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Interview: Boss Director Mario Van Peebles

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 14, 2012 7:00PM

Photo Credit: s_bukley /
In June, Chicagoist dropped by Arlington Park racetrack to sit in on filming of the second season of the STARZ hit show, Boss, which stars Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. We caught up with Boss director Mario Van Peebles on set, and picked up our conversation later by phone while Van Peebles was in New Orleans preparing for a trip to Zanzibar for the screening of his new film, We The Party. In between making travel arrangements, Van Peebles, who directed half of season one and key episodes in season two, spoke to Chicagoist about his ties to the Windy City, his favorite filming locations and some examples of Badasssss.

Chicagoist: Boss films in Chicago, and your dad was born here. What are some of your own connections to the city?

Mario Van Peebles: My dad was born in Chicago and was raised pretty much on the South Side. My grandfather had a tailor shop on the South Side, and my dad remembers when my grandfather went to some of the local stores. They were selling bread—Wonderbread, in fact—but they wouldn't hire minority drivers, even in black neighborhoods. So my granddad pulled the bread off the shelves and squished it and said "you won't be selling any bread until you hire minority drivers." And eventually they did.

The effect it had on my dad was that he would grow up in Chicago and decided he wanted to be in the film business, but that he would make change like my granddad did in the Wonderbread delivery business with the film business. The first film he did was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

At the State and Lake Theater in Chicago, Michael Mann, who's also from Chicago, went on his first date with his now-wife to Sweetback. Michael produced and later directed me. Chicago's been good to me! It's all come full circle. It's a really interesting, layered town with an interesting history.

How much do you draw on real-life Chicago and its people, problems and issues when you're getting inspiration for filming the series?

MVP: That's am interesting question. When I'm here, I make an effort to go out. Like when I was telling you about going to The Green Mill, I also went to the South Side, went to some restaurants there, got my hair cut—lookin' good in the 'hood—and went from Hyde Park to Oak Street Beach to the Viagra Triangle. (Ed. Note: The "Viagra Triangle" is one nickname for the Rush Street nightlife district.—CS) I went uptown to see what's poplin' there. My daughter was studying at a Second City intensive here and then also dance at Hubbard Street, so I was trying to get into things.

The only thing that I would say is not a plus is the way the city feels pretty segregated. I think you do see more and more people coming out of the box and not saying "I'm black, I'm gay, I'm Jewish, I'm Asian." And that's exciting when you get everyone all bumping all up against one another. But I didn't really understand [the segregation here] because I grew up in San Francisco. Not that San Francisco doesn't have segregation, but it was really important to kind of see what my dad grew up with.

The scripts [for Boss] are written, and what I try to do is bring the voice to it. Cast it and bring it to real locations and get it out of the studio and really be in it. That's what I like about Boss--that it's shot in Chicago so that people from Chicago can recognize those areas. We want to be demographically but also culturally authentic.

There are a few scenes from the series that even long-time Chicagoans might not be familiar with--like last season's rooftop scene at City Hall. Apparently it's pretty tough to get access there. Where there areas in the city you wanted to go but couldn't check out?

MVP: We went to some pretty interesting areas. One of the things that's interesting while directing is that when you're out scouting locations, you're team gets hungry so you stop and have lunch, and you see things. We went to Gibson's, we shot under the "L," way down on Michigan Avenue... You wind up getting to know lots of the city and getting more familiar with it; these little puzzle fill in more and more. It's nice to get to know a city and capture its grit and energy and beauty and flow. And I think we're getting to do some of that with Boss.

Where was the most interesting place you shot during filming?

MVP: When you're out in the street, it can get pretty intense. We've been shooting a lot of different places, but there's a big club, I can't remember the name of it. It was a big club, a health club or social club where a lot of the heavyweights go. It's very old.

The Union League Club [of Chicago]?

MVP: Yes! They had a big hall with a piano in it and all the artwork. That was interesting. I like shooting in places with a lot of great history, places like City Hall or places like The Green Mill that have a great story. I also loved going to the theater here. That's one of the things I love about Chicago: you get to use a lot of really fine actors who've grown up and cut their teeth on the stage, and that's interesting to me. There's a different texture to them, a richness.

Kelsey Grammer's Mayor Kane is scary, and not very likable. What's it like as a director having a character that's so unloveable as your anti-hero?

MVP: It's interesting when your lead has a strange moral compass. In terms of television, I've directed Lost, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, Law and Order; I've directed shows that make you think. And I think Boss does that. But if you think about entertainment that makes you think and doesn't spoon feed you "this is the good guy, this is the bad guy," it lets you go with your own compass a little bit. Art that makes you think when you watch it tends to ignite a different part of your brain.

It's like literature or comic books; if you read Steinbeck and think "oh this is a good person or this is a bad person," it's interesting--but what's more interesting is that you participate and you come up with a different thing than the person reading next to you. It's better to make entertainment that makes you think a little bit.

Did any of your econ-cum-political background come in to play during filming?

MVP: The fun thing about directing smart TV is raising the discourse a little bit. When I graduated from school studying economics, I worked for a little bit under [former New York City] Mayor [Ed] Koch. Being a part of Koch's reign, if you will, who was a very charismatic mayor, and now be directing a show where Kelsey Grammer is playing very charismatic mayor of Chicago, is a once in a lifetime thing.

So far, I think Boss has done a good job staying in politics but not being of it. You don't really know if Kane is a Democrat or a Republican, but it does get into the political world. It makes you realize as outsiders watching news on TV, we probably know very little about what really goes on.

What do you think is the most nefarious thing that a Chicago mayor has ever done?

MVP: It's a tricky thing I suppose. You can get into power for all the right reasons. To some degree it's kind of like a parallel between a banana republic and dictators. Wherever you are, whether you're a mayor or a general or, I don't know, even a film director—if you stay in a top position too long, you get addicted to that in itself. I don't know the answer. I know in the case of me it's not (laughs). But I'm sort of director emeritus. I don't think they have dictator emeritus.

It's an interesting time to be doing a show that's politically-themed. It's a challenge to do that and make it entertaining. Hopefully people watching think, in terms of the dialogue they're hearing and the discourse, that it's put together well.

In the first two episodes from this season, we see how some of Chicago's dynamics of race, power and politics are at play. The plot sort of mirrors what was happening when the city was trying to get the Olympics and what was going on with the purchase of the Michael Reese Hospital and the surrounding neighborhoods.

MVP: Absolutely, how money gets appropriated and moves from one pot to another point. And then trying to hold our leaders to a different standard. Do we care what their orientation is if they're good at what they do? We're a funny country in that way. We care more about the cult of personality than what the person in power can do.

Any teasers or hints you can give us about this upcoming season?

MVP: There are a lot of curves and twists this season. As a filmmaker, I enjoy reading the scripts. The changes the characters make, and the choices they make...And we got some really good performances--a lot of actors right out of Chicago. When you have that, it's pretty damn exciting.

Season 2 of Boss premiers on the STARZ network at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central, Friday, Aug. 17