By Brittany Frederick
The best double act in filmmaking is in Chicago. Husband and wife
Joe Chappelle and Colleen Griffen have been involved in some of Hollywood’s most dynamic and groundbreaking film and TV projects, while committing to growing the entertainment industry in their hometown. Their latest film, An Acceptable Loss, may be their best work yet. Chappelle wrote and directed the film, while Griffen served as producer.
The political thriller, set in Chicago, tells the story of former national security advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), whose past controversial decisions come back to haunt her. While Libby grapples with personal turmoil, former allies like Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) work to keep the past in the past and go to surprising lengths to make sure it stays there.
The story of how it came together is as interesting as the one it’s telling on screen. “An Acceptable Loss came from watching two Errol Morris documentaries,” Chappelle explains. One is The Fog of War, which gives a view of the Vietnam War through the eyes of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense at the time. The second, The Unknown Known, is about Donald Rumsfeld, who was the Secretary of Defense during the second invasion of Iraq.
“I was struck by the way these two men, who oversaw these wars, looked back on their respective wars,” Chappelle reflects. “Robert McNamara, you can tell, is filled with remorse over decisions that were made and the repercussions of those decisions. Tens of thousands of American lives were lost, close to a million Vietnamese lives were lost, and he was racked by guilt over his decisions. Rumsfeld basically said, ‘We knew what we knew at the time, and I would do it again.’”
Together, the two provided the inspiration for An Acceptable Loss. “I thought what if I took those two archetypes and their perspectives and put them together in the same film? And then what if they were both involved in a single event?” Chappelle explains. “The drama and conflict that results from those two characters and that polemic would be really interesting.”
It was Griffen herself, also a screenwriter and director, who took the story to another level by suggesting that both characters be female. “Colleen and I discussed the story, and she asked if they could be women,” Chappelle reveals. “We have seen two powerful men engaged in this type of conflict. It would be more interesting if they were women.”
That’s not the only aspect that sets An Acceptable Loss apart. The film was crafted with Chicago in mind, and showcases both the city and region. “It was specifically written for Chicago and for the areas that we knew, Chappelle points out. “A lot of it is shot in our hometown of Evanston, home to Northwestern University, where Colleen and I went to school and met. We don’t ever name it directly in the movie, but we thought it was the perfect Midwestern prestigious-type school.”
Chappelle also loves showcasing the unique architecture and geography of downtown Chicago in the film. “I like the transition between the lakefront and the university and downtown Chicago, which is very distinct, and I don’t know any place else in the country with that.”
Local talent figures prominently in the film, too, with about 87 percent of speaking roles and 95 percent of the crew hailing from the Windy City. “We have really amazing film schools, and all these amazing actors from the Chicago theater community and from the TV shows.” Many were introduced to her through local casting director, Claire Simon. “We went to a session with her on a rainy Friday morning, and we were like kids in a candy store,” Griffen remembers. “We would just have one great actor audition after another.”
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It’s these prodigious resources that the couple hopes to highlight in An Acceptable Loss, so that more Chicago-based creators can keep and develop their projects in Chicago. “Right now, we have a lot of shows in Chicago,” Griffen explains, “but a lot of them are coming in from New York, Los Angeles, and other places. We really want to cultivate homegrown projects.”
Griffen notes her recent contribution to a panel called “Do I Stay or Do I Go?” at the Chicago International Film Festival. “I think that’s the dilemma of a lot of kids that graduate from Columbia College, Northwestern, and DePaul — these three great film schools we have. They ask, ‘Do we need to move to New York or L.A. to make it as a director or writer or actor?’”
For Griffen and Chappelle, the answer is “no,” and their success proves the point. Griffen directed and produced the hilarious web series boyband in Chicago; Chappelle was previously an executive producer on Chicago Fire, directing more episodes than anyone else, including the show’s 100th episode. And the One Chicago franchise now includes three shows: Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and Chicago P.D. Indeed, film and television productions generated $423 million and close to 14,000 jobs for Illinois in 2017.
Additional support for the local TV and film industry has come from leading figures in Chicago, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago; Rich Moskal, former director of the Chicago Film Office; and Christine Dudley, head of the Illinois Film Office. “These folks and the unions really fought for the Illinois tax incentive — which offers producers a 30 percent tax credit on all qualified expenditures, including post-production — so that we would have a fighting chance at getting some of these projects,” Griffen explains. “It really has made a difference and built an industry that can grow.”
With such passion for Chicago, it’s easy for them both to rhapsodize about their favorite places in the city. “It’s a great walking city, so I would say you can’t go wrong with starting at Water Tower and following Michigan Avenue all the way down to the Art Institute,” Griffen enthuses. “Then if you keep going south, you’ll reach the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium, all of which are amazing.”
Chappelle loves Chicago’s distinct neighborhoods, many of which feature in his shows. “There are so many different neighborhoods, and they’re all so culturally diverse,” he reflects. “When I was working on Chicago Fire, we would shoot in this area called Pilsen. It’s culturally diverse, and the restaurants are fantastic. Another great one is Andersonville.”
While neighborhoods like these offer an ideal template for any filmmaker, celebrating and presenting them so successfully on screen requires the partnership and teamwork the two have developed over the years.
For Chappelle, his wife is not a typical producer. “Colleen can incorporate the director’s eyes and know it’s not just about making a schedule and making a budget. She sees the creative side of it,” he explains. “Likewise, I’m not just a director that cares about my own vision or vision of the movie, I can see through her eyes and know that we have to be responsible about money and time. We can both see from both sides.”
“We both have a clear vision about what kind of stories we want to tell,” Griffen says. “We have respect for each other’s taste, even if we differ, as on boyband — which is not Joe’s cup of tea. He took it seriously. He gave me support. He gave me feedback and vice versa. That’s how we’ve always worked.”
An Acceptable Loss will be released in theaters and on demand January 18 through IFC Films.