“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
The cinema of Tyler Perry, filled with melodramatic narratives and hyperactive comedy has clear-cut fans as much as it has critics. He's a fascinating power in media, self-sufficient with Tyler Perry Studios; writing, directing and starring in films that saw huge success in the box office. But his movies often lack a filmmaking grace, and destructively use what he even agrees are "big left turns" in his narratives. Tyler Perry Studios projects are curiously isolated from criticism or influence, despite his prominent place in pop culture, and the placement he has as one of the most financially successful African-American writer/directors in the business.
After being away from film for two years (which is like a decade in Perry's filmography), Perry returns with a comeback of sorts that certainly marks his first project to respond to outside influences. The title comes from a fake movie title in Chris Rock's 2014 showbiz parody, "Top Five"; and as Perry states in this interview, not only does "Boo!" bring in new filmmaking collaborators, but inspiration that came from talking with the likes of Ben Affleck and David Fincher on the "Gone Girl" set. "Tyler Perry's Boo! A Madea Halloween" might look like another Madea movie, this one involving his wily older woman character going up against a pranking college frat, but it has the feeling of a creative recharge, from someone who has been making films his way since 2006.
When Perry was announced to come to Chicago to promote his latest film, I jumped at the chance to get inside the head of this polarizing storyteller. In the interview below, we discuss his new film, how he never gets writers block, the changes he'll be making as a director for his next non-Madea films, and more.
Thanks for talking today, Tyler.
So, Roger Ebert gave me the most horrible review for "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." He was talking about how what a train wreck of a movie it was, and how he didn’t understand how this movie that was set up so great between Kimberly Elise and Steve Harris and this loud, obnoxious Madea came in and …
“Chainsawed” was the word he used.
Yeah, chainsawed. And what happened was, he got all of this negative backlash from my audience, that he actually went back and reprinted something that wasn’t a retraction but something that was pretty close. I mention that is all to say now, looking back at it, what’s it been 10, 12 years later? I see what he means. As I watch the movie now, I see the difference between the genres crossing that I didn’t know at the time.
Those big left turns.
The big left turns. So this is all to say that I get it. I get exactly what he means, all these years later. OK, let’s go.
In 2014, in your mailing list you said that you hadn’t had a movie written or planned for the first time in 10 years. So there’s been this gap in between. Was this a rebooting of your film interests?
Well, first of all, my son. Having my son be born during that time, it was all about him, and I had to stop and gather myself and my thoughts and figure out how to adjust inside of fatherhood with all of this. He was the purpose for the break, until I could get my arms around that. But definitely what happened was, “Gone Girl” changed everything for me. And I learned so much on “Gone Girl” that the next film I do—you won’t see this in “Madea,” I mean, Madea is Madea—but the next drama that I do I think you’ll see a lot of what I learned on those sets.
From ["Gone Girl" director David Fincher] and so forth?
From Fincher, from being on the set, from Fincher himself, and Ben Affleck who is a great director as well, some of the conversations around coffee during the breaks were just fascinating to me, about what they knew, how they knew it, lenses and light and things that I had never paid attention to.
I notice also that on "Boo!" you have a new cinematographer and editor, whereas you had DP Alexander Gruszynski and editor Maysie Hoy for your previous productions.
All of them, yeah.
Is that part of a new creative process?
Well, that’s part of it, but also when you take a break people still have to work and live their lives, you can’t just wait around. So when I went back to pick up the phone, everybody was working and went onto something else, because it’s a very busy time in Hollywood, which is great. But it was also great to have a new DP and a new editor and try new things. That’s been pretty good for me as well.
I read in the press notes that you used four cameras when you were shooting, like a sitcom? Can you verify that?
No, it’s three. It’s three at once. We’re usually getting coverage and the master at the same time. All around the room.
How long did it take to shoot this movie?
Very fast. Very fast. I won’t say it because people will judge it if I tell you that, but after it opens I’ll tell you how long it took.
As an actor, when you’re getting into a wound-up state as characters Madea or Joe, how do you get that energy?
I’ve been doing this so long, man. They’re second nature. [In Madea voice] You want it big? It’s going to come big!
You can just go into it.
I’m not starring in “Schindler’s List.” It’s Madea. It is what it is.
As you said last night at the screening, this movie has more cussing, and I think it might even have more sexual content and violence than your previous films?
No. Not more sexual content …
Even with the shot of the girl twerking?
… and certainly not more violence. Joe is definitely saying more cuss words, absolutely. I took the reins off of him.
Were you at all concerned or interested in how your audience would react to that?
I am actually concerned to see what the reaction is going to be. My worry isn’t my audience, because my audience has been on the tour with me, but my concern is younger kids. Because I know the audience that a lot of them like to bring younger children, and when you bring younger children to some of those racy words, it’s problematic.
And listen, that girl twerking [Lexy Panterra] had 68 million views on YouTube. 68 million views. I’m like, “Well, come twerk in this movie!” I did social media influencers—Yousef Erakat, who has nine million subscribers on YouTube, one of his subscribers has 128 million views. And they’re talented, they’re all talented. They just needed a shot at a place to display it, so that’s why I put the frat house because also, I wanted younger teenagers to see the movie, to get the message of the movie, but also laugh a whole lot.
And has your idea of what your audience wants changed since you started?
My base has always been what it is, but my audience has definitely evolved and changed over the years, and I see that on tour. I don’t get research as much as I see when I’m traveling the country, I can look at the audience and see that in some cities it’s 50% other than African American.
And there’s a generational difference too, that you’ve been doing this long enough that people can pass it onto their children.
And the other part too is that children, who did not know anything about me, can go online and become an expert on me in two weeks. As opposed to ten years ago, when that couldn’t happen. That’s what we’ve been finding now, a lot of kids are finding things that way.
I read that with your TV productions, it’s just you, as the sole writer/director, but that there’s no writer’s room. So, first off, how do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t have it. Isn’t that great? It’s almost like a bit being a little insane; I’ve got so many stories in my head and so many people talking that I literally have to shut down, like shut out characters to start writing other shows. They all want to talk when I start. See, you’re going to make me sound crazy! But I sit down at the computer and I start writing a show, and especially a show like, “The Have and Have Nots” has been on for over a hundred episodes, “If Loving You is Wrong” is probably about 80 now, and so I know those people; “Too Close to Home” just started, it’s got 16. But I know them. So when I sit down to write I can tune into them and hear them, is what I mean.
Do you test your films with audiences?
No. You saw the test last night, that was the test! It’s done now, it’s in the can, we’re coming out!
And no tests, even when you’re doing edits?
No, we don’t do that. We don’t test.
You’re writing, directing, producing and you have the final call. It’s like if it makes you laugh, you’re going to trust your audience.
Well, also being on stage for almost 20 years, I know exactly. That’s the test right there. And I know if it’s going to work or not going to work based on the experience.
Was this project a statement to take back the joke in "Top Five"?
Listen, Chris [Rock] called and asked, and first of all he couldn’t have done that if he hadn’t gotten permission, and I said that would be fine, I’m in, go for it. And then Lionsgate saw it and they were like, “We need to do that movie.” And I said, “You guys have got to be kidding me. I don’t do witches, demons, goblins, all that stuff.” And they said, “Just think about it.” And I came up with a concept that worked for me. Instead of it being what you would think it is, it’s actually something else. That works for me. But no, this is actually ... I owe him a big thank you.
Was it only a Madea project that could get you back into movies?
It wasn’t that I was getting back into movies. I have some incredible stories that I have been working on. I can’t wait to … they’re SO different. I can’t wait to get them out there. But Madea was just convenient at the time. But what I’m working on is very special.
You mentioned the Ebert review, do you read a lot of criticism about your stuff?
No. In the beginning, what happened was that I had two critics that watched my show in LA, and they both sat in the same row and saw the exact same performance. One review was amazing, the other review was horrible. I said to myself, “How do you balance this? How do you find truth in what it is?” So, I try not to as much as I can because I never wanted to get distracted by opinions when I know it’s working for the people.
So it's a trusting of the audience and their response.
And also looking for truth. In Roger’s review, I couldn’t find any truth at the time. But looking back at it now, this many years and this many experiences, watching Fincher and [Ava] DuVernay, and all of those amazing talented people, I’m like, “Oh, I get it.”
So, Roger also gave 2 1/2 stars to “For Colored Girls.” He even went back and saw it twice.
I got two great reviews from the LA Times and the New York Times for “For Colored Girls.” Which I didn’t really know what to do with. It financially wasn’t that successful, but the reviews were great. That’s always been an issue for me to try to understand. But of course people want their work to be celebrated and appreciated, but you have to ask yourself, and I have to ask myself, “Who do I want to celebrate and appreciate this one?” You know what I mean? "Madea" is what it is.
What does “For Colored Girls” mean to you now, six years and seven films later?
I really loved making “For Colored Girls,” and I love watching it. But what I’ve learned since then, had I did it now, it would be a whole other thing. Everything is learning in progress.
What would you have done differently?
The cinematography would have been much different. Alex [Gruszynski] did a fantastic job. But part of the problem with Alexander was me. I was like, “Go, go! Come on out here, I’ve got five minutes! I gotta do this! I got that!” And I wouldn’t give him the time to get his beauty shots and his lights and the things that he needed. But now I’ve learned. And also what is different now is that the cameras are so light sensitive. Very little light to make amazing portraits. And I’ve learned—you won’t see this in “Boo!”—but I’ve learned that every frame in a movie that’s cinematic should look like a photo.
As a pop culture icon, there’s going to be references and so forth to your films, and people are going to parody your image, essentially. I’m thinking of Kenan Thompson once playing you as someone dabbing dollar bills on his forehead on "SNL," and Michael Ealy’s reference in "Think Like a Man" to his character in "For Colored Girls." Do you prefer to respond to people when they do that? Or leave it as different perspectives?
Different perspectives. It’s all in fun, it’s all in what it is. I have no ego about it. It is what it is. When I see the Madea “gifs” or jigs is what they call them? I’m 47 so I see "g-i" I say gif, but you know those animated things that shows on people’s phones, and the memes? Some of them crack me up, man.
I think it was at the 2010 Oscars, when you went on stage to introduce the Oscar for Best Editing, and before introducing you said, “They just said my name at the Oscars. I better enjoy it because it will never happen again.”
Would you say that nowadays?
Absolutely. I still say it. I still say it! But I’ll tell you what had just happened before then. I was standing backstage, waiting to go on. They had gotten me from my seat and I was standing backstage, and the security comes and is like “What are you doing? Get out of here!” And then the stage manager comes hauling ass to the other side, and he says “He’s going on stage!” And he pushes me in the back and I have to walk down those stairs with those huge shoes on and hit the mark. So that’s where I was walking out in that moment. It was pretty crazy. But this last time that I did it [in 2014], it was totally different.
And was it a reflection of how you feel in Hollywood, or among other filmmakers?
Well, the reason that I wanted do that one so well is because of Hattie McDaniel. It was Hattie McDaniel’s anniversary. But when I heard that she couldn’t sit in the front the year she won the Oscar, I had thought, they asked me to come, I am definitely going to be there. And I was sitting there on the second row and Sidney Poitier sitting on the front row with Kerry Washington there, and I just kept thinking about her. That [Hattie] had to come from the back of the theater to get this Oscar and walk. It was so powerful, and such a wonderful moment to see how far, even with all that’s going on in this country, to see how far we’ve come.
There’s this constant debate about film and TV, with one making the other irrelevant. Do you have a stance on film or TV, as a creator or viewer?
Huh. No, I don’t. Listen, I think film is what it is. Film is what it’s meant to be. I think Ava [DuVernay] has done all of us a disservice by “Queen Sugar,” and I’ll tell you why.
It’s so amazing, it’s so incredible. It’s like, “This is on television?! Ava how could you put this on TV, now everybody’s got to rise! Everybody’s got to rise!” And honestly, I think they both have their place. Film should always be big and expansive, and beautiful images. Until Ava just shattered that myth.
And you mentioned that when you were working at a faster pace—do you think with your film projects in the future you might take more time with them?
No. Cameras need less light!
But they need to be composed, still.
Framing and all that.
Yeah, yeah. I can’t wait for you to see my next movie. I’m working on it now. And then I want to sit down with you and we’ll talk about it.
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