‘The Godfather of Green Bay’ 15 years later
Director Pete Schwaba talks about his indie film, newly added to Amazon Prime.
“The Godfather of Green Bay” — an indie movie featuring thick Wisconsin accents, Packers-obsessed characters and zealous use of the bygone Macarena dance craze — was released 15 years ago. The movie was filmed in the town of Marinette, where writer, director and actor, Pete Schwaba now lives, and follows Schwaba, playing stand-up comedian Joe Keegan, as he travels to a small Wisconsin town’s fall festival in the hopes of impressing a talent scout for “The Tonight Show.”
Both cringe-worthy and filled with some honest-to-goodness hilarity, “The Godfather of Green Bay” is one of the few representations of Wisconsin on-screen. Characters appear in flannel shirts and orange hunting gear and aggressively disparage the Chicago Bears. Midwestern friendliness is contrasted by some of the less savory aspects of early 2000s small-town culture, some which have homophobic overtones and toxic masculinity. Recently added to Amazon Prime streaming, the movie’s characters nevertheless nail the local flavor of the dairy state.
Those characters, says Schwaba, are all based on people he met while performing stand-up comedy in the Midwest. In a recent interview, he reflected on making the film — which made a splash in local papers and film festivals upon its release. Schwaba moved to Wisconsin from Chicago at age 12. The culture shock — from city life to the hunting, fishing and camping culture that characterized his childhood in Wisconsin — was surprising, especially when it came to sports.
“[I] moved here and the first thing people asked me was ‘Are you a Bears fan?’ I would [say] yeah, and then they would boo me right to my face,” says Schwaba. “I mean, I liked the Bears but I wasn’t [saying] I hate the Packers. But for some reason they had it in for me — in a good-natured way, of course.”
The Bears-Packers rivalry on screen is as real as your mother’s Superbowl Sunday party. At one point, Schwaba’s character is heckled for being from Chicago by the audience and fellow comic Dug, played by “Reno 911!’s” Thomas Lennon. Lennon’s performance as Dug — a comic incapable of joking about anything other than the Bears and LGBTQ+ people — helps pin down the cultural mise en scène Schwaba sought from his cast.
Among them is Tony Goldwyn, an actor known for ABC’s “Scandal,” “Law and Order” and other TV and film appearances. He plays Big Jake Norquist, an ex-high school football player, infamous Green Bay drug dealer and the titular Godfather of Green Bay. Schwaba says Goldwyn took a real interest in the Wisconsin accent after he was booked to play the mullet-sporting Big Jake.
“I remember he wanted a couple PAs [production assistants] from the set … to send him a tape of people talking,” Schwaba says. “And he thought they were goofing around. He thought the accent was phony.”
Goldwyn ended up nailing the accent, says Schwaba, and Big Jake steals the show. But nothing catches the eye like his obsession with The Macarena — a song played not once, not twice, but four times throughout the film (if you include the closing credits).
Counter to expectations, Schwaba says this choice was not in reference to The Packarena — a spoof of the original song that Packers fans would perform at games, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette. Cheerleaders danced along to the song on the field of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXI en route to a Packers victory.
Schwaba says that The Packarena wasn’t at the front of his mind when creating the character of Big Jake Norquist — a townie perpetually reliving his glory days as “the best goddamn football player in all of Northeastern Wisconsin,” at least until he blew out his knee. Instead, Schwaba thought his obsession with an old song would help portray Big Jake as out of date — plus, Schwaba really loves The Macarena.
That love cost him around $5,000 to get the rights to the song, says Schwaba. The rest of his music budget went to BoDeans, a band from Waukesha that scored the film. The film’s entire budget was about $500,000 which was a fairly large sum for an indie movie back in the day, Schwaba says. The town of Marinette helped the team keep the costs down, and local hotels and hospitals helped provide rooms to house the cast and crew.
Schwaba now lives in Marinette with his wife and has two children — one in high school and one in college in Madison. When shooting “The Godfather of Green Bay,” Schwaba didn’t expect to buy a home in Marinette, but says he really loves living in the town with his family.
“I remember the producer saying, ‘God, what a charming little area. Look at that house, it would be great to live there.’ I ended up buying that house. If you told me I was going to buy the house 10 years earlier I would’ve said you were crazy,” Schwaba says. “But now it’s my home. I don’t associate it as much with the movie like I used to when I would visit.”
Looking back on the film, which he rewatched recently as it debuted on Amazon, Schwaba says there are a few things he would do differently. Some of the comedy, like a joke about bringing a computer on an airplane, is a little outdated, and some of the dialogue is too offensive for today’s standards. He also says he would have given his character, Keegan, a few more funny lines.
Speaking of Keegan, the semi-autobiographical character ends the film with a new love interest, a booking on “The Tonight Show” (though he’s later rescheduled) and a stronger appreciation for his work as a comedian. He’s neither incredibly successful nor a complete failure. Keegan is happy to be doing the work he loves. The ending, says Schwaba, is something he and his character both feel.
“To me that seemed like the perfect ending,” says Schwaba. “He just found that [he loves] doing this. If [he gets] on ‘The Tonight Show,’ great. Then I’m making money and doing what I love. That’s what life is about, at least for me, and I feel like that’s how it is for Joe, too.”
“It’s the journey,” he adds. “That’s how it was for me. I woke up one day knowing I’m doing this. I’m doing what I love. … You get these little victories in life and that’s how it is for most people.”
Since his indie film debuted in theaters a decade and a half ago, Schwaba has been hosting “Director’s Cut” on PBS Wisconsin, a show on which the state’s independent filmmakers share behind-the-scenes stories. He’s also written for television, film and appeared on local radio stations. He likes to keep busy, he says.
Schwaba hopes that the Amazon release will give “The Godfather of Green Bay” a second life, and perhaps the film will make a 15-year comeback as audiences see fewer new films because of the pandemic. Comeback or not, “The Godfather of Green Bay” remains a time capsule of small-town Wisconsin culture.
A Q&A with director of “The Godfather of Green Bay” Pete Schwaba:
The movie is semi-autobiographical. What was it like seeing you experience on screen through these different characters? How did it feel to look at the finished product and see a part of you in it?
I’ve been asked about the autobiographical aspects of it and certainly it is. Because my wife is a teacher, that’s how I made Molly’s character a teacher. I was a comedian. I had lived in Chicago. So all that is in the story. But I think by the time that I had gotten done [with] making the movie, I was so removed from that character. [I watched] it over and over, just trying to be a good editor and director and [trying] to make the story work. When I watch it now, it’s like an out-of-body experience. I guess I lived that, so I don’t really pay attention to it. Who I pay attention to are the actors around me and their performances.
I think it starts off for me, personally, as this sentimental journey back into my past doing stand-up on the road, which I love so much and didn’t really do for that long before I started writing. Through the process, I got disconnected from it a little bit. I watch it now as a whole film.
The film portrays parts of small-town Wisconsin culture. Do you think that culture has changed?
When I moved here in 1979, this place was 10 years behind the rest of the world — at least 10 years behind Chicago — because cable TV was fairly new so people dressed like in the past. … Then with cable and MTV, people dress here like everywhere, so that part has caught up. But I do still feel like … there’s a lot of people here who don’t leave [their small towns], so their experiences are with those around them and that’s it.”
I think it has changed for the better. Personally I miss a lot of elements of the big city, [like] being around other cultures and having access to the food of other cultures … [but] the town I live in has a great theater. … It’s really excellent.
Looking back on the film, is there anything you would have done differently?
I think it’s aged well. It’s on Amazon Prime now and I had to get everything ready … so I had to watch it again and it had been quite a while since I had seen it. I was surprised how well the story held up. Even the wardrobe. Because it’s a small town, that’s still just how people dress, [in] flannel [and] Packers jerseys. The one area I thought maybe was dated was my stand-up. One of the jokes I do was about taking a computer on a plane and then you realize it’s not a laptop, it’s a desktop.”
There’s another thing … [about which] my kids were kind of letting me have it — the toxic masculinity. I tried to kind of make fun of that, and that’s what a lot of comedians do, or writers, but sometimes that’s misinterpreted. I’m writing a character. That’s why we’re laughing at him. We laugh at him, not with him. But a lot of the words I would say you don’t see in movies now because of just how things have progressed.
What is it like to live in the same town in which you shot the movie?
It’s my home. I don’t associate it as much with the movie like I used to when I would visit. … But for the longest time it was where I shot this movie and had so much fun. It was such an amazing experience.
I mean, that was the first thing I ever directed. I had sold other stuff to studios just as a writer, but to be so involved — to be the lead actor and the director and to do that in a town I associate with a lot of my childhood — was just really a special experience.
Celia Young is an intern at Madison Magazine.