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September 2004
Set Visit Report ; Guess Who: Interviews with Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana, Judith Scott, and Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Set Visit Report ; Guess Who: Interviews with Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana, Judith Scott, and Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan

By Todd Gilchrist

Blackfilm.com recently had the rare opportunity to watch the one and only Bernie Mac- in action- during a set visit to his upcoming film, currently titled "Guess Who", which also stars Ashton Kutcher. As one might expect, Mac is just as funny when you can't hear him as when you can, and though our little group strained to keep track of the dialogue in the scene being shot, we had little troubled understanding what he meant. Fortunately, Mac, along with several members of the cast and crew, sat down to explain what was going on during the shoot, why he and his collaborators picked the project, and what the difficulties are in making a smart comedy about interracial relationships that pays homage to such past films as "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" without succumbing to the broad tomfoolery of such recent hits as "Bringing Down the House". In attendance during this recent set visit was Mac, his co-star/ on screen adversary Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana, Judith Scott, and director Kevin Rodney Sullivan.

Kevin Rodney Sullivan

So how long have you been filming?

KRS: I think we're on day 43, or something like that. I just take them one day at a time, you know?

So is the film supposed to be a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"?

KRS: No. It's really inspired by it, but it's the same concept, and a good idea for a movie, I think, but it's forty years later. Some of the issues about interracial couples are still there; the challenges are still there, but it's a different time. I think that movie's intention was to explore America in 1967, and things were changing and it was a message piece. Our movie is more character driven than that.

Did you have any trepidations tackling and re-inventing a project that has such a revered history?

KRS: Whenever you're going to do something that had Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier in it, you've got to take a pause, because they're amazing, but Stanley Kramer's film was different. I felt like for me as a filmmaker, I certainly have my own take on what this would be like. I have a 12-and-a-half year old daughter who's beautiful, and I'm sure she's going to come home one day with some Lithuanian, Samoan, punk-rock drummer dude, and I thought if I did this movie I'd be able to work out my issues before that day comes.

Are you seeing a change in the way Hollywood is putting together films with ethnic casts and being aimed at larger and more mainstream audiences?

KRS: Most definitely. I mean, the black audience is so powerful, so strong, that the studios are obviously attracted to that. Our opening weekends are big; I've been supported on my first two films so strongly by the black audience that I feel real affection for serving that audience and continuing to serve that audience with the films I make. The fact that this film is not being approached exclusively as an urban film, not by the studio I'm working with, who believes in this movie, but with "Barbershop 2", MGM treated that movie as a general audience movie as well, so there's definitely a change going on. When ["How Stella Got Her Groove Back"] was done, there was a real limit on how things were being released and how things were marketed, and that's not the case any more, and I think Sony's plans for this movie will be as big in Kentucky as they are in Los Angeles.

How did you become attached to this project?

KRS: They came to me. "Barbershop 2" opened well, which is nice, and I had a lot of choices. That's kind of a rare thing in Hollywood, when you get to that point and you're doing well and you get a lot of choices, and my feeling about making films is that if I don't have anything special to bring from my heart, if I don't have a reason to spill my guts for the audience, they will know. I think the experience for the audience starts with the filmmaker really having something to say, so they offered me this film, and then I sat down with the two actors, and I didn't know either one of them, but when I met them I knew we were into something special here, because both individually and then as you'll see in the movie, together, they have amazing chemistry. I thought here's a chance to tell a good story, explore some things that are important to me, and it would be a good choice for my next film.

What is your role in cultivating an atmosphere for the actors to flex their comedic muscles?

KRS: It starts with the script always, and my genesis in the business was as an actor first, and then I started writing, and I really sort of made my bones in the business as a writer, and this is going to be my fifth film- I did two cable movies as well. So when I came into it, the script still needed a lot of work; a lot of my initial involvement was trying to get the script to work and really getting involved with the writers that were on board and also doing some writing myself. In that process, we started finding it, but that was pretty difficult. When I came on to the picture, we were twelve or fourteen weeks from the start of production, which is not a lot of time when the script's not there yet, so we did a lot of work, and we got the script ready not very many days before we started production. That's a challenge as a director as well, because now you have to shape the visual part of the movie in very little time, so I'm prepping during the day and scouting locations and casting, and at night I'm working on the script and working with the writers and doing my own contribution in that way. We rehearsed; both of my actors were doing other movies during prep, so I had my challenges.

Will you share a writing credit on this film?

KRS: Definitely not on this film. My contribution as a writer was not nearly enough to be credited for the film, and that's okay. It's really a filmmaker's job to get in there and just make the script work; nobody really cares how it all comes out as long as it's good, and ultimately, at the end of the day as the director, I'm responsible for it all, so it's all hands on deck.' You go in, you do what's necessary to get the script where it needs to be, and put good things on film.

What was required to tailor this project specifically to Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher?

KRS: They're both really smart actors. They're more than just performers; they have a point of view, and they have good ideas, and my job is to get some of their good ideas into the flow of the movie, but if they can't see it all, it's my job to see it all- to see the big picture. Ashton has a very special sort of comedic ability physically, and what he can do physically in a scene is quite unique, so I tried to find ways to sort of move scenes in areas where he might shine. Bernie is great in his humanity; his funny bone is our funny bone, so when you hit that funny bone, when we're with Bernie and you see his pain, great comedy comes out of that, and he obviously has a great facility with language and turning a phrase, so part of the job is to take what you have; if you're working with Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, you're going to want to shift things and make scenes that are going to highlight their natural abilities.

How much of the film is being shot on location and how much is on soundstages here in Los Angeles?

KRS: Well Jersey is a big character in the story. It takes place in New Jersey and Ashton is a Wall Street guy, but we wanted to shoot in Los Angeles for the logistics of our actors being involved in so many other things, so part of the challenge was finding places in L.A. that would sell the idea that we were in New Jersey, and then we're going to go back and shoot in New York and fill in the blanks, and I'm sure it will look like New Jersey by the time it's all over.

Is the budget for this film more than on your previous projects?

KRS: The budgets are going up, and what's cool is that black filmmakers are being trusted with more money. I have to be honest that early on, it's like chasing the monkey trying to get a film made. You're just running and running just to get it done because you have no money because you have no money and no time. Sony has completely supported this picture and it's being made in a normal Hollywood setting, and that's fantastic for me, and it is different, I must say. It's a different approach, and now I'm more committed to making sure that I get everything right, and in the past it's about just trying to get it all on film in the time that I have. What I discovered while I was making this film is that I really like where I landed in my career, which is that I'm making a studio movie about people. That's a rare breed; there are only a few of us out there who get do that, and I'll take that job. The next one will also be about people, I'm sure, but the genres will shift, because as you can see, from the first movie I made for HBO, which was a sports movie and an historical piece to this movie, which is the most comedic of the movies that I've made, I like to move through the genres. As long as I can identify with the characters and find a place for me to launch and give what I have to give, there's a reason for me to be there.

Is interracial romance still the hot-button issue that it was almost forty years ago? How do you examine that without moralizing the issues?

KRS: Well I think you start with character when you want to make something funny and something really special, so for this man, Bernie Mac, his daughter bringing home Ashton Kutcher is particular to that man. The beauty of this movie and one of the reasons why I did it was because this is the story of a family where a daughter can grow up with such a sense of herself, that there's so much love in this house, that she brings home whoever the hell she wants. She loves this man and she brings him home, and that's it. That's a testament to the family that Bernie Mac made. Now, the fact that Bernie goes whoa! Who is this guy?' is funny and great, but the nucleus, sort of the core of this family structure is something worth putting on film - the fact that this man and his wife have made two kids who can do what they want to do. That's something special to me, but as far as the issue of interracial romance, you bet it's still an issue. In a lot of places, we all live on the coast, but this relationship in Kentucky would be looked at differently than it would in Los Angeles, and I don't think those issues go away. If you're in an interracial romance, you don't know when you're going to walk into the room and run into the racists, and what I find is interesting about this story is that love can overcome that, but not without communication, not without standing side by side, not without being honest and true, and a lot of times, when they lose that communication, they don't tell each other the truth, and in any relationship whether its racial or not, that relationship falls apart. In our movie, it becomes an even bigger stake, and that's kind of how we built it- around characters, around people, and specific as opposed to just the hook.

Is it tough to introduce an element of subtlety into this film's themes, rather than making them fodder for broad comedy such as in something like "Bringing Down the House"?

KRS: It was my mission to do that, so we did, and there's a lot of nuance and layers in the characters. When they asked me about doing the film, I said the following to my cast and to the studio: race is the hook of the song, but the melody is really about love and family and commitment. If we are going to do our jobs well, we have to get multilayered ideas in it so that it feels like a rich experience and it's not just hey, she brought a white boy home.'


Zoe Saldana and Judith Scott

So how did each of you get involved in this project initially?

Scott: "I've known Kevin Sullivan for about ten years. I worked with him in Toronto, and he called me several months ago and asked me to come read for this project, which I immediately thought to say no.' So I called up everybody I knew and asked whether I should do it, and after I got over my self-sabotaging moment, I went in and read and voila."

Saldana: "They saw everybody in the business for my part, and we all auditioned, and it was the whole traditional runaround and stuff, and I guess that I was just right for the part, and [Judith] had to sort of screen test me. I think it was more the chemistry we had as a daughter- mother relationship that Kevin really saw, and that the studio was really attracted to."

Have either of you had a similar experience bringing home someone to meet the parents who didn't meet with their approval?

Scott: "Where you brought home the wrong guy? We've done that before. I don't know... okay, yeah, I have. Obviously this is a heightened version of what would have happened in my own life, but I can't say that anything nearly as funny as our movie happened in my life."

Saldana: "Things like that have happened in my life with my family, but not for those reasons. This topic is very new in my life because I come from a very international family; I'm from New York, so by the time you are 22, you've pretty much dated and done everything in the book. You've converted to every religion because the person you were with was either Muslim or Catholic or whatever, but those issues were very foreign to us. What was something that I identified with was the whole economic situation- does he have a job?- and that's the only thing I sort of clung to. In terms of drama, I'm from New York, I'm ghetto, so a lot of that has gone down in my household."

What during the production are you finding is the access point for each of you in terms of the characters and the comedy?

Scott: "Well I would imagine that this situation is universal for any person anywhere in the world, and we just happened to do waht was foremost in America's mind, which was black and white, and it's always a little bit of a touchy situation, and there's always room for a lot of comedy, and hopefully the comedy is a release from the tensions that people are feeling from their everyday lives. [Ashton and Bernie] have enough stuff that's going to be on the screen and that's going to look real juicy that people are going to go I know what that feels like' or I've seen that.'"

How difficult is it to keep an even keel on these roles without succumbing to stereotypes or exaggeration via the comedy?

Saldana: "I guess by sticking to the reality of the subject. You stick to that and you explore the psychological intensity of it, and it would sort of be impossible to exaggerate it if you stick to those basics. It comes natural- it's a very organic topic that will bring the most natural reaction and instincts."

Scott: "The story is very simple, I mean, it's a family that is getting ready to lose their very first child, you know, and the father is deeply attached to this child even though they don't get along so well."

Saldana: "We've concluded that if she had brought home Tiger Woods he would have found a flaw in this young man, because he doesn't want to let go. Yes, we are dealing with a very interesting topic, and what better way to display it than in a comedic fashion so that we can laigh at it but also learn from it. At the same time, he's the daddy,' and she is his little girl, and this happens in every culture, every household; they don't want to let go, and that's very beautiful because it makes it just a family film."

How tough is it to keep a straight face when you're working with Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher?

Saldana: "It's very hard."

Scott: "He's cool. He's professional, and he doesn't make a meal out of trying to crack everybody up all of the time, because I think that would be exhausting after a while for him and for all of us. He's right there when it's necessary, and then there are times when you go I can't go on' because he's just making me laugh too hard, but for the most we're just doing our jobs."

When you're working with natural improvisers like Kutcher and Mac, do you simply follow the script, or do you try to trade quips with them?

Saldana: "This has been a great project in the sense that we all worked together. We rehearsed for so long, and it was let known to us that they were open to our suggestions, and we had a lot to say because we wanted to keep the topic real. We laugh, but we have serious topics that we have to deal with, therefore we have to treat them with a lot of respect and dignity, which is what everybody wanted to do. So while everybody was creating the sort of lightness of the project, we were also working on keeping it deep and intense without it feeling like it was dragging. Kevin was open from the beginning to see how we felt because he understood we were coming in as these people, so what better place to learn from them but the people who was going to be playing the roles."


Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac

Since both of you are gifted improvisers, how much of a spirit of one-upmanship is there on set to make each other laugh or outdo one another?

Mac: "I think Ashton is more the technician, and I'm more the guy who is off the cuff.' That's been my M.O., my profile for the forty years I've been entertaining. I'm a script guy to an extent, but he's more of a developed actor. I'm more of a natural dude."

Kutcher: "Bernie's like Jason Kidd; he's just throwing the ball around. He just brings the ball up the court and throws it around and dishes to everybody."

Mac: "Ashton finds a spot and sets, you know, and once you give it to him right there [he hits it]. Once again, that's my M.O. With comics and comedy, you always have a lot of comedians who stuck by the script and did routines, but I don't know what the heck I'm going to do. I have the format, I have the ground and the focus, but when I listen and you throw it to me, I've got o let it go."

Have there been a lot of instances when you broke character and cracked each other up?

Mac: "Sure. He does it all the time. He's got this one move that just breaks me down like a fraction, and that's what I love about him."

Kutcher: "We kind of set a goal every day to make each other laugh." Mac: "The best times in my life was when I didn't count on it, when you had people come over and next thing you know, a party had erupted and at the end of the night, at six o'clock in the morning when everybody went home, you said that's the best party I ever had.' I like spontaneity; I like things that you don't plan."

How did each of you get involved with this project?

Kutcher: "Well, we actually found this project independent of each other. Bernie set out to do an adaptation of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"; independently I went out to do an adaptation of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", and we kind of came together with the same idea and the same process. When I found out that Bernie was interested in doing this, it was exciting for me just to work with Bernie."

Mac: "Definitely, for me, I didn't want to do a remake of something that awesome, and when they came to me, I said if you're not going to do it right, I'm not going to do it.' I'm not going to disrespect Sidney, Katharine or Spencer, because that was just awesome in terms of the acting. When I got the script, the script was booty. The script was awful, and that really helped me determine whether or not to make a remake. I said no, so we really started hustling to put the script together, and then they brought it to me and said that Ashton wanted to do it, and I wanted to work with him because he came and played with me on the show, which was a beautiful thing. He and I met, and we were talking about how we saw the film, and it was ironic because he and I saw the film the exact same way. I did not want to make anything buffoonish, and I did not want to make anything over the top or under the bottom, and when you come out being a lead, you know, especially for me, how you start is how you finish. My main goal was to really show people exactly who I am. You've got to understand something, which is that Hollywood still doesn't know, and that's not a bad thing. That's a good thing, because it works in my favor, and gives me the opportunity to come out here and just shop everyone and make them say hey, I didn't know Bernie could do that.' Coming up in here and playing with this cat every day, there's no pressure because he and Zoe and Judith bring something different each and every day. Me, I'm going to be myself 24 hours a day; I'm not coming out of my picture frame for nothin', and yesterday I had a scene, and there's always one scene, that troubled me, because we changed it. Ashton rewrote it and made an adjustment for me, because I didn't want to do a dick joke; it's a cheap laugh. So Ashton came up with a great [alternative], but it troubled me because I got stuck and I told my script supervisor that rule number one that I've always made is to be myself. I wasn't myself; I got caught up that quick in the transition and the adjustments, and I'll never ever do that again. My point is that every day, there is always learning, and I learned something about myself."

How tough is it to bring a level of subtlety to issues of race and ethnicity when in film they are usually treated very broadly?

Kutcher: "I think when we got the script, there was a lot of that- real, big, broad humor- and the first thing it starts with is grounding everything out in reality, making sure that everything has a realistic base. There's nothing that you're pushing too hard, and then it's really balance. When you're in an argument, people say crazy things that sometimes just don't make any sense, and you can get away in those moments with a little bit broader humor, but when it comes down to finding a throughline for the movie, the movie is about love. It's about the one thing that everyone has in common; everyone has the ability and the need for love, and that can ground any comedy. And coming from a place of true love and reality, it doesn't matter what you do because it will be real. I mean, there's always going to be certain things that you thought were grounded out that weren't but, you just push every day to make sure that happens."

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