News Column

George Tillman Jr. comes home with the kind of film he loves to make

September 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 20--How did you spend your summer vacation?

This is not an idle question for two boys in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," who spend their summer struggling to survive. With the film, which screens at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival, director George Tillman Jr. again looks at an adult world through children's eyes, as in "Soul Food."

The sweet embrace of a loving family portrayed in Tillman's nostalgic first feature -- based on growing up on Milwaukee's north side -- turns harsh in "Mister and Pete," a tale about two abandoned boys living in a housing project.

The R-rated film, whose title hints at its outcome, is more like "The Wire" than an after-school special. But Tillman sees it as a hopeful tale about the unlikely friendship between African-American and Asian-American youths.

The film is about "two kids who would normally never be together but who have to be to survive and need other people in their lives" to do so, Tillman said. "Even though it's a bleak and tough situation, these kids don't give up."

Tillman will appear at the screening at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., as part of a tribute by the film festival to his work and career. Also appearing will be the film's young stars, Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon, and screenwriter Michael Starburry, a Milwaukee native now living in Minneapolis.

Festival artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson saw "Mister and Pete" when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was "deeply moved by the story and particularly impressed by the performances of the two children. So I immediately made it a priority to try and honor" Tillman at the festival, which opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 10.

"I know our festival audience will fall in love with it," Jackson said.

The festival also will screen Tillman's 2009 film "Notorious," about rapper Chris Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., at noon Saturday at the Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave.

Tillman chose to show "Notorious" at the festival -- rather than "Soul Food" (1997), his first feature film, or "Men of Honor" (2000), about the first African-American Navy diver, with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro -- because it's "one of my favorite films as a director. It takes a long time to know what you're doing" as a director, and all the various skills he learned over the years "clicked" on that film.

Making "Notorious" had a lot of obstacles," Tillman said, including "how to make a sophisticated movie about a rapper and not an urban ghetto film." And it's "the tougher ones," he said, that stick with you.

That includes "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," which he had to finance himself to get started.

Along the way, singer Alicia Keyes became an executive producer and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson signed on for a supporting role, along with Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie and "American Idol" singer Jordin Sparks, which helped the film get financed and made.

"These guys are busy," he said. "They work all the time. But they loved the story."

Tillman, who attended Marshall High School, was influenced by the films of his youth, including Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," which starred "Men of Honor" actor De Niro. Tillman attended the actor's 70th birthday party in August.

Tillman, 44, has created TV series based on "Soul Food" and the 2004 film "Barbershop," which he produced. He also produced the films "Beauty Shop" and "Roll Bounce" in 2005, and directed "Faster" (2010) with Dwayne Johnson.

"Soul Food," 16 years ago now, was the last time he directed a film based on something he wrote.

"I don't really consider myself a writer," Tillman said.

He wrote the lyrical screenplay for "Soul Food" "because I had a particular story to tell at that particular time," and doing so "was the best way of breaking in as a director."

Writing, he said, "takes too long." It takes him a year of working six to seven days a week to write a good script.

"And as a director I like to work more often."

He said "Mister and Pete" screenwriter Starrburry grew up in Milwaukee's Hillside housing project, and the screenplay in part is inspired by his experiences there. Tillman learned later, in small-world fashion, that Starrburry was related to Tillman's actress wife, Milwaukeean Marcia Wright, whom Tillman met in high school.

Although "Mister and Pete" is worlds away from "Soul Food," it marks a return to the kind of filmmaking Tillman enjoys.

"I wanted to get back to a small, simple story with good characters," he said.

He said when he was making "Men of Honor" the late producer Laura Ziskin told him: "I feel that you're good at human emotions and capturing the human spirit. And I think you should continue to do that."

Now Milwaukee Film Festival-goers will be able to see for themselves whether he has done so.

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Twitter: @TheDudekAbides

The Journal Sentinel is a presenting sponsor of the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival.

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