Keeping it fresh
Kevin Rodney Sullivan tackles the Barbershop franchise
By Angela Baldassarre
A $12 million movie which made more than $75 million at the box office was bound to initiate a franchise. Despite lukewarm reviews, Tim Story's 2002 Barbershop managed to become one of the most talked-about movies of 2002. Little more than good-natured fun, the sitcom pilot disguised as a movie was set in a Chicago barbershop where Calvin (Ice Cube) wanted to sell his dad's business to a loan shark, only to want it back when he realized the barbershop was a vital meeting place for the black community. The barbers, including an old-timer named Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), a smartass college kid named Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), one woman named Terri (Eve), and one jive-ass white guy called Isaac (Troy Garrity), all added their two cents.
"I thought it was amazing and fun, sort of broke the glass ceiling on political correctness when it comes to black movies, and I love that aspect of it," says Kevin Rodney Sullivan who directed the film's sequel, Barbershop 2. "I think that it was a brilliant cast. And George [Tillman Jr.] and Bob [Teitel] and Alex [Alex Gartner], the producers, pitched me the story that they had 'cause the script was not complete and I thought they were onto something good, so I dived in."
Indeed. While Story passed on the sequel in order to direct the English-language remake of the French comedy hit Taxi, Sullivan, who has not made a feature since 1998's How Stella Got Her Groove Back, was more than eager to sink his teeth into the picture, stepping in as co-writer alongside Don D. Scott and Norman Vance Jr.
In Barbershop 2 Calvin, Eddie, Terri, Jimmy and Isaac are back, this time contending with urban developers looking to replace "mom & pop" establishments with name-brand chains.
"You know, the first movie was a day in the life of this barbershop," says Sullivan about keeping the storyline fresh. "Its plot structure was based on having certain types of time frames. So the challenge with this movie was that we wanted to tell a bigger story that spans the summer of 2004 if you will in Chicago, to keep that energy going and that momentum going that the first Barbershop did.
"So one of the challenges as the writer/director was trying to keep that energy. So that was challenge number one. I think the other thing was the reason that I took this film was that it felt the story that the producers and the original writer had come up with really seemed relevant to me and it was all about change. The neighbourhood I grew up in in San Francisco in 1968, a lot of things burnt down. And in most of those communities with the riots and so on, everyone ran and left those communities to fend for themselves and the businesses that stayed really had to be strong and fight for their place. But it wasn't an enterprise by any stretch of the imagination and now in many of those communities, 35 years later, Starbucks wants to move in, Kinko's wants to move in, Blockbuster wants to move in, and a lot of that is very positive for those neighbourhoods.
"And then there's the flip side of what happens to the small business owner, what happens to the person who cannot afford the condo to live in their building, what happens to the person in the neighbourhood that ultimately is pushed out by the change. So to explore both the good and the bad of commercialism in black communities and ethnic communities in America that were abandoned 35 years ago and now are trying to be reclaimed by big business, seemed really fertile ground for this story. Obviously for a guy like Calvin, as one of those original business owners who hung in there, his father hung in there for all those years, and now he has to fight a much bigger entity coming in trying to run him out 'cause they like his piece of real estate seemed like great storytelling to me and that's basically the movie that we have. We are able to explore some really interesting and I think relevant themes of the moment."
Talking about relative themes, last summer Barbershop made headlines when leaders of the Black community condemned Cedric the Entertainer's disparaging quotes about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in the film. One wonders if there was pressure to tone down the talk this time around.
"Not at all," says Sullivan. "I've been encouraged, in fact, to be consistent with the character. What I loved about Cedric's character in the first one was that he was one individual who likes to provoke conversation. It seemed to me that the things that he said were the kinds of things you do in barbershops. I grew up in barbershops, I know there is always that guy who talks trash until the cows come home and loves to say things to get people fired up and I thought that was absolutely an authentic character. You know, the fact that what he said was controversial was not what the filmmakers intended when they started; that it became something, probably didn't hurt the movie, they were just trying to portray a man who says what he wants to say when he wants to say it, sometimes outrageously just to see what people are going to do. I think that's fair game."
So who's on Cedric's hit list this time?
"Haha! You have to pay your $9.50 to find out," laughs the director. "He takes on whatever is the subject at the moment. I mean we don't shy away from anything but you know, it's not the intention of the filmmakers or Cedric or any of us to try and degrade or divide the black political infrastructure. I think we take on everybody in this film, black and white, that Cedric's character has something to say about. My attitude with the film as both writer and director was to continue to try and be authentic to the moment, not try to stir controversy for controversy sake. Nor was I interested in shying away from anything that seemed provocative because it was legitimate for the character to say. So we had fun with it. It was a blast to try to write for him, he's such a brilliant actor. You write good stuff then he takes it and makes it 100,000 times better and spins off and does his own thing. It was a pleasurable experience to be around him everyday because he's just so funny."
The producers are so confident about the success of Barbershop 2 that they've planned a spin-off franchise to feature Queen Latifah in a movie tentatively titled Beauty Shop. Sullivan explains that when he came onboard, the spin-off was already planned and Latifah's role as a beauty salon operator in Barbershop 2 already developed.
"I saw that as another opportunity as a filmmaker as she is such a vital talent and so some of the writing that we did when we came on was to give a life to her character that made her organic to our story," says Sullivan. "I wasn't so concerned with the next movie, to me there's only one movie and that's Barbershop 2. I knew what they wanted to do was to create something that would be worthy of another film, which I think we ultimately did. But we didn't try to spend too much time with laying type for the next movie. With Latifah's presence a real organic sort of involvement in this story I thought would be enough."
Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer... pretty big egos in one room to handle...
"They totally love each other and respect each other and were respectful of me and I couldn't ask for anything more," says Sullivan. "It was quite a wonderful experience to be around a group of young actors who had so much passion. I'm a strong director in the sense that I wanted all the actors show up to work off camera, even if you're tired and its late, I want you to be there. I made that request to them and they were down for that every time. One of the beautiful things that happened a bit early in the process is that we had an early table read, you know, on my third draft, and had a week of rehearsals right before we started shooting. It was during that time that they all got reacquainted and got to know me and my style which is different from Tim's. So by the time we rolled camera on the first day we were cooking pretty good."