia College, where he met Robert Teitel, a Jewish kid from Arlington Heights. The two became fast friends, collaborating almost from the start, collaborating on a 30-minute short film, "Paula" (for which Tillman was awarded the Midwestern Student Academy Award, and won prizes at seven student film festivals, among them, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award). After graduation, the partners hooked up for their first film, "Scenes from the Soul," a trilogy of stories about black life in Milwaukee.
Tillman worked as a production assistant in Chicago, spending his free time on the screenplay. Meanwhile, Teitel raised $150,000 by lobbying blue-collar workers, lawyers and doctors who dug deep to finance the film. The actors worked for free.
In a move straight out of celluloid, Tillman set off for Hollywood--with his film and $400 in his pocket.
He sold the the film to Savoy Pictures for $1 million.
"We went through a lot of highs and lows," Teitel remembers.
"But we thought we were going to be big stuff," Tillman cuts in.
And for a minute, they were. Until, that is, Savoy went under. And Tillman and Teitel were left in a typically Hollywood conundrum: They'd made a feature flick that no one would ever see.
"We were the flavor of the month for about eight months," Tillman says. "It messed me up for a while. But I've learned that the best thing to do is to bounce back. I'm in this business to make films, not get deluded by the system. The system is set up to give you a headache."
So in 1995, he headed back to Chicago, where he does his best writing, taking a year to nurse his wounded pride while he crafted "Soul Food."
His agent passed the script to Edmonds to see if the singer/producer/songwriter would be interested in doing the soundtrack. But Edmonds and his wife, Tracey, president and CEO of Yab Yum Entertainment, decided to take on the entire film, at first financing it with their own money before securing the deal with Fox.
"I read the script and fell in love with the project," says Tracey Edmonds, who co-produced the film with Teitel. "I felt like a story about black family life needed to be told. Everyone has a mother. And Joe is a strong matriarchal figure."
Initially, she said, they were concerned about hiring an untested director, "But we found out that this was George's story." And so, Tillman got his way. Which was the only way that Tillman was having it.
Says Tillman: "I wanted to make a movie about a black family in Middle America. I wanted to make a film where everyone can look at them and say, `This is my family.' "
Wiltz is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.