Tillman: Cinema Needs More ‘Human Stories’

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete director says he's glad Sundance gives offbeat films a chance.

Actor Skylan Brooks, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and director George Tillman Jr. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Actor Skylan Brooks, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and director George Tillman Jr. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

GT: Every studio felt like, why would I make a movie about a black kid in the projects and an Asian kid? So how do you get that going? I needed somebody with some strength, and Alicia was very helpful.

It’s tough. You have to keep pushing. From Soul Food I went to Men of Honor, and I needed Robert De Niro to get that move made, and I also needed action in it. Then I did Notorious, then an action movie [Faster] with Billy Bob Thornton and Dwayne Johnson. You keep pushing; you try to fight.

Because I always felt the human stories were the types of stories I tell the best. It’s not about the opening weekend, and it’s not about what actor is big enough to be in the movie. It’s about the story, and that’s when it takes forever. This movie took four years to make. We started in 2009, and investor after investor dropped out. In the meantime you ask yourself, “Am I doing the right things?” After attending the premiere movie screening you just feel like, wow, it does pay off.

TR: What is the Sundance payoff for you?

GT: We are getting a lot of press, especially with Jennifer and Alicia — people will see that and talk about it. A lot of people don’t have that platform, and it’s very important. Hollywood is only making certain types of movies. But The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, these films are in the now, and they show Hollywood what can be made. From Hustle and Flow to Beasts of the Southern Wild to Pariah — these are films that are going to continue to be made, and Sundance is a platform to get them out there.

TR: Where does George Tillman Jr. go from here? Last year while covering Sundance for The Root, I suggested that Spike Lee do Broadway, and look at how well he did with Mike Tyson’s one-man show. So what’s next for you?

GT: I used to be a production assistant on the commercials [Spike] did in Chicago back in the day. We reconnected after I became a director and did Soul Food. I said, “I’m doing Men of Honor next.” Spike said, “You’re taking too long; you need a body of work.” I said, “I like to take my time and really overthink it and get it right and perfect.”

Then I was at the NAACP Awards when Spike received a Lifetime Achievement [Award], and they showed all the movies he had done, and it kept going on and on. It made me realize, at [age] 43 now, just work, just keep getting it out there, just challenge yourself. If it’s an indie, do it; if it’s television, do it.

When I did Soul Food on TV, I was stupid and thought, “I already did the movie; why do a TV show?” Fifteen years later, everybody is doing a TV show. It’s about working.

So I learned something over the process, and what’s next is continuing to grow as a filmmaker, keep getting your work out there, and at some point maybe one day I can get that Lifetime Achievement Award.

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.