By Iain Blair
The Hate U Give, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has immediately generated big Oscar buzz. This ripped-from-the-headlines story — which scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes — is a work of fiction based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name by Angie Thomas. It stars Amandla Stenberg in a breakout performance as Starr, a 16-year-old who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend by a police officer.
Starr lives in a working-class community with her close-knit family. Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), is a reformed ex-gang member who once served time in prison. Now, a family man and valued member of the community, Maverick owns the community grocery store. Starr’s mother Lisa (Regina Hall) is a nurse, and half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) complete the family.
Dismayed by the academic shortcomings of schools in their community, and wanting to give their children better opportunities, Lisa and Maverick enroll Starr and her siblings in a predominantly white school. The kids then find themselves having to juggle two very different worlds.
Starr, whose two best school friends and boyfriend are white, seems able to compartmentalize her life until everything changes when she witnesses the shooting death of her friend Khalil during a traffic stop. As the sole witness, Starr must choose between speaking up for her friend or remaining silent. Telling the truth could also endanger herself and her family by implicating the violent local drug lord whom Khalil worked for.
The Hate U Give is deftly and intelligently directed by George Tillman, Jr., whose credits include Soul Food, Notorious and Men of Honor. The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master), production designer William Arnold (Magnolia), editors Craig Hayes (Django Unchained) and Alex Blatt (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and composer Dustin O’Halloran (Lion).
I spoke with Tillman about making the film, his process and the upcoming awards season.
This is based on a celebrated novel and translating any novel to cinema is always tricky. How difficult was it?
It was a little tricky as it has so many layers, so many great characters — a lot of good stuff, and we wanted to make sure we got it all into 120 pages. Well, you can’t fit it all in. But it was very helpful that Angie was so involved as I wanted to be true to her spirit and the book. So I flew her to LA and we sat down and talked through every character, every viewpoint, and then I realized, ‘Maybe I don’t need this character’ and ‘we can lose this bit,’ and it took four to five weeks to really nail down what we needed.
The film is quite a mixture of genres, tones and themes. Is that what you had in mind from the very beginning?
Yes, a film that really shows what an African-American working-class family goes through. There are a lot of obstacles, a lot of struggles and a lot of the money’s going to the private schools, so there’s not much left. It’s a tough neighborhood, but you push through and find humor, sadness, warmth and loyalty in all the ups and downs. That’s the tone I wanted, where it can change in a second, from grief and sadness to a happy emotion and glee. And with a film like this, which deals with such serious issues, you don’t want it to be just heavy and coming at you. You need the humor.
Obviously, casting the right actor to play Starr was crucial. What did Amandla bring to the role?
She brought a lot of her own experience since she also went to a private school but still lives in her old neighborhood in LA. So she knows those two worlds. She also came with her own dedication since it was an important story for her. She’d read the book and we spent months and months talking and breaking down all the details of her character and how you can go from one strong emotion to another in an instant. So by the time we shot she was just free to be Starr.
We did a couple of weeks of rehearsal, which was invaluable. We improvised and experimented, and everyone got into the whole family vibe. I think that’s a very important part of being a director, getting all the actors together and really digging deep together. You build all these memories, bit by bit.
Why did you shoot in Atlanta rather than Mississippi, where it’s set?
It was down to the tax breaks. At the start, I wanted to check out a ton of different cities, but when you get down to it, it’s all about getting the most out of the budget, and we didn’t have a huge budget. So it’s a matter of putting more on screen, and I really liked shooting there. They have a great pool of background actors that we used for the protest scenes. We shot a lot of stuff like that at night, so we had to work fast. They were great.
Where did you post?
All on the Fox lot in LA. We did the DI at Company 3 with colorist Siggy Ferstl.
Do you like the post process?
It’s the best part of filmmaking and my favorite bit, as you get to see everything you shot, and it’s like rewriting the whole film. You get to focus the film, work on music and sound, and it’s the least stressful part. And on this, we felt like we had everything we needed – great performances, good coverage — to make the film.
You used two editors. Can you tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
I asked for two editors because I shoot a lot of film, a lot of different takes and adjustments to performances and dialogue. So I needed two guys just to deal with all the footage. They were in Atlanta cutting while we shot, but I don’t like to look at footage while I’m shooting. I saw a couple of scenes early on, but then I just focused on the shoot. Then back in LA we really got into it, and they’d trade off scenes. I like to get through a cut as fast as possible so it still feels fresh to me.
Craig and Alex did a great job. There are scenes they cut right at the start that were so good I wouldn’t even touch them, like the diner scene with the family when the cops arrive. I think it’s because they were so in tune with the material.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film, and crafting a soundscape that was so naturalistic and realistic? And how you worked with BAFTA-winning sound editing supervisor Don Sylvester (Walk the Line), Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Andy Nelson (Les Miserables) and Oscar-nominated re-recording mixer David Giammarco (Moneyball).
I’m so glad you said that, because that was exactly how we approached it. I’ve worked with those guys on so many projects, and it’s hard to over-estimate the role sound and music play, and I didn’t want it to sound too Hollywood, too big.
We did all the mixing on the Howard Hawks stage on the Fox lot, and a lot of the scenes were specifically designed to have Starr’s point of view. The sound didn’t get big until the riots, but then we took it way down once she gets on the car. And a lot of times we took sound away. We spent a lot of time getting all the little details and touches just right. The music was key too, for her inner world, her inner emotions, and we had about 40 or 50 minutes of music — a lot.
I loved what composer Dustin O’Halloran did on Lion, which is why I hired him.
We’re already heading into the awards season. How important are awards to you and this film?
To be honest, I don’t think about it too much. I’m still so close to the film. I just want people to see it and remember it. And if it wins something, that’s like icing on the cake.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.