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Interview: Tina Gordon Chism and Stephanie Allain Talk ‘Peeples,’ New Projects, and Changing the Black Image on Screen

Interview: Tina Gordon Chism and Stephanie Allain Talk 'Peeples,' New Projects, and Changing the Black Image on Screen

Tina: I’m slow, she’s fast.

Stephanie: You’re kinda Country Mouse.

Tina: I’m total Country Mouse. This is how it goes.
Even if we’re getting it done, my demeanor is slower and yours is faster.

So goes the banter between writer-director Tina Gordon Chism and producer Stephanie Allain, who were gracious enough to grant an in-depth chat about their new film Peeples (which opens today), as well as their careers and views on the film and television industry.

It was an effortless conversation, as you might expect. The two witty creatives who have a string of noted films to their credit (Drumline, ATL, Hustle & Flow, Something New, Hurricane Season, and others) could always be counted on to steer the discussion where it needed to go, and had lots to share about their experience making this film, and what they’ll be tackling next. 


Jai: Tell me about how you started working together
on this film.

Tina: I reached out to Stephanie with the script.
When I finished it, I gave it to my agent –

Stephanie: We have the same agent, Charles [King].
Everybody knows Charles.

Tina: I had a special affinity for Stephanie and I
said make sure you give this to Stephanie Allain and see if she likes it.

Stephanie: I got it and read it immediately.

Tina: She sent me an email directly and she was
just like who I thought she was, which is very smart, and just ready to roll.

Stephanie: But then I had to campaign for it too,
it wasn’t that easy. She’s a big writer at a big agency. They have people to
satisfy. So we met at Jones on Third, and I came prepared with a whole list of
actors and directors.

Tina: Stephanie was the only producer that had this
presentation, by the way. You know, you write a script and you send it out to
all these producers. And then the ones that are interested in you, you go and
meet them. All of the other meetings were just meeting, you say hello and you
talk and generalize. But when I met with Stephanie she’s got like a PowerPoint
presentation with casting, directors, locations. The whole production was set
up on the table.

Stephanie: So we go through everything and I’m just
trying to get a sense of her vision. But as we were talking, she was talking to
me like a director. She wasn’t talking to me like a writer.

Jai: What do you mean by that?

Stephanie: Writers are mostly concerned with story.
But Tina was creating this world that was already full-blown. She was talking
about the wardrobe, the production design, the set design, the tone of the
comedy. Her vision was crystal clear for the piece. So I flipped over my meager
list of directors, and there weren’t that many.

Tina: They all were talented but you know what
happens when you want to direct a certain piece. Nobody is good enough.

Stephanie: So then I asked, “Why aren’t you
directing it?” And she said she was writing something else to direct that
was smaller, just three characters.

Tina: Which might have been smarter of me because
this had dogs, kids, singing —

Stephanie: Action, and a huge cast. But I was like,
“No, you can do this. We can do this.”

Tina: That’s Stephanie’s genius. She will charge up
a mountain, and I’m looking at it going “Oh my God.”

Stephanie: After that, we high-fived it and said
let’s just make it happen. Then it was fun, because I had to ward off all the
other producers. We actually took it to some places with other producers, but I
had to make it clear that I had to go everywhere. Because once I’m hooked,
that’s it. I said to Charles, “This is going to change my life. This is
what I’m talking about: real portrayals of us across the spectrum. This is my
life’s work.”

Jai: Is that what usually gets you hooked on a

Stephanie: What gets me hooked is when I’m reading
something and I’m emotionally engaged. I have a physical reaction – my heart
beats fast, I’m really excited, and that’s how I know. It could be comedy, it could be drama, but when it’s getting to me and I’ll do
whatever I have to, to get it done, that’s when I know. I can’t half-ass
something, I’m a really bad liar.

Tina: I don’t know how you made it so far in this
industry without being a good liar. Don’t you have to be a good liar to be a
good producer?

Stephanie: I don’t. I just make you believe it’s
going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, because that’s what I
believe. I’m not very political. I would probably be more successful, more
wealthy, have many more movies behind me if I was, but I’m just not. I’m just
interested in making good content that changes the game on stereotypes and
changes people’s minds. That’s the power film – that you can open up a world to
somebody who you never could have otherwise, and change people’s minds about
humanity. It seems like a big grandiose thing, but it really is just a little
thing I can do.

Jai: And for you Tina, was directing always the long-term

Tina: For years, it was the plan for me as I wrote.
With Drumline I worked with [director] Charles Stone, and the film that he made was the same as the script
that I wrote. I worked on set, I was with the actors, I was totally involved in
the process. So I had a great first experience as a screenwriter, one that most
writers don’t get. And then as I progressed in the industry I learned the
limitations of a screenwriter, that you’re at the director’s discretion. That’s
when I began to realize that I was a director too, because I didn’t want a gap
between what I intended on the page and what was on the screen.

With a comedy, especially an African-American
comedy, a joke can play a lot of ways and you can only trust so much that the
overall aesthetic that’s on the page is going to be translated on screen. I
didn’t want to put my name on a comedy that could veer into a sort of tacky
direction. And I also knew exactly how I wanted this to be.

Jai: Tell me about how Tyler Perry came onto the project.

Stephanie: When we were shopping it we took it to
Lionsgate, where Tyler has 34th Street Films. And it seemed like a good fit
because they were looking for things to produce, and Tyler and Tina knew each
other, and he was a fan of her work.

Jai: Was he involved creatively?

Tina: No, he really just let us do our thing. It
was free reign.

Stephanie: For me as a producer, part of my job is
to make sure that the writer-director’s voice is as clear as possible, and that
was totally achieved. Tyler was great about making sure that Tina’s voice was
heard and there’s nothing about the movie that doesn’t have her stamp all
over it. To me, that’s successful producing, when that unique voice is heard.

Jai: You mentioned that you had to campaign for the
project. What was that like?

Stephanie: We just don’t wait for a yes. We get to
a place where we feel like it’s going to get made, and it’s unstoppable. So we
got on a plane to New York —

Tina: I don’t know how we set up meetings. It
wasn’t even officially set up, but we go to Whoopi Goldberg and say, “Whoopi, we need to meet with you. Epatha Merkerson, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, Sam Jackson, we need to meet with you.”

Stephanie: We set up shop in a tea room at a nice
hotel and people just came and went.  And
literally in two days we met with about eight people and they were all on
board. So we came back and it was all go.

Tina: I really believe as a writer you have to have
a script that matches your interest, so you feel the project and it gets you
excited enough to say, “On this we shall stand.”

Stephanie: Nobody can push us down.

Tina: And then the talent reads it and it’s just an
energy they create. This is still without a studio saying they’ll make the
movie. This is only the energy of us carrying the script around.

Stephanie: And it was a great script, it spoke for
itself. So we came back and took it to studios and Lionsgate loved it.

Tina: I think it helped to have the cast. It was

Jai: Tell me about Kerry Washington. We’ve gotten
used to seeing her on Scandal and in
more dramatic roles. What was it like working with her on a comedy?

Tina: I initially wanted Kerry when I was writing
it. She popped into my mind and I was attracted not to her comedic chops, but to
her intelligence. That’s why I was attracted to a lot of the cast – one thing
they all have in common is that they’re fiercely intelligent, studied,
quick-witted individuals. And so I knew Grace Peeples would have those same characteristics
that Kerry has. She’s precise, she’s Type A, and I knew I could take that part
of her personality and make it funny, whether she knew it or not. You know how
you see somebody and think they’re funny, but they don’t see it? Kerry
Washington is funny to me. Some actors can shut down on that because they’re
self-consciousness about it. But Kerry was ready to make fun of it and have
fun. She was very gracious.

Jai: What about her chemistry with Craig Robinson?

Tina: You instantly believe them as a couple. You
never know until you see them together. But just based on the opposites –
Kerry’s so tiny and he’s a big teddy bear. She’s really fast and sharp and he’s
sort of deadpan, quieter. They come at it from two different directions, very
different energies. So you know that as such opposites, they could have

Stephanie: What I love about it is that they
actually really look like a couple. Only in the movies is everybody gorgeous
and perfect. But this was a genuine attraction, this beautiful black couple
that wasn’t like a “movie couple.” And that also fit into the overall gestalt
of the film – that it was fresh and real.

Jai: Have to ask – what do you make of comparisons
to Jumping the Broom?

Tina: I think it’s so funny because when we were
making it I kept saying, “You know it’s really different.” But I realized that
there are so few black films that if you say there’s a black family movie at
the beach —

Stephanie: You could have 10 white movies at the
beach, 10 different versions.

Tina: You could. But it’s a symptom unfortunately
of the fact that we just have so few [black] movies. And I realize that it’s
actually pointless to try to argue it. You have to just let people see the

Stephanie: I would just say that it’s not a movie
about class differences at all. That’s the biggest thing, that there is no
class difference.

Tina: Our family in Peeples is wealthy. In Jumping The Broom they’re wealthy
also. We can have 8,000 movies of us in the projects and nobody says, “I saw that
hood movie before.” I just feel like people need to get used to seeing us in
all aspects of life. 

Jai: Did you have a personal connection to the

Tina: Yes, the movie is really about a family
accepting each other for their flaws, their secrets, their challenges. In my
family, we have Saturday breakfast wrap-up and we talk about literally everything.
It makes some of my friends cringe because it’s like you’re on a therapist
couch. So at the time I had this boyfriend that had a perfect, beautiful family
on the outside, but once I got to know them I realized there were all these
family secrets.

I’m very much like Wade Walker in the movie, who just talks
about whatever’s going on. If it’s between you and me we’re going to hash it
out and anybody in the family can hear about it. We profess our love, our
dislike, whatever. So I’m Wade Walker for sure. I come into this family where
nobody talks about what’s really, really going on. And as I was doing an
autopsy on my relationship I realized that was funny to me, that a family can
exist that’s like blindingly gorgeous, super successful, but they’re a family
in denial.

Jai: What else can we expect from the film?

Tina: With this movie, the jokes are there, but you
also just get a very literate family. They celebrate something called Moby Dick
Day. And you buy into the fact that this is a well-read family where the father
is super passionate about Herman Melville and they really passionately engage
in a celebration of this American holiday.

Stephanie: This is why I love Tina’s writing.
Because she does all this research, she finds out that the town that we’ve set
the thing in, Sag Harbor, was featured in Moby
. It’s another fresh idea. Oftentimes our movies are set around
Christmas, or this holiday or that. This is a new holiday – Moby Dick Day. And
it’s so funny!

Tina: One man fighting for his place with another
man’s daughter. And they have a square-off moment in a celebration called Moby
Dick Day.

Stephanie: There’s also the music. That’s another
difference between our film and a lot of others.

Tina: What happened was, I was obsessed with Diana
Ross, and obsessed with what it would be like to be Diana Ross’ child. I
thought it would be interesting if [Grace’s] mom was like a former Supreme or
like Donna Summer. So I came up with the character Daphne Peeples. But then I
realized that all this music had to be in the movie. There had to be a classic
hit that sounded real, that people would like now.

And then I saw Craig do this YouTube video called Let’s Get Sexy. He’s playing the piano
and he’s so funny. So then I was like, maybe Craig’s character should have
something to do with music. Now there’s two characters that sing and dance. Then
also, in my family and I’m sure in a lot of African-American families, every
teenager wants to be a rapper. They have an aptitude for science or math or
whatever, but what do they want to do? Rap. Drove me crazy. And I got so tired
of meeting this character in my own family – the kid that has so many smarts
but wants to be a rapper – that there was the third character, Simon Peeples,
who’s a robotics expert but raps in his bedroom.

Stephanie: So then we realize we have to prerecord
these songs for the movie before we start shooting. And I happen to be married
to an amazing guy who is an amazing songwriter [Stephen Bray].

Tina: So when I would come over to talk about the
story and characters, Stephen would chime in – “You should listen to this song,”
or “It will probably sound like that,” or “Maybe with Tyler Williams it would be rap but with a little rock influence
because he’s a little more street punk.”

Stephanie: Tina would know exactly what she wanted,
but he would concretize it by giving her things to listen to. The other fun
thing is that Tina would start lyric writing, and that’s how we came up with
“Drawers on the Floor” and “Speak It, Don’t Leak It” and
all these really funny songs. 

We play music a lot at our house and it’s one of
those fun things that you do as a family, where everybody picks up an
instrument and you crowd around the piano and you start singing. And that’s
actually what happened on set. The place where we were shooting had a grand
piano in the living room overlooking Long Island Sound. And Craig is a musical
genius who can play anything from any era just by hearing it. Between every
take he would sit down at the piano and they would just be singing. And it was
during the holidays so it would be Christmas carols, fun ditties from
commercials, anything. It was just another high-energy artistic expression of
this family.

My theme for this movie is “get your smile on,”
because there’s just a warm, fuzzy, fun time that you have when you see the
movie, and I think it really does translate from the set. So the music was like
the other character in the house. When anybody had their [musical] moment,
everybody was very supportive. It was Tyler’s day and he learned all the guitar
licks for the song. Craig had to learn his. Epatha had to go into the studio and
lay down her tracks. And then David Alan Grier got into it and was like
“Where’s my song?” And we had to get something for him. The only
person who didn’t have a song was Kerry.

Tina: Kerry was like, “I need to dance to the
last number.”

Stephanie: So then the last song is a
number where everybody dances. It’s just another way to manifest the talent of
everybody involved and it leaves you feeling good and giddy, and it was super
fun. I just can’t wait to do it again.

Tina: I’m telling you, the sequel is Daphne in
Vegas. Or Atlantic City.

Stephanie: We want to get back out there and do it
again. And we’ve already got a couple things bubbling up.

Jai: Such as?

Tina: Stephanie has many things, she’s a busy
woman. But she and I together are doing a thriller I wrote called Inheritance.
It’s set up at Sony with DeVon Franklin.

Stephanie: And we’re pitching a TV show,
because we’re going to take over TV. We need another smart black family on TV.

Jai: What’s it going to take to get that?

Stephanie: It’s always about good material. It’s
about a good story. I think it’s also about creating a situation that is
familiar but has a new entry point.  So
that’s what we’re trying to do.

Tina: It’s interesting, because with television
there’s no pay wall, and it’s so accessible. Those characters are in your home
every day. And those gatekeepers guard that influence much more adamantly than
I estimated. There’s a strategy for everything and you have to balance out what
you’re trying to win in terms of pushing black images forward, balancing what
the studio might expect of you and sliding in the things that you want to

So with television you have to up your game in
every category. The excellence level has to be so high because what you might
want to slide in, in terms of your messaging to whomever, it’s scrutinized. To
Stephanie’s point, it is heightening your material and making something so
irresistible that people can’t turn it down, because they know they’re going to
get numbers from it. It’s been a learning experience. It’s going to require a
lot of diligence, and we’re just starting. But it has to be conquered.

Stephanie: And I think Tina’s sensibility – I mean she
started at The Cosby Show – so she
has this mainstream, but true to her own outlook, point of view. It doesn’t
frighten people but it challenges them, and I think that’s what people want.

So life is good. We’re excited about our release date.
It’s Mother’s Day weekend and everybody should come out and see this movie. We
complain a lot about stereotypes, about the lack of, there’s not this, there’s
not that. So we’re giving you Peeples,
people. Come on out.


Peeples opens
in theaters today, May 10.

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