Neither Joe Chappelle (Communication ’86) nor Colleen Griffen (Communication ’88) knew they wanted to enter the film industry after leaving Northwestern. But now, both are at the heart of Chicago’s growing film industry as Griffen works as a producer and Chappelle busies himself on the explosive set of “Chicago Fire.”
The married Evanston couple are both well-known screenwriters and producers in Chicago. Chappelle produced “The Wire,” “CSI: Miami” and is currently producing “Chicago Fire,” an action-based TV series that follows firefighters in Chicago. Griffen produced “Boyband” and “The Cold and the Quiet.”
They were married in 1987. Together, they are a dynamic duo, said Jonah Zeiger, associate director of external programs, internships and career services. Zeiger helped organize a panel that Griffen moderated on campus last Tuesday.
Griffen’s panel aimed to demystify the film industry, and focused particularly on the opportunities for students in Chicago. The panelists illuminated just how unsaturated the industry in Chicago is, Zeiger said. For Northwestern students, most of the post-production work in Chicago is in commercials, rather than film, he added.
“I see in Chicago three of the best film schools in the country,” Griffen said. “I go on the sets and a lot of the people working full time are from DePaul or Columbia, and not so many from Northwestern. I want Northwestern people to see that there’s another path to employment.”
Chappelle taught a master class for 10 acting and directing students the day after Griffen’s panel. He wanted to share with students the basic practices for narrative cinema with students, something that he saw as a necessity when he was a film student at Northwestern, he said.
Assistant director of EPICS Funmilayo Ojikutu helped organize the class.
“I thought it was really interesting,” she said. “It was good for them to hear from a director’s point of view what they’re looking for in a scene.”
Griffen and Chappelle met at Northwestern, where they got to know each other by working on each other’s projects, spending hours working on finished film and video. After working on several projects together, they knew they wanted to be together, Griffen said.
“You’re in this program for a while and you figure out what you’re good at,” Chappelle said. “I was good at directing and she was good at producing. We had a very good rapport — not the same aesthetic, but a very similar aesthetic. We would challenge one another and push each other forward.”
Coming to NU, Chappelle didn’t know a lot about the film industry. He decided to go to film school as an experiment to see if he would enjoy it without any prior film background. He loved it, he said.
Film school allowed Chappelle to work on projects, and fail, in a low-pressure environment. He learned to be self-reliant, as many of the projects required students to set their own goals and their own deadlines.
“What was great about film school is it allowed you to fail,” he said. “You could learn how to shoot something on the technical level. We were learning the grammar of the art. Film school allowed me to do a project, mess up, learn from it and then move on.”
After leaving film school, both Chappelle and Griffen worked in the advertising industry, before realizing their passions were in film. They then decided to collaborate on an independent feature film called “Thieves Quartet.”
“Thieves Quartet” is a thriller film about four thieves who try to kidnap someone, but whose plans quickly go awry. Playing off each other’s strengths, Chappelle wrote the script while Griffen produced the final film.
“It’s a really collaborative art form,” Griffen said. “Everyone brings something different and you can create this amazing energy with people who want to take this completely blank page and write a story.”
“Thieves Quartet” ultimately propelled Chappelle into the film industry, he said. After “Thieves Quartet,” he started doing work for Dimension Films, a film production company.
Griffen said though some couples can find working together difficult, Chappelle and Griffen enjoyed it so much that they recently decided to make another film together.
“Our personalities match, our work styles match, we have a shared aesthetic,” Griffen said. “I’m good at getting the ball rolling. He takes it to the finish line.”
The two have been fundraising for the past year and are working on a political thriller with two strong female leads. Chappelle wrote the script to take place in a location similar to Evanston, and is interested in filming on campus this summer, he said.
The Chicago climate
While Griffen has been focusing on the new film full time, Chappelle is still working on the set of “Chicago Fire,” and his work on set ends next week. He said he enjoys the fact that the set is based in Chicago, as in the past he had to fly out for work each week.
Chappelle and Griffen both emphasized the fact that the Chicago film industry is growing. They created their own Chicago-based production company, Corrado Mooncoin, last year to house talent in the area.
“The shows that come in from New York and LA are great but we need to build our business up where we have more projects generated from Chicago writers and directors,” Griffen said.
In the past few years, the Chicago film industry has been expanding because of a new tax incentive that provides a 30 percent tax credit on expenses, Chappelle said. In just the past five years, he has seen increased infrastructure and an exponential growth in production, he said.
“As long as the tax incentive stays in place, (the growth) will continue,” he said. “It’s a great city to shoot in. It’s not like New York where it’s so crowded. We’re dense here but it’s not that crowded in terms of production.”
The tax credit is good until 2021.
With their production company, Chappelle and Griffen are working to cultivate talent in the Chicago area.
“I like to think on my best day that what I’m doing is creating a safe space for artists to do their work,” Griffen said. “It’s a completely collaborative experience.”