Tillman: Cinema Needs More 'Human Stories'

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)

(The Root) — George Tillman Jr. has shown he's got range. He's helmed a romantic comedy (Soul Food), touching biopics (Men of Honor, Notorious) and high-octane action flicks (Faster). His new film, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, is another chance for him to demonstrate he belongs in the big leagues of black directors.

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The film, written by Michael Starburry — a rising screenwriter who's also been tapped to rewrite a Tupac Shakur biopic — follows two young Brooklyn, N.Y., boys left to fend for themselves one summer when their mothers go MIA. It includes an all-star cast — Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie and Jeffrey Wright — and Alicia Keys produced the film and arranged the score.

Even though Tillman is well-established, this was his first time taking a film to the big Dance, the country's premier film festival. Between the sold-out screenings, we caught up with Tillman, who also produced Barbershop, Roll Bounce and Beauty Shop, and he explained how hard it is to get certain films made and how he's heeding advice from Spike Lee.

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The Root: There is so much black talent assembled for your film, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. What was it like working with everyone involved, and how did they come on board?

George Tillman Jr.: You have a film with two kids as the leads, and they are in every scene and you only have eight hours to shoot them because they are only kids, so you really want to get the best cast you possibly can. I really wanted the film to have some sophistication to it and really strong performances, so automatically, who do you go to? The strongest African-American actor out there is Jeffrey Wright, to me, and [there's also] Anthony Mackie, who is working all the time, and Adewale [Akinnuoye-]Agbaje, who is great.

These are all three guys who would normally be competing for the same role in a mainstream movie, but I had them all in my movie. They loved the story, which is what I think it all came down to, and this is a story you don't really get to see a lot. Then it came down to the women, you know — who is going to play a mom who is a heroin addict that disappears and then comes back later?

Jennifer Hudson loved the script immediately, and for me I liked the idea that she was something fresh, something people wouldn't expect. It was a strong performance. People would not expect her to wear all the tattoos and change her appearance and not wear makeup and show her body. No one would expect that, and she did it for the love of the material and the story.

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That's what it all came down to — actors want to work with someone who has their back, and they want to work on good stories.

TR: This is a great gem of a movie that's a universal story of an absentee parent and a child left alone. Films like these revolve around themes of sadness, loss. How hard is it to get these types of movies made?

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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