Producer on Bittersweet Journey of 'Sparkle'

Debra Martin Chase and Whitney Houston (Randee St. Nicholas)
Debra Martin Chase and Whitney Houston (Randee St. Nicholas)

(The Root) — Veteran Hollywood producer Debra Martin Chase played a huge part in getting the 2012 version of Sparkle into theaters this week. But she's quick to give credit to her homegirl and producing partner Whitney Houston for coming up with the idea for a remake in the first place.


"She called me up one day: 'Girl, what do you think about remaking Sparkle? And I said, 'You know, it's one of my favorite movies — that's a great idea,' " said Chase, recalling a decade-old phone conversation.

After that initial call, however, the project stalled for various reasons — the most notable one being the untimely death of Aaliyah. The R&B ingenue was tapped to play the title character before her death in a plane crash in the Bahamas in 2001. It wasn't until three years ago that Sony execs finally agreed that a Houston-led update of the 1976 film could work.

Now, in its opening weekend, the film emerges as a reminder of the comeback that could have been if Houston were still alive. In addition, it's an uplifting vehicle for this generation's rising stars, such as Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo and Derek Luke. The Root recently caught up with Chase, who called from Los Angeles and chatted with us about her late friend and how she hopes the new Sparkle will resonate with today's audiences.

The Root: As a huge fan of Whitney Houston, I found it hard to watch the movie. I can only imagine how tough it is for you to see her on the screen. How do you feel about the movie now?

Debra Martin Chase: This has obviously been a really unbelievable journey. Never in a million years did I believe things would be the way they are right now. She didn't see the movie. I saw the movie for the first time a few days before she passed. For a long time [after that], it was … can I get through the movie without collapsing? But, you know, I've turned the corner, and I've realized that this movie is a celebration of her.

This movie started with the two of us 12 years ago with a vision and a dream to make it come true. Her performance is the best of her career. We talked about that while we were making the movie, and she felt and knew that. This will be the final piece of her legacy. People will see her beautiful and passionate and happy. She is an incredible woman, she's had an incredible career … some of the glory has been forgotten over the past couple of years. This is a chance for the world to remember who she was.


TR: What kind of film makes a good remake candidate?

DMC: A couple things: One, you're looking for a timeless, universal story. Then you're looking for a movie that's utterly beloved. Sparkle was huge — is huge —  in the African-American community. Some of the directors and executives at the studio never understood the value of the title.


When you're approaching a remake — I've done several: Preacher's Wife, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella — you're looking to preserve the elements that are beloved and preserve the essence of the movie, but you also want to tailor it for modern sensibilities. In this case, we all wanted to empower the women more than they had been in the original because that's where we are as women today.

Effie in the original movie was very passive. She was a servant for the white folks and just sort of stood by as her daughters were off on this journey. We obviously made Whitney's character, Emma, much more textured. We gave her a backstory with her own failed musical ambitions. We made her much more of an obstacle to Sparkle realizing her dreams.


TR: You've been linked with another music-movie remake, Dirty Dancing. Would you say Hollywood studios are more open to green-lighting musicals these days?

DMC: We're supposed to be shooting Dirty Dancing now, and we ran into some pushback. When a musical's right, there's nothing better. Because you've got so many layers — you've got a great story, you've got the music that just takes you on a whole, other journey.


Right now dance is bigger than ever. On television, with Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, people are really interested in it. People have shown that there's an appetite — you know, Chicago, Hairspray … they've been big movies. Still, it's finding the right property, finding the right titles, finding the right music … they're really fun to make.

TR: There are also news reports that you've landed a TV production deal with ABC Studios. What kinds of programming do you hope to bring to network television?


DMC: Well, literally, we just closed the deal [with ABC Studios]. And in today's marketplace, some of the best drama is on television. Some of the best actors, some of the best stories, best character-driven material, is on TV. I still have my feature deal at Disney. I've been at Disney for some 16 years now.

I have a long history with ABC, going back to Cinderella. I feel like that ABC brand is really my brand: character-driven, female-driven, sexy, fun.


Brett Johnson is The Root's associate editor.