By// Julius Rea
Beneath the writing and directing, acclaimed playwright David E. Talbert is on a mission to shine a positive light on the African-American community. In October, he took a break from the theater to began filming Baggage Claim — his latest feature-length film. JET got a chance to talk with the illustrious creative to find out about the film, his career, the future and how all of it got started. Talbert also divulges surprises from set and his grandmother’s fateful words that explains his career and success.
So, you’re in the middle of filming Baggage Claim. Can you tell me more about this project?
It’s based on a novel I wrote about 10 years ago. It’s the story of a flight attendant, Montana Moore. She’s the oldest woman in her family never to be married, and she just finds out that her baby sister is getting married in 30 days. There’s no way she’s not showing up there without a husband. So, she goes on this 30-day, 30,000-mile trek to find one.
How did the original idea for this story come up?
I did a two-novel deal with Simon & Schuster, and this is the first novel I ever wrote. I love romantic comedies. I love Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. I grew up loving those movies. So, I wanted to do something that was whimsical, fun and hopeful. So, this is my version of those movies.
Working long hours, what is it like being back on a film set?
While directing a film, one of the biggest things is being able to work with big actors. With plays, not everyone is going to tour around the country; not everyone has time to stay away from their families.
In film, I can work with everyone from Paula Patton to Djimon Honsou, from Taye Diggs to Trey Songz, from Jill Scott to Lauren London. The cross section of talent is just amazing; we put together an amazing all-star cast and an exceptional group of talent that you’ve never seen in a movie before.
Going back to the cast — because it is very star-studded — has there been any big surprises with the actors?
I had no idea that Jill Scott was as funny as she is. And that women will have audiences in stitches. I had forgotten how funny Taye Diggs is because he’s been doing drama for so long, but he is hilarious. With Trey Songz, I didn’t know what to expect when he came to audition. He’s going to be next up; he’s going to be a movie star, and he is killing his role in this movie.
Paula Patton will be, from this movie, a “Meg Ryan” or a “Julia Roberts” type. We’ll see Paula in that same light because this is a coming out party for her — playing an iconic character that we haven’t seen before. She’s beautiful, but she’s quirky. She’s vulnerable, and she really pulls you in.
You have so much experience with plays. What’s the biggest difference between the screen and the stage?
With plays, you tell the story; it’s a writer’s medium. With film, you show the story. For me, the bigger challenge is telling a story with the camera and relying on the camera more so than words. It keeps you alert and alive. It’s very challenging to go from one medium to the other, but it’s also very rewarding.
With plays, I get a chance to sit in the theater every night and feel the energy. With movies, I have to wait until it comes out to sit in the theater. I go to as many theaters as I can to feel it.
Since you’re adapting your own story, how has your vision or the story itself changed from the original novel to writing the screenplay to directing?
The funny thing is that the story remained the same. All you really have to do is pull out the pieces that are important to tell the story. Anyone who read the novel is going to say: “It’s really close to what we read.”
And, with your plays, you’ve done a lot of dramas, comedies and — following your film First Sunday — this would be another feature-length comedy, do you think that you’ll try drama on the big screen any time soon?
I’m working on some dramatic pieces, but, I’ll tell you, a creator creates things that mirror his own life at the time. I am very happily married, and I’m about to have my first child in about two months. So, there’s not much drama in my life right now. It’s a lot of comedy and a lot of romance. As I continue to grow as an artist, I’m sure I will want to mirror those life experiences on the screen. I write so many love stories because I genuinely love my wife of 14 years.
Throughout you work, you’ve touched on a lot of difference issues and topics. Are there any that inspire you when writing aside from general happiness, your marriage and your family?
What always inspired me was the relationships between men and women. Growing up in a household where there was no father, I always gravitated around women that I grew up with. I was always drawn to what [not having a husband] felt like for a woman. With me and my brother, my single mother had to raise a man and to champion her household. That always touched my heart and still does. That’s why many of my stories have female protagonists. That triumph, that struggle and that journey is something near and dear to me. It’s something that I was blessed to be raised by.
Being an established and acclaimed African-American writer, do you have a responsible to create stories about and for this community?
I think the value is in our images, what we’re seeing and how we’re portrayed. What drives pop culture? Movies, music and television. What we see tends to be what we are. It’s important that those images, that will survive forever, support who I believe I am and who I believe people who are like me are; it’s not only entertaining but aspirational also. Everyone who is apart of pop culture and creating it has that responsibility because that is our legacy and those are our images. If we don’t invest in them, who will?
With Baggage Claim, you’re continuing your legacy of positive, inspirational stories. Still, what obstacles have you faced being a writer and an experienced director?
It’s still a business, so you have to navigate through that. But, I believe that “If you write it, they will come.” I’ve been very blessed in my career to be able to work with the elite in our community. In film, it’s just another opportunity. With my plays, I’ve had leading men in Hollywood star in them. And, with this new movie, I’m just following that. But I’m just blessed. I spend a great deal of time with the written word so that, when I send scripts out, the material will speak to people and people will gravitate towards it.
We’ve been talking about your career and how you’re breaking more into film, what continuously drives you to create stories?
I discovered why I do what I do when I asked why my great-grandmother, Annie Woods, pastored a church for 50 years. She said, “Because I had to. I don’t think it was ever anything I wanted to do, but it was something I had to do. You can always outrun a ‘want to,’ but you can’t outrun a ‘have to.’ It will always catch you.”
When she said that to me, I realized why I do what I do. It’s something that drives me. I would not feel comfortable without doing it. It is not such much a desire as it is a necessity for the gifts God gave me, and I have to use them.//