We visit the Faith United Church for a good old fashion hostage situation
Scene 94. Take 1.
Tracey Morgan is slumped over a table in the basement of the Faith United Presbyterian church in Highland Park. He is gearing up to shoot a key scene in the film First Sunday starring opposite Ice Cube. The two play Lee John and Darrell, respectively. They have taken the church's congregation hostage in hopes of gathering the collection plate that gets passed around the pews every first Sunday of the month. Today, they are forcing the union director to cough up the goods at gunpoint. But Ice Cube's hand isn't holding very steady on the prop gun that has been provided for this particular shakedown.
Tracey lays his cheek on a scabby ketchup bottle. His forehead is covered with fake sweat. He looks genuinely tired. Rumors of a long night float around the grips and lighting technicians on set. Morgan's long sleeve black tee is dotted with perspiration. Even though the air conditioning is on, we are to believe that the entire system has imploded upon itself due to lack of church funding. A middle-aged woman shuffles over to Tracey with a giant aerosol can that looks like hairspray. The mist showers a film of musty water on his face.
There is a strange air surrounding Morgan. He seems off, lost in the moment of the scene he is about to shoot. While the make-up artist tends to his needs, he picks at the flower print on the old wooden table in front of him. He ignores Ice Cube and director David E. Talbert as they run through the upcoming scene quietly in the corner. Tracey looks up for a moment, studying one of the authentic child-drawn crosses on the wall. Expressionless. He then lays his head back down on the well-used ketchup bottle.
Ice Cube and Talbert break, heading towards opposite ends of the room. This particular shot is being done with a steady cam. The angle starts on Morgan's fatigued face. The comedian is feigning heat exhaustion. He plays at the notion wholeheartedly. The guy genuinely looks like he could pass out at any minute. His head bobs in and out of unconsciousness, like a kitten struggling to stay awake. Cube comes up on him fast, nudging Tracey in the shoulder with his gun barrel. He tugs his head towards the kitchen, motioning for them to move away from the group of tied up individuals in the adjoining room.
Cube's Afro is made of magnificent perfection. It is coifed and high, giving the actor a sense of old school cool. He is wearing a camouflaged jacket over a moneyclip T-shirt from the Spearmint Rhino strip club. The last two times I've seen Cube; he's had pancake make-up on his face to make his skin look lighter. He explained that the process was used in interviews to try and sell his image overseas. Something that is nearly impossible. Today, the natural color of his skin is on display. He looks more relaxed in this setting. He knows his lines perfectly.
The dialogue is hard to hear from my position on set. A rather large lady, played by Loretta Devin, has fainted in the basement due to the broken cooling system. And Morgan's character seems a little worried about her. Ice Cube points his gun toward the twelve-member party being held hostage. "I am sick of this girl! She needs to stay fainted." A fish mobile made by seven-year-olds hangs above Tracey and Cube's head, dangling in view of the camera lens. Tracey takes an absentminded swat at it, "What if they are telling the truth? What if they don't know where the money is?"
This line of dialogue sets off a chain reaction between the two actors that seems to go on forever. "What if they do?"
"What if they don't?"
"What if they do?"
And you get the picture. Tracey leans out of the pantry, calling on the church's Union Director, "Do you know where the money is?" Chi McBride comes in-view of the camera. His large frame is tied to the back of a chair. "No!"
Cube busts out of the kitchen and heads to the large round table where the church's congregation has been tied up. Tracey follows close behind. Cube lets spittle fly as he waves the gun around the room full of heat-exhausted individuals, "Look, I'm sick of ya'll! We are going to comb this church until we find that money!"
The young, very beautiful Malinda Williams has come untied. She hurries over to the kitchen area to get some water. We will later find out that she and Cube have a romantic overture. Right now, they are hardly acquaintances. A gun is pointed at her head, "What are you doing?" Williams motions toward the fainted Devine, "She needs some water."
Comedian Katt Williams immerges from the group of hostages. He is dressed in one of his flashy, trademarked suits. Purple and Red. "No, she needs some roughage in her diet!" The line catches an off-camera laugh from a few of the crewmembers.
Ice Cube gives up on the scene before it is completely over.
Interview: Director David E. Talbert
Can you tell us a little bit about the film and what is being shot today?
David E. Talbert: Sure. This is the story of Lee John and Darnell, and they are in desperate need of some cash. They go to church. Lo and behold, its first Sunday and the preacher says, "Malachi chapter 3 asks a simple question, will a man rob God?" Lee John and Darnell look at each other and say, "Hell, yeah!" That is the set-up. They will break into the church on first Sunday night and steal the money to pay off $17,000 in debt. They break into the church and everything goes crazy. The money is missing. And they have to hold the church members hostage. There's a meeting they didn't even know about that's happening that same night. And the choir is having a special choir rehearsal. The choir director is Katt Williams. So, everybody is held hostage and nobody knows where the money is. Cube says "We're gonna hold everybody hostage until we find out where the money is." The scene you're watching now is: They've been in the church for maybe an hour and a half. It's hot, the air conditioning is broke, and everybody is about to snap.
Ice Cube is pretty hands on when it comes to producing and handling his projects. How has it been working with him?
David E. Talbert: Well, the producer here is Matt Alvarez. He's taken more black directors to the Promised Land than any other producer. I plan to be the next one to go get a great project like Fantastic Four. No, really. Matt has put together an incredible team of talent. He is partners with Cube. Both of them work hand in hand. They came to the table and really helped sell the script. Cube is s a director's actor. There is no better actor for a first time director than Cube. He's been in so many movies. And he knows when something isn't right. He says. "Hey, man." And calls me over. Cube has really big brothered me and been like a director. He mentored me through the development process and helped me transition from telling stories on the stage to telling them for the camera.
How did you come to be apart of this team?
David E. Talbert: I wrote the script. I'm a playwright and theater director by craft. My manager is also one of the executive producers. I told him about the idea years ago. And he said "Man, that's a hot idea." He said, "There's this guy I want you to met, Tim Story, and he's looking to produce this thing as well." Then we went through the whole thing of casting. One actor fell out, then another actor fell out. I was like, "Oh hell, I'm never gonna direct this movie." Then we got the green light! Green, thank god! For so long it had been flashing yellow. But Cube and Alvarez came in and really helped bring this project to where it is now.
Is this a family film?
David E. Talbert: Its not rated R, but it's real. It's a comedy with a lot of drama. It's got the comedy like you would see in Friday. It's got some of the heart that you've seen in Barbershop. That is mixed with my own brand of inspiration. I throw that in the pot. This is what we have, a comedy, cause you laugh, but you also have these performances that put together and carry, and really hold the drama together. At the end of the day, it's about how far a father will go to keep his daughter with him. At the end of the day that's what it's really about.
Scene 94. Take 1.
David E. Talbert is gearing up to take the shot again. The make-up lady has come back in to reapply fake sweat on most of the actors' faces. She first sprays members of the congregation. Then she moves onto Tracey Morgan. Ice Cube is missed. The joke is: He doesn't sweat. The cameraman changes the angle on the Ketchup bottle ever so slightly. Morgan takes his place back at the table. Again, he looks rather melancholy. Something seems to be bothering the actor. While the other actors and set technicians discussed the intricacies of the shot, Tracey remains silent, fiddling with the condiment bottle in front of him. He shoots the camera a stern look, then nods. His eyes begin to fade. The imaginary heat exhaustion is beginning to take its toll on him.
The scene is run through again at a quicker pace. Tracey and Cube entered the room where the congregation is being held hostage. Chi McBride looks legitimately disgusted with the predicament at hand, "We are being held hostage by a couple of gang bangers!" One of the church members slips, calling Chi a negro. "I am not a negro, I am an African American." Loretta Devine faints on cue. Tracey looks angrily at the Union Director, "With all of the money you collect on Sunday, why can't you get an AC that works?"
Tied to her chair at the table, one of the church members cries out, "We'll all pass out from heat exhaustion." Playing the scene cool as a cucumber, Ice Cube sneers up his lip in that trademark West Coast Gangster snarl. "I don't think it's that hot in here." Cube jumps up on a window ledge. This causes Katt Williams to spring forth from his seat.
Cube aims the gun at the comedian, "Pretty Ricky, sit down!" And with that, Talbert calls cut. Cube aims the gun at the camera lens, smiling. The kid looks like he is really enjoying himself. He jumps down from the ledge and walks over to the director. They began to discuss the scene in detail. Cube feels that the action should flow in a slightly different direction.
Interview: Actor Katt Williams
Is it difficult to adapt your comedic style to a more family friendly movie?
Katt Williams: No. When I was doing stand up I had a family. Things go based upon your category. So that's stand up. Vulgar things pop into my head, because that's the forum for that. The reason it's important that I have some sort of an acting career is so I can do other things. Otherwise, I would only be duplicating what I do in stand up. So, yeah, this is currently a departure. My kids are from 18 months to eleven. So it's important to do some work where they can actually go to the red carpet premier.
Can you tell us about your character, and his particular style?
Katt Williams: He's a choir director. Being a choir director in an African American church is an important and thankless occupation. You'll find some of the most colorful characters in church. I tried to do just as much as I could do comedically, yet not make it as stereotypical as it could have been.
Do you get to pick out your own wardrobe?
Katt Williams: However many fans I have...And I thank all thirty-six of them...They're fans of certain things about me. One of those things is the way I dress. So my dress has to match whatever I'm doing. I did make sure that I was comfortable with what my character had on. I don't want to usurp wardrobe's job, but I also want to make sure you buy the character. That's the first part of elementary acting, which is where I'm at.
Does Mr. Talbert allow you to do much improvising on set?
Katt Williams: The crazy thing is that I'm only comfortable doing a departure from script if it's comedic. If I can add something that makes it funny, rather than take away from the writing. Then I'm doing a good job. I haven't had a lot of experience doing the dramatic breakdown, so I probably won't stray from the script. I'm just trying to make my emotions.
What is the atmosphere like when Ice Cube is around?
Katt Williams: It's an atmosphere of fear. For me, that's what it is. I can hear him calling me right now. I don't know. Cube is probably one of the most professional people I've ever met. He runs a tight, yet not constricting, set. It's organized, it's by the books as far as fundamentally sound. There's no extra BS. Its about good attitude and work. I've been blessed. This is my second time working with Cube. He's been very consistent. And our director is proving himself to be very actor friendly. It's a good situation.
How different is this character than the character you played in Ice Cube's last movie, Money Mike?
Katt Williams: Money Mike was a pimp. Being a pimp and a choir director, there's a little bit of range between those two worlds. You would hope. Otherwise I've just murdered the entire film. That's the beauty of being a comic. There's not a lot of brain surgery to be done. It's just important that I make sure whatever character I'm doing is funny, and appropriate for that character. There were a lot of decisions for me, as far as what the character was gonna look like and sound like. His mannerisms are just as detailed, if not more so, than the Monkey Mike character.
Does it ever feel weird to be shooting inside a church?
Katt Williams: Well, at first it was a little difficult. Not as much as it could be, because lots of movies have shot in churches, and done far worse. People have been killed in churches. After the fourth day, I think I really came to grips with the fact and said, "Okay, we're filming. And even if this is God's house, right here, he wouldn't stay while we shot a movie here. He would go somewhere else. Because it can get kind of boring." After the fourth day, I was good.
What did you find most appealing about this particular role?
Katt Williams: I'm a father first. I was attracted to the fact that: A) They were allowing me to do something as close to good wholesome fare that I was apt to do for a while. And, B): The check made it possible to do some other things. I felt good. The kids were happy. The check was nice. It was Cube again, it was Matt Alvarez, and it was David Talbert. Once you get past Tyler Perry, you pretty much only have David Talbert. So it was a good opportunity for me to align myself with whatever side I wanted to be on at that particular time. Given the House of Payne reviews, I think I picked well. After that, there was no thought process at all.
Has anyone been particularly outrageous with their improves?
Katt Williams: Nobody. Nobody's been outrageous. Everybody wants to do it right. That's what i think I'm learning. When you're on a really good movie, everybody's in a control moment. Nobody's trying to be the wild pistol on the set. Nobody's trying to milk laughs from the crew. We're trying to make sure we nail our parts so that we're not the weak link. That kind of atmosphere helps out I think. Nobody's been wild at all. And if somebody has been, it's probably been me.
Do you have a certain method you run through when developing these kinds of characters?
Katt Williams: I haven't done enough characters to have worked one out yet. I think I have a formula. But we all think we have a formula until it goes awry. This one I knew I had, just because I had the amount of time that I needed to understand the guy and have him be a real guy to me in my head. It's much easier if you're doing an impersonation of somebody that actually exists. And you can watch them. That's much easier than trying to create a character. As long as I can figure out the character, then I can do my job. Otherwise I would have to turn the film down.
Can you talk about the director's live theater background? That's got to be a change from the directors you usually work with. Most of them have come from a music video background, right?
Katt Williams: Yeah, it's a whole different take that he has on the directing part of it because of his background. He is very aware of how the scene should feel. Which is a little different than what you generally get from a director. Generally, you get placing. They generally just tell you to come into view of the camera in a certain way. But David's an audience manipulator. To put it as clear as I can, he wants to get a certain emotion out of each separate scene. That's been fun as an actor to watch.
Is it hard to maintain the same kind of stage energy when you are doing a scene over and over again?
Katt Williams: That's a good compound question. Well, you know the same sort of pacing has to exist. In stand up, it's all about the flow and the ebb of where you're going. Whether you sustain that or break it down. With acting, it's the same thing for me. But it's very difficult to be in this character, where I'm crying, then they go cut. And I go off Saturday and Sunday to DC and Chicago for a couple of stand-up shows. Then I fly back here. And I'm crying again. I guess that's why they pay me as well as they do. I am rapidly getting into my character at certain times.
Can you lay down the scene that we are watching you shoot this afternoon?
Katt Williams: Ricky's totally immersed in the directing of his choir. He ties everything that happens in his life to the choir. Everything equates to the choir. If there's a sale on cabbage at the grocery store, that only effects him because the choir is having a meeting. And he might have to make something for the potluck. And cabbage isn't such a bad idea. Everything equates to his duties as the choir director. As far as he's concerned, that is his calling. It is what he was put here to do. He very rarely loses control. He's emotional and moody, yet he's very centered. This is the point where we get to see how vested he is in the church and in the directing of the choir. The fact is, that's really all he has. He gets a chance to voice that in his emotional breakdown.
Are you playing a hostage?
Katt Williams: I am. I am a hostage.
Be sure to read the second part of our set visit were we chat with stars Tracey Morgan and Ice Cube. To access it, just a CLICK HERE You can catch Katt Williams in First Sunday when it opens January 11th, 2008.