Filmmaker/actor Mario Van Peebles ("Baadasssss!") takes a revealing look at contemporary youth culture, showing how teenagers really are behind closed doors with his comedy "We the Party" (out in select theaters this Friday). Set amidst the latest trends in music, dance and fashion, "We the Party" centers on five friends as they come of age.
In this First Person exclusive to Indiewire, Peebles shares a scene from his comedy and opens up about the making of the film. And make sure you check out the clip he kindly provided; it's on the jump.
A while ago I was writing a new script (or rather trying to write one), while my teenagers were upstairs blasting music with the volume at '11.' I went up to have them dial down the fun, but was quickly entranced by the new dances they and their friends were doing. It was like nothing I had ever seen (The Dougie, the Jerk, the Catdaddy, etc.). My curiosity was piqued.
Sensing an opening, my wild bunch started begging me to let them go to some all-age underground clubs. Their reasoning was that only then would they truly be able to show me all the “new stuff” that was happening. Naturally I said what any filmmaker father would say, “Hell, no! Unless, of course, you take me with you.”
They balked. My old soul son Makaylo tried to break it down to me diplomatically. He explained that rolling into a party with your dad was akin to bringing the cops and a sure-fire way to never get invited again. They tried their best emotional jujitsu and teen logic on me, but I held fast to my Van Peebles family values. Finally, my cool two-slap son Mandela offered up a possible solution. “How about you go not as our father but as a member of our entourage, like our head of security?”
Silence… and then my eldest, sweet-talking daughter Maya piped in, “Yeah, kids our age probably won’t recognize you as much, plus you were ‘Sonny Spoon,’ NBC’s detective and master of disguise right? We could put you in a baseball hat real low and swag you out in some skinny jeans and we’re good.” She flashed that Maya smile and the deal was done. I would drive, as long as they and their friends were safe. They could totally be themselves. They could talk like they talk, and party how they party. I would go INCOGNEGRO.
The next few weeks were incredible. Not only did I get to know my kids in a whole new light, but I got a crash course in today’s teen culture. Everything seemed different somehow. Kids of all colors were using the N-word as a term of endearment. One of the most popular kids was an openly gay black boy who could kick your ass with style. Gangster rap is considered old school now. Slow dancing looks more like safe sex on the dance floor. You can’t listen to their music without putting a condom on. Racial lines are blurring while economic ones are becoming more pronounced. They tweet and Facebook at lightning speed. These are the trendsetters that are bombarded daily by hyper-materialism. They are, simultaneously, incredibly informed and yet often woefully ignorant. While some are dropping out, others see “smart as the new gangsta.” This is the first generation to come of age during a black presidency, and for them, it’s not historical. It’s just the norm! For this generation, anything seems possible, both good and bad.
It quickly became clear to me that these teens are experiencing a seismic cultural shift. If I didn’t have kids myself and truly hang out with them, I would have had no idea. I soon forgot all about my other script. Taking advantage of my interest, my kids maneuvered me into letting them throw an “epic” party at our house. This monster kick back became the basis for "We the Party." They had over 400 teens of all colors partying hard at our crib. My boys quickly tripled their birthday money. I walked around like a middle-aged paparazzi videotaping and taking notes like a madman.I believe kids come through you and not from you. You really don’t know what soul you’ll get. As a parent, it’s up to us to guide them and help them be the best version of them that they can be. As a filmmaker, the metaphor continues: good stories, good films, come through us. You can start out thinking, this one is going to be my action franchise or my political thriller. But I feel that some of my best work comes when I get out of my own way and let the piece speak to me. I had not planned this movie. It was just literally happening all around me.
"We the Party" was made in the same spirit in which I ventured into underground teen-land. Early on while workshopping the project, I allowed the teenage actors to be authentic to who they are, not who adults want them to be. One of our actors, 16-year-old Moises Arias from “Hannah Montana,” said “This is how we really are. Our lives are not PG.” There is a scene in the film where Que, a cool white skateboarder tries to pick up one of the black girls from the rap group “Pink Dollaz.” I called action and Que handed her a bouquet of flowers. She and her crew ad-libbed back in amazement, “Now what’s this nigga tryna do?!” The social flip on that was crazy. The sista from the hood was referring to the wigger from Venice beach as the “N” word. I knew I wanted to keep it in the movie, but there would be political blowback. Even though the film had heart, we would not be PG. In good faith we tried a censored second take, but it was far less interesting. This was only one of many examples where the truth of their language was better than fiction.
Twenty years ago, when I directed my first feature “New Jack City,” it was a “push” business. The studio or record company could push an artist on an audience. Now it’s a “pull” business. The kids are downloading what they want. Using social media, we are able to track the bands teens were downloading. “The New Boyz” had 50 million hits on YouTube. When we shot the film, “Cat Daddy,” which the Rej3ctz perform in our prom scene, was not even a single yet. Now, it has more than 60 million hits. YG, who plays our bad boy in the film, was all ready performing on stage with hip hop dogfather “Snoop.” So, it was natural to pair him up as Snoop Dogg’s younger brother. Salli Richardson was my love interest in “Posse” and Tiny Lister was my sidekick and enforcer. Interestingly, Salli had also played Michael Jai White’s love interest in a film. Michael does a lot of work with youth. When I reached out to him about the project, he understood its “edutainment” heart organically.
Casting real teens instead of Hollywood teens meant that we would be using a lot of fresh faces (and rehearsal time) in addition to teen pros like Moises and Orlando Brown from “That’s So Raven.” Our casting director Anessa Williams is super plugged in to the cutting-edge youth culture. She had been casting my kids in various projects for years. She brought in multi-culti kids from everywhere, including the LA club underground, to see who had the acting skills and the flavor.
My pops Melvin let my sister and I act in several of his projects, which basically meant that we had to work twice as hard as everyone else. True to the “Van Peebles” Family Tradition, I let my kids play the roles they helped create (at a family discount, of course). In our family, we try never to confuse people we love, with people who are actually good at what they do. In other words, Daddy loves you but it doesn’t mean you can act for shit. The MVP kids worked hard; they worked for less; and they were respectful. On set, I was not their “incognegro” Dad anymore. I was their director. I also reached out to my old man for a cameo, and the original “Baadasssss!” happily agreed.
The truth is doing a teenage-centric film authentically without PG-ing it down is a risk. Casting it legitimately with a lot of first timers took a leap of faith In the end, it meant I had to do it independently. “Old school,” the way I did “Baadasssss!” and my dad did “Sweetback.”
My running buddy Michael Cohen and I funded it ourselves. We’ll either be ok, or we’ll be selling oranges and tube socks on Crenshaw Blvd. Either way on some level, it’s already a win. I believe there are three loves in your life: love what you do, love who you do it with, and love what you say with it. With "We the Party," we were lucky enough to do all three.
Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play major league baseball, but it did not mean the game was integrated any more than having a black president means we are post racial. Both my teenage sons, roughly the same age and color as the boy in Florida who was killed recently, act in "We the Party." I make sure they know that whatever the outcome is of the tragic shooting that the “isms” still exist – racism, sexism, look-ism and class-ism. As my father would say "social justice is like a car when you take your foot off the gas it slows down.”
In this clip below, the young brother wearing the hoodie is not pre-judged, he is given some sound advice and in turn over the course of the film, all the characters profit from his consciousness.