Q&A: Tyler Perry on directing his first screenplay, 27 years later
After directing numerous films, dozens of television episodes and expanding its 330 acres Tyler Perry Studios empire in Atlanta, Perry returned to that old script, barely changing a word, for his first Netflix movie. (“A Jazzman’s Blues” begins airing September 23.)
“The timing seemed right,” Perry said in an interview ahead of the film’s premiere on Sunday.
Set in mid-century Georgia, the film stars Joshua Boon as Bayou, a sensational juke joint who, before setting off to make it big in Chicago, falls in love with Leanne (Solea Pfieffer). Years later, she returns to their hometown married and passing for white. It’s a romance sketched against the backdrop of Southern segregation and the booming music scene of the time, with songs by Terence Blanchard and choreography by Debbie Allen.
Notes have been edited for brevity.
AP: What was going on in your life when you wrote this?
PERRY: I was really struggling and poor. It was a really tough time. I had the chance to see a play by August Wilson. If I’m not mistaken, I think it was “Seven Guitars”. I had to sneak an intermission and walk in when people were coming out to smoke. I couldn’t afford a ticket. There was an after party at a little cafe and I bumped into him. I told him what kind of shows I was doing and how there was so much more I wanted to do. He encouraged me not to be ashamed of what I was doing but also to do whatever I wanted. I went home and started writing and ‘Jazzman’ came along.
AP: Where does the story come from?
PERRY: I grew up in New Orleans and have family in rural Louisiana. This is where I spent the summers with my grandmother. So I knew this world very well. When I was a young boy working on Bourbon Street, I heard all kinds of music. While I was writing, all this music was in my head. I wasn’t trying to write a period piece about someone passing through the South. A few years ago, I remember seeing a photo of my grandmother and my great-grandmother who looked like white women. My grandmother married my grandfather, who was clearly black. According to my aunt—I’m checking this now—there are people in my family who pose as white people.
AP: Was it something your family talked about?
PERRY: No. It’s the weirdest thing about generations before me. I find this true with my Jewish friends who have grandparents who survived the Holocaust. We just don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about it. I think this is a horrible disservice to future children and to the people who profit from the atrocities endured by our families. If you don’t know the facts of what happened and how it happened, I think you are doing your family a disservice.
AP: This may be your most ambitious film to date. Did you feel that you had to prepare for it?
PERRY: One hundred percent. “Diary of a Madwoman”, my first film, I didn’t direct because I didn’t know how. It took all those movies and all those TV episodes to really understand cinema. I really credit David Fincher and (Ben) Affleck when I was on “Gone Girl” where I really started to understand and understand. For me, it’s always been that the camera was just there to tell the story. I didn’t grasp the fullness of all the things the camera can represent.
AP: So why tackle it now?
PERRY: I was strategic. I had to make sure I was super serving my niche, my audience. I needed those achievements to be able to get it here. It’s all part of the plan. The reason this has come to light now is because I have watched so many politicians and powers that be trying to downplay and whitewash the black experience in America. I think it’s up to us as storytellers to bring these true stories to the fore because of this assault on history.
AP: Georgia has been at the center of some of the battles over voting rights, abortion rights and the school curriculum. How do you feel about having your studio there?
PERRY: I have two views on this. The first is: to be on the very ground and at the home of Dr. Martin Luther King and see their struggle, see the vigor it took to get things done. There is a richness on which I flourish, to which I connect, which I appreciate. On the other side, we deal with all this gerrymandering, voting rights issues, abortion issues. All of these moments happen but I have to focus on the fighters to be able to function in a state that I like.
AP: Some in Hollywood have already called for a boycott of productions in Georgia. Last year, Will Smith’s film ‘Emancipation’ has pulled out of filming in the state. What do you think of these kinds of measures?
PERRY: Some of them, I think, are extreme. We have this cancel culture now that if someone does something you don’t like or says something you don’t like, they get cancelled. If the state makes a law you don’t like, you don’t go. The reason I take issue with all of this is that every four years there is an election, or every two years with the midterm elections. We have the opportunity to try to change it. So I think drastic and immediate shutdowns can be harmful to the people who work here. Right now I have over $400 million in the ground at Tyler Perry Studios. And there are a lot of people who come to work there who would never have had the chance to be in this profession. I know Hollywood is really very diverse now. Well, you don’t get more diverse than Tyler Perry Studios. If you try to boycott the state, you boycott these people too.
AP: You had a content deal with Viacom for years. This is your first movie with Netflix. Looking for a bigger platform?
PERRY: I built this machine and it’s ready to produce tons and tons and tons of content. So I want to be in a place where that content can be created and a place where I can express things like “Jazzman” or whatever I want to do next. I have a zombie movie I’ve been working on for a while that I want to do. I just want to be in a place where I can cultivate all of these things.