Kevin is joined by the critically acclaimed Director/Writer/Producer George Tillman Jr. to discuss making movies from the heart.
George Tillman Jr., Director, Producer, Writer
With a career spanning over two decades, George Tillman Jr. has brought a unique voice and perspective to the film industry, tackling a wide range of genres and themes in his work. He is best known for his films Soul Food, Men of Honor, and The Hate U Give, as well as for producing the successful Barbershop franchise.
A tale of two test screenings (3:28)
George Tillman Jr. reminisces about his disastrous first test screening in Beverly Hills and how that experience made him fearful of future audience screenings. He contrasts this with the audience screening for Soul Foodand how that screening became one of the highlights of his life.
Early influences (10:49)
Tillman discusses the two films that influenced him as a teenager: Taxi Driver and Cooley High. Cooley High was the first film Tillman saw with African Americans in the lead roles, and it showed real friendships and relationships. Taxi Driver stood out to Tillman for its camera work and the way it controlled the viewer's experience.
Working with De Niro (20:35)
Kevin asks George about his greatest influences and mentors. George talks about working with Robert De Niro on Men of Honor and how De Niro guided him in post-production, even advising Tillman to cut some of De Niro’s own performance for the sake of the film.
The $150,000 movie success (24:18)
Tillman talks about raising money for his first film, going mainly to family and friends in Chicago, and taking that movie to Hollywood and selling it to Savoy Pictures for $1,000,000. Unfortunately, Savoy Pictures went out of business, and that first film was lost, but it helped Tillman make connections that led to green lighting Soul Food.
Tell the stories you want to tell (31:17)
Kevin asks George what he has learned on his journey as a writer, producer, and director. George talks about making movies from the heart and about telling the stories that you want to tell.
Feeling the audience's reaction (43:05)
Kevin asks George to talk about audience test screenings and if the audience response was responsible for big changes in any of his films. George goes into what it feels like to participate in a test screening and sit among the audience. He talks about how he made changes to a movie based on what he felt around him at the audience test screening. They then go into positive test screenings as a validation of the filmmaker’s instincts.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: George Tillman Jr.
Producer: Kari Campano
For more information about George Tillman Jr.:
For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenEngineASI.com
Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Guest: Critically Acclaimed Director, Screenwriter, & Producer George Tillman, Jr.
There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.
Kevin Goetz (00:24):
So, in our industry, we have a product called CinemaScore, which is an exit poll product that gives us the ratings of how audiences thought of a given movie any weekend. We also have another product that is my product called PostTrak Screen Engine/ASI, but CinemaScore has a grading system, A, A plus, B, C, C minus, whatever it may be. And in the course of CinemaScore's history, they've had 97 films with an A plus rating, and only eight directors have made the list twice. So, joining the greats of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis on this list twice is my guest today, George Tillman Jr. We'll talk about the movies that were on that list in a moment, but I want to mention that at the age of 25 years old, George wrote and directed his very first film in one of my favorite cities, Chicago. And it cost $150,000. It sold for over a million dollars. So that prompted his next film, which came out two years later, which was loosely, I think, based on his life. And it was made for 7 million dollars, a little bit of a change there, and it grossed over $40 million. It was called Soul Food. And this is where my path first crossed with the wonderful and talented George Tillman Jr. George, thank you so much for joining me today.
George Tillman Jr. (01:53):
Thank you. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I'm looking forward to speaking with you.
Kevin Goetz (01:57):
Did you know that fact about the A plus rating?
George Tillman Jr. (02:01):
No, I didn't know. I didn't know that fact at all.
Kevin Goetz (02:04):
We're always, we're always digging up interesting facts and figures, you know? Yeah, it's really something, and I'm going to get right into this because Soul Food was a movie that I saw and was just blown away by, and I don't know how many listeners have seen it, but I urge you to see it. But don't watch the movie if you’re hungry, I mean don’t watch the movie if you're hungry because I literally called during the movie to see if Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch was still serving down the Marina because I had to get some chicken and dumplings, and some mac and cheese, and collard greens. And it was just an extraordinary tribute to family and to food. And as a Jewish guy, we really share that culturally because Jews and food are so connected. And I guess in the African-American community that Sunday dinner and those big family dinners were so very important to the fabric of bonding and bringing people together and family together.
George Tillman Jr. (03:09):
Yeah, that was an interesting process. I remember that screening at Marina, I was definitely afraid of that screening because you mentioned a movie, an independent film that I did a couple of years before. It was an independent film, and we had a screening in Beverly Hills <laugh>, and that was a, and that was a screening.
Kevin Goetz (03:26):
Why did you say it like that?
George Tillman Jr. (03:28):
<laugh>. I know. I'm like, it was just a small movie at $150,000. And we screened it for this audience that was used to like big Hollywood films and it just didn't work out. Everything was working out till we got to the third act and the audience was walking out of the movie theater. So I was always afraid of test screenings, you know what I mean, going into it. So, when they told me, well, the next one's going to be in Marina, okay. And I was like nobody's going to show up. And I get out and it was like lines around the door. And that's when I started realizing the idea of having a really great title. Having some actors in the movie that are recognizable, but that don't really mean anything until they sit down and they watch the movie. And I was just blown away by that screening. It's one of those highlights of my life, being in Marina and really realizing what a test screening or what an audience screening can do for a movie. You know what I mean, in terms of helping.
Kevin Goetz (04:22):
Absolutely. And people love that movie and it scored extremely highly. The scores on that movie were, if I remember like in the nineties, in the top two boxes, excellent and very good. And, and they're echoing exactly what I'm saying. It is just this homage to food <laugh>. And, it was almost like, to me it just solidified you as a wonderful filmmaker. The fact that you were able to get underneath it all and just kind of bring that sense of family, as I said, to life just extraordinary, George.
George Tillman Jr. (05:03):
Thank you. Thank you. I mean, that was definitely a process, especially after that first movie that got me into the industry, got me an agent, got me noticed. And then they said, what's your next movie? And I was like, ah, I gotta think back in film school. They always tell you, write what you know, tell what you know. And the first thing I just thought about was like, wow. I just remember these interesting Sunday dinners where all my uncles and my father would be watching the Green Bay Packers, you know, and at the time, the Packers would always lose every Sunday. And my mom and her sisters and my grandmother would just always be in the kitchen making food. And I was this young kid going in between the men talking about the women and the women talking about the men. And then we were just hanging out.
Kevin Goetz (05:45):
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
George Tillman Jr. (05:46):
And there would be these Sunday dinners, but everybody would show up. And I remember a lot of religious people would show up and like, knock on the door and say, hey, do you know the world is going to end in 1988 on Thursday? You know, it was like all these weird people coming by <laugh>, but they just coming to really eat my grandmother's food. So I just tapped in and then I started writing the material. But over the course of the film of writing, you can find out what it's really about. And it just felt like, wow, when you eat, family stays together. And it really just reminded me of a lot of movies that I saw just about family. And I just felt that's something that, as a filmmaker, you tapped into what you know. And I think some of the films that I enjoyed that I did the most was always when I was able to tap into something emotionally, you know?
Kevin Goetz (06:31):
I mentioned the Jewish culture, but also so many cultures. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> bond over food. What was your favorite food, by the way, before we move on?
George Tillman Jr. (06:39):
Well, my favorite food is definitely…
Kevin Goetz (06:41):
At those Sunday dinners.
George Tillman Jr. (06:43):
Yeah. Always. There was always this thing with pies, sweet potato pie. Oh. They don't really make 'em that much anymore, but I had an aunt who used to make egg pie and everybody's like egg pie? But it was really, really good. Sock it to me cake, which was a really good thing, <laugh>. So I was always into dessert.
Kevin Goetz (07:00):
Heart attack on a plate.
George Tillman Jr. (07:02):
<laugh> Definitely, definitely heart attack on a plate, but those were the things that I just loved, and stuck to, fried chicken is something I love. And I remember seeing Barry Levinson's movie Avalon, and it was about his family coming over to America, and it was his Baltimore films. And I was just like, this is, I knew this is something that can cross over to everybody. I wasn't part of Barry Levison's family, but I understood it. It was mostly connected. So he was very important in terms of me making my film.
Kevin Goetz (07:34):
I worked on that movie. I remember that. Hey, the next movie that you got that A plus score for was The Hate U Give. Talk about that. Talk about that experience.
George Tillman Jr. (07:45):
You know, that was another experience that was very emotional to me. I was actually in New York working on a Marvel television show which was, I was doing a lot of TV, which really was helpful to be able to move fast and get to the point quick. And I was there and this book came across me, and I was over in Brooklyn and shooting on these stages, and I was like, how am I going to do this TV show and read this book? And so at nighttime, I would just read this book and I got halfway and very quickly I was very connected to this young girl who experienced the shooting of her best friend by a police officer. And I always remember that growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had family members who were part of the uprising of Martin Luther King when he was killed. And there was a lot of uprisings.
Kevin Goetz (08:33):
George Tillman Jr. (08:34):
Protests, yeah. And I remember my uncles talking about that. And one of the things was one of them was arrested and I just remembered them telling me how to talk to a police officer. What do you say? What you don't, the difference. I grew up with that very early on with my uncles and my dad. That's something you were sort of taught very early on. And that first scene which was in the book is the first scene in the movie, but it was a little later in the book, I moved it up right away so an audience can understand that sometimes people who have different cultures, or African American or people of color, that's the first thing you learn is how to conduct yourself around a police officer, how to stay alive. And I just felt like that's something I felt universal that I was connected with. Again, it was just like Soul Food. And I just felt like I had to tell that story. And the great thing about both of those movies, both of those movies were made by presidents of women who sort of understood a little bit about it. Laura Ziskin was the person who green-lit Soul Food. And Elizabeth Gabler was an individual at Fox 2000 who green-lit The Hate U Give with Stacey Snyder. So, they were really very helpful, and instrumental in my career. But it's all having that emotional connection.
Kevin Goetz (09:44):
All terrific ladies. I miss Laura. We had a very close relationship and I really also loved her husband, Alvin Sergeant. Terrific writer. One of the greatest scripts I ever read was Ordinary People. I remember I used to use that as a way to say, this is the perfect script, <laugh>, if you want to see structure.
George Tillman Jr. (10:04):
Kevin Goetz (10:05):
You know, talk to me about your influences starting out, like in Milwaukee, you were a young guy there and you somehow got interested in film. How did that happen?
George Tillman Jr. (10:19):
Yeah, well, you know, the most interesting thing, when I was a young kid in film, the first thing I watched was television. You know what I mean? TV was the thing for me, and watching television, one film.
Kevin Goetz (10:36):
What'd you watch?
George Tillman Jr. (10:38):
It was like always these weekly shows that would be on, it was really this weird show called Elvira. Elvira used to play a lot of these old B movies.
Kevin Goetz (10:48):
<laugh>, yes. <laugh>
George Tillman Jr. (10:49):
You know, like from the, from the seventies or from the eighties, but two films came across my desk, which I remember very early on just seeing a poster. And that was Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese and then seeing Cooley High, directed by Michael Schultz, who was actually from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You know, a person that lived, that grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was made in 1975 and Taxi Driver was made in 1976. So those two films were the first films I saw as a teenager. So Cooley High was the first film I saw in the movie theater. And then the first VHS I had was Taxi Driver. So I showed that movie to my dad, and my dad says, next time you show me a movie like that, I'm going to kill you <laugh>. So those two movies influenced me, you know, as a young individual, you know what I mean? And those films had something to say.
Kevin Goetz (11:46):
What was it about those two films that that really spoke to you?
George Tillman Jr. (11:51):
Well, Cooley High was really the first film I saw with African Americans.
Kevin Goetz (11:55):
In the leads.
George Tillman Jr. (11:57):
As the lead.
Kevin Goetz (11:59):
George Tillman Jr. (11:59):
<affirmative> Glynn Turman was the lead in that. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs from Welcome Back Kotter, these were the first individuals where I felt that had friendships and relationships.
Kevin Goetz (12:09):
That were real people, not that were real people, not what sort of white executives in Hollywood thought were at that point real people.
George Tillman Jr. (12:21):
Real people. And then not until later, I saw American Graffiti later. So seeing Cooley High was the African American version of American Graffiti. So that was my first experience, and I saw that in the movie theater. I remember there was a love scene that Glynn Turman, this was my first time seeing a love scene with an African-American woman and man as a young kid, I've never seen that at all, but it had so much integrity. It was a very emotional film. And that film is a classic. So when I saw that, that stuck with me. And then when I saw a Taxi Driver, what I saw was the control of a camera. Like, wow, the camera can tell you what to do and what to see.
Kevin Goetz (13:00):
George Tillman Jr. (13:01):
And how to lead you.
Kevin Goetz (13:03):
George Tillman Jr. (13:03):
You know what I mean? So from the POV through the rearview mirror, the POV of De Niro's character Travis looking through the rearview and the POV's out the window, the high angle shot of the last scene, it was just like…
Kevin Goetz (13:17):
You were looking at that then, how old were you? How old were you then?
George Tillman Jr. (13:21):
Man, I had to be about 12 years old.
Kevin Goetz (13:23):
And you're looking at angles and sort of trying to…
George Tillman Jr. (13:26):
I'm looking at angles, man, and writers. I remember looking up who wrote this, ah Paul Schrader. Oh, wow. Schrader directed a movie and he was behind all these other films. And then that was my beginning. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Another beginning, which I'm not ashamed to say it, but my grandmother used to watch a lot of soap operas, you know what I mean? She used to watch soap operas.
Kevin Goetz (13:42):
All My Children?
George Tillman Jr. (13:48):
Yeah. All My Children.
Kevin Goetz (13:51):
So did my grandmother, All My Children, One Life to Live.
George Tillman Jr. (13:55):
Yep, General Hospital. So I remember at the end of watching General Hospital, they had the name of the studio, you can write to an address. And so I sent them some information. I said, hey, I got some ideas for your plot. And they sent me, they said, no, no thank you. And I said, well, can I have a script?
Kevin Goetz (14:10):
They sent something back, at least.
George Tillman Jr. (14:12):
They sent something back. Wow. And they gave me a script. And that's how I first saw a television script or any script.
Kevin Goetz (14:19):
What do you mean they gave you a script?
George Tillman Jr. (14:20):
They sent it to me. I said, do you mind sending me a script?
Kevin Goetz (14:23):
George Tillman Jr. (14:24):
They actually sent me. Yeah. And I saw how the structure of these scripts were. So, that was the beginning for me of seeing an actual script and then watching those two movies. And that's where I felt like I wanted to be a filmmaker at that point.
Kevin Goetz (14:39):
Wow. And when did you first get a camera in your hand?
George Tillman Jr. (14:43):
First camera was like, had to be like, around the same time, 10 years old. My dad had an eight-millimeter.
Kevin Goetz (14:49):
He let you play with it, huh?
George Tillman Jr. (14:50):
He let me play with it. He had an 8 millimeter camera, which was so great for me later on with Soul Food because I was able to see how these traditions of black families and my black family, through the years of all these dinners and Thanksgiving gatherings, we always have these little things around Christmas time, the grab bag, everybody puts their name in the grab bag, you shake it, and then you put your hand in there, you grab a name out. That name is oh, Aunt Mary.
Kevin Goetz (15:16):
We call that secret Santa.
George Tillman Jr. (15:18):
That's what it was, man.
Kevin Goetz (15:20):
And then you gave that gift, and then someone could take the gift, and if you didn't like it, you could grab someone else's.
George Tillman Jr. (15:26):
<laugh> You could grab something else. And that was, that's something I couldn't get into the movie, but that's something that I saw all these traditions and everything. But it was through like documenting through film, through a camera.
Kevin Goetz (15:37):
Have, have you seen The Fablemans yet? Spielberg's movie?
George Tillman Jr. (15:39):
No, that's on my list.
Kevin Goetz (15:42):
Oh, you're going to really dig it and you're going to like it because it's very similar to your own story, the way his mom and dad sort of were encouraging him and gave him that camera, and he just took it and ran. And then they, they didn't laugh at his dream, they encouraged him, and he was just sort of passionate about it. It's such a lesson, I think, for every parent to look at their child and see what they're good at and what they're sort of gravitating towards and help promote that.
George Tillman Jr. (16:20):
Yeah. That is something I was really blessed with because, at the time, coming from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the early eighties and telling my parents that I want to make films. Like my dad grew up and he migrated from the south, and he worked his way through the stills. And then he started as a auto worker in the automobile business, worked at American Motors for years, and then Chrysler. The entertainment business is the farthest thing he could ever imagine.
Kevin Goetz (16:51):
And this was when you were in Milwaukee?
George Tillman Jr. (16:57):
Milwaukee in the eighties, yeah. So from all the way from the seventies to the eighties to the nineties, my dad worked in the automobile business. So having your son say I want to be an entertainment business, a director, my dad was like, what is that? What, what <laugh> what, what kind of job is that? But he put his faith in me. He still led me and everybody around in that time, in Milwaukee, as African Americans going to school, I wanted to be a director. Who does that? Who leaves Milwaukee, who leaves?
Kevin Goetz (17:28):
And did you?
George Tillman Jr. (17:29):
I did. I eventually left. My dream was to go to NYU, and that didn't happen. So the next step was with me was Columbia College, which was okay. Columbia College is in Chicago. But the interesting thing about Columbia College, you get a camera freshman year. Ooh. You're making movies right off the bat.
Kevin Goetz (17:51):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. Makes a huge difference, doesn't it? Just to sort of play with it, not be scared of it, if you know what I mean.
George Tillman Jr. (17:57):
Huge difference. And then I'm in Chicago, I'm there and I'm seeing De Niro make Midnight Run on the streets of Chicago. So, I'm going from a kid who's watching Taxi Driver and seeing Yaphet Kotto, you know what I mean? And Martin Breast directing a movie right down the street from my dorms.
Kevin Goetz (18:23):
George Tillman Jr. (18:24):
So that was a changing game for me at that point, that it can really be real.
Kevin Goetz (18:29):
Did you have a mentor in particular? I know you had people who influenced you, like Scorsese and others, but was there a particular person that you remember was sort of responsible for your guidance? You know?
George Tillman Jr. (18:49):
Yeah, there were two people early on. There was this teacher at Columbia, his name was Paul Hettel. He was a really great writer, and director himself as an independent filmmaker.
Kevin Goetz (19:00):
What'd he teach you?
George Tillman Jr. (19:02):
He taught me Film 101, which is how to tell stories from a subjective point of view that means something to you from a structure standpoint. What is the movie that you want to say thematically? That was the first thing, that was the only time I can really make a film or think about a film is, what did I want to say internally? What is the theme? What is the major point of why we are here and what does every scene and what every character has to do with that theme? Mm-hmm. It's like, wow, there's an organization, the storytelling, which makes sense. To me, why some films are great and some films are just okay, sometimes it's the execution between the actors and your production designer and the crew. But ultimately, you as a director has to be the force of what are you trying to say. So when I look at movies like Avalonor Taxi Driver or Raging Bull…
Kevin Goetz (19:56):
Or Soul Food or The Hate U Give. Keep going.
George Tillman Jr. (19:59):
Yeah. Those films got something to say. Okay. So that was the first individual who made me realize that the second person was on Men of Honor. When I got a chance to work with two of my heroes, remember I mentioned Taxi Driver and I mentioned Cooley High. Glynn Turman was the star of Cooley High, and De Niro was the star of Taxi Driver. I got a chance to work with both of them on one movie. So that was my second film.
Kevin Goetz (20:17):
Men of Honor?
George Tillman Jr. (20:24):
Men of Honor. And my second mentor, I don't think he even knows he was a mentor to me, but it was De Niro and that was mostly the case in post-production.
Kevin Goetz (20:34):
George Tillman Jr. (20:35):
How so is when he saw the movie, my first version of the movie, I knew he liked the film because he was very emotional and he had tears in his eyes that he sort of covered a little bit. But I remember he was very emotional, then he said, hey, I'm going to be in New York, can you come out and see me in a couple weeks? And I said, yeah, I could come out and see you. He says, can you get a tape of the movie? And I said, yeah, I knew he liked the movie. I was like, okay, well, he wants to get the tape. And then he just watched the movie with me, you can cut there here, cut down here, trim here, trim there. He was just telling me things to sort of do to the film. And it was like, wow, he's cutting down his performance. But he was letting me understand about pace, letting me understand about movement, why this scene is important, get out there, how the audience…
Kevin Goetz (21:17):
I need, I need to just break in and ask you something. So interesting you say that because often a director will fall in love with a particular actor, and they will just be so precious with the performance and overstate their welcome for shot after shot. And I'm like, you are not helping the performance. You're actually hurting the performance. And De Niro was, as you're saying, like so smart to know that it actually the performance is serving the overall film. And I love that you bring that up.
George Tillman Jr. (21:52):
Yeah. Because that was the key. That's when I had the realization. I truly believe that majority of the actors are great directors. I mean, look at Sean Penn, look at De Niro in the Bronx Tale. Like these movies were just amazing sometimes when actors get behind the camera, especially the ones who do it more than twice. And that's what I was learning about. Wow. The filmmaking is not just about making a movie. You actually can rewrite and change the story in post-production, and that's something that I learned from him as a mentor and just listening to him. Less is more, you know what I mean? Keep moving. It's about the overall movie and it's about a particular scene. So that was, that was about three, four hours, and talking with him about that post-production.
George Tillman Jr. (22:52):
So, what happened around that time was very interesting because Michael Mann was actually making Ali at that time, and he wanted to see the film because he wanted to see an actor that wasn't De Niro that was in my movie. And he was like, you mind if I see the movie because I want to check out this actor's performance. And I said, sure, as long as I have about an hour of your time and I can pick your brain. I was a huge Michael Mann fan. So I go over to his office, and I see how he has everything set up. It's very similar to how I borrow a lot of those things in pre-production. So I sat down with him, he says, I saw your movie. I loved it. Everything was great. I just, the music, just the music, when you go emotionally, you bring the music right with it emotionally, have the music go the opposite way. That really hit me at that point where I have a last-minute thought about how I see music now. And so even though I only talked to him for an hour and I see him every now and then, and I always just say hi and say some things.
Kevin Goetz (23:37):
It was just that so influential that comment? That influential?
George Tillman Jr. (23:41):
Yeah. That comment in how to see music. And I always felt like, oh yeah, there's something going on emotionally, just push it. Just go with it. Yeah. Go the opposite. Do less, you know, or take away music. You know what I mean?
Kevin Goetz (23:52):
Did you make the movie the first movie? What was the name of your $150,000 movie?
George Tillman Jr. (23:57):
That was a movie called Scenes for the Soul.
Kevin Goetz (23:58):
Scenes for the Soul. Did you raise the money for it? How'd you get it?
George Tillman Jr. (24:02):
Yeah, I raised the money with my business partner who, my producer who I work with a lot, Bob Teitel. We were just in Chicago at that time. Like I said, I really wanted to be a director early on in my life.
Kevin Goetz (24:16):
And so as soon as you graduated, basically?
George Tillman Jr. (24:18):
Yeah, soon as early on in high school, I thought that's what I wanted. And I told myself, damn it, I'm going to be the first African American black filmmaker in the eighties and nineties. And little did I know that Spike Lee came out with She’s Gotta Have It and John Singleton came out with Boys in the Hood in 91 <laugh>.
George Tillman Jr. (24:38):
Those movies were, were amazing. So that was the beginning. Spike Lee was the beginning of that time. How do you get your movie seen, raise your own money. And then he raised his own money through credit cards and he got it through John Pearson, this young executive, independent who actually would get your movies and get it sold. So our whole thing is where do we get our money? So we wanted a budget of $500,000 to make the movie. We couldn't get it. So let's just make it for what money we can get.
Kevin Goetz (25:06):
George Tillman Jr. (25:07):
And it was $150,000. And a lot of that was raised by people in the automobile business in Chicago.
Kevin Goetz (25:14):
Was then what now became GoFundMe probably was like just asking anyone you knew, right?
George Tillman Jr. (25:21):
That's what it is. A thousand dollars here.
Kevin Goetz (25:21):
Good for you.
George Tillman Jr. (25:28):
Two thousand dollars. So you just did what you could.
Kevin Goetz (25:28):
You just did what you had to. And everyone's deferring left, right, and sideways.
George Tillman Jr. (25:31):
And we sold that movie to Savoy pitchers. So everybody doubled, tripled their money at that time.
Kevin Goetz (25:37):
How did you get the deal? Did you drive out to Hollywood? Like how did you get to Savoy?
George Tillman Jr. (25:44):
Yeah, we drove out to Hollywood. We had, this is something to always say, have something in your pocket if it's not a script.
Kevin Goetz (25:52):
A calling card.
George Tillman Jr. (25:54):
Yeah. Even better, a movie. Now there are no excuses. Everybody's making movies.
Kevin Goetz (25:58):
Absolutely. So, you know, people used to make, people used to make, George, like a trailer for the movie they wanted to make. And I said, don't make the trailer, make the movie, you know, make the movie. Right?
George Tillman Jr. (26:10):
Yes. Make the movie. And that was the biggest calling card for us. We knew one person who knew someone at William Morris. Okay. Which is now WME, but William Morris at that time had an independent film department. So we gave that movie to that person. That person thought it was interesting. They gave it to these producers, George Jackson and Doug McHenry.
Kevin Goetz (26:34):
I remember, yeah. Well, didn't they do Soul Food?
George Tillman Jr. (26:37):
No, they didn't do Soul Food. Tracy Edmonds and Babyface did Soul Food.
Kevin Goetz (26:40):
Oh, right, right, right. Okay.
George Tillman Jr. (26:41):
Yeah, but they were, they were hot producers at the time. They had a deal with Savoy pictures. So when they saw the movie, it was like, let's make it happen. Savoy saw the movie and we were just sitting around one day at WME and one of the agents says, they probably going to ask you guys how much you want to make the movie for. And the agent says, why don't you ask for a million? We're like, what? The movie only cost $150,000.
Kevin Goetz (27:05):
George Tillman Jr. (27:06):
You know, they said, just ask for a million. And we asked for a million and Savoy Pictures bought it for a million.
Kevin Goetz (27:12):
Was it worldwide rights?
George Tillman Jr. (27:14):
It was worldwide rights.
Kevin Goetz (27:16):
And you walked away with probably a couple hundred grand yourself, right?
George Tillman Jr. (27:19):
A couple hundred grand. I had to divide it between my business partner. It was enough to keep us going for a little while. And we're working on the movie to get it ready to come out. And then Savoy Pictures went out of business.
Kevin Goetz (27:32):
Oh, I remember well, wow. That was unfortunate.
George Tillman Jr. (27:36):
Yeah. And I was like, when is the movie going to come out? And it never came out. And I was writing Soul Food for those guys.
Kevin Goetz (27:42):
Wait, the movie to this day never came out?
George Tillman Jr. (27:45):
Never came out. It just never came out.
Kevin Goetz (27:48):
Not even on video?
George Tillman Jr. (27:49):
Not even on video. I hear that they lost one of their last reels of the movie somehow. Never came out.
Kevin Goetz (27:57):
So you tried to get it back, I'm sure somehow some way?
George Tillman Jr. (28:00):
We tried to sell it, get it back, and then it just went away. And at the time, I was like, hey guys, I'm writing the movie Soul Food, the next movie that you guys asked for. I never really got any response, never got any calls. They were out of business. And then, next thing you know, Fox ended up buying the movie.
Kevin Goetz (28:18):
They bought it in development from the script you mean or bought it before?
George Tillman Jr. (28:21):
In development. Yep.
Kevin Goetz (28:24):
Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Well, so I'm just concerned we have to get this movie out somehow. Your first movie.
George Tillman Jr. (28:29):
Oh, I think it's good to be buried. I think so.
Kevin Goetz (28:33):
<laugh>. Oh, you mean that, do you really? Yeah, I, you know what? I can trust you. I trust you. I'm looking at your face here and you're saying to me, I'm thinking I’m going to listen to the man. Well, it had to be good enough to warrant a million-dollar sale. I mean, come on. And you know, I know your talent. I know your talent. And, and it's like, come on. It can't be, can't be all that bad man.
George Tillman Jr. (28:54):
Right. And then Laura Ziskin saw it and she says, oh yeah, you can direct, you can direct Soul Food, let's go green light the movie.
Kevin Goetz (29:00):
So she did, she got to see it?
George Tillman Jr. (29:02):
She got to see it and saw what I could do as a director.
Kevin Goetz (29:05):
I love that about her. Let's just take a moment because you know what, she was innately a producer and I remember calling her when she produced Pretty Woman, and I mean so many movies. Right?
George Tillman Jr. (29:20):
So many movies.
Kevin Goetz (29:20):
And I remember calling her and saying, hey Laura, how's it going? And I said, how different is it? And she goes, it's not that different. I'm still selling. I'm always selling. And I said, what do you mean? Well, I have to sell all my scripts to my bosses to get the green light or whatever it may be. And I thought that was so interesting. It always stuck with me.
George Tillman Jr. (29:38):
Yeah. She was great. And she was so monumental in my life. And at that time, she bought Men of Honor for me. That script was just sitting around, and it was over at Paramount, and she was like, you like this script? I said I do. So she bought it for me, but I sat on it for a little bit because I wanted to write my next movie. And then she says, George, you got this great script here, why don't we just make the movie? So she green-lit Men of Honor for me. And that is where I met Elizabeth Gabler in that transition.
Kevin Goetz (30:07):
Oh. One of my favorite people on the planet is Beth. She's very dear to me, very, very dear to me. But George, Cuba Gooding Jr. was in that too, wasn't he?
George Tillman Jr. (30:16):
Yeah, he was in that film. Yes, he was.
Kevin Goetz (30:18):
Who was the young actor that Michael Mann wanted to see?
George Tillman Jr. (30:23):
He wanted to see Cuba for something.
Kevin Goetz (30:26):
See, I thought so. I was trying to throw you a <laugh>. Yeah, I was trying to throw you a line <laugh>.
George Tillman Jr. (30:32):
I don't know why he didn't, I don't know why he didn't hire him, but he saw the movie and I just remember he was saying, man De Niro's so good in this. Like, I remember him saying that. He saw the film. I don't know why he didn't hire Cuba, but that's the reason he was seeing the film.
Kevin Goetz (30:45):
So, since Men of Honor and where you are today and we just rekindled our friendship when we worked on this last movie that you're obviously doing right now called Heart of a Lion, which is the story of George Foreman's life and it's a beautiful movie. And <laugh>, it's a hard question I guess, to answer, but I'm going to go for it anyway. So from Men of Honor all the way up to today, we're talking about, I don't know, probably what, 15, 20 years almost of time? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. What have you learned?
George Tillman Jr. (31:17):
You know, what I learned most of all? A lot of times, I've been bouncing from being a producer and other filmmakers and franchises and television shows. At the end of the day when I look back, it's like, man, you really have to tell the stories that you want to tell. You know what I mean?
Kevin Goetz (31:35):
I do know what you mean. And just as another compliment to you is, I knew you were a terrific director in Soul Food,obviously, but I've seen the evolution and the sophistication of you as a director, and it's really exciting. So I wanted to know like what happened, whether it was your own personal, professional growth informed you to get where you are today?
George Tillman Jr. (31:58):
I think so, because there was a time when those movies were made, Soul Food was made at a time when there weren't a lot of African American movies made. You know, seven was the cap that they'll give you, seven or eight. So you just have to stick with it. There's a lot of things that were offered that I didn't do, then you almost like, ah, resented. But I always stayed kind of consistently true to like let me try to tell the stories that I wanted to make, that I feel closer to. There's a, between those movies, there's another small movie I did called The Inevitable Defeat of Mr. and Pete, small movie. Only did that for like $4 million. I felt like I had to get to the basics after doing one film that I really wasn't happy with. I did it just to do an action movie, and I felt like I…
Kevin Goetz (32:46):
Hold on. Which one was that?
George Tillman Jr. (32:48):
Well, I just felt Like Faster was a movie I did at CBS Films. And at the time, I just felt like, yeah…
Kevin Goetz (32:54):
We worked, we worked on that together.
George Tillman Jr. (32:55):
Kevin Goetz (32:57):
It was a fun movie. It was a fun movie.
George Tillman Jr. (32:58):
Yeah, it was a fun movie. And at the end of the day, it's like, what did you have to say with it, you know, as a filmmaker? And it was an action. I wanted to do action and I wanted to go down that road. And I still do, but…
Kevin Goetz (33:10):
So wait, you didn't answer your own question. Yep. That's not the reason you just said it. You said, why am I doing this? Just because I wanted to do an action movie. That's not the reason to do a movie.
George Tillman Jr. (33:22):
That's not the reason to do a movie. And I had a great time doing it, but I felt like, wow, I had to go back to the basics and do a $4 million movie.
Kevin Goetz (33:32):
Sure. To get to something that meant something to you, that felt…
George Tillman Jr. (33:37):
That meant something to me. Went to Sundance, played at Sundance, came out, got great reviews, that's all I needed to get back on the bandwagon, you know what I mean? Just to get back to the basics.
Kevin Goetz (33:50):
Oh, I do know what you mean. I have the good fortune of having one of my best friends in Gena Rowlands, the great actress. And I didn't really know Gena when she was married to John. We met right after he passed. But one of the things that Gena, who's still with us, thank God. She's living in Palm Springs. She said to me she always followed her heart. Now, she did some movies that she knew she had to pay for the movies that she and John were doing. So they would go off, make a movie for a studio, come back with some cash to put into the movie that they were making. But all the movies that she was passionate about had a tremendous meaning for her. And that's how she guided her career. She never cared about all that other stuff. I always admired that so much. And it sounds like you learned that, that the heart never fails you.
George Tillman Jr. (34:47):
It never fails you. And there was some things too, you go left just to go right. Let me just tell you, like Elizabeth Gabler we were talking, and they had a movie called The Longest Ride. Right. That was a love story that was set in the role of bull riding. It's like, what? I don't really know. Bull riding. Right. <laugh>. And then my wife was telling me like, hey, you know, it's about love. We've been together about since high school, 36 years, maybe you can tap into it. And I tapped into it, and I really did have something connected. It's a little bit, and I love the bull riding. That was something that, it was a really great experience. Really wasn't per se connected to me, but it was just, I wanted to work with Elizabeth Gabler. I loved the bull riding. I had a really good time. But what that did was it set me up later for the next movie, which was The Hate U Give, and it was with Elizabeth. And I felt like that movie is close to my own cut as it can be. You know what I mean?
Kevin Goetz (35:42):
But I want to acknowledge also, Soul Food was too.
George Tillman Jr. (35:46):
Yeah, Soul Food was too.
Kevin Goetz (35:47):
Because when a movie has that emotional resonance, I find that I don't see that many substantive changes because no one wants to fix what's not broke, you know what I mean?
George Tillman Jr. (35:59):
How often do you see that on your side?
Kevin Goetz (36:01):
Not terribly often, to be honest. I see changes because, well, for different reasons, but what I'm saying is when you get a filmmaker who has such great conviction coupled with wanting to win, meaning they want the movie to be successful. So they know their heart, they trust their heart. They're fighting for their movie, which I completely respect, but yet they're not closed off to hearing what audiences have to say and then making a cogent argument for that. But just to hold onto something for holding onto it is kind of bullshit.
George Tillman Jr. (36:35):
It's kind of bullshit. And then how often, this is what I think about it as a filmmaker too. It's like, wow. Like, and I say I have about my out of all the films I did, I say, wow, I got at least about four or five of 'em. Like I made about, I think I made like seven or eight movies like as a director, produced about 14 of them together. And I was like, how does a filmmaker get every single one like that? That is the question <laugh>.
Kevin Goetz (37:05):
I don't, I know. It doesn't, it doesn’t…
George Tillman Jr. (37:05):
I know. I mean, well, Spielberg got that resume like crazy. But it's just like…
Kevin Goetz (37:05):
Well, you know, what happens also, when you have a certain level of success, the choice of the material becomes so vast that it's the movie stars as well that have really sort of withstood the…I'm talking about Tom Hanks and Denzel and Tom Cruise. Yeah, like that level. They just get whatever they kind of want to do in a way. And, so it doesn't suck. You know, it makes <laugh> it makes it a lot, I think it makes it a lot easier when you have a plethora of choices. Yeah. Right. Yeah, but by the way, not to take anything away from any of them. They've earned it, but it makes it more challenging when you've had a level of success, and then you're sort of still having to work harder to get that material because it's all about the material.
George Tillman Jr. (37:55):
Kevin Goetz (37:57):
Wouldn't you agree with that?
George Tillman Jr. (37:58):
I totally agree with that. And I think that's the key. And then sometimes I think about, love all filmmakers. I saw this really interesting movie. I really liked it a lot actually, James Gray, Armageddon Time. I don't know if you've seen that.
Kevin Goetz (38:10):
I haven't yet. I haven't seen it yet.
George Tillman Jr. (38:13):
Yeah. It's really good. And you know, you see filmmakers who just keep plugging away and keep it personal, and so you always learn as a filmmaker, you learn from everybody. You know what I mean?
Kevin Goetz (38:24):
Yeah, I totally do. We learned that in school because I went to an acting conservatory, and they taught us, don't walk out of things, go the distance, stay and learn what's not working. And I remember I used that my whole life, and there was an intolerable show, it was at the Ahmanson or something. And I just was like, I said, I'm too old for this shit, I can't do this anymore. I'm not, I'm walking out <laugh>. I walked out during intermission, but almost always, I really try to, what can I learn here? And I really do, and I continue to. And I think that the day that we, as professionals, artists, give up that ability is like give it up, you know, that curiosity, that insatiable curiosity. I love that your wife opened up your eyes to see the possibility of that movie. You know, hey, talk about your beautiful wife, who I think is phenomenal.
George Tillman Jr. (39:23):
Well, it's interesting is, she's been around for a long time, since I was 16 years old. We met when we were 16 years old. And how I met her was I was coming from football practice, I played football. That was my second dream before I realized I was too small and really couldn't run as fast <laugh>. So I came up to her, I saw her walking by and I drove up to her and I just said, let me use what I have. And I said, hey, I'm George Tillman Jr. and I'm a director. That's what I said.
Kevin Goetz (39:49):
Of course you did.
George Tillman Jr. (39:49):
She says, well I'm Marcia Wright and I'm an actress. That's what she said. And little did I know that she was transferring from her school to my school. Cause my school at that time had a broadcasting and journalism, and writing department where sometimes you can do television and film projects. So that's why she was heading over to my school. And that started a relationship with me very early on all the way into college. She was always in my films. She's an actress. I'm always doing read-throughs.
Kevin Goetz (40:21):
George Tillman Jr. (40:21):
She's the one that read the script like with Soul Food and The Hate U Give, I do read-throughs myself personally, how to really devise my rehearsals with actors. I love rehearsals. A lot of people tell me actors like, ah, we don't really do any rehearsals, we just jump right in.
Kevin Goetz (40:38):
Oh, I love rehearsals. Now it doesn't mean you don't take out the spontaneity and get these wonderful surprises that you feel on set or you can discover on set, but still like to be prepared and to know that you can go deeper and what your vision is. You know, why don't you think about this? Actors love being guided. They don't want to be told, they want to be guided. And so it sounds like that's what your process might be.
George Tillman Jr. (41:03):
That's the process. That’s what I love too. I heard this quote that I love. It’s that you never learn anything when everything's going well, you learn from a scene of a crime. So I always tell my actors, we just going to mess it up. Let's mess it up. Let's see what works and don't work. What it does is get a sense of confidence that first of all, you're building a relationship. That's what you need, a chemistry relationship. So when you got three or four scenes to do a day, you know, you know, especially like films like George Foreman, like The Heart of a Lion. We had four or five scenes a day, so we gotta move fast. So how do you get ready and prepared for that? So you know what the alternate things that work and don't work.
Kevin Goetz (41:39):
And your lead is phenomenal.
George Tillman Jr. (41:42):
Yeah. He did a really great job. And that was a process of working for a year and the process of doing rehearsals. And then you got a person in every scene. So he has a rehearsal with the mom, the rehearsal with the boxing, the rehearsal with his love of his two relationships. And then how do you build the intimacy between the two love relationships that he has? All that is a rehearsal. So I'm the kind of director, I like to have three ideas. I did this with Men of Honor because I was so afraid with De Niro like oh, I don't wanna do that. So I always prepare myself with three blocking ideas. Always have my subjective verbs ready.
Kevin Goetz (42:17):
You come in with a shot, you come in with a shot list every day?
George Tillman Jr. (42:20):
Yeah, I come in with a shot list and then I'm ready to adjust. Gotta be ready to adjust. It's not my way. It's what is the right way. What is the organic way. But it's always the key. Some actors like to do blocking where it's comfortable for them. I always try to get 'em in trouble a little bit. So sometimes that organically happens with a plan. So who do I have to throw those ideas out? You know, my wife is an actress so I can have…
Kevin Goetz (42:45):
Oh, that's wonderful. Well, when I saw her in Chicago at our screening recently, I was so taken with her support of you and the fact that you worked so well off each other and I just wanted to acknowledge her.
George Tillman Jr. (42:59):
Oh thanks. Yeah, she's my good luck. She's usually around when those numbers come. <laugh>.
Kevin Goetz (43:05):
Yay. I love that. George, talk to me, if you would, about the screening process for you. Like is there a particular moment that you remember in all your movies that the audience really was kind of responsible for a big change that happened in one of your pictures?
George Tillman Jr. (43:27):
Yeah, there was one particular moment that I remember on a particular film and it was really a film where things were just too tight. Where the cut was moving very fast and trying to get through the material and trying to keep people on the edge of their seats. And I just remember the audience was just feeling like, first of all, you could feel it in the audience. They just…
Kevin Goetz (43:55):
You didn't even need, you didn't even need the cards, the questionnaires, you…
George Tillman Jr. (43:58):
Didn't even need the cards.
Kevin Goetz (43:59):
George Tillman Jr. (44:00):
Didn't even need the cards. And it's just a feeling that you get. And I don't really watch back the videos to see what their faces look like. It's just a feeling. And I like to sit in the middle of the audience and that was the time where I felt like I gotta slow things down. I gotta get a moment to really sub-textually what are these actors trying to say? What are these characters when you want?
Kevin Goetz (44:22):
Because it was just adrenaline, adrenaline, but you needed the breath, is that what you're saying? Yeah.
George Tillman Jr. (44:27):
Yes, you needed the breath. Yep. And it was, and that was just because, just because the audience is, is a hip hop audience or just because it is about hip hop, you know, it is just, it doesn't really matter. People want to know about characters. They want to feel like they're listening in on things. So that was a really great example. Another great example is when you know things are working. Mm. You know, and that's a feeling that you just can't get over. You just want to sit in it <laugh>.
Kevin Goetz (44:53):
George Tillman Jr. (44:55):
So it's always…
Kevin Goetz (44:56):
I always say it's a validation as much as it is an assessment, it's a validation of what your instincts have been telling you.
George Tillman Jr. (45:04):
What they been telling me. And it's so interesting, I heard a story, I don't know, I think it's true. I heard a story that Scorsese loves to test, he loves to screen.
Kevin Goetz (45:12):
He likes to screen, but he usually does it with family and friends, but he is very big into feedback. Very, very big into feedback. Always has been.
George Tillman Jr. (45:22):
And that's something over the years because remember I told you my first film was a disaster. Like before Soul Food,and after Soul Food, it was like night and day, you know, like standing ovation. Right. And then Men of Honor, standing ovation. So you get used to like these numbers, but now it's like, it's not, to me it's not about chasing the numbers now, it's about listening. You know what I mean?
Kevin Goetz (45:42):
George Tillman Jr. (45:43):
What's important. Cause the numbers are gonna get there if you just listen to what they're saying.
Kevin Goetz (45:48):
Sure. Are you excited about where things are going with our business right now?
George Tillman Jr. (45:53):
Yeah, I am very excited. I am very, I'm trying to figure out what's the next step. I don't know what the next step is like it's, you know, so much, there's so much out there. So how do you stand out is the key for me now.
Kevin Goetz (46:06):
George Tillman Jr. (46:08):
Yeah. I had a really good conversation with Tom Rothman over at Sony, like these days to go into theaters, your movie's gotta be great. Can't be good anymore.
Kevin Goetz (46:16):
It is a hundred percent true. I just interviewed Tom and Elizabeth from my new book, which is going to come out next year. It's called How to Score in Hollywood and it's about getting to the green light, you know? Mm-hmm. And how and what that process is, right? Yeah. And Tom is a huge proponent of, of he understands, let's just say that the criteria used to be content is king, and then some people said distribution is king and then marketing is king. But now we're back to content is king and, and we both agree that great content is king. If you're going theatrical, that's what is going to differentiate you. A piece of advice that a friend of mine called George Tillman Jr. gave me, and I'm going to throw back to you is, just listen to your heart.
George Tillman Jr. (47:06):
Kevin Goetz (47:07):
Just listen to your heart because that will create differentiation. Because to me the three best films you've done, including The Hate U Give, and Men of Honor and Soul Food for me, and of course the new movie, which I'm not allowed to really talk too much about, but it will definitely join that list, I'll just say that, is the fact that they're personal. They're personal and they have meaning. And so, with that, I can talk forever, but I need to let you enjoy the rest of your day. George Tillman Jr., you are a very special person and a terrific and talented director. Thank you for joining me today.
George Tillman Jr. (47:43):
Thank you. Thank you for having me, Kevin. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Kevin Goetz (47:46):
I'll see you at the next test.
George Tillman Jr. (47:48):
<laugh>. See you at the next test. All right. Look forward to it.
Kevin Goetz (47:50):
Okay. And say hi to Marcia, please.
George Tillman Jr. (47:52):
I sure will.
Kevin Goetz (47:54):
To our listeners, I hope you enjoy today's interview. I'm Kevin Goetz, and to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.
Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never before revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: George Tillman Jr.
Producer: Kari Campano