Pete Schwaba - Creator of "The Godfather of Green Bay"
By Chris Karr in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 9, 2005 1:16PM
Last week, Chicagoist made our first visit to the Midwest Independent Film Festival for the Chicago premier of "The Godfather of Green Bay". The film is set in small-town Wisconsin where Packer mania rules and the local drug kingpin is a mullet-wearing former high school football star with a taste for the Macarena.
Before the premiere, we sat down with the guy behind this film, Pete Schwaba. Schwaba not only wrote and produced this film, he also directed and starred in it. A former Chicago native and stand-up comic, Pete returned to the city to present his film to a eager crowd of independent film aficionados. We wondered what it was like for the L.A.-based writer to return to the place where he got his start.
Pete Schwaba: My Chicago roots are that I was born here, at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I grew up in Portage Park and moved when I was in junior high to Wisconsin. Northern Wisconsin, which is the basis for what happens in the film. Then, I came back here when I went to college. I went to DePaul and I lived here until my late twenties, before I moved to L.A. So I’ve lived here for twenty-three years of my life. It’s a... I’m an original – I guess, a native. So, yeah that’s the extent of it.
Chicagoist: As we understand it, you did stand-up comedy for a while. Can you tell us about that?
Pete Schwaba: I did Improv at DePaul, but I did stand up comedy all over, really, but I was based out of Chicago. I won a college contest when I was at DePaul. It was me and some guy from Northwestern, and some girl from Loyola and we had a playoff and I won and I started doing stand-up. I got a lot of work and I started writing during the day. In stand-up, you don’t really work long hours exactly. So, it worked out well, yeah.
(More below the fold.)
Chicagoist: Did you have any favorite venues in the city?
Pete Schwaba: Yeah. I worked Zanie’s, and The Funny Farm, and there were a lot of clubs here at the time – so I really worked them all. At one point, you could work Chicago and not leave town. You get two weeks a year at the club and do one nightly, you could never leave Chicago. It was hard, but you could do it. It was great because you never really had to travel far. I did, because I liked it – I liked going to other cities. Yeah, but I would say Zanie’s and The Funny Farm.
Chicagoist: How did you go from stand-up comedy to making a film?
Pete Schwaba: Well, the film is kind of about stand-up comedy, so I guess they compliment each other. I did stand-up for years and I just thought that it was a unique experience, you know? I worked big rooms and big cities and then you had these other rooms where you kind of like... The “rent check rooms” where you’d go and work roadside bars. People would have free beer for two hours before the show and then the show would start and everyone would be plastered. It could really be the worst night of your life or the most fun you’ve ever had and that’s what the film is sort of about – the fun I had on the road, in a lot of ways. So I wrote about what I knew about. It was stand-up comedy and working the road.
Chicagoist: How did you go from a script to a finished film?
Pete Schwaba: Well, I started writing here with a partner – Noah Garber. We had finished a script and then I moved to L.A. and nothing really happened with it. But it was good because it taught me how to write a script. So, when I got to L.A., I got some work as an actor and I wrote this script, really. I guess I was longing for those days when I would work the road in the Midwest. So I wrote this script about what I knew, and I had sold another script to MGM in the interim – called “A Guy Thing” which was made into a film two years ago. I sold another script called “Dream Girl” to Warner Brothers. You know, I just wrote those. This was something I really wanted. It’s very important to me – like the characters, and the story is very much my own in many ways. So I really wanted to protect the story – protect the characters – that’s why I wanted to direct it. I thought if I could find people crazy enough to give me money to make a movie – I’ll do it. So that’s what kinda happened.
Chicagoist: Who paid for the film?
Pete Schwaba: The investors were all friends and family, pretty much. Mostly people I knew my whole life. My college roommates, aunts and uncles, sister, brother-in-law – people like that. I met some new friends along the way too, who came in and were introduced to me.
Chicagoist: How would you describe the film?
Pete Schwaba: It’s “Sideways” meets “Fargo” meets the old Andy Griffith show, with a dash of “I, Robot”. No - it’s about two stand-up comics that find out that the talent booker for “The Tonight Show” is from this small town in Wisconsin. So, my character’s down on his luck. He’s the Rocky of stand-up comedy and was pegged for stardom early on. It never worked out – he blew all of his auditions. His friend talks him into taking this road gig with him in Wisconsin to be seen for “The Tonight Show”. Most people go from Wisconsin to L.A. – these guys do things a bit backwards. Once they get there, my character is hooked up with my old English teacher who is, just by coincidence, working there and my character has to face his demons. And bringing together all of the stories is the Godfather of Green Bay.
Chicagoist: Who is the Godfather of Green Bay?
Pete Schwaba: The Godfather of Green Bay is a mullet-wearing, former high school football star who is now a drug dealer in Green Bay. I actually had this happen to me. When I was working a room in Green Bay – or near Green Bay – a guy said – he actually told me after a few drinks after the show with a bunch of people – “I am the mob.” I said, “Ok! You’re the Godfather of Green Bay.” He didn’t like that, but I just thought that it would be funny. You always... Whenever you say “mob”, you always think of these Italian guys, and this was this big Nordic guy with a mullet. He’s a former football star – a composite of a lot of guys I knew, you know. And we’re going for the same girl in the movie, so that’s how the stories tie together.
Chicagoist: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
Pete Schwaba: Yeah. I have a college comedy that I’d like to shoot. I have a writing partner – Greg Glienna – and he and I are packaging a couple of scripts right now. We’re just waiting and trying to attract talent to sell them at a studio level. But as far as the next one I’d like to direct, it’s a college comedy that is based on my own experiences at DePaul. I tend to write about things that are close to me, I guess.
Chicagoist: What are your three favorite films from the last year?
Pete Schwaba: That’s a good question... “Crash”, “Sideways”, and... I have two small children, so I don’t see that many movies – believe it or not – but that’s a good question... What else was out there? Help me – what other films were out there?
Chicagoist: We liked “Batman”.
Pete Schwaba: Oh! I liked “Batman”. That was good – you can’t go wrong with a “Batman”. I’d say those three of the studio films.
Chicagoist: As a DePaul alum, what did you think when you found out Demon Dogs is gone?
Pete Schwaba: I just found that out today, when I got off the El. I walked across and the windows were blacked over and I thought maybe they were going with a new motif. No, they’re closed. I tried opening the door – I didn’t know what was going in behind those doors and windows, but there’s no Demon Dogs any more.
Chicagoist: Last question. Given your experience as a stand-up comic in the city, which club would you recommend to our readers?
Pete Schwaba: Comedy clubs? I honestly don’t know what’s here any more. Honest to god, I’ve been in L.A. for eight years. I know Zanie’s is still here. That’s a great club. I’d go with Zanie’s, just for the history. Downtown Zanie’s. Funny Bone? I don’t know what the room’s called, but a friend of mine owns it out in the western suburbs. I have no idea. I would say Zanie’s. There’s a lot of history at Zanie’s. It’s a cramped, small, dank club, but when you go there, you have to be naked to watch the show. And that’s what I like about it. There’s a lot of nostalgia there. A lot of history.
After the interview, we took our places in the crowded theatre for the film. (We ended up sitting next to Tom Lennon's aunt - who was very proud of her nephew's role in the film.) The crowd was enthusiastic about the film and if the applause was any indicator, Schwaba has a hit on his hands. After communicating with Schwaba over e-mail, he indicated that he's doing an initial release of "The Godfather of Green Bay" in Wisconsin, and then he's bringing the film down to Chicago. So, stay tuned and we'll let you know more when "The Godfather of Green Bay" comes to a local theater.