George TillmanDirector George Tillman Jr. is known for “Notorious,” “Soul Food,” and producing the successful “Barbershop” series. The Source Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with George Tillman Jr. to discuss his latest project “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” out today.

Film Synopsis: From Codeblack Films and Lionsgate, during a sweltering summer in New York City,13-year-old Mister’s (Brooks) hard-living mother (Hudson) is apprehended by the police, leaving the boy and nine-year-old Pete (Dizon) alone to forage for food while dodging child protective services and the destructive scenarios of the Brooklyn projects. Faced with more than any child can be expected to bear, the resourcefulMister nevertheless feels he is an unstoppable force against seemingly unmovable obstacles. But what really keeps the pair in the survival game is much more Mister’s vulnerability than his larger-than-life attitude.Director George Tillman, Jr. draws indelible performances from a fantastic cast, which includes Jordin Sparks, Jeffrey Wright, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Anthony Mackie, and Jennifer Hudson, all led by Ethan Dizon and Skylan Brooks in a stunning breakout performance as Mister. The film also features new music by Alicia Keys, who is the film’s executive producer.

We read that you had a pile scripts on your desk to review, but “Mister & Pete” really struck you. What did you love about it?

I just felt like it was completely fresh and original, I don’t see anything from the perspective of a 13-year old black kid, a young boy. I don’t see many films dealing with the conflicts and obstacles that kids who live in the Projects have to go through and how sometimes they got all these odds, but they come out on top. And that idea just pretty much struck me by being fresh and it also had something to say at the same time. I was just completely with them the whole time I was reading the material and I just felt like this is something maybe the audience will take to and also learn some from.

And can you tell me about the collaborative process with the film’s writer Michael Starrbury?

Yeah, the script was in good shape. In the beginning there’s a couple of scenes that we added to the material. But it was in a really good shape and I just felt like his perspective of being a young screenwriter out of Hollywood that wasn’t clouded by all these clichés that Hollywood brings to the table, it felt like a fresh perspective, a new, young perspective. So he did a really good job. but it all started with the script.

And we have our two young actors, Ethan Dizon and Skylan Brooks who play Mister and Pete. Can you speak about the casting process?

It was awesome. It was a tough process because I saw in 2009 about 200 or 250 kids and I didn’t really see the right kids the first year. And then the second year, 2010, when the movie started back up again, I met them and they were both from the same audition room and I put them in the chemistry test and they were great, but the movie didn’t happen that year. So I had to wait till the following year. I thought I was going to get a whole new set of kids, but they came back again and they didn’t really grow too much and they were awesome and I just knew it was fate that these were the two guys. You know, for these roles to work, they had to have endurance, they had to be able to do emotional scenes, maybe two or three in one day, and also being in an environment that they weren’t used to, you know, being in Brooklyn, being in Projects. We shot in Bushwick Projects, we shot in, Marcy. I mean, we were in places that they were unfamiliar with, but they really fit in and really became part of the characters.

I read that you sent Ethan and Skylan to shadow the kids of the projects. Can you speak about that?

Really the first projects we went to was one of the biggest ones, the Red Hook Projects in Brooklyn, and they were able to talk to and meet some of the kids there. And the kids took them on a tour, walked them around, shared some of the issues they were going through. They talked to some of the kids that were left, abandoned by some of their moms, or some of their parents have addiction problems. But even beyond that, they were able to spend time with addiction programs and really understand the results of meth and the results of heroin and how that affects the individuals in that world and how it comes back on them. So not only was it heroin addiction and addiction programs, but it was shadowing the kids and also just being part of an environment, how one acts, walk and talk this everyday. So that was about maybe a three-and-a-half, four-week process everyday before we started shooting.

And Jennifer gives a stunning performance and this is a face of Jennifer that I haven’t seen before. Can you tell me about working with her and developing the character of Gloria?

Well, I felt like from the beginning she loved the tattoos, she loved the hairdo, and being a person she was a little bit punk, but not. It just felt like from that first conversation that we had she was like “I’m thinking the same thing,” that she wanted to do something different that she hadn’t done in the past, and she went all in just with the idea of dealing with the heroin and not looking pretty or not looking the way people may have expected her. She went the opposite and it was a grind just to get there on the set and really be able to have that fully there in the story. She was incredible and I’m really proud of the performance that she brought out of the movie and our collaboration together.

Also, can you speak about Alicia Keys’ involvement. Obviously she worked on the music. Can you tell me about how hands-on she was with the project?

She was hands-on from the beginning because I originally approached her about being in the film somewhere and she was like, “Hey, I love to be somewhere to help you get the movie off the ground!” And I was like, “Cool! Let’s bring you on as a producer and let’s also do music.” And she was great with that. What that does is it…just brought the project to attention and it was able to help, because we went outside of the studio system to get the movie made. And that was very helpful that she went out and was very helpful in trying to raise money, in trying to bring awareness to the film, and that’s some areas that sometimes actors and directors don’t have. That’s a whole another element that we brought into the film, which was great. And the guys like Jennifer and Anthony Mackie and Jeffrey Wright who I chased down to get in this movie, you know, these guys came in, worked a day or two, Adewale Agbaje, Jordin Sparks — all of that helps because you know, some people may look at the film and say, “Oh, it’s a movie about kids [and] it’s a fun movie,” but it’s not.  Then you got these strong themes in the movie and then sometimes you need some familiar faces, somebody who’s great, and it really brought the kids to their A level where they had to come with it and they did. They were there everyday.

I also really loved Jordin Sparks.Can you tell me about how she got involved and what it was like working with her?

I think it was great because it’s a story and the story is about a kid. And it’s his point of view. I wanted more about Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, but this is where the kids counter, in the neighborhood, in the community. You live at your home, you pass by the guy who’s always hanging outside who doesn’t talk. When you go to the store, you deal with the storeowner, you may have some issues with the storeowner. When you go to the storeowner, you pass the homeless guy. When you go to the store, you see that Chris is always working the corner, but his mom is gone. That’s the environment they work in. We don’t stop and pull away and go to Anthony Mackie’s store. That’s all in the kids’ point of view. And you want to get to know all of these guys, and all these guys are not all great and they’re not all bad. That’s how it is in that environment. That’s what we’re trying to tell.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Anthony Mackie so rough. He seems very gritty in this role.

Yeah, I love it! I mean the whole thing was to make everybody feel like they belong in the environment and when we were talking early on. I said, “I want to give you a distinctive look.” And he says, “You know what? I was watching this basketball player play,” at the time he was playing for Oklahoma. “He had this weird beard. I want this beard!” I was like, “Let’s do it!”

It looked like Rick Ross’ beard.

Yeah, it was like, “You got the Rick Ross going on.” It was hot. “So let’s just go with it and get the Mohawk going on.” And with Jeffery, when Jeffrey came in, he was like, “Hey, I want to be a homeless guy, but I want to wear a mask.” And I was like, “But they aren’t going to see you?” “But that’s a mask. He is protective of everything…” So…everybody has something and that’s what I love.

And can you speak about the challenges of bringing this project to life?

It was tough all the way around, getting it made, two and a half years and then raising the money. And then when we start shooting, you got the kids and they only shoot eight hours instead of twelve. So you got a lot of stuff to shoot and you only got a small amount of time to do it. And then when you shoot and you finish the movie, you got a small amount of time to edit it, put it together. And then you find out, wow, this is a big movie! It isn’t small. There’s 156 scenes. There’s a lot of music. We got 2 or 3 weeks to put the music together. And then so many elements in the film, this small little film, and it took a lot. And then you got to get the movie sold and who will buy the movie? And then we had marketing, and now we’re just trying to get people to see it, like, “Hey, it’s not a movie just for kids,” you know. So it’s always a hurdle. But those are the best ones. The ones that are easy out of Hollywood, just don’t have that much depth.

Tell me how you got your start in filmmaking and why you were passionate about it from the beginning?

Well I think it’s like Mister. I used to watch a lot of TV and want to be like the guys on TV that Mister watches, “Trading Places” and “Fargo.” And I’m a guy who watches a lot of movies like “Cooley High,” and those movies like “Taxi Driver” and also “The Godfather,” you know. I wanted to write and be involved with those movies. And coming from Milwaukee it’s a far distance, and I just started off making films. But I think I wanted to direct from the beginning, but it’s hard to get people to get you to direct a film out of nowhere, so you had to write. So “Soul Food” was the first film for me where I wrote and directed, and that was my way in.

“Soul Food” was big hit.

It was a calling card for me to work on other films, but I think if I didn’t write that material, it would have been harder. And since I wrote the material, I controlled it. If you’re not going to let me direct, you’re not going to get the script. So that was something I was able to hold on to.

Also, your other film “Notorious” was a big film for hip-hop. Can you reflect on that project and why it was so important to you?

Yeah. That was a big, huge project for me because people knew me from “Soul Food” and “Men of Honor and I hadn’t really done anything edgy like that…but it’s still a character, it’s still a human being and that’s what I love to do. And it was a tough one to pull off. Everyone used to say, “I don’t know if you’re going to pull this one off because all these people are still alive – Lil’ Kim, Sean Puffy…Lil Cease of Junior Mafia, how are you going to pull it off and make us believe, because we see them everyday? And how are you going to pull off Biggie?”

But I just stuck with it. I had the right people around me, you know. I had Biggie’s crew around me Lil’ Cease and Junior Mafia. Everybody was kind of around. Besides Lil’ Kim everybody was really around a lot to help. The key is it started off with Jamal Woolard, just being…the guy who lived in the same neighborhood as Biggie and had the same charm. And he dedicated himself…A lot of people don’t know, but just the dialect he went through, the ideal of trying to rap like B.I.G. You can never…be Biggie, but just enough to have believability and just bringing on D-Dot, Biggie’s producer who did a lot of Biggie’s music was there at night trying to craft his vocals and the dialect and putting the cotton balls in his mouth to sound like B.I.G. And the stage performance, we really tried to nail down Biggie’s stage performance, how it really was. And so we took four months to get that right and it was the hardest thing I ever did because we worked in the studio with not a lot of money. That movie really should be an epic because it’s still a lot of story to be told. So it’s deep to my heart it’s one of my favorites.

Can you speak generally about how hip-hop influences you?

It definitely influences me because to me, it’s one of the last art forms because like jazz and soul and blues, here’s an outlet that actually brings you into a subculture. Two, it informs and highlights how people live each day. Three, it sets trends, and it sets trends so much that it’s affecting the film world and how we look at certain things. And then sometimes those can translate into what you have, like with “8 Mile” and what we have with “Notorious.” I know they’re trying to do the NWA movie as well…and we look at Miley Cyrus, all that is hip-hop. It all comes from the culture and how we dress and style. And I don’t think the mainstream gives it the credit that we need. It borrows and makes money, but doesn’t bring it back. Like “8 Mile,” we should have more movies like that. So it’s trendsetting. Now we’re on a whole new phase, and you see like Kendrick Lamar, Nas still putting down new great stuff every time. So there’s an excitement that’s coming back to lyrics and coming back to just the basics. That’s what I always say when I’m in the studio, I say, “I just want it to be a good story!” What they say in the hip-hop world, all you need is a DJ and a mic. Nas says one mic. And at the end of the day, all that fancy stuff, you just need a story. And that’s what I used to say with “Mister and Pete,” I said all I want is a DJ and a mic. Just a simple story and some good acting.

Can you tell me about the aesthetic and the visual effects you were going for with “Mister & Pete”?

Yeah, I think the aesthetic for me is I wanted to shoot in Brooklyn again after “Notorious.” I had such a good time shooting here. And really just about being basic,  speaking of hip-hop, now you got me on the hip-hop theme, but when you look at DJ Premiere, the way he produces, it sounds simplistic, but it’s very intricate and it’s the basics and it just cuts so deep. And I wanted a film where… I just wanted to put the camera right in front of their face and handheld and follow these little kids around in their point of view. I wanted to get the ideal of how the sun and how the summer affected and how the heat deteriorated them without any food, without any electricity, and the sweat on their faces. I just wanted to go to the basics and the human spirit. And I had a great DP and her name is Reed Morano and she’s a great woman who knows exactly where to place the camera, where to put the lights and knows how to get right to their soul.

If there is another hip-hop story that you could tell, whose would it be?

I feel like there’s so many to tell, like next one I want to tell is the Miles Davis story. And I really feel like hip-hop is very close to…jazz. But there’s still so much. They’re still trying to do the Tupac story. Trying to do the NWA story. There’s so much more. And I was having a conversation years ago, I remember seeing a story about Russell Simmons and the beginning of Def Jam. And I talked to him about it. He was just like, “Yeah, I don’t want to tell that story.” But I just think it’s an interesting story, the merge of the streets into a label. So many great stories to be told!

So is Miles Davis your next project?

I’m hoping so. I’m working towards it. And there’s another project I have over at Universal that deals with the music in the inner city of Chicago and the issues of the crime there in Chicago and all the schools closing down and the elements there. So one of those two is going to be next!