George Tillman Jr. may be best known as the director and writer of the seminal film Soul Food and as the producer of the triptych of Barbershop movies. Soul Food even spawned a television series, for which Tillman served as producer and which ran for seven seasons.
But despite his success, he is loath to be pigeonholed as just another African-American director working exclusively with niche, ethnic material. He did indeed direct Men of Honor, a 2002 fictionalized biopic of the Navy's first black master diver, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro.
As his latest film — Faster, an action-revenge offering starring Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton — hits theaters this Thanksgiving, The Root caught up with Tillman to talk about the state of black directors in Hollywood and the upcoming anniversary of the birth of the film genre blaxploitation.
The Root: What is it that attracted you to Faster?
George Tillman Jr.: One of the things I loved about the script was it has a lot of great action. It also has lots of mystery, twists and turns. You will have a lot of fun when you come to the movie.
TR: How was it to work with the Rock and Billy Bob?
GT: These guys work two different ways. With Dwayne Johnson, we did a lot of training, physical contact. He likes to talk things through. Man, I know Billy Bob from Sling Blade, which is one of my favorite movies. He's more internal. He's a director and writer himself. He doesn't say much, but he was very easy to get along with.
TR: Did they ever clash?
GT: No clashing. Only when we were doing the movie. Billy Bob loved Dwayne, had followed his career and wanted to work with him.
TR: There are really only a handful of African-American directors who enjoy what could be generously called "steady work" in Hollywood. Have things gotten easier for you, or have they remained the same since you began your career?
GT: Honestly, I think that as a director — white, black, whatever — you have to prove yourself every time. As for being considered only as a black director who does black material, the only time you can escape that is if you make a ton of money. I was talking to [the director] John Singleton once, and he said after every movie you have to start over. You have to go back to the drawing board, go get the stars and then see if they will do it for the right price.
TR: You have had success in both film and television and as both a director and a writer. Why do you wear different hats and traffic in different mediums?
GT: I like to bounce around and try different things. I started off as a producer with the Barbershop films. I really wanted to be out on the set directing. I would be there early and champing at the bit because I wanted to direct so badly. But it turned out that starting off as a producer was very rewarding for me. I think these are all avenues that, as an artist, you can take to eventually get where you need to be.
TR: Next year, 2011, is considered the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the blaxploitation era. Do you look back fondly at that time, and do you have a favorite film?
GT: I respect all of the films that were made back then. Cooley High, though it might have been considered a sidebar, was a different vibe. You look at Truck Turner, which starred Isaac Hayes, and the movie was just a combination of great conversations. And the music was great! I'm looking at all these films and saying, "These films kept the studios alive." And a lot of people — actors, directors, musicians — were working.
TR: What would it take for that kind of era to be repeated?
GT: It would take a succession of films making a lot of money.
TR: Arguably the most successful African-American filmmaker on the scene is Tyler Perry. What do you think about his work?
GT: He does what he does … he's a great businessman. I really have to be honest, though; I haven't seen a lot of his work. I'm a fan of folks like David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. I'm making films about the African-American experience, but the challenge is how do I open it up and make it universal.
TR: Where is the next wave of African-American directors coming from, and how will we find them?
GT: That's part of my production company, trying to find young directors. The next guy could be in Cleveland, in Colorado or wherever. They don't have to be here [in Los Angeles] anymore, because of the Internet and YouTube. Now all you need is the story, and you can go shoot it with an HD camera. I still say you should go to film school, but technically you can pick up a book and learn anything. What you do get in school is that you learn about the French new wave or Robert Altman. And we are all students.
TR: What do you say to folks who think the Internet and YouTube are devaluing and undercutting some of what is coming out of Hollywood?
GT: I think it's taking away in a manner. But it's getting Hollywood off its butt and saying we, as established filmmakers, have to be smart. There are negatives to it, but it gives you an immediate access to what other artists are doing.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.