In eager anticipation for his new film High Chicago, premiering stateside at the Pan African Film Festival this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing director and producer Alfons Adetuyi, who shared his inspiration for his first full length feature directorial effort. High Chicago tells the story of family man in a small Michigan town with big dreams, who literally takes a big gamble to fullfil them, and to ultimately provide for his family.
Adetuyi, joined by his brothers Amos, Robert and Tom, founded the Canada-based Inner City Films in 1987. Ever since, he has directed and produced several critically acclaimed and award winning television series and documentaries. Adetuyi started the first co-production between Canada and South Africa, which began with the 1997 successful drama series Ekhaya, The Family Chronicle. "It was really the first time that people in South Africa saw themselves on screen," says Adetuyi, who also directed Jozi H, a 2006 medical drama series set in Johannesburg's world-renowned trauma center.
Adetuyi has several television and features currently in the works. He has just signed a three-picture deal with Ramoji Film City, a production company in India, where most of the shooting will take place. The first of these is an adaptation of his 2009 documentary Ganesh, Boy Wonder, about a boy suffering from a congenital ailment; the drama feature will be followed up by Mumbai Showdown, an international spy comedy and the "time-shifting treasure hunt story" Chasing Gold.
Adetuyi discusses some of his other Inner City Films' pre-production projects, along with the conception of High Chicago, written by his brother Robert.
S&A: High Chicago is based on a true story. How did you get involved in the project? Was it a mutual idea? What attracted you to the story? Was the real life subject involved in any way?
AA: That’s an interesting question. Well, the person is my father. So both my brother and I had a mutual interest [laughs]. It’s a personal story. It’s set in 1975; what’s kind of funny about it is the fact that when my brother Rob started writing it, it wasn’t really a period piece, and he’s been trying to make this movie for a long time. He’d been working on it for so many years, and it was sort of his calling card piece when he went to L.A. as a writer, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. We did two movies that year; one was called “Beat the World” and this story. Since we had been involved in both, he decided to direct “Beat the World” and I decided to direct “High Chicago.” It’s something that’s been mauling over for many years. I had to tell my dad’s story and essentially our story. Besides being a dreamer, he [my dad] was a gambler.
S&A: Did your dad know you guys were working on a story based on his life?
AA: Yeah, but unfortunately he passed away in 2006. He knew a script was in the works and he provided a lot of the anecdotes; so did my mom about the gambling and the situation. Actually, there’s many situations when I was reading Rob’s script that I thought, “wow, this is really good, the scenes are so dramatic and it really hits home you know?” Rob would just say to me, “I just went to mom’s and had some coffee with her. She just dictated what I had to write down” [laughs].
I would say the film is about, almost, 90 percent true. The town was based on the town of Copper City in Michigan. Where we grew up in, which is Sudbury, Ontario, is very similar to that city; so, I decided to set the story in Michigan. The protagonist is an American who was in the Navy from 1960 to 1965, and throughout this time, he went to [Nigeria] Africa and then he comes back to this small mining town, gets married and has kids. He ends up gambling to try to make ends meet, maybe drinking a little too much. What he did do, was have a blueprint made while he was in Africa of what he thought would be an interesting and successful business, since there was a huge amount of cars with no drive-in theaters. At that time in the U.S. and Canada, drive-ins were very popular, even in the 70’s. My dad did work in the mine in our town, and he was in the Navy, so all those things are true, but the one big difference between Sam and my father is that Sam wanted to do this business and reach out back to Nigeria and live there. The true story is that my dad is a Nigerian; he made the trip to North America, and had dreamed of going back. So, everything is the same except the fact that my dad came from Nigeria and tried to go back and set this thing up. So, it is a different perspective in that sense, that my dad is African, and in the film, Sam is an American.
S&A: How did the title “High Chicago” come about?
AA: High Chicago is Sam’s card game; the one he feels he could win at. The game in which he places everything in when he’s trying to get the money he needs to find work and make his dream happen from his blueprint. He knows gambling is not the right thing to do but he needs to do something for his family, make it a go at something, instead of his dead end job at the mine. He decides to play one last game, and that showdown game is called “High Chicago.”
S&A: Sudbury’s MPP, Rick Bartolucci, announced that the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation helped support the film. Is that correct?
AA: Yes. In Canada, we have a very good structure of supporting film through a number of government-sponsored initiatives, such as the tax credit and other grants. The northern part of Ontario has started its own funding. They were really happy to sponsor us, so they’ve been very supportive and put up half the budget for this film. They’d like us to come back and do more films. So, that’s what we’re going to do.
S&A: How did you find British actor Colin Salmon for the lead role of Sam?
AA: Our relationship goes back to over 10 years ago. I had developed a television series that we had proposed it to the CBC called “Front Page”, and Colin Salmon was going to be the lead. Unfortunately, the project didn’t go forward, but through that process, I got to meet him.
So, we kept tabs on him and what he was doing. I went to London to sit down with Colin. When the time came for this film, I thought even though he’s British, he could do an American accent, and he’s done a wonderful job. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, but he’s been underutilized. He should have been doing a lead role a long time ago. He has an amazing presence.
S&A: How did you go about casting the female lead Karen Leblanc? By the way, she was wonderful in Nurse.Fighter.Boy.
AA: Yes, that’s where I saw her, in Nurse.Fighter.Boy and I reached out to her. She was just amazing, a very talented woman and I enjoyed working with her soo much.
S&A: How was working with the rest of the cast?
AA: The whole supporting cast was incredible, which includes some great Canadian actors, John Robinson, Rob deLeeuw, Dylan Smith, Sebastian Pigott, Patrick [Garrow], who’s a lead in the movie; he’s one of my Poker players, and Eugene Clark, who plays Buzz. They’re all a great group of actors.
S&A: Do you have a dream project? Anything currently in the works?
Yes, there’s one called Moon Men; I can’t seem to get out of the seventies [laughs]. This one takes place in 1971. It’s an interesting story about when the astronauts first came to my town in Ontario. The film is about the effect of them coming to this small town, especially to my lead character and his family. It’s a little bit of mystery, also like a “Stand By Me” coming of age story, based on a true story. I’m doing re-writes of the script right now.
There’s another one based on a feature documentary I did called “Boy Wonder”. I just made a three-picture deal with Ramoji Film Studios [Ramoji Film City] in India adapting this story into a feature film. It’s going to have a Bollywood producer. This is one of the pictures.
S&A: Are you getting work offers? Are able to work steadily and earn a living?
To be able to make a living, I went into television. Not necessarily planned from the beginning, since I was more familiar with features, and had developed a few scripts. But features can take a long time to develop. I’m developing a couple of TV series right now. One is a sci-fi story called “The Watchers”. It’s an interesting, supernatural TV Series. The other one is called “Bounce”, about Hip-Hop artists from New York City that come to Canada to teach, that I developed with my brother. I have a preference for features, but television has its opportunities. It allows you more hours; there’s more demand, and it keeps you working. If you can do something innovating and fresh, it can be very rewarding.