As they say in the movie biz, Tammy Brody and Diane Falanga "met cute."
In late 1995, Tammy, a former production exec for John Hughes, and her husband, Reid, who runs a film postproduction house with offices in three cities, were building a three-story, 16-room contemporary mansion on tiny Poe Street in Lincoln Park. Diane, a former Helene Curtis executive, and her husband, Merchandise Mart development veep Mark Falanga, lived two doors down from the Brodys' future home.
Diane's two-year-old son, typically, was fascinated by the heavy machinery. "I'd lay a blanket out on their lot and my son and I would sit and watch the trucks," she recalls. Whenever the Brodys would stop by to check the progress of the building, Tammy would wave and then whisper to Reid, "Get that woman off our property."
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Tammy was fiercely sarcastic and fond of dark clothing, and Diane was a sweetness-and-light type who'd never met a color she wouldn't wear. But the two women had one thing in common: they were stay-at-home moms in "the best neighborhood in Chicago," as Diane chirps in the opening scene of Vanilla City, the movie Reid was inspired to write about their peculiar bond.
"High taxes and terrible schools," Tammy would respond.
In Vanilla City, the worst thing these city girls can imagine happening does: Diane moves to Buffalo Grove. Tammy goes out to bring her back, and hilarity ensues.
In real life, it wasn't so funny--to them, anyway. Diane moved to Wilmette, not Buffalo Grove. She and the Brodys fell out over the production of the script, and now they don't speak. And Tammy and Reid have since left Poe Street as well--separately, since they're now divorced.
But in the winter of 1997, Tammy and Diane were still whiling away the afternoons in each other's kitchens, gabbing over Starbucks coffee drinks. Reid would often come home and find them "jacked up on caffeine and deeply involved in these conversations that were hilarious, about what they did all day in their little Lincoln Park neighborhood while their husbands were gone."
One day when she was pregnant with her second child, Diane told Tammy that a barista at Starbucks had hit on her. "I had gained 70 pounds and I looked god-awful," she says. "I'm excited that this guy has hit on me, and Tammy says, 'Jesus, have you looked at yourself lately? What kind of freak was that guy?' Reid walked through the kitchen and just laughed at us. But that was the kind of banter we had in the beginning of our friendship, where you're baring your soul to your friend but you have this shtick, this repartee. No malice, just sparring."
Gradually it occurred to Reid that the pair's conversations were a script waiting to be written. "Tammy is just over-the-top, all the time, over-the-top," he says. "There's no middle ground for her, her mood is way up or way down. And Diane has this chameleon quality, she would sort of adapt herself to Tammy's mood, and it's funny to watch them go off on each other. So much they said made me want to shit laughing."
He hadn't written a script since college, when he'd conceived a rock opera. His company, the Filmworkers Club, specializes in behind-the-scenes stuff--film processing for ad producers, color correction, some special effects. But he was looking for something new to do. So he gave it a shot:
DIANE: This is a great latte. Which Starbucks did you get this at?
TAMMY: The one at the plaza.
DIANE: Which plaza?
TAMMY: The one with the Barnes & Noble, and the Taste of Home Depot.
DIANE: Oh, the one next to Tweezer World.
TAMMY: There's this guy, this idiot.
DIANE: Which idiot?
TAMMY: The one with the Land Rover.
DIANE: Which Land Rover?
TAMMY: The green one.
DIANE: Which green one?
Reid makes Tammy and Diane out to be a sort of Lucy and Ethel in Kate Spade. In real life, Diane had started a clothing company after quitting her corporate job to raise kids; it was based in a factory in Pilsen. In the script, softhearted Diane wants her workers to live the good life as she does, so she has them work out of her supersize home. They quickly figure out that she's a pushover, so they start taking advantage: they bathe in her luxurious tub during working hours and eventually banish her family to the coach house.
In one scene, Diane describes a problem she's having with her employees and asks Tammy why it's happening.
Tammy, who a few scenes earlier has described Diane as her best friend, answers, "Because you are an asshole."
"Thank you. Thank you for that," says Diane.
Tammy says she loved the conceit from the start even though she comes off as an uberbitch. "I was all for it because Reid and I basically have the same attitude--we think all that superficial stuff people say is hilarious. So he just sat down to write the meat of the script and when he had it, we'd sit out on the balcony at night and throw ideas back and forth. He and I never laughed so hard in all our lives."
One afternoon in the summer of 1998, Reid was having lunch with a friend, Samson Chen, a photography director for commercials, and mentioned that he was nursing along a script. Chen called a few days later to say he'd have the use of a camera and its related equipment over the weekend; did Brody want to shoot some of that script? "I said, 'Let's go,'" Reid says. "I had a couple of the ideas ready, and we shot them....I edited them, and the next time we could get a camera, we shot a few more."
Tammy and Diane played Tammy and Diane, and the Brodys lined up friends and acquaintances to play assorted other characters, many of them nameless or, in some cases, faceless: Tammy's husband is seen only as a pair of legs squatting on the john and a partial torso servicing her from the rear while she reads.
The Tammy character, a wife and mom in her 30s, still dreams of being a Luvabull and hires a choreographer to help her attain her goal. (Shaking her booty at the United Center wasn't a real-life fantasy of Tammy's, the Brodys note--it was meant to represent the unfulfilled ambitions of dozens of well-heeled moms they'd met over the years.)
Harrison McEldowney, a friend of a friend and in real life the guy who choreographed the Milly, is a scene stealer in the role of the choreographer--a screaming, strutting, struggling actor who thinks his job in the Drury Lane box office puts him at the center of the theater world. In his big sequence he tries desperately to give Tammy's cheerleading moves more of that Bob Fosse sizzle. It's uproarious, with him shrieking and her shaking her pom-poms frantically--and it was mostly ad-libbed, with only key lines provided by the script. "We improvised all the way," McEldowney recalls. "We had ideas of dance cliches, like Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze crawling toward each other in Dirty Dancing and the choreographer consoling the dancer and then screaming at her that she sucks, which is from All That Jazz, and we just did them until they worked."
Shooting was a riot, Diane says. "Everybody was having such a good time doing this creative thing together just to do it. Reid made it fun by just letting us go off on whatever."
And so it went for a couple of months, until the group had a 30-minute series of sketches that hung together, more or less, as a pilot, which they hoped to use to sell a TV series or land funds for a feature film. Through Dreamworks executive Adam Goodman, who'd interned for Reid while he was in high school, they got it to Jimmy Miller--Dennis Miller's brother and Jim Carrey's manager. "Jimmy was all over this thing," Reid says. "He got us six months of Hollywood blow jobs."
"We go out to LA one weekend," Tammy remembers, "and we have the biggest weekend of our lives." Reid had a meeting with Miller and HBO programming bigwig Carolyn Strauss, who was impressed with the pilot and saw series potential in it. She said she would send a copy to HBO executives in New York immediately.
Tammy: "We're like, 'All riiiight, we're going to have a TV show!' We're in our hotel room saying, 'Is this really happening to us?' Saturday night we're at a huge party in the Hollywood hills and all these directors are kissing our butts and saying, 'Hey, make sure I'm part of this project of yours.' Then Sunday night we hear, 'Pffft, they didn't like it in New York.' The whole thing is over. It was a great weekend while it lasted."
Miller says he's still mystified that Vanilla City didn't get the green light. "Reid's got this great concept, two moms sharing their lives in a blunt kind of way, and using Starbucks as the through line they always come back to," he says. "Starbucks becomes another character. It was very inventive and a funny high concept. Those two girls in it made me howl. Honestly, I don't think there's an answer for why it didn't go farther, because it was so funny."
Though they came home with no deal, no funding, and no promises from anybody, the Brodys decided to go ahead with the project on their own. They could get Tammy's mother to take care of the kids for the endless days of shooting, and they'd buy an editing system to install at home so they could put the pieces together at night. "Reid just woke up one day and said, 'Fuck it, we'll do it on our own money,'" Tammy says.
He started by finishing the script, expanding the story into a two-hour movie. He elaborated on the city-suburb schism, giving Diane a new best friend in the burbs--the big-haired Fran, host of a mommy-talk radio show and the wife of a major car dealer. The rivalry between Diane's two best friends would make for a lot of tension--and showcase Tammy's hell-on-wheels temperament. The first time the three go out together, Fran drives in her minivan. Tammy, of course, hates minivans, and Diane is mortified because her husband has just bought one. Fran tries to get everybody to sing along with a kids' tape: "B-I-N-G-O, and Bingo was his name, oh!" Tammy shrieks, "I'm in a fuckin' minivan with a kiddie seat belt jamming me in the ass!"
The whole issue of how much it matters where you live had been marinating in Reid's brain for a couple decades. When he was growing up in Morton Grove, he says, "Highland Park was the place all the Morton Grove Jews wanted to move to when they got money." The rock opera he wrote while he was at the University of Kansas concerns a woman who tries to make the move from Morton Grove to Highland Park. She must first be tested by a group of upper-crust women who guard access to their precious town, and just when she thinks she's passed muster, she passes gas and blows her chance. It was never produced, but Reid once taped his brother singing all the parts.
Life in Lincoln Park, Reid says, is a satire that writes itself. "These people have the attitude like they're urban warriors, but really they're just like the suburbanites they look down on. At Armitage and Sheffield you might as well be in downtown Highland Park. It's so affected--the boys with the backward baseball caps and the three dogs and the mothers overly doting on their screaming kids and people parking their SUVs all over the place while they go get their coffee. It's just like up on the north shore, but if you ask them it's 'I'll never live in the suburbs. Can you imagine me in the suburbs?'"
In the Lincoln Park of Vanilla City, Starbucks is the town hall, and people who don't scoop their dogs' poop are the ultimate evildoers. There's a series of scenes where a guy walking his German shepherds lets them do the deed on the parkway in front of Tammy's house. Spying him from the balcony, she yells at him--a little more angrily each time. Finally she runs down to the street, tackles him, and beats the bejesus out of him while his dogs watch.
"It's a pretty cynical view of the neighborhood, but not one person who saw Vanilla City said it wasn't right on," says Tammy. "I mean, you've seen it all happen. I was sitting at Starbucks one day and a woman says to her friend, 'I love your purse,' and the friend says, 'This purse is the best thing that ever happened to me.' I'm just sitting there like this"--she throws herself over the back of her chair, slackjawed. "These people all have the same purses and the same cars!"
For the record, Tammy also had the same brand of purse, a Prada, and the same kind of car, a Land Rover. There's only one substantial difference between city people and suburban people, Reid says: city people resign themselves to putting their kids in private schools (his go to Latin), while suburban people just enroll theirs at the cushy public school down the block.
In the movie, the Diane character is married to a guy who'd rather be in the burbs. When their kid doesn't wow 'em at his private-school audition, he sees his window of opportunity and shuffles the family off to Buffalo Grove overnight.
For all Reid's insistence that people in Lincoln Park might as well be living in the suburbs, he uniformly paints the suburbanites in Vanilla City as unsophisticated doofuses in identical tract houses. But they have their own bizarre set of signifiers--Tammy discovers, for instance, that the men's colorful Cosby sweaters are a means of displaying tribal rank--and like their Lincoln Park counterparts, they scorn the idea of living anywhere else.
The filming of Vanilla City, the movie, was set for the summer of 2000. But Diane could tell it was going to be different this time around.
By then she'd decamped from her airy contemporary home on Poe Street to a charming 1913 Arts and Crafts-style house on a brick street in Wilmette. She'd gone willingly, too, unlike her character. She says she'd known all along the family would end up in the burbs, but an attempted break-in while she was home alone with her son accelerated the inevitable. Her friendship with Tammy, predictably, had dissipated. But the biggest change, she says, was in Reid's attitude.
"It was not fun, no community, no friendship," she says. "After making the pilot, something changed about Reid and he was not fun to work for anymore. It was just 'Get the job done and get out.'" After the project started to get attention from the pros, she says, "Reid became Mr. Hollywood."
Tammy says Diane was lucky even to be asked to return for the feature production. "Reid wanted me for sure, but he wanted an actress to play the other role, because I'm not strong enough; I needed somebody to support me. We would have used an actress, but Reid felt obligated to use Diane."
Samson Chen, whose access to gear had been the impetus for starting production on the pilot, was dropped as director of photography in favor of Craig Somers, an Indianapolis-based director of TV commercials. Tammy says it was because Somers had all his own camera equipment; Diane says it was just mean-spirited to drop Chen. (Chen couldn't be located for comment.) A few professional actors were added; the friend of a friend who'd played the barista with a yen for pregnant ladies was replaced. Only Tammy, Diane, and McEldowney were retained from the pilot.
"Reid was casting these parts as if his friends didn't help him out the first time around," Diane says. "People were hurt."
Even with pros flying in from Los Angeles, Reid says, the whole production was done largely on the Brodys' dime. He esitmates that the final tally came in somewhere around 70 grand. Filming was to be guerrilla-style, with no permits, and run Thursday through Sunday for six or seven weeks. Friends would pitch in on the crew, out-of-towners would sleep at the Brodys' house, and Tammy would do all the on-set catering from bagel shops and (of course) Starbucks. After-shoot dinners were supposed to be at restaurants, but Somers says that after a few unsatisfactory meals out, Tammy started making dinners for everybody at home.
Before filming each morning, Somers remembers, "Reid and I would walk down the street from his house to get the coffees, and we'd talk through what we needed to do that day. We'd get back to the house, people were waking up and getting ready, and we'd have a meeting at the dining room table. 'Here's what we're gonna do.' Then we'd all pile into cars and trucks and go do it.
"It wasn't guerrilla filmmaking but it was the next notch up. Nobody was making money on this--we were paid like $100 a day--but everybody was there because we wanted to be, we liked Reid and his script and we thought it would be great to be involved on his project. We just cracked up all the time, laughed and laughed. You didn't want it to end."
McEldowney agrees: "It was this insane stuff, like the scene where I'm standing on a corner doing this Gene Kelly stuff and they drive up in a minivan to pick me up. We didn't have city permits to shut down streets, so that was done in real traffic. I had to do it a million times, hoping they'd get through traffic at the right time to get to me. It was a hilarious energy."
The closing scene is a big dance number at sunset on a city rooftop. "To get the light right, we had to film at some ridiculous hour of the morning, starting before sunrise," McEldowney says. "It's supposed to be a summer night so people have to be in summer clothes, but it's like ten degrees out and we're dancing and laughing on the roof. Everybody was having a total blast. It was just like you would want that experience to be."
Unless you were Diane, who felt increasingly pushed around and ignored by the Brodys. "They didn't like me anymore and they didn't care what I thought," she says. What she thought was that the story had gone awry when Reid fleshed it out. "He had to have all these bad things happen in the suburbs, but I thought it was enough the way it had started, with just these two girls talking in their kitchen. You didn't need all the dramatic turns."
In the final cut, Tammy stumbles onto a "scandalous" sex-party ring that, although it comes off as pretty tame, involves Diane's husband--which makes it possible for Tammy to bring Diane back to the city without the schmuck.
Somewhere in here the story kind of veers off course, and you can feel it racing to get to the end. Reid and Tammy say that's because it originally had a sharper twist, in which the family men in the suburbs, forever erranding to Home Depot on Saturdays, turn out to be meeting there for gay sex.
That was the dramatic turn that most troubled Diane and, more significantly, her husband, Mark. They'd expressed concern about it from the start. "The movie is such an accurate portrayal of who Tammy is and who I am," Diane explains. "Even though it's over-the-top and silly and ridiculous, it's fairly accurate." People who saw the movie, she says, would assume "this is Mark too. But that's not accurate. Mark's not gay.
"A friend would have been able to say, 'I totally get why Mark would be uncomfortable. I'll change it,' But [Reid] wouldn't."
But not until the crew was a week into the shoot did things come to a head. One night the Brodys were having a late dinner with Somers at Iggy's on Milwaukee. A cell phone rang--it was the Falangas. They'd driven in from the suburbs and were in front of the Brodys' house; now they were coming to the restaurant. "He put his fist down on the table and said, 'My wife will not be in this movie,'" Tammy says.
"Mark and Diane were screaming...and Tammy, who can go from zero to 60 in about three seconds, started screaming too," says Reid. "And I'm just sitting there thinking how fucked I am."
If Diane left, they'd have to start the shoot from scratch. So Reid weighed his options, and then he caved--though "at that point," he says, "I made her sign a release."
Diane says she showed the paperwork to attorney friends in the entertainment business. "They read it and said it was the standard 'fuck you, you are shit' contract," she says. Low pay, teensy percentage of any future profits. She took it, she says, because although by then the friendship was dead she thought it would be fun to have a copy of the movie to show her kids and friends. Meanwhile, production stopped for several weeks while the inner circle tried to work out a way to eliminate the Home Depot thread but keep what had already been shot.
"[The Falangas] fucked us at a crucial time," says Tammy, "when we were shooting to get Vanilla City done in time to enter it in festivals. I think [the timing] was intentional."
In their efforts to compensate for the loss of this key dramatic turn, the Brodys added a dramatic turd. Between the production of the pilot and the filming of the feature, Reid had made a short called The Pitch, a tepid thing where a screenwriter and his agent try to sell a studio chief on a series of shot-by-shot remakes of classic movies--each one with a new scene in which a key character craps his pants. In the Vanilla City revision, the actor who starred in The Pitch, stuck in a suburban traffic snarl, excretes a turd and tosses it out his car window; it flies into Tammy's open convertible and lands in her Starbucks cup. Incensed, she follows the offender to his destination--the swingers' party where she discovers Diane's husband's secret.
The crafting of the turd--out of Baby Ruth bars--seems to have been an inspirational moment in the production. "I tell you, every single person who was on the set that day had their hands on that turd," Tammy recalls. "The crew guys were, 'No, it should look more like that.' 'No, let me do it, they look like that.'"
"Everybody's laughing and sculpting this turd," says Somers. "It was a great time."
McEldowney's sorry he missed it. "I was not in the scenes that day," he says, "but everybody told me all about it."
But Reid seems slightly embarrassed by the recycled gag. "[The movie's] not as good as it would have been," he says. "We had to pull it together and we didn't." Vanilla City has yet to be accepted by a single film festival, and he's moving on to other script-writing projects.
Jimmy Miller says the saga might not be over yet. "It's a really great template for a comedy--a city mom and a suburban mom stay in touch and swap stories about their city and suburban lives. It might come around. In the world of half-hour television, you see a lot of things that were passed on five years ago and then all of a sudden become in vogue five years later."
Should that ever happen, though, you can be sure there'll be a new Diane in the role of Diane. She says things were so bad between her and the Brodys that they never even gave her a copy of the movie. She did attend a screening at the Vic last summer, though. "I called her the next day to see what she thought of it," says Tammy. "All she had to say was, 'It was mostly about you.'"
The Brodys won't say much more about her. "I never had as much for Diane as she thought we had," Tammy says. "When she lived two doors down from me, I thought she was kind of charming because she had this naivete about the world. She moved, and I have other friends. Some of them live in the suburbs--it's not that."
Nor will either of the Brodys say much about their divorce, which was finalized earlier this year, but both declare that Vanilla City was a high point of the marriage, not a breaking point. "Reid and I had a true love while we were making the movie," Tammy says. "If he's ever hired to write a TV show, I'll be in some way involved."
Tammy now lives in Alderman Burt Natarus's old townhouse in Sandburg Village. She's in the midst of rehabbing it when I meet her there one morning ("It smelled like somebody was dead in here," she says). As she talks about her favorite scene in Vanilla City, the one where she goes psycho in a Starbucks line after seeing a Bob Fosse poster, she notices me noticing the Starbucks cup in front of her.
"I drink a half-decaf iced venti no-water Americano, and I save a buck by putting in my own milk," she volunteers. "I used to drink three a day. Now I drink one a day. I'm proud of that. I bought this one at 8 and what is it now, 11? It's still one-third full."
Diane, too, is drinking from a Starbucks mug when I join her in the kitchen of her expertly decorated, art-filled house in Wilmette. "It's a drink that Tammy taught me," she says. "It's decaf with a little vanilla and a mixture of whole milk and skim milk. That's the one thing I took away from my relationship with Tammy, the coffee drink."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.