Indie “Open Tables” a mixture of food and improv

Open Tables,” a new romantic comedy about from writer/director Jack C. Newell, wrapped principal photography at 22 of Chicago’s trendiest restaurants.  Placing an ensemble cast of 21 Chicago improvisers in restaurants like Longman & Eagle, Home Bistro and Trenchermen, the story explores the connection between food, place, and memory in a series of overlapping love stories.

“Open Tables” reunites Newell with many collaborators from his first improvised feature comedy, “Close Quarters.”  They include David Pasquesi, Kate Duffy, T.J. Jagodowki, Susan Messing, producer and production designer Matt Hyland, and OptimusJill DiBiase as editor.

Where “Close Quarters” was almost entirely improvised, Newell wrote a 52-page script for “Open Tables” that outlined the overall structure and character arcs and left room for actors to create backstory and dialogue.

Three Canon 5D cameras allowed cinematographer Stephanie Dufford to cover the improvised scenes.

Director Jack C. Newell on setWorking from Newell’s list of personal favorites and interesting players in Chicago’s food scene, restaurants were matched to specific story moments. For example, “a first date at The Boiler Room tells us different things about a character than a first date at Graham Elliot,”  he says.

Nearly all the restaurants Newell approached signed on. “We had a small crew and a very flexible production that let us shoot when restaurants were closed or at times that worked for them.

“Given the chance to be part of a film that is the best and most comprehensive film about food in Chicago, it seemed like a no brainer for restaurants to want to be involved.”

Mixing location shooting and improv

The venues weren’t always closed during shooting. After shooting at the Goddess and Grocer during business hours, Newell says, “It was tempting to be like ‘everyone go away, we’re making a movie here,’ but we let customers do their thing. It helped T.J. (Jagodowski) and Linda (Orr) get into the vibe.”

“Shooting on location can drive you mad if you want it to be like a studio set, but if you embrace the location as another character in the movie you can find out how to make it sing,” Newell says.

“I learned this from working in improv and from the documentary film work I’ve been doing in Haiti. You have to be patient with your subjects, patient with yourself, patient with your environment, and know that it will come together.”

Newell hopes to complete “Open Tables” by the end of 2013 for 2014 festival release and partner with the restaurants to host screenings for Chicagoans.

Additional talent credits: Beth Lacke, Caroline Neff, Bill Arnett, Steve Tobiasz (who also produces), Joel Murray, Desmin Borges, Keith Kupferer, and Mike MacNamara.  Cinematographer was Stephanie Dufford; Scott Palmer mixed location sound.

Jennifer Peepas is a Chicago writer and filmmaker. Contact her at