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March 2005
Guess Who: An Interview with Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Guess Who: An Interview with Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan

By Todd Gilchrist

In the course of just over a year, Kevin Rodney Sullivan's career launched into full gear. Last February, he inherited the venerated "Barbershop" franchise from helmer Tim Story and turned its sequel into success. Now, with the release of the update of the classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", Sullivan promises to become one of Hollywood's hottest directors. Working with superstars Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, Sullivan shepherds this tale of an aspiring suitor's first trip home to meet his fiance's father; as the director told blackfilm.com in this exclusive interview, he similarly had a few trepidations about returning to sacred ground for the reinvention of one of the moviemaking industry's groundbreaking efforts.<

What apprehensions did you have about re-inventing "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", and what elements did you want either to retain or specifically change for your update?

Kevin Rodney Sullivan: Well, I felt like the first movie was a message piece, and I didn't feel that our movie needed to do that. I was really interested in trying to evolve a story about love, and about the funny dynamics of meeting your in-laws, and really about how those two couples sort of inform each other through the course of the story. When I got involved with the script, I focused more on the character work and on the comedy, and the elements about life that I thought could contribute to the story. If figured if we played the one joke, it wouldn't last long- it would be a thirty minute movie.

Other recent movies- including "Bringing Down the House" and "Meet the Parents"- successfully explored similar themes. How did you want to follow in their footsteps or stray from their example?

KRS: Well, I can only bring my own sensibilities to bear on the gig, you know? I can't be Jay Roach, who did "Meet the Parents", and I can't be Stanley Kramer, who did "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner". My approach to the work is always from an organic place; in other words, I don't really try and avoid other movies or steal from them, I figure that developing my own sensibility is what I need to trust and stick with, so I don't watch other films while I'm making them. I watch a lot of films when I'm not shooting, but once I'm in the zone, it's really about trying to trust that- what I think is funny, what I think is interesting, what I think is human- and bring that to bear in the movie. So I sort of trusted those instincts and stayed with that. Certainly I didn't want to be "Meet the Parents", and most people don't really know "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", but they do know "Meet the Parents" really well, and I certainly didn't want to tell the same story again. But it's a juicy subject; if you fall in love with somebody, you're in your own little universe- in the case of Simon and Teresa, they live in Manhattan, they probably party on the lower East side and having a good time. They find that they really connect, they think they want to build a life together, and it's all good. That's a very common thing, and then the next step is, Ćoh, I want you too met my dad,' and once you go meet that dad and the crazy cousins and all of that, you're dealing with a whole new dynamic. You're looking at the person that you fell in love with and you think, Ćcan I really do this with you?' That's funny, and that's interesting, and the people that you meet, they think that nobody is good enough for their baby girl, you know, and they're going to kick the tires- or kick you some place else, in the case of Bernie Mac's family. So that's the fun of the movie; I wanted to capture that at a human level, and the fact that race is involved, I think movies are best when they operate at more than one level. They have to happen both on an entertainment level, and hopefully on a heart level, but even occasionally ideas can be brought to bear, and I try to get all of that in a film, because the more dense the experience, the better it is for the audience to go away with a little bit more. I'm not interested in making Chinese food- where you're hungry an hour later. I want you to leave the theater having had a good time and maybe a couple of hours later, going Ćoh, hey, there's something in there that speaks to me.' That's my process, and that's all I have to offer.

Were there any cultural Ćtruisms' you wanted to reveal in this film either about blacks or perhaps the perception of whites?

KRS: Absolutely. Any insight you can come up with that's sort of culturally specific and fun and unique is something you want to bring to a movie so that people don't feel like they have seen it already. So yeah, exploring all of those dynamics, even the sort of generic planner, and the sort of flip with his character- Bernie's perception of who he is as opposed to who he really is- is something I wanted to tweak and to push that button. Why not? That's what's fun about making movie- you get to go after things and try things from a unique perspective. Like I said, it's really a process of weeding through all of that stuff that's in my heart and in my mind and bringing to bear on a film in a coherent way a that people can have a good time with it.

How tough was it to juxtapose the social satire and some of the broader physical humor of the script?

KRS: That was a really tricky balance, and probably the biggest challenge for me. I think I tried to put Ashton in situations where his physical comedy could really play out like, pulling the bags out of the cab and falling, or Bernie getting in bed with him and what that would do to him physically, or kicking over the fishing rods and having to catch them before they hit Bernie's head. I just kept working with the writers and trying to find a way to sort of put him in situations where he could do that, but it's always got to be based on a character, and one of the first things in the script, one of the biggest changes that I made in a draft when I got involved was the idea of Simon having to tell this lie about his job. I felt that he needed to have a reason for all of the physical chaos of his character; it needed to be grounded in something, and we were building the notion that he had quit his job and it paid off later in a social way in our story, but we didn't know what that was until we got to that sort of ultimate scene between him and Bernie at the train station, but that it would be something that would push him all of the time to be trying to hold it all together because [the situation] was a little crazy that he has to go meet his future father in law and he's suddenly unemployed. That was a really significant script change that really helped make a reason for Simon's physical discomfort and all of the anxieties that went with it and helped Percy's suspicion beyond the fact that he was white. All of those things contribute to the end result- in other words, if you don't build it correctly from the beginning so that Percy doesn't seem like just a racist father, and Simon doesn't just seem like a goofball, you have to give them a real reason, but to keep it within the realm of the realistic portrayal I was trying to get at, I needed to establish it well in the story what the problem was. Comedy is based on conflict, and the proper conflict and the right choice with the conflict is the key ingredient to being able to roll that joke over the course of a movie. That was probably the biggest script change besides the fact that I really wanted to shine a light on the idea that this was a young man who was raised without a dad, and that ultimately he needed to feel confident that he could beat Percy's challenge, which is really where the movie lands. When Percy says, Ćevery man can choose his destiny, no matter what his father did,' to me that's the most important line in the movie, because that man has 25 years of marriage and experience to impart to the younger man. Everything else is built around comedic ideas, but that's built around a really serious and universal idea, of one man to another. That was my approach- if we got the foundation right, we could have fun all day long and land in a place that's real.

Why do you think the theme of public humiliation seems to figure so prominently in the effectiveness of modern comedies?

KRS: That's an interesting point, and I hadn't given it any thought at all, whether that's sort of a trend. In the case that's specific to the scene [where Ashton tells Ćblack' jokes], I will say that he doesn't intend to piss them off. He thinks he's telling one more good joke, and he's been provoked to tell these jokes by Percy Jones, because he doesn't want to get into it at all, but Percy's just testing him and teasing him and then it goes over the edge and that's sort of what's funny about it- it's like a slow-motion trainwreck and we're all waiting for it to happen and that's. as far as the sort of bigger trend of public humiliation, that's an interesting that I haven't really given much consideration at all. Funny is funny in my game, and trying to get the actors to be as great as they can be with what they have to bring to bear is the job at hand, and to focus on who they are and what they bring special to a movie is what I try to do, so in the case of Bernie, we feel his pain- Ćoh my god, he thought his daughter was bringing home the great black hope and here's this kid'- and that's the funniest thing for his character to play, and then his frustration and then not being able to come up with vows for his wife. That's another thing for him to have to play, and in the case of Ashton, having to tell this lie and be in love at the same time creates the situations where he can be funny.

Are you getting opportunities to work outside of your proven genre- ethnic comedies- and explore other stories of personal interest?

KRS: That has shifted. After "Barbershop2", probably 80 percent of the offers that I received had no ethnic base at all, and I'm sure that as time goes on, I'll do movies that don't deal with that as an issue, because at some point, you run out of materials for yourself. I love that fact that I get to tell stories that celebrate our culture, specific to our culture, and I appreciate the audience support. I've had great support for these films so I'll continue to do them, but I am getting a lot of opportunities do movies that aren't black or ethnic at all. I choose movies for their themes: do I have something to say or to offer the audience from my perspective? If the theme is right, it doesn't matter the genre; I probably would love to do something not comedic since I just did two comedies in a row, but is it about something that matters to me? Because that's all that matters to me because ultimately that's all you have when you're out there every day for a year- you have to have something to say.

Do you have larger commercial aspirations, or are you more interested in storytelling for its own sake?

KRS: I tend to respond to movies about people. I do like thrillers. I do like action movies, like "Training Day" or "Collateral". I'm sure I will venture out, but as far as making a comic book movie, it's probably not my thing, just because it's nothing I would get excited about. Again, I figure my best choice is to stick with what I feel, because if I go and try to make something that will show that Ćhey, I'm just like any director,' who's going to care? Hopefully my success only will come from a need to connect with the audience, and if I can connect in a real place, I have a better chance of being successful. They're probably equal to me. I don't take lightly the privilege and the responsibility the money the studio invests in my ideas, and that means they need to make their money back, so I do my best to make that happen, but you can't aspire to commercial success. You can aspire to great communication with an audience. No one can preordain commercial success, so it's important to choose movies that you can do well that fit budget parameters where they can get their money back, because if you can't make money for them, you're out of the game. I think that I have to go out there every time with the intention of telling a story that I know and connecting with the audience, and if I do that and if this works, it will be my third time doing that, and then I'll continue to work and it will have its commercial success and they'll let me continue to play the game.

What is next for you after "Guess Who"?

KRS: I haven't decided. There are some really interesting things on the table for me. I'll tell you that a lot of them are not African-American in any way. Like I said, I think I'll pass on doing another comedy, but who knows? If a great comedy comes along, then we'll be talking about comedy a year from now. But it will be because I want to do something I like, and so far I haven't said yes; I'm considering a couple of things.

Who in Hollywood would you like to work with- actors, screenwriters, or cinematographers- if you had the opportunity?

KRS: There's a lot of people out there I really like. In the world of cinematographers, there's Bob Richardson- I'd love to work with him, there's Dante Spinotti, who is a genius. I'd really like to make a movie with Cate Blanchett; I think she's insanely talented. I'm developing a script that I would love to offer her if I get a chance. I'd love to make a movie with Denzel, I think he's a treasure. I'm a big fan of Brad Pitt; I mean, he'd be an amazing actor to work with, and a great movie star. He's got that power; I think movie stars are born, you know? They walk on the planet and we're interested in their souls and want to watch them, and I'd love to get an opportunity to work with some of those people, because I think that it opens up a world of possibilities in storytelling, because we're so connected to them as people. Sidney Poitier was one of the first who was like that, and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, I mean, we're talking about three of the greatest movie stars of all time, in one movie. It would be sweet to get to do a movie where I had a little bit of a taste of that movie star power.

Have they discussed a sequel for "Guess Who" yet? A "Guess Who Else", perhaps?

KRS: I don't know. We haven't had any real discussions about that so far. I think we've got to find out how successful we're going to be before any of that gets to be a serious conversation. Would I be interested? I love these characters and we had a good time making it.

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