If there's anyone, besides Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, in the film industry currently bringing business to the film community, it's power producer Will Packer of Rainforest Films.
The Florida native's latest film, 'Takers,' just beat out 'The Last Exorcism' for the top spot at the box office despite showing in less theaters and overcoming low predictions from top film analysts.
In the last few years, Packer has attracted some of the most marketable names in the black Hollywood community and given them starring vehicles such as Columbus Short and Chris Brown, who did well with 'Stomp The Yard.' That was Packer's first film to hit number #1 at the box office.
With 'This Christmas,' the film starred Idris Elba, Loretta Devine, Chris Brown, Columbus Short, Regina King, Sharon Leal, and Lauren London. On a budget of $13 million, the film went on to gross $50 million.
In giving 16-time Grammy winning pop star and actress Beyonce Knowles a lead role in 'Obsessed,' the film ended its opening weekend at the top of the box office, claiming the #1 position with a total of $28.6 million.
Black Voices caught up the mega-producer as he spoke about his recent success and upcoming projects. Below are excerpts of the conversation.
Congrats on having the #1 movie in America!
Will Packer: It's a phenomenal feeling to have my third #1 box office hit. I know that many producers don't have one. I feel inspired and driven to continue to deliver product that connects with audiences.
Now that the film is out, any plans to do a follow-up on the film?
WP: Trust me, we have talked about that at length. It all depends on audiences. Audiences don't know the power that they have. If audiences turn out the way I hope they will you'll be seeing plenty more of 'Takers.'
Let's talk about how you went into this picture?
WP: Screen Gems, who I have a long working relationship with, and the head, a guy named Clint Culpepper, called me up and said, "I've got this script called 'Bone Deep.'" I knew about it because I distributed a picture called 'Lockdown' that starred Master P., Richard T. Jones, Gabriel Casseus, and some others. It was a dark, gritty prison movie.
I remember that film.
WP: John Luessenhop directed it, and wrote it. He had told me about a script he had written called 'Bone Deep.' I knew that was his next project. . He didn't actually write it, Gabriel Casseus wrote it, brought it to him and he was gonna direct it. So I was familiar with it but I never read it. It had been bouncing around for awhile, Clint sent it to me, said, "I wanna make this picture, haven't been able to get it goin'. Check it out, let me know what you think." I read it, immediately I was like, "yo, this is dope." I said it's all about the casting, you gotta figure out the cast. It went through various iterations, one where it was all-white, another where it was all-black , a couple other producers had been involved with it, it was one of those properties that bounces around all the time that hadn't found its way. He sent it to me, one of the first calls I made was to Idris. Idris is my guy, this is like our fourth movie together. He was in London shooting the Guy Ritchie movie, 'Rocknrolla.' I won't say I had to talk him into it, but he had some reservations about it. We talked through them, we talked through the cast, and talked about why it was important for him to play Gordon. I didn't want it to be an all-black crew, didn't want it to be an all-white crew but I knew I wanted Idris and all he personifies to be the leader of the crew. That was important for me. And he came on. He said, 'Look Will, if you doin' it, you believe in it, give me some assurances this thing is gonna be dope." 'Cause, you know, it's kinda execution dependent.' I said, 'C'mon man, I got you, we haven't made a wack one yet." From there we kinda put the cast together and we were off and rolling. There were some challenges along the way. We halted production at one time 'cause of T.I., release date got pushed. At the end of the day I think it's dropping when it's supposed to drop and I'm proud of it.
Let's talk about the cast 'cause it's very eclectic. You've got white, black, and Latino. You're covering all markets. You also have your rappers and singers like Chris Brown and T.I. What made you want to bring them on?
WP: With Chris I produced all his movies. He's done 'Stomp The Yard,' 'This Christmas,' and now 'Takers.' I like Chris, that's my guy, he's a really good dude. I have a good working relationship with him, and he brought a level of physicality to this role that was so necessary, and when you see the film you'll know what I mean. He's got a chase sequence that is really top-notch. He was perfect for that role as the younger brother who's the new guy in the crew who has this pivotal scene. Chris made a lot of sense for us, and the studio loved him. T.I. I've known since my time in Atlanta. Him, his partner Vincent Jeter. He and my partner Rob, we hang, we homies, right? We hadn't had a project to work together on. They had been familiar with the project, it had been mentioned to them before. It had been mentioned for T.I. to be another role, to be a part of the crew back before I was on as producer, but I came to him specifically as Ghost, specifically. I needed somebody to play the Ghost character who was likeable, who had swag, and who had an edge. He was all three, hands down. This was a good opportunity to make it our first foray into a working relationship.
You also have a pre-Avatar Zoe Saldana in the movie. For those who don't know when the film was shot, they may wonder why she has a small role, especially after having seen her in 'Star Trek' and 'Avatar.'
WP: It was after 'Vantage Point,' and it was actually after 'Avatar' was shot. The thing about 'Avatar' was it was shot over the course of like seven years, you know what I mean? They were shooting forever. When I was doing 'This Christmas' with Laz (Alonzo) was leaving to do 'Avatar,' and when I geared up to do 'Takers,' I wanted Laz for a role and he was still shooting 'Avatar,' so that shot over the course of a long time. With Zoe we needed someone who could hold her own against all these guys. You got some really good lookin' dudes in this movie, sexy, and you can't just have any female to put up next to them. I love her. This is my first time working with her. Obviously I'm familiar and had been a fan of her work, but the first time I got a chance to work with her she brought it, man. Even in that little role she's dope, she's good. Would I be able to get her for the same role after 'Avatar' is released? Probably not. Zoe, answer my calls, baby!
Throughout the production there's always challenges, but when there's outside challenges like Chris Brown's legal issues. How much did it impact filming or the release date?
WP: Filming had to be pushed initially because of some of the stuff T.I. was going through. There was never a question of us waiting for him, we knew we were gonna wait. We were fortunate that we were able to shoot the movie in a time period that worked for him. That was that. A lot of people thought we pushed the release date because of Chris but we really didn't. We're distributed by Sony and you're kind of at the whim of your distributor and they needed to bring it out at that particular time frame. Then it was during the summer and I didn't like that date because I think our film is really cool and hip but I didn't want it to go up against some of the huge huge action pics. It's a big film of size and scope relative to what it is, other moderately sized films, but it's nowhere near the budget of 'A-Team,' or 'Inception.' So we then pushed it to a date to line up with T.I.'s album which was slated to drop, and I thought it would be a perfect storm. You have to look at everything when you're picking a date for a movie, like competition, and what else is going on in the country.
You mentioned Chris and the chase scene. As a producer were you worried about the stunts he was pulling off?
WP: Hell yeah. When you shoot a movie of this size you have to shoot multiple units at a time. We had a camera unit that would be shooting dialogue and dramatic interactions, and another unit that would be shooting just stunts and action. Chris would be off on his own shooting his action sequences. I'm only one person, I can only be on one set at a time. I would be goin' back-and-forth between the two. If we let him, Chris would do every stunt. Not 90%, 100% of his own stunts. I was like the adult supervision, so when I would leave he would be talking the second unit cameramen into letting him do his own stunts. I would say, "Chris! We've got 30 more days to film, you just cannot jump from one moving car to another moving car. I can't have you get hurt on week two of production."
What have you got coming up next? You mentioned 'The Kemba Smith Story.'
WP: You know it takes time, Wilson. 'Takers' took ten years to get to the screen. 'Kemba Smith' still going, man. That is a project that's near and dear to my heart. It's based on a true story of a woman who was sentenced to 24-years in prison because she was dating somebody on the FBI's most wanted list. Steve Harvey's 'Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man' is still going, and we're working on the script. 'Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming' will be out on home video next month.
You've worked with Beyonce before, any chance of putting another film together for her?
WP: Oh absolutely, we got a great relationship. She's dope, and I would work with her in a heartbeat. It's about finding the right project. There's a lot of okay material out there, but actors don't like to work on okay material, they like to work on great material.
All your films are popular, but 'Kemba Smith' would be a new approach. Are you looking for other opportunities like that?
WP: You need to be able to do a wide variety of films. I can work with various directors and actors and each time it can be a totally different movie. I just hope at the end of the day a Will Packer film is something with a level of commercial viability and hopefully garner some critical acclaim as well. Still trying to hit that sweet spot.