Michael Starrbury. Photo by Jim Brunzell III.
A few days after the Sundance Film Festival premier of the film made from his screenplay, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, local screenwriter Michael Starrbury sat down at a coffee house table in downtown Minneapolis where I was meeting him to discuss his film. I’d never met Starrbury before, but you’d think that we’d been friends for years; he has an engaging smile and charismatic personality, and knows his movies. We chatted and laughed for a good 20 minutes before we even started the interview.
Starrbury, 38, looks younger than that, and the Osseo graduate, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been on quite a winning streak lately. He has won numerous awards, winning the IFP/McKnight Artist Fellowships for Screenwriters three times now; Starrbury’s Mister and Pete script is the first of many new projects he has completed or is working on.
During Sundance it was announced that he would be working on an untitled Tupac Shakur feature film, mostly working on rewrites and bringing a bit more weight to the film, and that’s not all. He also is working on an adaptation of the science fiction comic The Great Unknown for Warner Brothers and his script Watch Roger Do His Thing made the Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. Not to mention, he wrote a series called Black Jack for Comedy Central back in 2011 and it was directed by David Gordon Green (another Sundance entry with Prince Avalanche); he's leaving the Twin Cities in a few days to go out to Los Angeles to work on a Fox comedy pilot.
Starrbury mentioned his love for Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers; Mister and Pete has a small ode to the Coens in the form of an iconic poster and fabulous monologue by Mister. We each ask one another about our favorite one. I can never chose among Fargo, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy, but Starrbury immediately says, “Miller’s Crossing.” I also asked him if Mister and Pete has been picked up by a U.S. distributor since Sundance, and Starrbury says, "There are a few companies that are interested and you have heard of them, but I can't say who they are yet."
A brief synopsis of The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, courtesy of the Sundance Film Institute: “During a sweltering summer in New York City, 14-year-old Mister’s (Skylan Brooks) hard-living mother (Jennifer Hudson) is apprehended by the police, leaving the boy and nine-year-old Pete (Ethan Dizon) alone to forage for food while dodging child protective services and the destructive scenarios of the Brooklyn projects. Faced with more than any child can be expected to bear, the resourceful Mister nevertheless feels he is an unstoppable force against seemingly unmovable obstacles. But what really keeps the pair in the survival game is much more Mister’s vulnerability than his larger-than-life attitude.”
Starrbury points out that it's director George Tillman Jr’s film (the director best known for Soul Food, Faster, and Notorious); I asked him how the film got made and how it got into the hands of such stars as Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Anthony Mackie; how they discovered the amazing Skylan Brooks to play the lead role of Mister; and what his experience was like watching the film for the first time at the Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah, the biggest venue at Sundance, which holds roughly 1,300 people.
The main focus of the film is about these two kids Mister and Pete. How did you come up with this idea about having the two leads being young children?
The idea was always to tell the story through the kids' eyes, and the fact that the story is harsh. We put little less weight on it when it comes from an adult because adults can make decisions that we can always second-guess. Now, coming from a kid’s point of view, kids have a certain perspective on life. In our movie, Mister is not a kid who has a 30-year-old perspective, he has a 13-14-year-old perspective, and the reason that I wanted to do that is that I want people to understand its not necessarily their kids' fault what ends up [happening to] them, and they do need help. They see the world through a certain prism and sometimes they get pigeonholed for seeing it through that prism only because they become a product in their environment. So the idea was to show a kid in a tough circumstance and how he can battle his way out of it.
How long had you been working on the script until it caught George Tillman Jr.’s eye—or was it someone else who brought it to Tillman’s attention?
A buddy of mine, also named George—he’s an associate producer on the film—gave the script to Tillman. My friend George and Tillman worked together before, and Tillman read it over a weekend. The following Monday or Tuesday, he called me and said he was going to make the film. That was in 2009. The script didn’t need much work, but we made a few changes, but it took those guys a while to find the money. I mean, you’re talking about a movie about a black kid and an Asian kid, no one is beating down your door to get that made—and it’s an inner city movie. It was tough to find money but people always loved the script. I think they always also thought that we had something and eventually, we found the money and we got to make the movie in Brooklyn.
How much research did you do for the film in crafting the story?
I didn’t [do] much research. I grew up in the projects, so I saw this stuff. These things are happening in America. There is poverty in America and there are parents who neglect their kids and they truly are happening. It didn’t take much research; it’s more of a recollection. You can find these stories everywhere, we just have to be brave and be willing to tell these stories and they deserve to be told. As far as research goes, I did some research on heroin addiction, and meth addiction, but I knew people who dealt with that and that part wasn’t too tough. Some people may think its cliché, but a kid eating a piece of bread and ketchup, that’s real life. That was me I’ve done that, I had to do that. Sometimes, it was a piece of bread with a bunch of sugar on it, but the idea is that comes from real life. The characters are fiction but the static, the meat and the spirit of the story, that’s real. Those things happened. That’s why people came up to George after the screening, crying and hugging him. People sent me e-mails saying about the film, “this moved me” and “I work for this organization and we need tell to stories like this.”
How were you able to get people like producer Alicia Keys and actors Jennifer Hudson and Anthony Mackie involved in the film?
This is not to come-off as a pat on the back to myself, but people really responded to the screenplay, and that was it. People really responded to this story about these kids and they wanted to get involved. We sent to those actors and Alicia, she read it and she wanted to produce it right away and she was on board. That [also] goes for Jennifer and Anthony and Jeffrey Wright: they all wanted to be part of it. And from what I was told, it was because of the screenplay—and I know it wasn’t because of the money. Trust me, I had to pay for my own way to be on set, as there was no money. A story like this had never been told and they wanted to be part of it. I will say, Tillman Jr. and I would laugh about it, but the script was funnier and quirkier then in the actual movie. Tillman would call me and say, “Hey Mike, it's gritty…it’s getting even grittier.” And I would just laugh, but I trust him, this guy has been making movies since I was in high school and he’s incredible. It’s his movie and when I watched it, I don’t see the grit and the heartbreak in it, but people see it that way and it’s from all different points of view. I look it and wish more kids had the resilience like Mister, and wish they wouldn’t give up. So Tillman Jr. saw it as gritty but I see it as honest and sincere.
You mention watching it, talk about your experience of seeing it for the first time at the world premiere at the Eccles Theater. What feelings were going through your mind?
Well, I had read so much about it before I got out to Sundance and other people’s opinions about it, I went in with a critical eye initially and then I got completely lost myself in the movie. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that I wrote it. There is a moment in film [when] Mister, played by the incredible Skylan Brooks, there is a scene were he is going to cheer Pete up and he says, “I got the power, you got the power, we got the power.” He ad-libbed that, and then he jumps up and goes into the scene that was written and for that moment, I wasn’t thinking “I wrote that,” I was thinking, this kid is incredible and he is taking us on a ride and he really is carrying this movie.
Let’s talk about Skylan Brooks. He’s fantastic in the lead role. How did he end up getting the part of Mister?
I was out in New York for the first week of the shoot and he got the character right away. He auditioned for the role and we saw a lot of kids for the role, but Skylan got the part—and [co-star] Ethan [Dizon] as well. The two of them were great together. I think both of them auditioned on the same day and Tillman Jr., put them both in a scene together for a quick chemistry test and loved them both. Skylan is from L.A., he said he relates to the character in some ways; the biggest being is he is an inspiring actor, and Ethan too. I don’t know where Skylan found the petulant face, but he found it. What I love about it doesn’t alienate, it’s not like "pity me," it's like "screw the world I’m going to succeed and leave me alone while I’m doing it." It’s the wrong idea for a kid, but that’s the point. The point is, he does need someone to come and help him. His mom his raw and is basically what it comes down to. We can talk about parents not being great parents in the black community because I see a lot of movies where no matter what the mom is doing, the kids still praise [her]. I don’t think that’s healthy. One of the things we can do is challenge our parents to be better, we can challenge anyone to be a better person, and that’s what Mister does with his mom. He sees her as a reflection of himself; he doesn’t want to end up like that. He also sees Henry [Jeffrey Wright’s homeless veteran] as a reflection of himself, and Mister knows he could end up going down that path, along with the Anthony Mackie character [a drug dealer] or the “Dip-Stix” character [a hoodlum]. He doesn’t want to be like any of them, he wants to be more—and that’s why he refuses to give up.
For as much as George Tillman Jr. told you that this is a gritty film, there are plenty of emotional and funny scenes in the film. Are there any films that you gravitated toward or any that influenced you in writing the film?
Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill was a huge influence to me. The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith is another, directed by Gabriele Muccino. Another influence in a different kind of way was The Blind Side [by director John Lee Hancock]—and I’m not a fan of The Blind Side. I would watch it that movie and that’s what I don’t like to see from black characters, I don’t like the submissiveness to it. There is not a knock on anyone, but Mister was kind of me saying that’s not cool. These guys are smarter than that. The message is almost the same [in The Blind Side and The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete]—we all need help, everyone can use a little bit of help—but the idea is not to be so downtrodden as The Blind Side characters.
What do you hope audiences take away most from The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete?
I want to people to be prepared to be taken on an emotional rollercoaster [and] I want the message to be hopeful. If there is a message at all to understand, [it's that] the less fortunate are not looking for pity, they are looking for an opportunity. It’s not these kids' fault most of the time, sometimes they are born into these bad situations. The simple message of the movie is to never give up and not to be afraid to ask for and accept help, and that’s all. Our mission going in was never, ever to be melodramatic. I’m anti-melodrama, I’m not big into that, but what I am big into is honestly and sincerity and hopefully you feel for these kids. And the next time, you see someone who might be struggling and could use a little help, maybe you offer or maybe you understand that we can all always use a little bit of help.