- LOS ANGELES
Director/producer George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give (20th Century Fox) has planted itself firmly in the awards season conversation as a moving adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel of the same title and for, among other elements, a tour de force performance by Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter, a 16-year-old African American girl struggling to find her voice after the horrific shooting death of her childhood best friend by a white police officer. The tragedy shatters what had already been an uneasy balance for Starr between the two worlds she inhabits: the impoverished, primarily black neighborhood where she lives, and the rich, mostly white prep school she attends. Ultimately she must decide how to stand up for what’s right.
Tillman himself stood up and did a lot right in bringing this movie to fruition, assembling a cast and an ensemble of collaborators to do justice to this story about injustice, eliciting empathy and sparking conversation about race relations, law enforcement and community dynamics.
Tillman made his feature directorial debut with Scenes for the Soul in 1994--produced for $150,000 and acquired by Savoy Pictures for $1 million. He added to that momentum with Soul Food, based loosely on his own life, which was modestly budgeted at $7 million and went on to gross more than $43 million domestically. As a result, Tillman and his producing partner, Bib Teitel, landed a first look deal at Fox 2000, which they maintain to this day.
In the director’s chair, Tillman built a filmography which includes Men of Honor (starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro); the Notorious BIG biopic Notorious; The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival; and The Longest Ride--as well as extending his directing reach into television with episodes of Starz’ Power, Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage, and NBC’s This Is Us.
After wrapping The Longest Ride for Fox 2000, Tillman championed an unpublished book, “The Hate U Give,” which he brought to Fox 2000 and they purchased it for him to direct and produce. The property was beautifully adapted by screenwriter and filmmaker Audrey Wells who died this past October from cancer at the age of 58.
SHOOT connected with Tillman who shared backstory on The Hate U Give, insights into his approach to the project, the biggest challenge it posed, and reflections on key collaborators in the making of the film.
SHOOT: What drew you to Angie Thomas’ book?
Tillman: The story first came to me in manuscript form when I was working on Luke Cage for Marvel. I was hooked upon reading the first chapter. Starr’s story moved me. It was a story I had never seen told that way before--the idea of this character trying to find her identity, having to code-switch to fit into her school environment. The shooting by a white police officer opened up a lot of conversations, issues in society, and questions that this girl was asking from an innocent place. I was excited about the story and the possibilities of telling it from both dramatic and visual standpoints.
SHOOT: I read you being quoted that The Hate U Give was the first film for you that felt purely instinctive. Would you elaborate on this?
Tillman: Usually for a story like this, you do research, read other material, see other films. I didn’t do that as much for this film. A lot came out instinctively. I grew up as a young kid in Milwaukee. Like many towns in the Midwest, it was very segregated. I lived on the northside. All I saw were African Americans, no white people. I always felt that the relationship with police officers in the community was an issue. At an early age, my parents moved me to a white public school from a school that was primarily African American. I was able to experience what it’s like to be in a white community, how education was viewed there, how funds were spent. The world was completely different. Ideas, the palette of design, sound and the look of the film came to me. It was instinctive based on my experience as a young African American man. That even extended to my filmmaking education. As a director going to film school at Columbia College in Chicago, I was one of only three African Americans learning film.
SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that The Hate U Give posed to you as a filmmaker?
Tillman: We had an actor portraying Chris (Starr’s white boyfriend at the prep school). Right before I was to deliver the director’s cut, footage leaked that had him making racist comments six or seven years earlier. It became a really big issue. Chris was a very pivotal character in dealing with race relations in the film. Even though the director’s cut was very strong, I had to recast Chris, getting K.J. Apa. It turned out to be a great thing. We had to reshoot seven days. Everybody was so committed to the project that I got 90 percent of my crew back, all the background extras. I think the version we ended up with was what was always meant to be.
SHOOT: What caused you to gravitate to several key collaborators whom you worked with for the first time on The Hate U Give--including cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., composer Dustin O’Halloran, editors Alex Blatt and Craig Hayes?
Tillman: I gravitated toward Mihai because I loved his work on The Master with Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s a DP but he’s also behind the camera. I also loved his work with Francis Ford Coppola (Distant Vision). He was able to do some intimate compositions with Starr, bringing us her experience dealing between two worlds.
I loved Dustin O’Halloran’s work on Lion. The music he composed is really great but doesn’t get in the way of the story. He has a way of being minimal and emotional at the same time. He’s a young guy and I wanted a youthful sound. Our protagonist is 16 years old. I loved his work with youth, what he did for Lion. He received an Oscar nomination for that film.
The Hate U Give marked the first time that Alex and Craig were number one editors on a film. I moved both of them up because of their talent. Also, I wanted editors of color to tell this story. This was the first time they worked together yet they did quite well--in part because I gave them approval to trim as much as they wanted. I gave them my trust and it was rewarded. Though they had different styles and emotions, they helped put together a film that flowed beautifully.
SHOOT: What was the biggest takeaway--or lessons learned--from your experience on The Hate U Give?
Tillman: It all starts with the material. That’s something you learn in film school. It comes down to what the material means to you. Sometimes that gets lost and you have to ask yourself the question several times. But for me the answer never wavered. I knew why this story was important. I could feel it in my soul. When you don’t have to question yourself on that level everyday, you can focus on the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. For every department, from the beginning to the end, we had that sense of purpose and commitment.
SHOOT: You are handled by production house Story for commercials and branded content? What’s the allure of shorter form filmmaking?
Tillman: I haven’t done anything with them yet but I hope to. I spend considerable time researching and producing. But you have to keep shooting as much as possible. You can only get better by shooting more, working with different people.