Celebrated playwright and filmmaker David E. Talbert (A WOMAN LIKE THAT, THE FABRIC OF A MAN, FIRST SUNDAY) knows a thing or two about love and relationships.
Now, basking in a solid loving marriage with an adorable bouncing baby boy, before Talbert landed in Loveland with life partner in business and romance, Lyn Sisson-Talbert, the baritone trailblazer– so crowned by the NAACP for his groundbreaking accomplishments in theater– also knew heartbreak.
As the story of his real life goes, Talbert began writing in college after a bad break up, licking his wounds to Al Green songs and penning what he describes as somebody-done-somebody-wrong poems.
Fully recovered, Talbert’s new romantic comedy, BAGGAGE CLAIM (starring Paula Patton, Boris Kodjoe, Djimon Hounsou, Jenifer Lewis, La La Anthony and Jill Scott) perhaps gives us a hint into what life was like before he found true love; it may ring true for many viewers as well.
I sat with the Talberts at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills along with film producer Steven J. Wolfe (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, OUR FAMILY WEDDING) to discuss BAGGAGE CLAIM, in theaters nationwide from FOX Searchlight Pictures, opening September 27, rated PG-13.
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: What is the cost of love?
David E. Talbert: The cost of love is whatever you’re willing to do or pay to find it. I think it varies on the individual. Some people will do anything, like Montana (Patton), some people do very little. And I think it varies by individual; I really wanted to show, how far would you go, or what price would you pay (for love)? In this case, the character (Montana) would fly all across the country; she would be on a balcony, or in a trash can. I don’t think we’ve seen an African American lead (actor) who is willing to lay it all out on the line and who is as hopeful as this character is. This is why I love this character so much and why I wanted Paula Patton to play the role because she represents [to me] someone who is hopeful.
Lyn Sisson-Talbert: I think the cost of love is a mix of vulnerability, fear, courage and hopefulness as well. I think it’s all those things that you must have and want within your personality to really get to true love. Sometimes people settle in situations but if you really want the magic out of a relationship you have to give up a lot of yourself and lay it out on the table. That’s why I also like the Montana character; she was unapologetic for all the decisions she makes. All the craziness [in love] comes with passion as well so I think it’s all of that that people have to have in their personality if they really want to get what they’re looking for from love.
Talk2SV: At the end of the day this is a romantic comedy, a work of fiction, in part. Therewith, as is often the case with African American films, a popular expectation is for the story to solve many if not all of our problems, in addition, deliver big box office. When you package a story do you wrestle with what should be told versus what others may want you to tell?
Lyn: I think with David what is first true is his commitment to the story and to be truthful to the characters. A character can’t start out one way then wrap it up just because the audience may want to wrap it up; that’s not necessarily their (the characters) through line. When you’re true to the characters then everyone walks away feeling good about the choices that they made as you’re watching them. Maybe that’s not the choice you would have made, or maybe it is. Or, you can say, ‘oh I see why she did that,’ but you walk away still feeling good about what you saw.
There again, you may be a little risky yourself. You may be of the mindset, ‘I might be a little freer this time around, and I might be open to finding love myself.’ So it’s (the movie) supposed to make you think; it’s supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Not to speak for David in this regard but I don’t take on a lot of that pressure, more of the pressure I want is to make sure we look great (on screen).
I want to make sure there’s a range of us (African Americans) on camera to reflect all different types. You’ve got the Jills, the Paulas, the LaLas; the Djimons and I think all of that [ethnic diversity] is really more important to see and see in different romantic situations so someone, in some
way, can relate.
Talk2SV: When we talk about the look of the film, the locations such as Paris and other European cities, did the budget allow you to film there?
David: Well, no, that wasn’t in the novel. But, in the second novel I did, we traveled to Europe. Each story kind of takes on its own personality so with this one, Montana criss-crossed the country like nobody’s business; I thought that was impactful for her, essentially, how far would you travel for love?
Talk2SV: The significant travel aspect does lend a unique appeal particularly in the context of jet-setting African Americans, was this by design?
David: Well, I knew if you talk about Black people flying you think Soul Plane (the 2004 movie that propelled
comedian Kevin Hart’s career). I mean, that’s the only reference that we have to flight (in a movie) and that was a broad comedy. What I love about (the late) Nora Ephron movies, specifically Sleepless in Seattle, is that the lead character (Meg Ryan) worked for a newspaper that took her places so I thought it would be interesting to have as a part of this metaphor, relationship baggage. Make the lead character in this film a flight attendant, adding another layer on top of the metaphor. The book contains many of them, far more than make their way into the film.
Too, I thought it would be an interesting concept to have us (African Americans) in a professional light, in a setting that we hadn’t seen us portrayed in before. One of the biggest compliments that we’ve received came from the Association of Black Flight Attendants, over 5,000 members strong. The president of the group saw a screening of the film. He said to me, ‘thank you for presenting us in a positive light, because this is who we are.’ That endorsement (of the film) meant the world to me.
Talk2SV: You also took chances with Jill Scott’s character, casting the actor-vocalist in a role heretofore unlike what we’ve seen from her in previous film projects. There is great risk in straying from typecasting requiring artistic courage; a number of actors build a career doing the same character time and again. Was the archetype for Jill also by design?
David: Jill Scott is very courageous. We type cast as directors and producers too because when we see an actor as one thing, we want you (the
actor) to do that thing and don’t do anything different. When I sat down with her I’d only seen her I’d only seen Jill do drama. When word came back that Jill was interested in the role (as an assertive, fun-loving, temptress), I said to her when we spoke, ‘Jill, this character is going to show a lot of cleavage.’ She said, ‘I’ve got cleavage, how much you want?’
And from those conversations I said, ‘OK, she’s ready to go there.’ And she went there. She wanted to go there more; she wanted to take it farther than I did (laughter). In one of the classic opening scenes that you’ll see in this romantic comedy is when Jill’s character lifts up her breasts before headed down the aisle with a tray of warm nuts for the first-class passengers. She intentionally drops the warm nuts in the lap of a handsome traveler and starts fondling his mid-section. From that point on, you as the viewer are thinking, ‘oh, this is a different Jill Scott,’ and you’re on board with her from that point forward.
Talk2SV: Again, to your credit, another appreciable aspect of the story is your reflection of men and their vulnerabilities, particularly in matters of love. As a man telling a love story, were there some viewpoints that you felt the audience needed to see showing how exposed men are when they fall in love?
David: I think I’m a sentimental guy; my “guy friends” talk about me a lot in that sense but more men are like that than women probably know. Men are a lot more sensitive, a lot more sentimental than I think some women give them credit for; I wanted to create a character that was a strong guy, a working class guy, blue collar guy, but was still sentimental. A sensitive guy and that those kinds of guys can win.
Talk2SV: Last Fall during the filming of BAGGAGE CLAIM, I spoke with one of your cast members, Jenifer Lewis, for subject matter unrelated to the film. While talking, she mentioned she was working on this project and began heaping effusive compliments on you as a director. She echoes the same sentiment now. From your college days, to working in radio, writing poems, books, plays and now films, who have you become?
David: A collaborator. Sometimes you want to be the smartest guy in the room and I’m learning that the smartest guy in the room is the guy who recognizes that he should have people even smarter than him in the same room. That’s really what I’ve learned with this project and why it has exceeded my own expectations; I surrounded myself with added value at every step of the way.
Talk2SV: As a father, how has “little David” altered the course of your relationship with Lyn?
David: It’s the greatest gift my wife could ever give me. I used to make these ridiculous statements not realizing they were ridiculous. Someone would ask, ‘how do you feel about your plays, which ones do you like better?’ I would say, ‘Well, they’re like children to me, each play is a child to me. I incubate them in the way that a child is incubated in a mother’s stomach.’ I thought I was being profound. It wasn’t until I had that baby boy and saw that miracle that I acknowledged to myself, ‘how ridiculous was I?’
Nothing compares to a child incubating and being born– not a script, not a building, not a piece of art– you cannot compare that kind of creation. I was completely humbled. Yes, I am creating some wonderful pieces of art with my writing but what that woman, my wife created, tops that a hundred-thousand-fold. And, made me respect and love her even more.
Talk2SV: As a story teller, one who certainly has the experience, the track record, the portfolio, from stage to film: how do you decide what’s good for stage versus what’s good for film?
David: The story tells me. If it’s something that is more dialogue driven I think it’s something for stage; if it’s something that is more visual…picturesque, I think it’s a film and this movie was very picturesque.
Many people suggested that I should have made this novel into a play. I responded, ‘you can’t make this into a play, it’s got to go places, we can’t do that on stage.’ So each story kind of speaks to me and says what “it” wants to be; some stories may just want to be in a novel.
Talk2SV: As the producer, wearing different hats, what did you feel were the priorities of this film? Steven J. Wolfe: I think we were united in wanting to make the same movie. I think we bought into David’s vision and we understood his vision for this film. It became very easy as a group to support him and bring ideas to the table, always keeping in mind what we thought was a film he wanted to make; we were on board with him.