David E. Talbert is the writer of fourteen national plays, four novels, a reality TV show and director/producer of two films (2008’s First Sunday with Ice Cube, Katt Williams, and Tracy Morgan, along with 2013’s Baggage Claim starring Paula Patton, Jill Scott, Taye Diggs, and Derek Luke).
The Morgan State and NYU film program graduate is also the writer and producer behind Jamie Foxx’s 2006 NBC documentary Unpredictable. Talbert's multi-faceted conquests have garnered him numerous NAACP Image Awards and a New York Literary accolade as 2007’s Best Playwright of the Year for “Love in the Nick of Tyme.”
Citing his extensive and impactful body of work, the Los Angeles Times labeled Talbert as, "One of the most prolific theatre makers in America.”
In this exclusive interview with The Shadow League, David E. Talbert discusses his comedic climb to success and being wrongly compared to Tyler Perry.
Raqiyah Mays: You have an amazing bio, from books to plays and TV and film, which do you prefer? Which do you say you get the most reward from?
David E. Talbert: It’s crazy, ‘cause it’s different. I think plays is immediate gratification. Standing in the back of the theater and just hearing the crowd going crazy is very addictive. Film you get to collaborate on a level that is unparalleled with great designers, technicians, actors, producers, studio execs. But with novels, I get the chance to be the artist because when I go out and do book readings, I’m performing. I’m reading. So I guess they all kind of have their own specific rush.
RM: I saw you went to Morgan State. What was your major?
RM: So where did the writing, creativity, and the artist side come from?
DT: Probably growing up in church. My great-grandmother was my best friend on the planet, she was the pastor. I guess watching her and my uncle, the assistant pastor, just move people with stories. And so it had a profound impact on me. And seeing how these stories changed people’s lives. So I think from there is where I kind of got the early signs of wanting to do it myself.
RM: I like that. With your major in marketing and you heard these great stories, what was the ‘A-ha’ moment for you that this was the path that you wanted to take?
DT: The ‘A-ha!’ moment for me was when I broke up with a college sweetheart. I called her and asked her to marry me, and she said, ‘I’ll call you back.’
DT: And so I started crying and writing poetry and listening to Al Green’s ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ and Adele’s ‘I’m Gonna Open Up My Heart.’ I would listen to those two songs over and over again. And then one day the Al Green record scratched and I couldn’t get it to play or whatever, it took me out of my ‘misery.’ I started reading the poetry that I wrote and I said, ‘Oh my god. Oh okay, this ain’t that bad.’ And then I started writing short stories that same summer. And I forgot all about her. And that’s when I realized I could write. I went to Morgan and showed one of the professors there, Clinton Holmes, one of my scripts and he said, ‘This is good!’ And that’s what let me know this is something, this is a gift.
RM: That’s interesting. You started because of a breakup. But a lot of what you do now, romantic comedies, you do for love, and you got your love beside you to be your barometer. In a way, it’s almost like full circle.
DT: It is. And that’s why affairs of the heart always speak to me and people gravitate towards those. Because I can write, I can deal with them not from the outside in but from the inside out. ‘Cause I can access that same amount of joy, but also that same amount of pain and heartbreak. And I allow the characters to access that too. And so it speaks to people, it feels real. The romantic comedy genre is very formulaic. So once given that, you try to make the rest of the journey interesting. You see a poster of a romantic comedy, you know these two people are gonna end up together, it’s not a secret. But you want to make the journey interesting enough so people have fun with it.
RM: You’ve got your wife producing with you, she reads your things and gives you the female viewpoint that you’re needing.
DT: Oh absolutely. She signs off on everything. It’s like when Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. Well she’s got the keys to my hard-drive.
RM: If you didn’t have your wife by your side would you still do it? Do you think that men can write about women?
DT: Men can write about the emotion, ‘cause emotions are genderless. It’s just that women tend to be more expressive and outward with their issues that they’re going through. Where men, we hold it in which is why we die earlier ‘cause we explode. We implode. So we hold it all in. You all have pajama parties, you all get together, you have spa days. And men, we just say ‘What’s up man? I’m good, I’m good.’ And then it eats away. And then you just BOOM! You’re no more. So no I think emotions are genderless, so anyone can write for the emotion. Now the nuances and things of course if you’re not a woman, you’re not going to know those. You need to find someone to make sure you’re on point, which I do. Same thing with a woman writing for a man. If you’re not a man, there are nuances that you just won’t know.
RM: So is that the advice you would give fellow writers?
DT: Well you need to get whoever is your audience for your movie. Like I would tell my wife, I want to cast this certain actor to play this role. And she said, ‘Uh uh, uh uh. Don’t nobody want to see him in this role.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about, he’s a fabulous actor?’ And she said, ‘Uh uh, uh uh. Don’t nobody want to see him.’ And I’m like ‘You’re wrong. Everybody wants to see him.’ And she said to me, ‘When’s the last romantic comedy you purchased a ticket for? I go see everyone. I know.’ And so of course, I had to defer to her.
RM: What are the pros and cons of working with your wife? That’s a fine line.
DT: Well the pros are that, ‘cause my wife is the executive producer of the movie, so she pretty much bosses you around at home. So when you get to the set, you don’t have no learning curve. That’s a pro. And the cons are when you work with someone outside of the home, you can huff and puff, they go their way and you go your way. But when you work with someone that’s in the home, they huff and puff and they go to the master bedroom and you go to the couch. So that’s a con. Unless you got a really comfortable couch.
RM: (laughing) Well, I like that I’m seeing black love. Not just on screen, but behind the scenes doing amazing things. How do you mix personal and professional so well? How can you make the two parallel without messing it up?
DT: Well it’s like church and state. I mean they separate those for a reason. There’s the Senate and Congress for a reason. It can be problematic. The best example I can give you is, I was sitting with Lionel Richie. And we were going to do a project together. And I was telling him about [his] songs that I loved. And he said to me that he would sit at his piano and write and sing these songs, and his wife would be in another room. And if she would come in that room and give him a look and a smile, he knew that song was a hit. If she didn’t come in the room, he would keep working on it and working on it until something called her to come in the room. When they got divorced, he said he no longer had that barometer.
RM: Wow, so it’s almost like every man needs a muse.
DT: Every man needs a good muse, a barometer, and a jail keeper.
RM: Have you been compared to Tyler Perry with the products that you present? And hearing that, how does it make you feel?
DT: All the time! All the time. But you compare Coke to Pepsi. They don’t taste alike. But they’re both Colas. They compare Apple to PCs. Well they’re both computers, but they’re two totally different kinds. I think though it’s a very easy comparison to make in the sense that we’re both playwrights and we both do film. But he is an artist that has his own unique way of telling stories, and I’m an artist that has my own unique way of telling stories. So it doesn’t bother me. I wish they would compare his bank account to mine. That would really be good.
RM: What’s next for you? What are you working on?
DT: I have two projects with Fox Searchlight that I’m writing now. I’ll be directing one this year and doing another big play that’s gonna tour next year.
RM: Some say that up until recently, black films have been the same. Do you think that’s because people aren’t writing different stories? Or is that just what the studios are picking up on?
DT: I think it’s a combination of both, but I think right now, I mean The Butler did $100 million. 12 Years a Slave [won] some Oscars. Then you had The Best Man [Holiday] which went through the roof. Baggage Claim was very successful. Ride Along. Then you had Black Nativity. I mean you had a standup movie that was very successful by Kevin Hart. It just seems like, you know, hats off to the story tellers and the studios right now. I’m just happy to be a part of this time.
RM: So what do you want to tell up-and-coming writers and filmmakers of color that want to push their stories through, what do you wanna say to them?
DT: Don’t ever accept a ‘No’ from someone that doesn’t have the power to say ‘Yes.’ And that is what I have gone by in my career and that’s why I keep pushing.