The story of a woman's frantic 30-day search to find a fiancé screams "chick flick" from all angles, but the romantic comedy Baggage Claim is not only directed by a man, David E. Talbert, nor also screenwritten by him, but also based on his own novel. The celebrated playwright/theater director/novelist/filmmaker sat down for a conversation in Beverly Hills on Saturday, August 17 to discuss the story's transition from novel to screen and his own ongoing transition from being a storyteller for the stage, then to the page, and then to one for the screen.
David E. Talbert: The plays I've been writing for 20 years, most of them have female protagonists, and I grew up with three generations of single black women, so I kind of know the voice. But what I think my sweet spot on stage has been female protagonists. I don't what it is, but for some reason I'm able to tap in. I asked Babyface, we did a play together [2002's Love Makes Things Happen], and I said, "Kenny, how can you write so well from a woman's perspective?"--talking about the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. And he says, "Love is genderless. I just write for the emotion." That's what it is--so really what I do is write for the emotion, and I just happen to assign it to a woman.
DET: I just hired an agent who kept coming to see Love Makes Things Happen, and he'd say, "You know what you should be doing? You should write a novel!" And I'm like, "But I don't even read novels!" [laughs] He says, "That doesn't matter; I'll get you a publishing deal." So the play went to New York, and he had all the publishers come out to see the play, which was sold out at the Beacon [Theatre]. After he says, "There's a bidding war with three publishers to give you a two-book deal." I'm like, "Uh, OK." Then he says, "I got you a deal with Simon & Schuster; you gotta start writing it!" And again I said, "But I don't read novels!" [laughs] So I wrote the first chapter, and he said, "What is this? I don't know where I am or who's talking. It's supposed to be a novel!" And I said again, "I don't read novels!" [laughs] He said, "Look, let me send you a chapter of a novel, and just make it like that, with your story." So he sent me a chapter of one, and I said, "Ohhh, narrative prose is a third person or a first person talking. I have to say what they like and what they smell like...?" He said, "Yes! That's a novel." Then six weeks later I handed in my first draft, and he says, "I love it."
MD: So you got the hang of it pretty quickly then.
DET: Well, words are words are words. Once he told me what the format was, then I said, OK, I know words. I'm not afraid of words. I just needed to know what the format was.
DET: It felt the most expansive, and in the novel I use a lot of metaphors. I could have been thrown into metaphor jail for the novel because there's a little too many metaphors. But it was the first thing I'd written that gave me a freedom. All the plays usually use two sets, three sets at most. It gave me a freedom where I could go to this place, and I didn't have to worry about the budget. I just wrote the novel as if it were going to be a $30 million budget movie, and it wasn't until it was time to make the movie that it was like, "Uh, we can't go to all those places; we can't afford it!" [laughs] Fortunately, the team was smart enough to figure out how to "go" to all those places without having to [really] go to all those places. But I knew that this story was a mainstream, big story, and I wrote it really as an homage to [writer/director] Nora Ephron and those types of movies: Sleepless in Seattle, my favorite of all time; You've Got Mail--I could quote you line for line those movies. Bridget Jones's Diary. Love Actually. I wanted to write a movie that felt like all of those movies but happened to have an African-American cast. That's what my intention was. So when it came time to do the music, I didn't want a bunch of songs in here; I wanted a score, an orchestral score, and we got Aaron Zigman. So it just kept coming together that way.
MD: And that's an important decision to make, especially when a lot of African-American films are a bit dependent on selling a song-heavy soundtrack album, and that goes along with having a romantic comedy that just happened to have an African-American cast, since any other romantic comedy--
DET: ...they're not trying to sell a soundtrack. That's the thing; when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are about to kiss, you don't hear a Babyface song. I love Babyface. You don't hear R. Kelly. I love R. Kelly. But they put in an orchestral score because it makes it timeless, and the music they put in the movie is timeless music, like when we put the Jackson 5's "The Love You Save" in there--it's timeless. It's the Jackson 5, so you feel like you're in a big movie moment in the chase to the airport.
DET: I was, years ago, going to make the best "black" version of the story as I could. When it came back this time, I said I'm just going to make the best version of it. So the people that's cast in it, they may be African-Americans, but they're not just known to the community. Djimon Hounsou is a two-time Academy Award nominee. Taye Diggs has been on the highest rated dramas on television. Paula Patton is in international blockbuster movies. And then you have Adam Brody as Sam. So we're mixing this thing up where it's just a good movie that's mostly populated by African-Americans, so it's universal.
MD: Was there a certain specific motivation for that shift?
DET: The benefit of working with Fox Searchlight is that they're not into making black movies or white movies. They're just into making good movies. So from my team of producers, Steven Wolfe, my wife [Lyn], Zola Mashariki who's the exec there--everybody said they just want to make a great movie and get the best cast possible, like getting Ned Beatty to sign on as Mr. Donaldson. They didn't say, "Well, let's just get some generic actor. Let's go for somebody good, somebody big, to make it an event." And when Ned Beatty read the script and said that he wanted to do it, we were like, "Ned Beatty? I mean, Ned Beatty?" [laughs] But it's one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. I think it was really the collective mindset of the group of all the filmmakers involved. When we came back this time, with the success of Think Like a Man, which could not have done close to $100 million which just black people going to see it, we felt like we had an opportunity to break out. And I think that's what people take away from this movie: that it's a great movie that just happens to have black people in it.
MD: Between writing the novel and making the movie, you've lived with the character of Montana Moore for a while. Were there any unique qualities that Paula Patton brought to the role that surprised you?
DET: I didn't realize how comedic she was and her sense of story. We spent days just going through the script and honing things in for her character. She's an actress that has an opinion, and those are the ones you want to work with. You don't want to work with people that just show up and say what you ask them to say. She has a point of view, and I didn't realize she would help shape this character as much as she ended up doing, and she helped to elevate the character even from the novel, and establish it as the film version of Montana Moore.
DET: I try to get what's on the page, but then we let it live when we're shooting it. You give me a couple of takes, I'll give you a couple of takes. We'll do a couple of takes of what's written, and when we'll do a couple of takes of what you think. And in a lot of the instances, we used a lot of the ad lib stuff. Adam Brody ad libbed, "You should come to this window; I think the King of Zamunda's outside." [laughs] I fell out of my director's chair when he said that. It was one of the funniest things I'd ever heard, and it's the funniest line in the movie. When Montana says in the rehearsal dinner that being married doesn't make you any more of a woman than being in a garage makes you any more of a car--I thought I was saying something profound with that, and then Adam ad libbed while we had the camera on him, "That's a weird analogy." [laughs] When we tested the movie the first time, Montana said that line, and people started laughing. And I'm like, "Why are they laughing?" And someone said, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life." [laughs]
MD: I guess that's an example of your metaphors going crazy.
DET: Too crazy. People were like, "What the hell is she talking about?" [laughs] So when we went back in the editing room, we put that ad lib in, and now it gets a bigger laugh. But Adam is just one example of someone who ad libbed. Affion Crockett was only there for a couple of hours, and he said, "What kind of security guard is this?" I said, "It is everyone's worst nightmare, someone who takes his job way too seriously." And he said, "How far can I go?" I said, "We're going to take it all the way there because everyone will know that guy." And I roll camera and let it flow, and he says, "I have no life, which gives me all day to ruin yours!" I fell out of my seat. [laughs] The thing about shooting a movie is it's alive. The actor's aren't puppets, and I'm not the puppet master. It's a living, breathing thing, and you have to let it be what it's supposed to be.
MD: Do you work with actors on a film the same way you do on stage? Is there a lot of rehearsal?
DET: Unfortunately with schedules, you can't really rehearse with anybody. The difference in acting for film versus stage is film is very technical. Stage actors are more organic with it because it's really about the moment, the lines, the feeling, the space. Screen actors are technical. They understand that they're not going to give you all of this performance until it's their close-up. They're not going to give it to you on the master. They're not going to give it to you on the over-the-shoulder. They understand how to shape their performances for their close-up. For me, it's great because you're dealing with people that know the medium they're in, and most of them more than I do.
DET: Leaps and bounds. After First Sunday, I learned what I didn't know, and then I realized who I needed to surround myself with, and I surrounded myself with people who knew more than I did. I know story, I know performance, but I'm still learning camera and how to tell the story through film. I think with the team I had around me, it was like a master class in filmmaking, and I feel I'm leaps and bounds more proficient with the camera than I was on my first one. I'm thankful for the team of filmmakers that start from my producers to my cinematographer to my editor to the production designer, to my wife who's executive producer. The team of people helped elevate this.
MD: Would you like to elevate any of your stage plays into a feature film?
DET: [pause] Someday.
MD: You don't think you're there yet?
DET: I have so many stories now. I'm like a kid in a candy store with this film. I have so many scripts I've written and so many expansive stories. I love the stage stuff, but I have to be inspired that that story is screaming to be told in another medium.
MD: Any stage productions coming up anytime soon?
DET: No. I'm doing two more films with Fox Searchlight that I'll be writing and directing.
MD: And any novels?
DET: [pause] No, I'll be writing original scripts next. [laughs]
(Special thanks to David E. Talbert, Lyn Talbert, and Fox Searchlight Pictures)