This week on The Write Stuff, Cinematical speaks with David E. Talbert, writer and director of the new comedy/drama First Sunday. The film stars Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan as friends in a desperate situation who decide to rob a local church. At the church, they find a lot more resistance than they bargained for, in the form of Loretta Devine, Chi McBride, and Katt Williams.
Cinematical: Are you excited about the movie coming out?
David E. Talbert: Oh man, I'm wearing my wife out! We've been riding around looking at these billboards. Every time somebody tells me there's one that's popped up, I gotta go and find it.
Cinematical: You got your start as a playwright, and you've been doing that successfully for 15 years. Did you always want to be a writer?
DET: No, I was a radio announcer when I was in college and after. Somewhere in there, I had a breakup with my college sweetheart and I started writing "Somebody done somebody wrong" poems. And I was writing and crying and listening to Al Green every night. Then one night my Al Green record scratched, and when it scratched, I started reading those poems and I said "Wow, these aren't that bad." From there I wrote a long-form play and I put it away until about five years later when I saw the play Beauty Shop. I saw how much audiences were going crazy over it, and that's when I got bit.
Cinematical: How does one break into playwriting? That's not a world I'm too familiar with.
DET: At the time I broke into it, there was a ground swell of urban theater, a lot of black plays touring around the country. Beauty Shop was printing money, and there was this new wave of theater that had begun. And people were looking for other plays to put out. I happened to come on at the beginning of the wave. When I was living in Oakland I got started at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley. And there was a guy in town named Mark Wilder looking for a script. And I happened to be in the right place at the right time. He read my script, which was about 300 pages long, which would have taken you about two days to get through! But he liked what he saw, refined it, raised some money, and a year later we opened up at the Black Repertory Theater and sold out about 25 shows in a row. That play was called Tellin' It Like it Tiz. It was vignettes about relationships. The tag line was "A comedy about being kicked in the behind by love."
Cinematical: Sounds autobiographical! Was First Sunday conceived as a play? Since it's all confined to the church set, it seems like it could have gone either way.
DET: It wasn't conceived as a play, but it was definitely influenced by what I've been doing for 15 years. The first draft of it read more like a play. The whole thing in the church took place in a sanctuary. I had to transition from just telling a story into showing a story. So that's when we moved to the boardroom, the basement, the boiler room, had the cops come outside. That's when those things started coming into the script, to open it up.
Cinematical: How did the idea for the setup of the film -- the church robbery -- come to you?
DET: I had left church one morning and I was sitting in a cafe watching people come out of the church. I looked at some of the cats walking by me and I thought "Wow, wouldn't this be interesting." I came up with the idea maybe six years ago, about "What would happen if these two worlds were thrown together -- the church and the criminal element -- how would each world react?" That's what I really wanted to do with this movie. It's really about the human condition, about people from different worlds and how they'll react once they're forced to spend some time together for a while.
Cinematical: What is your writing process?
DET: My process is that I write the scripts in my head first. I come up with the characters, I flesh out the scenarios. To me, it's like a birthing process. I'll let it marinate and gestate in my head for a while, in my heart, in my soul. And then when it's ready to be birthed, that's when I sit down at the computer. But I don't sit down at the computer to create anything, I really sit down to just download from my brain. People talk about writer's block, fortunately I've never experienced it because I don't sit down at the computer until it is fully fleshed out in my head, and then I power through it. My whole thing is "Get to the end." I don't mess around. I get to the end, then I can go back and start fixing stuff.
Cinematical: When you try to power through that first draft, do you intentionally make it long, so you can get in there and cut stuff away?
DET: Yeah, for comedies, I usually end up 110 - 115 pages. Then I start whittling down, keeping the hot stuff, getting rid of the stuff that's not so hot. Then I do a series of readings. Not with industry folks, I bring my friends and the homies over to the house. Just regular everyday people that will be consuming the product. I read the script with them and see what they think. I started out with the plays that I tour, it's always about the people. Same thing with the film, I want to get a reaction of the people that will actually be buying a ticket. If it's hot to them, it'll be hot to the studio.
Cinematical: You've got to make sure these are friends who will be honest with you too, no?
DET: Oh yeah! That's a must. My wife will shoot down an idea in a nanosecond. She'll say "No. That ain't hot." We'll argue, fuss, and fight, but she's always right. I'm very grateful to have a wife that is invested and will fight the fight. She'll go toe-to-toe with me. I don't have "yes" people around me, starting with my wife. And I'll tell her, "Look, I'm directing this movie, I'm writing it, I know what I'm doing, leave it alone." That may end the conversation for an hour, but you know women never give up. So, next hour -- "OK. I'm just saying, I don't think it's a good idea..." You can't win! Resistance is futile.
Cinematical: Do you prefer writing or directing?
DET: I write only so I can direct. The end game is directing. I love working with actors, and I had such a good time with Cube and Katt and Tracy. What I wanted to do, specifically with Cube, is bring out the menacing side I loved about him from Boyz N the Hood, that genius he has as a comedic straight man from Friday, and the heart from something like Are We There Yet? With Tracy I talked about what sets the great comedic actors apart, and it is the ability to tap into the emotional side. Richard Pryor can make you laugh and cry in the same movie, Tracy does that here.
Cinematical: What are your favorite scripts?
DET: As Good As it Gets was an amazing script. It read like a playwright wrote it. James Brooks is on another level. California Suite was an amazing script, Neil Simon. I like scripts that have a little poetry to them, a little irony. I thought Lean on Me was incredible. The dialogue in there was out of control. Those three do it for me, for sure.
Cinematical: There's a lot of young writers who read this column, and they'd love to be in your shoes. Assuming they've got the talent, what do they need to do to get there?
DET: I'm always rewriting. I'm always pulling my projects out of the oven, taking a bite, putting them back in the oven. Never be afraid to sample it, let some other people sample it, let it cook some more. Put some spice on it. I'm always fine-tuning a script, always looking for a better joke and a better dramatic moment. Just when you think you're there, there's another there you can get to.
First Sunday hits theaters this Friday, January 11th.