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Brian Grazer Reveals Why Spike Lee Was Replaced By Tate Taylor To Direct James Brown Biopic

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 16, 2013 1:23 PM
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James Brown in Alex Gibney's "Mr. Dynamite."
James Brown in Alex Gibney's "Mr. Dynamite."

Recapping what we've known until today...

First Spike Lee spent years trying to get his Jackie Robinson project financed and produced (unsuccessfully), only to eventually watch Legendary Pictures and Brian Helgeland launch their own Jackie Robinson picture, with Chadwick Boseman starring (scheduled to be released in 2013).

And then it was announced in October that Spike would have to, once again, sit back and watch (this time) Tate Taylor (director of The Help) helm a James Brown biopic, with super producer Brian Grazer producing, and Mick Jagger joining Grazer as producer.

You'll recall that a film based on the life of the singer has long been in the works, with Spike Lee directing, and Brian Grazer overseeing the production. Obviously, something happened, since Spike is no longer attached to direct, but Brian Grazer is still on to produce.

In the October post announcing the director change, we all wondered what could've happened that inspired the director change; now, 3 months later, we have our answer.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, posted on their website this morning, producer Brian Grazer was asked that question specifically. Here's the section of the interview where it's all addressed:

RS: What happened with Spike Lee, who was said to be directing the original movie project before Brown's death?

BG: He was the choice when I had the rights. I had just produced Inside Man with him. When the rights left me, I didn't have any control, and I couldn't make director choices. So when it came later with new people and new rights holders, we weren't doing it with Spike Lee anymore. The world was different then. Now you have to make movies for less money.

RS: When it was announced that Lee was no longer involved and that a white director, Tate Taylor, was on board, the blogosphere went nuts. How do you respond to those comments?

BG: What would I say? I view that a bunch of different ways. Mick and I don't see the world that way. I started my career making Boomerang and CB4. I've made so many movies where I've supported black artists. Tate made The Help, and that had almost an entirely black population. I just want to try to make the best movie.

RS: Were you surprised by those reactions?

BG: Well, I didn't read them! I can't make movies like that, where I'm going to look at some blog and change the course of the whole movie. I also think Mick is so amazing. For him to decide he's going to participate and split half the money – he's a man of integrity, and I feel pretty good about that.

Well, after reading all that, what I gather from his response is that the choice for who to direct was out of his control, after James Brown died, and the rights issues became more complicated as they now fell under a different set of rights holders, who, we can assume, didn't want Spike Lee to direct.

Is that what you read in all this as well?

He adds that the world was different then, and now movies have to be made cheaper. Does that mean we can also infer that Spike's asking fee was higher than Tate Taylor's? Or the budget for Spike's version of the film was more than what financiers were willing to spend on a Spike Lee-directed film about James Brown?

So, while we get answers we didn't have before, the answers themselves raise even more questions, which means, even more speculation.

In the interview, Grazer reveals how much of a James Brown fan he is, and how long he's been trying to get the project off the ground (12 years since he bought the rights), as well as how much of his own money he's invested in it thus far ($2 million). He also shares that, at one point, Al Sharpton was a consultant on the movie.

And as for whether James Brown (whom Grazer said he met several times while he was alive, and even discussed the project) was at all concerned about a warts and all telling of his life story on film, Grazer said he seemed OK with that.

And finally, with regards to casting, Grazer says they haven't decided yet, but are about to begin the process of testing/auditioning actors, and believes they'll likely be looking at a lot of actors before they find the right one.

You might recall that, at one point, Wesley Snipes was Spike's man for the starring job, but my guess is that Wesley's tax problems meant a change in plans.

In fact, as recently as 2009, it seemed like the project was as close to a sure-thing as any can get, with Spike saying in an interview with MTV News, "We're doing it together – it's going to happen... He’s my man."

He was referring to Wesley Snipes in that quote back in January 2009 (S&A hadn't been born yet).

Spike added that he intended to use James Brown's "authentic voice" during for any musical sequences in the film; essentially, Wesley would lip-synch.

Years later since that interview, little seemed to have further developed on the project, and it looked like it was dead.

In a 2011 interview, James Brown's daughter, Dr. Yamma Brown, said that the family was considering Eddie MurphyChris BrownUsher to star in the Godfather of Soul’s biopic - an announcement which, as I recall, took a lot of you by surprise.

Whether or not any of the above gentlemen are still being considered, or if there are others, we'll find out eventually; although, I doubt it.

As I've said before, go with an unknown - definitely not a star.

The screenplay has been penned by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (they wrote the script for Fair Game, the Naomi Watts and Sean Penn film).

The full Rolling Stone interview is HERE.

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  • LeonRaymond | August 6, 2014 4:26 PMReply

    it does not matter this film is doomed and now some one must do a JAMES BROWN MOVIE, it needed a Black Director regardless of the reasons it was not Spike there are way too many Black directors of Note and too many of age that remember all the nuances of doing a JB film. having a white director do this will not cut it at all. When we Black folks, African Americans do a film like this we fit right into the shoe as it was made for us. When a White Director and Writer do a Black film they have to have the shoe tailored for them and first have the shoe torn apart and then re-sewn cause it does not fit. (2) Chadwick is not a seasoned enough actor to have inherited that character, there is no sweat we can see or feel, No pain up on the screen that shows it was imitation, not informative, there was no roller coaster ride for the audience like there was with "RAY" and foremost we distrust whites in this situation cause this is revisionist Black History and using a prominent historical musical figure to hood wink and try and pull it off. NO THERE IS STILL A JAMES BROWN FILM TO BE MADE. THIS WON'T CUT IT!

  • BlackCitizen | August 6, 2014 2:22 PMReply

    I don't believe it. Of course he had a say in it. He just didn't want to use Spike anymore. This is what makes blacks distrust whites. You never get a straight answer about race.

  • Dave's Deluxe | August 5, 2014 7:12 PMReply

    Reads like the typical, PR-spin, cookie-cutter response: "scheduling conflicts". Understandable: Mr. Grazer is a gentlemen and professional, so he will not burn bridges, it will be diplomacy at all costs.

  • estarr | August 5, 2014 6:40 PMReply

    There is a heart missing from stories produce by people disconnected from the nuance and beauty of brown peoples struggle. Often there's implants. Namely a 'A great white hope'. Historical rewrites with reimagined white crusaders saving the brown hero or heroine. Speaking of the Jackie Robinson biopic... (Harrison Fords character) If he wants to make the best movie possible as he said he should hire people most connected, most passionate about the subject matter. Not white folks trying to salvage their dignity by rewriting themselves as saints.

  • estarr | August 5, 2014 6:40 PMReply

    There is a heart missing from stories produce by people disconnected from the nuance and beauty of brown peoples struggle. Often there's implants. Namely a 'A great white hope'. Historical rewrites with reimagined white crusaders saving the brown hero or heroine. Speaking of the Jackie Robinson biopic... (Harrison Fords character) If he wants to make the best movie possible as he said he should hire people most connected, most passionate about the subject matter. Not white folks trying to salvage their dignity by rewriting themselves as saints.

  • estarr | August 5, 2014 6:40 PMReply

    There is a heart missing from stories produce by people disconnected from the nuance and beauty of brown peoples struggle. Often there's implants. Namely a 'A great white hope'. Historical rewrites with reimagined white crusaders saving the brown hero or heroine. Speaking of the Jackie Robinson biopic... (Harrison Fords character) If he wants to make the best movie possible as he said he should hire people most connected, most passionate about the subject matter. Not white folks trying to salvage their dignity by rewriting themselves as saints.

  • James L Taylor | February 15, 2014 3:51 AMReply

    I won't see the movie nor buy the DVD. I sent a tweet to Spike Lee. If he (Spike) would have done it, surely it would have been another masterpiece like Malcolm X was in '92. Chadwick Boseman is incapable of doing JB. Quiet as kept I could do it better. The dancing, JB's trademark gravel voice & all.

  • TheEbonyCinematheque | January 18, 2013 1:59 AMReply

    This is going to be a piece of s**t.... First, I agree exactly what you stated about Grazer, that once the rights left his hands and (legally) he had no control, Grazer is now a figure head on the project and M.Jagger is his 2nd in command b/c they put up the finance. The "new people" dont seem to see the monetary return in spending a lot of money on James' film b/c I can BET money they're young, white execs not familiar with his music or life.... because we've all seen large scale + mid budget biopics (J.Edgar, Ma Vie En Rose, Social Network). If Grazer cares so much for Brown's life, there was things he could of done, I don't feel his passion in this project the same way it was for Taylor Hackford and Ray... and its disappointing b/c Grazer has a track record of black films (Boomerang, Nutty Professor) and has directed great music videos for barely any money. Also his comments regarding financing is a little shocking considering this project could've paid Spike's fee and more by reaching out to a source that :
    1. Would love the credit of being involved in the project.
    2. Could've cover all the fees necessary that Grazer, Jagger and the studio couldn't.

    Answer: Michael Jackson's Estate!

    MJ has been a fan of James Brown since he was in the womb, he's probably turning in his grave right now hearing this story. MJ Estate would've bankrolled this project without question and b/c of his monetary worth: A) Spike would be the only choice due to their previous(music video) and continued work relationship(Bad 25)
    B) No cost would be an issue in the production of this film.

    I really feel due to the long gestation and rights issues of this film... Grazer threw in the towel and the finish product will reflect it. James Brown is an icon, when this film ...if this film is released, it will be another poorly done black biography.

  • A Strachan | January 17, 2013 5:57 PMReply

    Please oh please, don't mess up James Brown story. Too important to f**k up.

  • urbanauteur | January 17, 2013 5:55 PMReply

    B-Money(Grazer) come off sounding like one of those yes-men/union stewards on a ALL WHITE construction sites LYING out their coffee-stain teeth, while professing that BOTH parties are getting screwed...Disingenious Prick..!!

  • urbanauteur | January 17, 2013 7:11 PM

    That very well may be the case, but there are most always(in Hollywhite) White Allowances and then subliminal Black Codes, but keeping in mind what you said, its still..JAIL..I got you.

  • Charles Judson | January 17, 2013 6:18 PM

    The rules for landing in Director Jail have changed to an extent, but the fundamental rule of don't deliver a huge flop remains the same. Spike's reputation as one of America's greatest filmmakers and risk taker, along with a strong body of early work, help him stay in the game. Not everyone is as lucky.

  • Charles Judson | January 17, 2013 6:14 PM

    The pressure to make films for less isn't new. Tom Cruise lost his cushy lot office and upfront fees for his production company and THE FOUNTAIN dropped from $70 million in 2002 to $35 million by the time it was shooting and was released in 2006. Since about 2000 there was a shift and it's been full on since about 2005. Spike's lackluster performance and reviews for SHE HATE ME and MIRACLE, INSIDE MAN not withstanding, couldn't have been more ill-timed. The rules for landing in Director Jail

  • Mark @ Darla | January 16, 2013 8:16 PMReply

    Spike would probably turn the movie into them against us or us against them.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 16, 2013 7:58 PMReply

    "The Industry" has lost faith in Spike as a feature filmmaker. And to be honest, I can't blame them. Plus he's degenerating into a bully of sorts; nobody wants to fuck with that -- especially when they cut the checks.

  • JEFTCG | January 16, 2013 6:30 PMReply

    Obviously, after "Red Hook Summer" (and "She Hate Me" and "Saint Anna", etc etc) Mr. Grazer wised up, realizing Spike may be many things but "compelling narrative storyteller" is not one of them.

  • Donella | January 17, 2013 12:18 PM

    There is great difference between Inside Man and Red Hook Summer and She Hate Me. While Spike did an excellent job directing Inside Man, he did not write the screenplay. He did write the screenplay for Red Hook Summer and She Hate Me and... well... Miracle At St. Anna, the novelist wrote the screenplay, though sometimes its in everyone's best interest to get an objective party to write the screenplay. Sometimes the novelist is too close to the work to make strategic decisions in the adaptation. Spike was a producer on Miracle and so the choice to use the novelist to also write the screenplay was partly his responsibility. However, Spike breathes rare air on documentaries. He's one of the best.

  • JDB | January 16, 2013 11:09 PM

    He did Inside Man during that same time period so you're point is invalid.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 16, 2013 7:58 PM

    I love "She Hate Me," but for all the wrong reasons. lol

  • Miles Maker | January 16, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    Some of us are missing the point here, and in fact some people have good intentions even when they don't do right by them. After losing control of the director's chair, Brian did what many producers would do if they care to see the movie made, which is compromise to see it into production after years of false starts. Perhaps this requires a reduced production budget or maybe it means a cheaper director, but hard decisions are made every day or else you can simply let the picture burn in development Hell for who knows how many more years (and perhaps indefinitely).

    Regarding comments about the films he's produced--Brian gave Chris Rock a lot of creative license to make CB4 and BOOMERANG is one of the most successful Black films EVER. So ee get upset when white people won't stand up to make Black movies, then we get upset when white people take credit for making Black movies? These are good films--Brian wasn't saying anything more than "Hey--gimme a break."

    Making movies is like passing a bill through Congress. When you can finally exhale and take credit for pushing it through, it's always something similar yet almost entirely unlike the law you intended to pass.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 16, 2013 11:28 PM

    Hear, hear!

  • Erik W | January 16, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    Did Glazer's comment about making Boomerang and CB4 sound like a "Hey, I'm not racist. I got plenty of black friends" type of justification to anyone else? What did that have to do with Spike not directing? Nice dodge.

  • BH | August 15, 2013 12:08 AM

    Yep. You nailed it.

  • JB FAN | January 16, 2013 3:04 PMReply

    Not good. I don't blame Glazer but his comments about times changing and cheaper movies need to be made really is an excuse for Spike not to roll out epic red carpet this pic deserves not some 90 minute condensced version of JB 's life when Lincoln and Django got 3hrs. That means JB's legacy isn't worth a damn. I suspect the Brown Family recieved major cake to give up control. Not having Al Sharpton as a consultant is a big mistake.

  • jb | January 16, 2013 2:37 PMReply

    The Help was mostly populated with black people? Really?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 16, 2013 11:29 PM

    Smacks of nervousness there. Like some folks pinned him in a corner and he was like, "Some of my best friends are black. Chris Rock, uhm... Eddie Murphy... hold on, I'm thinking!" No harm intended, I'm sure. LOL

  • Aaron | January 16, 2013 3:08 PM

    Yes that comment confused me too because I didn't see The Help.

  • Ms.Stone | January 16, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    I hate The Help.

  • Gary C.. | January 16, 2013 1:53 PMReply

    So Grazer's and Tate's contribution to black artists is CB4 and The Help?
    Or fight in Hollywood for equality is almost won. Thanks Brian.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 16, 2013 11:31 PM

    Yes. To use a line from one of Chris Rock's standup specials, Grazer might be the Pat Riley of the industry. He's led a lot of black folks to the Promised Land. lmbao

  • Curtis | January 16, 2013 3:17 PM

    To be fair Brian has produced a lot and I mean a lot of movies staring black people.

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