Director Tate Taylor (The Help) wasn’t after creating a conventional biopic, but it would have been incredibly easy to fit into the birth-tragedy-comeback structure when bringing James Brown’s story to life in Get On Up. Fortunately, what we wound up with is a mosaic of moments displayed on screen through the use of flashbacks for a greater story. These flashbacks spanning from Brown’s abandonment by his mother, the physical abuse of his volatile father, to being raised in a brothel, are carefully weaved together in a puzzling jigsaw, which leaves viewers to discover James Brown on screen as a complex being. Taylor’s clever structure allows the audience to leave their impressions behind and slowly glue the cracked pieces together that ultimately created the Godfather of Soul.
Unlike other biopics, the narrative is driven by James Brown played fiercely by leading man Chadwick Boseman. Breaking the fourth wall, Boseman gives a gripping performance with the hunger of an unhinged animal and the smooth finesse of any mainline top 40 stadium act. While the film counts on Boseman’s energy, it’s Taylor’s ambitious drive that guides Get On Up.
A storyteller and actor’s director at heart, Taylor brought together his makeshift family of dynamic talents (most notably Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis) for a gutsy telling of a damaged man fighting to let the light in. Paste caught up with Taylor at the historical Apollo Theater, which has its own past with James Brown, to talk about the unique biopic and the man behind the legend.
Paste: The reception of Get On Up has been great as far as I can tell just by being at the press conference earlier in the week. During the conference you actually mentioned being raised by your mother. Did that affect your taste in film and the conversations you wanted to discuss through cinema?
Taylor Tate: That didn’t directly affect it, but it brought to the forefront my love of human dramas and the examination of humanity in pride and false pride. It made me really dig in to the human condition and exploring it versus going the route of robots and explosions. As a kid and much like James Brown, I faced abandonment issues. In many ways, when you’re left alone or by yourself, or when your family isn’t like your best friend’s family, it creates a little curiosity in you and often a storyteller is born.
Paste: You capture the strength of women on film with a very gentle touch. How is it to have performers like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jill Scott illuminate that?
Taylor: It’s great, and I work with them because they’re fantastic and we trust each other. We can be honest with each other when we think something is working or not. If I need for them to do something and dig deep, they’ll do it because they trust me. They know that if it doesn’t work then I’m not going to let it up there on screen. Any director would be a fool not to bring back amazing people that he’s worked with in the past.
Paste: In addition to Aunjanue Ellis, who you also had in The Help, Ahna O’Reilly was in Get On Up for a short scene. It must create a great family environment on set, as well.
Taylor: Yeah, it’s a big family. The Help felt like one big family. We went to Mississippi, and it was that same feeling all over again. People were going to each other’s houses for dinner at night. At lunch, you can walk back to your house from a shooting location and eat a sandwich. You’re not driving fifty minutes all the time.
Paste: This film has been in development for 12 years. How did it come across your desk?
Taylor: It’s a hilarious story. I was actually contacted by a living legend about doing her biopic. I never gravitated towards them as an audience member or creatively. I had an idea of what they are which is usually cradle to grave, and you usually know what’s going to happen, and what the end result is. I was on my way to meet her. I was on my way to the airport and stopped off at Imagine Entertainment to meet Brian Grazer about something completely unrelated. It was a TV idea. I’m in the lobby, and someone’s asking me what I’m up to and I said, “I’m going to New York for this meeting” and the competition said, “Well, we’re doing a biopic on James Brown.” I asked if I could read it, finished my TV meeting, and got on the plane with my producing partner John Norris. [We were] over Vegas, an hour outside of L.A., and I looked over and said, “Holy shit. I think I want to direct this thing.” I landed in New York and I said, “Guys, can I direct this?” And they said, “Let’s talk about it.” I came back and met with Brian, gave him my take on the script and they said yeah. The next day I’m Skyping with Mick Jagger.
Paste: That must have been unreal.
Taylor: It was interesting and cool. It was surreal. We all said, “This is a tough one to get made,” so we all rolled up our sleeves and began wooing Universal Studios. It was tough because of the current market place of film. You know how it is.
Paste: If it’s not a popcorn film…
Taylor: Right. The budgets go down for them because they’re trying to reduce risks should it not work, but the industry as a whole is changing. When Brian Grazer was first trying to make it eight years ago the budget was $75 million, but those days are over.
Paste: The whole entertainment industry is changing very quickly.
Taylor: You just have to keep up. What I’m trying to do is to find a way to handcraft a studio movie with a responsible budget. It seems like it’s going to be impossible, but if you take the movie to Mississippi like we did, then there’s an excitement in the community and they lend a hand. Renting a house in New Orleans for a top actor is $15,000 a month, renting an even bigger house in Natchez, Miss., is $3,000. So there’s a way to do it.
Paste: And the way you’ve structured Get On Up is impressive. This is not a color-by-numbers biopic.
Taylor: Thank you!
Paste: Well, you broke the fourth wall! Seeing James Brown narrate and engage with the camera added a layer of depth to who he was as an emotional being. Did you always have those shots in mind?
Taylor: They came to me late. When the script came to me, there was just a hint of that. Understandably, the script had what could be considered as the usual trappings of a biopic. A lot of information about his life and success was given through the voice of a reporter, or magazine headlines, and I said, “God how do you get that information out?” The more I thought about the James Brown that was once involved with his own biopic, and the knowledge that I had that he was very controlling, I said, if there’s anybody who can come back from the grave who would have an interest in putting their nose in their own story, it’s James Brown. Who would have the confidence and arrogance to just tell it like it is? I didn’t know if it would work but we had to commit. A lot of this film’s success will go to Chadwick Boseman.
Paste: It could have totally fallen a part without Chadwick. He was such a fierce performer, and to have that energy and be that charged the whole time is incredible to see on screen.
Taylor: Did you know he only had two months?
Paste: Get out!
Taylor: We got the go ahead from Universal around the end of August. Chad Boseman had September and October to become James Brown—the dancer, the singer, and played him as a 17-year-old all the way to a 63-year-old. I literally can’t understand how he did it.
Paste: The inflection alone was extremely jarring. When I saw Chad earlier in the week it was such a departure. Did you bring him on board?
Taylor: That was me. What I saw with him in 42 is the same thing I love about Viola Davis, which is this stillness that’s so brave for an actor to do, because most actors want to be big. To be that still, when those two are in a scene they suck you in, versus a performance where they’re “acting” at you.
Paste: How was it to direct Chad? That must have created some environment.
Taylor: It’s a joy. Actors are my favorite. The only reason why I got into this business is because I studied to be an actor. I trained, worked, but I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker, so I’m not afraid of them. When you direct an actor and you see they’re not getting somewhere you’re able to put yourself in their shoes and act as if you’re doing it. I have a hall pass to speak to them as an actor.
Paste: It’s very much like a call and response.
Paste: That’s rare because some directors won’t say anything to actors.
Taylor: A lot of directors are afraid of actors. They don’t understand what they do, and understandably so, but maybe it’s the way I came up through The Groundlings. My goal was to get on Saturday Night Live and then I started to realize that I wanted to tell these stories. I came up with Melissa McCarthy.
Paste: Wow. To make that transition from an aspiring comedian to a filmmaker is so different. Did you have any fear in that?
Taylor: Well, the whole point of The Groundlings was to create these characters for yourself, and I kept on writing these sketches and I wouldn’t be in them. I had Melissa McCarthy in my class, and she’s so damn funny, and they were like, “Uh you realize you’re not really being these big characters?” Eventually it hit me, and I said, “I think I want to be a director.” I didn’t know until I tried.
Paste: Was there anything that surprised you about James Brown as a person?
Taylor: I didn’t know the depth of his abandonment as a child, and I still struggle with coming to grips with how he survived. He was left alone for weeks at a time at such an early age in the woods in a cabin and had to just figure it out.
Paste: We do see how it’s incredibly hard for him to reconcile everything. It must have been incredibly hard for him as a man who grew up in a radically different time, especially when the world had changed in front of him. How was it merging the image of the icon with that kind of depth?
Taylor: You just tell the truth. It would have been so easy to recreate and exploit his bad moments, his blunders, but people don’t realize that his drug use and drinking didn’t happen until later in life. He was very anti-drugs; he wrote songs about it, and didn’t even experiment with marijuana until the 1970s, and by then everyone was doing it. It wasn’t until later in his life that he started using PCP. All of this gave me a sense of duty that I had to show people the rest of this that unfortunately should be the most celebrated, but no one knew. So that’s what drove me. Through my structure, I was able to pick the right times and weave them in together. I didn’t want this to ever be a “thing.” I wanted it to be a painting when you don’t really know why you’re getting this information and you have to just kind of adapt. There’s a learning curve to it.
Paste: Octavia said that you’re her director. Do you have any more projects you have in mind for her?
Taylor: I don’t, and we’re laughing because I’m developing a space movie about the Space Race exploration of the 1960s. We both laughed and said, “You think people would notice if I put you in a space suit on the moon?” Hey, who knows? Maybe I will put Octavia Spencer on the moon. I’m not scared.
Get On Up hits theaters on August 1st.