From Melvin’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” to Mario’s “New Jack City,” we knew filmmaking ran in the Van Peebles family. Now with “We the Party,” we meet the next generation.
Along with a hefty resume as a leading man, Mario Van Peebles has amassed a significant filmography as a director over two decades, helming everything from “Posse” to episodes of “LOST,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Boss.” Now he returns to the big screen as the writer, director, producer and co-star of “We the Party,” a look at the social lives of students attending a predominantly African-American high school encompassing all economic statuses that’s both both entertaining and eye-opening.
Van Peebles readily admits that his inspiration came directly from watching his five teenage children – sons Makaylo, Mandela and Marley and daughters Morgana and Maya – living their lives; so much so that he gave each of them significant roles in the film (Mandela plays the lead, and even Mario’s father Melvin has a key cameo) alongside a crop of emerging young actors.
Mandela and Makaylo joined their father as he gave PopcornBiz an exclusive look at how and why he made filmmaking a family affair.
Once you saw what your kids were up to and had the ah-ha idea to build a film around their generation, how did everything come together as a story in your head?
Mario: It's a dual process, just putting myself on intake without trying to judge things. I think in a way, being a father is parallel to being a filmmaker in that I think your kids come through and not from you. I can't really say that this one is going to act; that one is going to be an accountant; that one is going to be a doctor. They'll sort of let me know when they know, and then if I'm quick enough and responsive enough I can help guide them to being the best version of them that they can be. So initially with this I just put myself on intake mode. Every story is different and comes at you in different ways. This was coming at me all the time. I've got three boys, two girls – five teenagers. They're playing the music. They're talking the way they're talking and I'm sort of listening in and hearing it and laughing and getting the dialog. Maya said something the other day that I could use: she said, 'Oh, that's bulls**t.com.' The way that she said it and the rhythm of it, I said, 'Oh, wow – that's a great line!’ I just find things that I want to do and make notes and write it down.The second step was come up with a different story idea and don't try to self-edit a lot at first. Just let all the crazy stuff come in.
What’s an example of something you drew directly from your kids’ experiences?
Makaylo is a smart guy and he's on the debate team at school, and the kids are calling him ‘Obama’ [also the nickname of Makaylo’s character in the film]. What's interesting is that at a predominantly black school, where it used to be that we know what thug life looks like, we know what a ballplayer looks like, we know what hip-hop looks like, suddenly, in a way we're saying we know what smart looks like. Back in my day they might've said, 'Oh, you're trying to talk white, or sell out, or be Urkel.' Now you're trying to talk like the president. 'So, you're cool because you're trying to talk presidential, the way that this guy does, and he's clearly smart.' That changes the social dynamic. Then I'll see Mandela doing something. He's dating a girl who's got a 4.0 and they're doing stuff online and she's going over stuff with him online and they're falling asleep like Romeo and Juliet, looking at the computer and I go, 'Wow, that's dope.' I'll make that note and say, 'How can that fit?' Then we're looking at the poster and going, 'Do you realize that your central character is wearing a hoodie, the Y. G. character?’ and we're talking about this whole Trayvon Martin thing.
Mandela: It was just interesting because with the whole Trayvon Martin thing going around, of course there are a lot of strong, opinionated people that are doing stuff as far as protesting and all of that and it's crazy how timing worked out. But in the movie, Y. G.'s character CC is a really misjudged and prejudged person. He just kind of exudes this negative vibe and we don't really understand where it comes from. So as soon as you see him with the tattoos on his hands and the hoodie on, you automatically think, 'He's the bad guy,' but throughout the course of the movie my character, Hendrix, befriends him and we see that he actually has consciousness to him and he's actually a good friend. It's a symbiotic relationship where I help him out in one scene and he helps me out in another. It's cool to see the friendship pay off. It just leaves you with the message that you shouldn't prejudge people unless you know what they're going through.
Mario: Then the irony of that is that he winds up being the one that sings the song 'Truth.' So the dude with the hoodie is the one who's unveiled later and who tells us the truth in the context of 'We The Party.' So, in a weird way it's sort of life imitating art. Someone asked me, 'Did you [add that into the film] recently?' I said, 'No. This wasn't anything we just did.' It just happened and we all make that snap judgment. So part of it was being open to what was coming and then they brought music to me. The Rejectz they found. My kids told me to put that in the movie and now it's eighty-seven million hits on Youtube. Part of it was being in the right place, but a big part of it was that organically I'd had a little teenage think tank living right there. Maya came to me and had a great idea for the ending of the film, and the advantage of being a director is that you can take all these great ideas and then later pretend that they're yours.
Show business and storytelling is the family business for you guys. Did you have to think about it before you started to take that business on yourself, or did you just know?
Makaylo: For me and Mandela, both, it's been something that we've been doing ever since we were little. We've had smaller roles. We were extras. We got to see how our dad worked around on the set, and it was something that was just kind of in our blood, something that you grew up with and so it's never really something new to you. So, for us the new thing came in when we were actually going to do roles in the movie, when we weren't actually just going to be extras. So for me specifically, it was cool to see Mario Van Peebles and also your dad. He's dad off the set, but on the set he's Mario Van Peebles.
Mandela: I would say that I see it as a blessing, because a lot of people ask me that question, but they ask if I'm pressured to go into that business. I tell them no. I look at it almost as an inspiration in a way because my granddad, Melvin [Van Peebles], has done a lot of great things with film and just to see how he goes behind a project wholeheartedly and then to see the same traits in my dad, how he's funding it, directing it, paid himself a dollar to write it. It's cool to see how behind each project they are, and I see it as if I can do that one day that's going to be a blessing.
Mario: There's kind of a line in life. Doing what you want on one side and then on the other side is having what you want and we're more in the do column. Someone said earlier, 'You guys are like a dynasty,' and I said, 'Well, probably more like a family farm.' Dynasty sounds kind of grand and lofty. The family farm, you learn how to feed the chickens and fix the tractor and plow the north forty and it's all a part of family farming. When you grow up in Van Peebles by-any-means-necessary filmmaking family, it's more like a farm.
What did you guys see in your dad that you'd never seen before in this process, and the same for you, Mario, what did you see in them where you went, 'Oh my God, I didn't even know--'?
Mandela: I would say that as he touched on, it's two different people. Mario Van Peebles who's your employer, who you need to be on point for and in a way set an example to prove to everyone who thinks that it's nepotism that it's not, that we actually did work hard for this film. We learned our lines. We practiced. We work-shopped. We showed up early. We set an example for the other actors. So kind of in a way it brought it back to the film, as far as not only keeping the dialog fresh in the adlibs, but he helped us out as far as he's our dad and he wants the best for us. He has love for us and wants to see us do our best. So, if I have a booger in my nose he's going to tell me. So, his criticism to me, I just see it as advice because that's what it means to me. He doesn't want to see me fail. It's not, 'You suck!' It's 'You don't know your lines – Learn your lines.'
Makaylo: Something that I've seen growing up, but only when mature enough to understand, is that when my dad specifically has a certain idea he doesn't let anything get in the way of that. He paid himself ten dollars to write the script and he paid himself one dollar to direct. He was not necessarily in this for personal or economic gain. It's something that he loves to do. One thing I can vouch for is that when he has a project, when he has a vision he'll do anything he can to make that come true. For example, if I wasn't doing a character trait right for Obama, which I play in the movie, he'd take me away for a little bit, talk to me and tell me how it's supposed to be and he'd make sure that the vision came through exactly as he wanted it to. So it's interesting to see something where it's coming from his vision, he's acting in it, writing it, directing it and he's also funding this. It's one of those things where I got to see a certain quality in my dad where he'll get around a whole entire movie and do anything possible to make his vision come true, which is pretty true.
Mario: What was cool was seeing them be good brothers and sisters. Seeing them being cool with each other and learning to work past problems because there's always, when you work with family, going to be things want to work past and do. That's one thing, but also seeing them learn to articulate their vision and say, 'Okay, Dad, you should listen to the Rejectz. We should put this element in.' Or when Maya had the idea for the ending of the movie that I was able to integrate. Also, the truth be told, it was another way for me to have two more years of playing with my kids, because you usually lose your teenagers around 12 or 13. That's the going rate. They're out the door, and I've really enjoyed hanging out with them these extra years. Part of that is because we're bilingual: We have a work language and we have a family language. So that's been fun, and part of it, too, is that it's what we do organically. A lot of these things were inspired by them. So they get to have agency and talk about it. Really seeing them articulate things, help out and pitch in…there was a night where we had to move stuff down from this house and we didn't have a crew. The crew had left and when you do an independent film you have X amount of days to shoot and I started picking up and moving and I can count on them to get in there and move it. There's a lot of times where they just want to go play and be normal teenagers and hang out with the girl, and I'm asking them 'No, go get the flyers out. We've got to get out by April 6th so that we can make it work,' or 'Go have a meeting and make sure the Facebook app works. I don't know how to work the damn thing. You have to tell me what to do on that.' Makaylo figured out how to embed the Youtube link on something. I don't know how to do that. Mandela is our swag-meister. So, he's like, 'Let’s get this style right on this or that.' So seeing their natural skills and asking them to participate in the family farm doesn't mean that they'll be farmer, doesn't mean they'll be moviemakers, but they will have a work ethic and they won't be afraid to get out there and do it.
You've acted and directed all types of films since your big breakthrough with “New Jack City,” and you know what it's like to do something from the ground up. Is it easier, harder or just different today?
Mario: It's interesting because I've been in it a minute. I looked back the other day and I was like, “’New Jack’ was in '91. That's over freaking 20 years ago!' That's amazing, man. The technology I guess is actually easier. It's harder to get distribution…It's still difficult to get it done. Hollywood tends to support sometimes reductive cinema. What do I mean by that? They'll support a vision where the black folks are wearing dresses and wigs, and not necessarily a movie where folks are smart and crossing out of their box. 'House Party' was lovely, back in the day. A black cast. 'Breakfast Club,' lovely back in the day. A white cast. 'We The Party' today, mixed cast. It's fun to say that we're going to make it with real teenagers of all races, some Hispanic kids, some white kids, some black kids and have fun doing it and not be afraid to finish a conversation in the context of a movie that society has already started. So if society has started hitting you with hyper-materialism, discuss that in the movie. Discuss what it means not to just say, 'I'm going to buy my sense of self at the mall. I'm going to drive my sense of self out of the car dealership.' That's why it's called a car DEALER, because he's your dealer now. He's dealing you your status because you're relying on outside source. So when you discuss that and they go, 'Wow. We didn't even think about it like that.' Ninety percent of us won't drive Bentley's or become presidents or be big movie stars, so if we're looking to define ourselves through material status or outward appearance we're going to be insecure. Insecure people shop a lot more, right? Mother Theresa doesn't need those breast implants. Gandhi doesn't need them Gucci shoes. You can't mess with Buddha. He's bald, but you can't pressure him to go to the hair club. So, once you start pointing out real successful people that believe in stuff and stand for stuff, that lasts a lot longer than the Kardashian tribe.