'Barbershop', 'Soulfood' Filmmaker Gets Candid

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Bob Teitel may not be a household name, but his films drive heated household conversations. The producer behind the Barbershop movies, Soulfood, Beautyshop and the upcoming film Notorious, about the life and times of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Teitel explains what motivates his work, and his love for Chicago, the setting for some of his most popular films.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a final word from me about what we Americans increasingly have in common with the rest of the world. But first, you might not be familiar with the name Bob Teitel. But if you are a fan of down-home comedy with an ethnic twist, then you definitely know his work. He's produced movies like "Barbershop" and "Soulfood." Inspired by his native Chicago, Teitel's films often take a light hand, but they touch on such serious matters as race relations, infidelity, and the clash of the generations. Just in time for Christmas, he has a new film out called "Nothing Like the Holidays." And Bob Teitel is with us now. Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. BOB TEITEL (Owner, State Street Productions; Film Producer): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I think a lot of folks associate you with movies with a predominantly African-American cast, but "Nothing Like the Holidays" is different. It has a predominantly Latino cast. The center of the film is a Puerto Rican family, set in Chicago. How did this film come to you? Why did you want to make this one?

Mr. TEITEL: I always had this idea. I'm half Puerto Rican, and growing up in Chicago, George Tillman, my business partner and I were - him being African-American and him being more of a writer/director - we were always, kind of, heading in that direction. And even with our first independent film in 1995, it had one Latin story in there and two African-American stories. So we actually touched bases on this type of culture before. And being Puerto Rican, it was fun. I would go home for Christmas all the time and my family is like, OK, you definitely nailed the African-American thing. When are you going to do a story about us?

MARTIN: We talked with John Leguizamo last week about your film, and one of the - I asked him the same question - why this? Because I think his work is associated with a certain edge, and this is a family comedy. It's not completely lighthearted. There are some serious things talked about, like the war in Iraq, and like that. And one of the things he said is that, you know, a Latino family-oriented Christmas comedy, we haven't seen that before.

Mr. TEITEL: Correct. You know, we were fortunate enough to make a film called "Soulfood" in '97. And I felt like we touched on a side of the middle-class African-American family that really hasn't been portrayed on film. And I really wanted to do that with a Latin family. It's a totally different dynamic. This one centers around Christmas, different family dynamics and so forth. But I felt like this might be the way to make a film more universal that everybody could relate to.

MARTIN: There are universal themes. For example, the center of the story is that the grown kids are all converging on the family homestead for Christmas. One is coming back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Another is trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood, and another, the son, has gone away, and he's working in a white-shoe law firm in New York. His wife is an investment banker. So, people will see, you know, universal family themes in it. But one of the things that I'm curious about, with "Soulfood," with "Barbershop," why did these films have to be - I mean, they have universal themes - but in a way, though, it still seems, kind of, like, ethnically segregated. Do you know I mean? What's up with that?

Mr. TEITEL: Yeah. I mean, we really wanted to stay true to the culture. And the good news with this film - it's such a diverse Latin cast, and we wanted to capture that. There's a Cubano, there's Mexican, there's Puerto Rican. And we wanted to try to run the gamut of the Latin culture. With "Barbershop," you know, it was obviously predominantly an African-American cast, except one of the characters happened to be white. A lot of the story was, kind of, based off incidents in my life. And it's ironic that my wife was one of the writers on the film. Because, you know, we'd go home at Christmastime and I'd say, Honey, look around. You couldn't make this up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TEITEL: I mean, look at this, this is a lot of fun.

MARTIN: Is she also from a Latino background?

Mr. TEITEL: No, she's actually black, and she's from Bermuda.

MARTIN: Do you have kids?

Mr. TEITEL: Yes, I have two kids. And they're interesting, if you think about it - Puerto Rican, Jewish,and black.

MARTIN: Puerto Rican, Jewish and black - sounds like America to me.

Mr. TEITEL: It sure does. And I'll tell you what, they'll get into any school they want with that.

MARTIN: Do you think that you can say things in a, perhaps a more mono-ethnic cast, about the culture that you might not in a more diverse cast? That people might not be willing to accept that you can maybe make a riff on the culture in a way that you might not be able to do if the cast are not diverse?

Mr. TEITEL: A hundred percent. No question about it. I think, when you're talking about yourself, and then you're self-deprecating in a lot of ways, it's acceptable. And there's always, like, an outsider looking in. And a lot of times, the audience might relate to that character and get a slice of life, of something they haven't seen before.

MARTIN: There are times, though, that films have been criticized, your films have been criticized for crossing the line, and I want to play a short clip from "Barbershop." This is an excerpt of a character played by Cedric the Entertainer, who is, of course, Eddie, the barber, at the barbershop. Here it is.

(Soundbite of "Barbershop")

CEDRIC the ENTERTAINER: (As Eddie, the Barber) Now, I probably wouldn't say this in front of white folk. But in front of y'all, I'm gonna speak my mind. Rosa Parks ain't do nothing, but sit her black [beep] down.

MARTIN: So, where is the line?

Mr. TEITEL: That's interesting. First up, you know, it's funny. A lot of people said, oh, you guys are so clever, putting that in there just to drum up the controversy. And the truth is, I wish we were that smart. Honestly, we had no idea that it would spark that kind of talk. And it was on CNN, like 24/7.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TEITEL: It was unbelievable. And it felt like this was one character opinion, and it was 25 other people who were against him in the shop. So, I never even thought twice about it. I mean, none of us did. Honest to God, we're sitting there shooting it and we just thought it was funny. And since one person's opinion was that, it started this big controversy that we just never, ever saw coming.

MARTIN: Do you see yourself - I know you say you're half Puerto Rican - I don't know which half...

(Soundbite of laughter) MARTIN: But do you - I know a lot of people think that there is no such thing as being colorblind. But is there a part of you that just feels that what's funny is funny? That you don't really see yourself as being an outsider?

Mr. TEITEL: It's funny. My father is French and Jewish - was French and Jewish - and my mother's 100 percent Puerto Rican. So, I was raised Catholic, in Chicago, which is so diverse. I just never really saw those lines. And then marrying a black woman was really interesting. I never thought twice about it. Like I said, like you just said, people really are colorblind. Color is there; you can't ignore it. But for us, it was just trying to make a good film and a universal film, and really with relatable themes.

MARTIN: Here's another issue I wanted to raise that also was something that arose out of "Barbershop." And the clip I want to play is the scene where one of the black barbers who is very interested in educating himself, very interested in, kind of, improving his vocabulary, is having a face-off with the only white barber in the shop, who dresses in hip-hop style, talks like a rapper. I guess would that be - I don't know how you can describe it. But basically, he's around the way. And I want to play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of "Barbershop")

Mr. SEAN PATRICK THOMAS: (As Jimmy) What you laughing at, Kid Rock?

Mr. TROY GARITY: (As Isaac) Aw, man. Don't hate on me just 'cause you're a sellout.

Mr. THOMAS: I didn't hear that. What was that?

Mr. GARITY: You heard me, "Bourgie" Banton.

Mr. THOMAS: You got the black girlfriend, you got the pimped-out ride, and I'm a sellout? Man, you ain't nothing but a minstrel show turned on its ear. Al Jolson in a FUBU hat. Blackface for the new millennium. The white barbershop is uptown.

MARTIN: And they go on to have a dialogue. We can play - we're going to play the short clip where the barbers got a response. Do you want to play it?

Mr. TEITEL: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Here it is.

(Soundbite of "Barbershop")

Mr. THOMAS (As Jimmy): I got news for you, white boy. You're not black.

Mr. GARITY (As Isaac): Jimmy, I'm blacker than you. And what's messed up is, in your best day, you could never be me.

MARTIN: And here's the question. The question is, is that you've got this white kid who's got the hoody, and the pants are sagging, and he's got the pimped-out ride and so forth. But you know what, he can cut his hair, take off the chains, put on a suit, and still be accepted and you know, get that job on Wall Street. But that if you perpetuate this idea that what real blackness is, then the contrast to that is this whole argument of, like, oh, you think you're white. Well, if you want to be well-educated, if you want to be mainstream and so forth, that's not blackness. But that's destructive. Do you see what I'm saying? What are your…

Mr. TEITEL: I agree. I agree it is destructive. And you actually heard it in the election a little too, you know, with Barack Obama. I mean, it used to drive me nuts when someone said, well, he's not really black. You know, like, how can you say that? That's insane. So, I know where you're coming from. It's kind of, like, what we did with Cedric. That was one character's point of view, didn't represent everybody there, you know. And we were, quite frankly, trying to make a comedy, too. So, it was a combination of both.

MARTIN: What do you think about this whole, sort of, Barack Obama phenomenon and the way it will affect how we think about race in this country?

Mr. TEITEL: I think it's interesting. You know, we got to know him in Chicago in early 2000, when he was instrumental in passing the tax incentive for the film business when he was a state senator. And throughout the years, I worked on a couple of events on the campaign, and I'm just so proud and happy. And it just makes me proud to be part of this country right now. And I think the greatest thing is it's opening a lot of people's eyes. And some people who would never even have thought that a black man could be president, it just gives hope for everybody. I was there on November 4th in Chicago, one of the most amazing nights of my life.

And all I remembered is I stayed up all night 'til 5 in the morning, and I jumped in a cab to go to the airport, back to L.A. And when I was in the cab, there was this Nigerian cab driver. And we were talking the whole way. And one thing that stuck with me is he said, you know, as of today, my two kids could do whatever they want in this world. Before today, I really didn't believe it. But today, I believe it.

MARTIN: But what's going to be funny if everybody's on the inside? If there's no outsiders, who is there to make fun of?

Mr. TEITEL: That's a good point. I never thought of it like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with movie producer Bob Teitel about his latest work and his upcoming projects. Talk to me, if you would for just a couple minutes, in the couple minutes we have left, about your upcoming film, "Notorious." It's about the life of Notorious B.I.G.

Mr. TEITEL: Correct. It was an interesting film. It's one of the toughest films we had to tackle because Christopher Wallace aka Notorious lived a very short life, but he lived a very rich life. And trying to capture that in a bio pic, it was a challenge. And it's interesting because a lot of people are such fans. So everybody knows aspects of his life, and they can tell you where they were when it happened.

MARTIN: When what happened? For those who don't know, when he was killed?

Mr. TEITEL: When he was killed, and definitely when his first album came out, in 1994. For George and I, it was interesting. We made our first film in Chicago, and we drove to L.A. with $600 between us and one CD. And that was "Notorious B.I.G. Ready to Die." So, it was so close to us in so many ways. And as we talked more and more about this film, so many people would come up to us and say, yeah, I remember when his album came out. That was the album I played for two years straight. And then, when he was killed, everybody knew exactly where they were. And then there was aspects to Puffy's life that, you know, since he's such in the forefront, and he's out there, people, you know, know exactly who he was. Our challenge was to bring a lot of events that a lot of people didn't know about. And we touched on the East Coast-West Coast vibe a lot, too.

MARTIN: That is such an interesting thing. I think it's one thing to make a historic film which is so far into the past that people, they don't know, you know. You could be right, you could be wrong.

Mr. TEITEL: Correct. Right.

MARTIN: And a fictional piece, which you can say, hey, it's a movie. Get over it. And then a film in which a lot of people think that they know the facts or have some opinion about the facts. And for those who don't know, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs is a major character in the Notorious B.I.G. story, who - and of course, he's very much still around. How did you handle that aspect of the fact that this is very contemporary stuff?

Mr. TEITEL: It was interesting. Like with Sean Puffy's character and Notorious, you get to see how these two kind of rose to the top with each other, you know. Definitely Puffy needed Christopher Wallace, and Christopher needed Puffy. And as a team, they were unstoppable.

MARTIN: I think I have a short clip, and I'd like play it just so people can get a flavor of what they can expect in January. Here it is.

(Soundbite from the film "Notorious")

DEREK LUKE (as PUFF DADDY): He got sex appeal like L.L.?

Unidentified Man: A little bigger than that.

Mr. LUKE: What, like Henry D?

Unidentified Man: He's a little darker than that.

Mr. LUKE: Yo, he look like Wesley Snipes.

Unidentified Man: He ain't Wesley.

Mr. LUKE: The West Coast, they got smooth. They got dray. The East Coast, they're just waiting for somebody to fill that void.

Unidentified Man: Puffy maybe had a (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: I could be one of the greatest. It was all a dream.

MARTIN: And think that's the character of Puffy, right?

Mr. TEITEL: Correct.

MARTIN: I think that he - and he's asking about...

Mr. TEITEL: Played by Derek Luke.

MARTIN: Played by Derek Luke. And he's asking about, you know, who is this guy? Who is this guy?

Mr. TEITEL: It's the American dream in a lot of ways, that story. I like to say it's the American dream. And it's also like a mother and son story at the core.

MARTIN: So, what's next after this? You've got two very different films coming out. One out now, one coming out in January. A Christmas film, "Nothing Like The Holidays," "Notorious" coming up in January. What's going on after that? You taking a break?

Mr. TEITEL: No, we got to keep going. We're working on a story on Bobby Martinez, who's one of the top 10 surfers in the world. And he's of Mexican descent. And it's an interesting story of him rising in the surf world, coming from a gang-ridden neighborhood in Southern California, and how he kind of, like, beat the odds to become this great surfer. And then we're, you know, we're tackling some thriller movies that we really haven't done in the past. And we're, kind of, gonna take a stab at that.

MARTIN: Well, maybe you'll come back and talk to us about that.

Mr. TEITEL: Oh, I'd love to.

MARTIN: Bob Teitel is the producer of "Nothing Like The Holidays," which is in theaters now; also, the upcoming film "Notorious," which opens January 16th. He was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TEITEL: Thank you, had a great time.

MARTIN: And for the curious, this weekend, "Nothing Like The Holidays" took in $3.5 million at the box office.

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