With a long resume directing a slew of films including Soul Food, Men of Honor, Faster and Notorious, director George Tillman, Jr. had two key wake-up calls that changed the trajectory of his professional life. The first came at the height of his career. “I had an 8 year gap because I was producing the Barbershop movies, and those were very profitable. You’re making money producing. There’s a comfort that happens. So I was like, ‘Hey, I’m waiting for the perfect material. I don’t know if I want to go yet.’ I was passing on a lot offered and some went on to do very well,” says the Milwaukee native. “I look back and it’s like, ‘Should I regret? Should I not?’ I was trying to make everything be perfect before you start shooting, but sometimes that don’t happen. Then after a while, I’m watching other filmmakers [saying], ‘I should be doing this myself.’ It was a revelation. I feel like, ‘You’re a filmmaker, do work, do movies, keep working.’ And I became much more aggressive in putting out material.”
His latest project comes in directing The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, a dramatic story about two boys in the projects, one who struggles to deal with his drug addicted mother (Jennifer Hudson) and life in the inner city. The film, executive produced by Alicia Keys, has garnered critical acclaim. But studios initially passed on financing it. The rejection led to Tillman’s second wake-up call.
“I talked to [music legends] Gamble and Huff. This had to be about 5 years ago. I was interested in doing their film. They really loved my films, saw all of them, and they asked, ‘Do you own these?’” Tillman remembers answering by explaining industry jargon. “As a filmmaker, you sell your stories. Just like Soul Food, I wrote the script, Fox bought it, they own the property, and then they made the money. [Gamble and Huff] said early on they were owning their masters, owning their publishing. And they had their own production, their own studios. And when I think of that in terms of filmmaking, that’s really raising your own money, spending your own money, and making the films that you want to make and having more control. But there’s a risk factor because you’re using your own individual money. So I just felt like after I couldn’t get [The Inevitable Defeat] made in a studio, the best bet was to go out and try to do it independent.”
Taking advice from directors Darren Aronofsky and John Singleton, Tillman focused on the enormous task of making his passion project. “The conversation that I had with John Singleton years ago, my first time, my first film, he said, ‘It only takes one. Everybody got that story in them.’ So as a filmmaker you keep searching for that story. You keep searching for that one that’s going to connect, not only sometimes just for you and the audience, but to the audience internationally, executives, or studios,” he says. “I’ve been in it for a minute so you just try not to get down. Nobody wanted to make Soul Food at first. Even the comedy Barbershop, it was turned down by two other studios before MGM made it. [Inevitable Defeat] took me 3 years. "Lee Daniels [The Butler], it took him awhile. 12 Years a Slave, I just know that [Steve Mcqueen] didn’t give up, he was always talking about it. It’s filmmakers not giving up. At some point it’s going to break through.”
Tillman’s breakthrough only came after raising money by pulling in Alicia Keys as executive producer and moving Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mackie, Jordin Sparks, and Jeffrey Wright to accept roles in the film. Finally, after an all-star lineup, he found distribution through Codeblack Films and Lionsgate. Still, Tillman’s independent budget forced him to work like Tupac and make a dollar out of 15 cents.
“Oh yeah. You gotta shoot shorter days, a shorter shooting schedule. You got two kids so you can’t shoot twelve hours, you gotta shoot eight. You gotta shoot fast. There’s no movie trailers to sit in. You can’t get the right locations you want, you can’t get certain things, but you just keep on,” he says remembering the journey. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to a story and some good acting so you make your film believable. Now I say, ‘All you need is one mic,'” he laughs. “You don’t need a whole band.”
“I consider myself an extremely hard worker, but then I saw George on set," says screenwriter Michael Starrbury, who wrote The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. “I’ve never seen anybody so dedicated. I mean he busts his butt. He never gave up. I see him on set working with the kids and being gentle, but still firm. It was inspiring. He’s not a quitter and he understands that defeat isn’t the end. You’re only truly defeated when you quit. And he showed me that even after I titled the movie.”
Now with the release set for October 11th, and a Miles Davis biopic in the early works, all Tillman passionately talks about is what he wants people to leave the theater feeling. “I want people to walk away saying, ‘Anything that comes in my path, I can get through it, it’s inevitably going to happen, and I can do it,” he says about the film that echoes the hustle and struggle theme of a filmmaker. “Gotta keep pushing. Don't let nobody, nobody tell you when to stop."