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Interview: Tina Gordon Chism and Stephanie Allain Talk 'Peeples,' New Projects, and Changing the Black Image on Screen

Shadow and Act By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act May 10, 2013 at 11:43AM

It was an effortless conversation, as you might expect. The two witty creatives who have a string of noted films to their credit (Drumline, ATL, Hustle & Flow, Something New, Hurricane Season, and others) could always be counted on to steer the conversation where it needed to go, and had lots to share about their experience making this film, and what they'll be tackling next.
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Jai: Is that what usually gets you hooked on a project?

Stephanie: What gets me hooked is when I'm reading something and I’m emotionally engaged. I have a physical reaction - my heart beats fast, I'm really excited, and that's how I know. It could be comedy, it could be drama, but when it's getting to me and I'll do whatever I have to, to get it done, that's when I know. I can't half-ass something, I'm a really bad liar.

Tina: I don’t know how you made it so far in this industry without being a good liar. Don't you have to be a good liar to be a good producer?

Stephanie: I don’t. I just make you believe it’s going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, because that's what I believe. I'm not very political. I would probably be more successful, more wealthy, have many more movies behind me if I was, but I'm just not. I'm just interested in making good content that changes the game on stereotypes and changes people's minds. That’s the power film - that you can open up a world to somebody who you never could have otherwise, and change people’s minds about humanity. It seems like a big grandiose thing, but it really is just a little thing I can do.

Jai: And for you Tina, was directing always the long-term plan?

Tina: For years, it was the plan for me as I wrote. With Drumline I worked with [director] Charles Stone, and the film that he made was the same as the script that I wrote. I worked on set, I was with the actors, I was totally involved in the process. So I had a great first experience as a screenwriter, one that most writers don't get. And then as I progressed in the industry I learned the limitations of a screenwriter, that you're at the director’s discretion. That's when I began to realize that I was a director too, because I didn’t want a gap between what I intended on the page and what was on the screen.

With a comedy, especially an African-American comedy, a joke can play a lot of ways and you can only trust so much that the overall aesthetic that's on the page is going to be translated on screen. I didn't want to put my name on a comedy that could veer into a sort of tacky direction. And I also knew exactly how I wanted this to be.

Jai: Tell me about how Tyler Perry came onto the project.

Stephanie: When we were shopping it we took it to Lionsgate, where Tyler has 34th Street Films. And it seemed like a good fit because they were looking for things to produce, and Tyler and Tina knew each other, and he was a fan of her work.

Jai: Was he involved creatively?

Tina: No, he really just let us do our thing. It was free reign.

Stephanie: For me as a producer, part of my job is to make sure that the writer-director’s voice is as clear as possible, and that was totally achieved. Tyler was great about making sure that Tina’s voice was heard and there’s nothing about the movie that doesn’t have her stamp all over it. To me, that’s successful producing, when that unique voice is heard.

Jai: You mentioned that you had to campaign for the project. What was that like?

Stephanie: We just don't wait for a yes. We get to a place where we feel like it's going to get made, and it's unstoppable. So we got on a plane to New York --

Tina: I don't know how we set up meetings. It wasn't even officially set up, but we go to Whoopi Goldberg and say, "Whoopi, we need to meet with you. Epatha Merkerson, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, Sam Jackson, we need to meet with you."

Stephanie: We set up shop in a tea room at a nice hotel and people just came and went.  And literally in two days we met with about eight people and they were all on board. So we came back and it was all go.

Tina: I really believe as a writer you have to have a script that matches your interest, so you feel the project and it gets you excited enough to say, "On this we shall stand."

Stephanie: Nobody can push us down.

Tina: And then the talent reads it and it's just an energy they create. This is still without a studio saying they’ll make the movie. This is only the energy of us carrying the script around.

Stephanie: And it was a great script, it spoke for itself. So we came back and took it to studios and Lionsgate loved it.

Tina: I think it helped to have the cast. It was currency.

Jai: Tell me about Kerry Washington. We’ve gotten used to seeing her on Scandal and in more dramatic roles. What was it like working with her on a comedy?

Tina: I initially wanted Kerry when I was writing it. She popped into my mind and I was attracted not to her comedic chops, but to her intelligence. That's why I was attracted to a lot of the cast - one thing they all have in common is that they’re fiercely intelligent, studied, quick-witted individuals. And so I knew Grace Peeples would have those same characteristics that Kerry has. She's precise, she's Type A, and I knew I could take that part of her personality and make it funny, whether she knew it or not. You know how you see somebody and think they’re funny, but they don’t see it? Kerry Washington is funny to me. Some actors can shut down on that because they’re self-consciousness about it. But Kerry was ready to make fun of it and have fun. She was very gracious.

Jai: What about her chemistry with Craig Robinson?

Tina: You instantly believe them as a couple. You never know until you see them together. But just based on the opposites - Kerry’s so tiny and he's a big teddy bear. She’s really fast and sharp and he’s sort of deadpan, quieter. They come at it from two different directions, very different energies. So you know that as such opposites, they could have chemistry.

Stephanie: What I love about it is that they actually really look like a couple. Only in the movies is everybody gorgeous and perfect. But this was a genuine attraction, this beautiful black couple that wasn’t like a "movie couple." And that also fit into the overall gestalt of the film - that it was fresh and real.

Jai: Have to ask - what do you make of comparisons to Jumping the Broom?

Tina: I think it's so funny because when we were making it I kept saying, "You know it's really different." But I realized that there are so few black films that if you say there's a black family movie at the beach --

Stephanie: You could have 10 white movies at the beach, 10 different versions.

Tina: You could. But it's a symptom unfortunately of the fact that we just have so few [black] movies. And I realize that it's actually pointless to try to argue it. You have to just let people see the movie.

Stephanie: I would just say that it's not a movie about class differences at all. That's the biggest thing, that there is no class difference.

Tina: Our family in Peeples is wealthy. In Jumping The Broom they’re wealthy also. We can have 8,000 movies of us in the projects and nobody says, "I saw that hood movie before." I just feel like people need to get used to seeing us in all aspects of life. 

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