Chicago Fire’s Joe Chappelle revisits his thriller Thieves Quartet

Joe and Colleen Chappelle. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Colleen Chappelle.
Joe and Colleen Chappelle. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Colleen Chappelle. /

Before Chicago Fire, Joe Chappelle wrote and directed Thieves Quartet – and as the film gets re-released, he speaks to One Chicago Center about it.

Joe Chappelle has directed some of Chicago Fire‘s best and most important episodes, but before that, he started his career with a crime thriller called Thieves Quartet and now One Chicago fans have the chance to see it.

The film was directed and written by Joe, with his wife Colleen Griffin Chappelle serving as a producer, and filmed entirely in Chicago. It tells the story of a kidnapping attempt that goes wrong, and the four criminals who suddenly find themselves in over their heads.

More than 20 years after the film’s original release, Thieves Quartet has been remastered and is now available on a number of streaming platforms including Tubi, Xumo, and Amazon Video. It will also be available on IMDb TV, which streams Chicago Fire, later this year.

Check out what Joe had to say about the movie, and about revisiting it, in our interview before you stream Thieves Quartet.

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One Chicago Center: What was it like to revisit Thieves Quartet when you remastered it in 2017?

Joe Chappelle: We made the movie in 1993 or ’94, so it was going back in the time machine. I had forgotten a lot of it so it was like watching a movie for the first time in a weird way. It was fun; I still enjoy it, I still really like it and I’m so proud of it. That was a good feeling.

Looking at the film again, how much the city of Chicago has changed with the architecture. Parts are the same, but where there used to be an airport there’s no longer an airport. Parts of the city which were kind of sketchy are totally gentrified. It’s kind of a weird time warp, to see the Chicago that we made the film in and the Chicago now. It was a really rewarding experience, and it was scary because of all the financial stuff, but it was exciting to make.

OCC: Is there any aspect that you’re particularly proud of in retrospect?

JC: We shot 35MM film, and we shot lots of locations. We shot all over the Chicago area; we shot in parts of Northern Michigan up in the snow. We shot it all in 19 days, so it was a lot of running and gunning.

The thing I remember the most is the weather was a character in its own right. It was frigid. We shot it in January, February of 1993 and we were in the middle of winter. The weather is another character in the movie, as is the city of Chicago. That’s what I remember the most.

I remember there were shots we had to climb up a hill with the equipment to get a shot of even just a van driving by or a shot of one of the characters on the beach in Northern Michigan. Having to schlep all the equipment up the sand dunes in the snow to get the right angle and all that. It was fun, but it was an exhausting shoot as I remember.

OCC: Thieves Quartet also features an excellent cast and crew, including James Denton, who’s now well-known for his roles on Good Witch and Desperate Housewives. What do you recall about working with this group of people?

JC: A lot of the crew members on the movie were people Colleen and I met at film school at Northwestern, so it was like the natural progression. When you’re in film school, everyone’s crew is in everyone else’s projects. It was a healthy mix of people we met in film school and people that we had met in the advertising community. At the time Colleen and I had a small commercial production company in Chicago. Half the crew was people we knew from school and the other half was people had met getting our production company started, and it was a great mix.

We knew them and they knew us, and I think that took some of the pressure off, because everybody was familiar, which isn’t always the case. We all knew our working styles. Our cinematographer, Greg Littlewood, did a great job. The cast was all new except Joe Guastaferro, who plays Bledsoe. I knew him because I took an acting class and Joe was the teacher. I met him and I thought he’d be great for the role.

We had a great casting person, her name was Sherry Mann, who’s passed away but she found some really great talent. I think it was the first movie for Jamie Denton, who plays the cop in the movie, but Jamie went onto Desperate Housewives for a number of years.

OCC: You mentioned the challenges of getting Thieves Quartet made. One Chicago viewers may not understand how much effort you, Colleen and everyone involved had to put in, to get it onto movie screens. What do you remember from that process?

JC: When we actually decided to go ahead and make the movie, we were basically getting started. We did have $60,000 in seed money, because three years before that I was hit by a car as a pedestrian in downtown Chicago. When that came through, we were like when we make our movie, that’s going to be our seed money. It’s going to get us started. I wrote the script and we said okay, let’s try to make it. [But] we didn’t have anything else. We were having trouble raising money, other than friends and family.

Then we got another break by sending the script to Panavision, who had and I think they still have, a new filmmaker program. If they like your script they basically comp you a camera and lens package. We submitted Thieves Quartet, and we were admitted to the program. They told us in February of 1993 that we were going to get a camera package. Even though we hadn’t raised all the money to make the movie, we said to ourselves if we have a camera package, we have to make a movie somehow.

We did what a lot of filmmakers did back then and probably still do now; we credit carded some of the money. We had 60 grand, and money from two brothers, but we started credit carding other expenses…It was a leap of faith to start shooting without all your money, but we had the camera and we started shooting the picture, and the dailies started coming in and looking great. We showed the footage to potential investors and got more and more coming into the project. We had to take a leap of faith and it could have blown up in our faces, but we lucked out and finished the movie.

The other thing I remember that was a big thrill for me—the composer of the jazz score is a guy by the name of Jon Zorn, who I’m a big fan of. He’s a very respected composer and musician; he plays and composes in all genres in music. I thought it was a long shot to get him, because I’m in Chicago and he was in New York, and he already had a name for himself at that time, but I reached out to him. I sent him the movie, he liked it and agreed to score it. The score is one of the strongest elements of the movie; I think it’s provocative and right on.

OCC: What happened for you after Thieves Quartet? How did the film launch your career, which now includes The Wire, Fringe, Godfather of Harlem and of course Chicago Fire?

JC: What happened was we got a very small distribution deal with a company that opened [Thieves Quartet] up theatrically on a couple screens. It only played for a couple weeks, but off that screening we got reviewed, and we got some very good reviews—New York Times, Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Off those reviews people were like, who’s Joe Chappelle? So I was still in Chicago working commercials, and I started getting calls from production companies on the West Coast saying we read about your film, how can we see it?

I had never been to Los Angeles before, to meet with executives and people at studios and such. I was planning on making a trip because I had all these inquiries, and friends of ours who were writers in Chicago said, while you’re out there you should go see our agent.  I called her, and she said it sounds interesting, why don’t you send me the movie?

I sent the movie on a Wednesday and she got it on Friday, and just coincidentally, the producer of Halloween 6 called her in that 48-hour window and said our director dropped out, do you have someone who could do it, might be interested?

When Thieves Quartet arrived on her desk on Friday, she didn’t even look at it; she just sent it off to this producer who watched the movie and he liked it. So then he forwarded it on to Dimension Films, which was the studio, and they liked it. Dimension Films were happy with the results, so I worked on some projects for them in the mid-late 90’s and then I got into television shows in 2000, and I’ve gone from there.

OCC: Is there anything One Chicago fans should know if this is their first time checking it out?

JC: I think it’s like any movie; you sit down open-minded and hopefully get sucked into the characters and see where it goes. It’s the kind of movie I’d want to go see. It’s an updated film noir, modern film noir I guess, even though we made it so long ago. If you like crime pictures and genre pictures, I think you’ll like this one.

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