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‘SuperFly’: Director X on the Challenges of Releasing a Black Studio Film Post-‘Black Panther’

IndieWire spoke to the Canadian director, best known for overseeing music videos for Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and more.

Trevor Jackson Superfly

Trevor Jackson in “Superfly”

Sony

When Sony Pictures asked Director X to remake 1972 blaxploitation classic “Super Fly,” he had never seen the original. He had also never helmed a studio feature — just a 2015 indie (“Across the Line,” the story of an aspiring black hockey player), a Lifetime movie (“Center Stage: On Pointe”), and some of the most memorable music videos of the past 20 years, from Sisqó’s “Thong Song” to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” viewed more than 1.4 billion times on YouTube.

However, while Director X created visuals for Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, and Lil Wayne, “Lethal Weapon” and “Matrix” franchises producer Joel Silver struggled to get his “Super Fly” revamp made. “Joel had the rights, he had a studio that wanted to make it,” Director X told IndieWire. “The studio told him, ‘We don’t want to call it ‘Super Fly,’ and we don’t want it to be about anything that the original movie was about.'”

From that bizarre pronouncement, the unnamed studio commissioned a new script based on a Shakespearean tragedy. Sony picked up the rights in late 2017, but sent the old script to Director X.

Read More: ‘SuperFly’ Review: Director X Delivers a Fun, Swaggering, Violent Update of a Blaxploitation Classic

“They put the name ‘SuperFly’ back on the King Lear script and gave that to me,” he said. (Born Julien Lutz, the Trinidadian-Swiss 42-year-old christened himself “Little X” as a teenage hip-hop fan in Toronto, and graduated to a more mature moniker in his 30s). Even though Director X hadn’t seen the predecessor, he knew something was amiss. In “Super Fly,” Ron O’Neal played Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer who wanted one final, lucrative score that would allow him to abandon a life of crime. In “SuperFly” (the remake opted for a one-word title), a man descended into even more danger and corruption.

“I wasn’t immediately on board,” he said. “Honestly, when they first sent me the script, it was this weird — it had been through a very Hollywood process. They’d been working on it for about 20 years. So I was like, ‘Look, I’ll do it if we do ’Super Fly.’ We’ve gotta be true to the source material … We’ve all been through the experience of Hollywood taking something we loved, changing it, but calling it that thing we loved but it’s not … I didn’t want to do that. So, they agreed, and said, ‘All right, let’s do ’Super Fly’…There is where we took their script and basically started from scratch.”

Trevor Jackson and Jason Mitchell in SUPERFLY.

Trevor Jackson and Jason Mitchell in “SuperFly”

Bob Mahoney

Although they changed the setting from Harlem to Atlanta, “SuperFly” is now an adapted screenplay from Phillip Fenty’s 1972 script, with sole screenwriting credit going to “Watchmen” co-writer Alex Tse. In addition to Silver, rapper Future made his producing debut. (He also created the soundtrack, performing under his given name of Nayvadius Wilburn.) Executive producers were Matthew Hirsch, Hal Sadoff, Aaron Auch, and Steven R. Shore — son of the late Sig Shore, who produced the original.

The collaborators studied Gordon Parks, Jr.’s film, which left Director X somewhat stunned. He describes O’Neal’s protagonist as “hardcore” and “not a good guy,” who carries out a “revenge fantasy.”

“They’re snorting coke every time they turn around, the guy’s just threatened to put one of his worker’s girls on the fucking street,” laughed Director X. “But that’s part of the charm of the ’70s. The brutality and raw honesty of that era make that movie something … This is a Joel Silver action movie. The hero can’t tell his friends, ‘I’m going to fucking prostitute your girlfriend.'”

Thus, the filmmaker treated Parks’ tale as a beat sheet. Although the remake — still rated R — includes shootouts, strip clubs, and a threesome, it is a more humane movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of the main adversaries in the film is Snow Patrol, a gang that slinks around the South in head-to-toe Arctic wear; even their guns and Rolls Royces are white.

O’Neal was 35 when he stepped into the role of Priest; “SuperFly” star Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish”) is just 21. “We shaped this to be a Hollywood movie,” said Director X. “[Priest] doesn’t kill people, he helps people in need, he’s trying to get out of the life, he’s a much more modern antihero than the original ‘Super Fly.'” (Later he observed, “Trying to make Joel Silver go and do a hard, gritty, independent movie, it’s not going to happen.”)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5882237p) Ron O'Neal Superfly - 1972 Director: Gordon Jr Parks Warner Bros USA Film Portrait Super Fly

Ron O’Neal in “Super Fly”

Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Production was swift, beginning in mid-January. “It’s hard to get a crew at some points,” he said. “[In] key positions, some people weren’t comfortable moving that quickly,” although Director X was well suited for the job, thanks to the chaos of the music-video world that often packages luxury on tight turnarounds. Whereas some filmmakers claim “they didn’t want to draw the attention away from the story, blah blah blah,” Director X ensured “everything’s got a little extra shine on it.”

While promoting the project, Director X liked to describe the film as a good-time crowdpleaser. “It’s an escape with melanin,” he told Deadline at CinemaCon. “We’re light on moral lessons.” Yet the finished product includes the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, and a capsized Confederate statue. “The social relevance wasn’t the driving engine, the entertainment was,” said Director X. “If you’re going into ’SuperFly’ all super woke and you want to get super serious about what this is, then this isn’t the movie for you.”

Trevor Jackson, Lex Scott Davis, Director X., Director, and Andrea Londo seen at Columbia Pictures 'Superfly' special screening at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CAColumbia Pictures 'Superfly' special screening at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CA, USA - 10 June 2018

Director X flanked by “SuperFly” stars Trevor Jackson, Lex Scott Davis, and Andrea Londo at a screening of the film hosted by Columbia Pictures

Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

But perhaps leaning into the political elements would have helped “SuperFly” at the box office. Sony says the film cost $16 million, while Deadline sources said the actual budgets was in the low $20-million range. It had a sixth-place opening weekend, and has earned $11.4 million since debuting in 2,220 theaters June 13. “To be honest, I wish more people went to go see it,” said Director X. “Such is life.”

Read More:  ‘Superfly’ Trailer: Trevor Jackson Targets a Mexican Drug Cartel in Remake of ’70s Classic — Watch

He continued, “How do you market a movie that you know people will enjoy — you’ve shown it to people, you’ve tested it, and it consistently gets these high scores, and people come back, and have such a great time — but at the same time, to the general public, they perceive it as a step backwards? The audience just went to see ‘Black Panther.’ They put on African dashikis and went to the movie theater: They’re in a very different headspace. And then the next thing to come out from a major studio is a crime story.”

Director X has an unromantic take on his profession. “There’s a bit of this fantasy about what is means to be a director, and an auteur, and this power that you have over the picture and the scripts. I mean, they hire you to guide the process and guide the story, and by no means are you the final decision maker, especially in a studio picture…This is mercenary work: they come to me to do the job, I’ll do the job. But in this instance, it’s a fun action movie.”

“SuperFly” is in theaters now. 

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