Not My Job: We Quiz The Writer Of 'One Night In Miami' On One Knight In Miami
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game which some people think offers the most prestigious prize in the world. But of course, those people are wrong. The game is called Not My Job. So about a decade ago, Kemp Powers was a working journalist who had an idea for a play based on a real-life event that happened back in the 1960s. Then that play "One Night In Miami..." became a huge success. And then it was made into a movie by Regina King. And then he became the co-director of the latest Pixar movie "Soul." And now he has been nominated for an Oscar for both of those films. What's he going to do next year?
Kemp Powers, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
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KEMP POWERS: Thanks for having me, man. This is fun.
SAGAL: It's great to have you. Kemp, I may have gotten the chronology not exactly right, but that's more or less what happened. You had a very interesting couple of years, right?
POWERS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, these things - the journey of the movie - from my play to the - to being a film, of course, was a journey of, like, six, seven years. And, of course, with a Pixar film, it takes several years for those things to get done, too. But I think the coincidence of the timing is not lost on me. But I didn't plan it that way (laughter).
SAGAL: So I have to ask - what's it like walking around as a double Oscar nominee?
POWERS: What do you mean? Walking around my kitchen?
POWERS: Walking around my bedroom?
SAGAL: I guess.
POWERS: That's exactly what it's like.
POWERS: It's like I'm just in the same place I've been for the past year, which is gaining weight. And what does the average? They say we're gaining 2 pounds a month?
POWERS: So you can do the math and pretty much figure out what I've been doing. That's what it's like.
SAGAL: Not exactly what you were imagining as a younger man with the red carpets and stuff, I guess. It does seem like a cruel joke.
POWERS: No, no.
SAGAL: So let's go through it, though. So you had been a journalist and a playwright. And the play that has become the movie - now on Amazon, directed by Regina King - "One Night In Miami..." is based on a real event.
SAGAL: And I was surprised to find out how - although, of course, you took your dramatic license - how accurate it was, that these four men, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X actually did end up in a motel the night after the Sonny Liston fight.
SAGAL: And your play, now movie describes what happened. And I have to ask. I used to write plays myself. Did you find it hard as a dramatist to just keep them all in the same room?
POWERS: Yes, that was actually a big challenge. I mean, especially in the early drafts of the play, where even the actors were like - why wouldn't I just walk the F out the door right now, you know?
POWERS: Like, why would I stay here? So, you know, the play is actually quite different from the film, but that was definitely one of the earlier challenges. I mean, the biggest challenge, of course, is just not turning it into just a giant book report because there's so much interesting stuff that I learned about each of these four men that - you know, kind of breaking through the iconography was really the biggest challenge of all. I wanted to both be respectful but also, you know, write a pretty interesting and entertaining play and then film.
SAGAL: Only one of the gentlemen is still alive. Has he...
SAGAL: Have you had any encounters with Mr. Brown?
POWERS: I have not. But I heard fairly recently from Aldis Hodge, who actually plays him, that he got word that he saw the film and enjoyed it and reached out in a - and was very complimentary about the film in general and the characterization of him, specifically. So that made me very, very happy.
SAGAL: I bet you were relieved 'cause I myself would not want to annoy Jim Brown, just...
POWERS: Oh, no, you know? You got that right. I mean, I was watching an animated show called "Tales From The Tour Bus." And they had an episode about Rick James. And for - like, out of nowhere, just coincidentally, there's a part in it where Jim Brown shows up at Rick James' house looking for his daughter. And Rick James, like, jumps out the back window.
POWERS: So it's just like - that pretty much is everything you need to know about people's fear of Jim Brown for many, many decades, that even, like, a coked-up Rick James would be like, Jim Brown's in the house and just be like, whee...
POWERS: ...Out the back window, rolling down to Hollywood Hills.
SAGAL: I want to move on and talk about Pixar. You're the co-director of their latest movie, "Soul," nominated for an Academy Award. You did it with Pete Docter. How did that come about?
POWERS: It's funny because when I - when my agent called and said, you know, Pixar, Pete Docter - they're doing a new film and they're interested in your writing, the first thing I thought was like, I guess Pixar's - you know, must be doing a film with some Black people in it because if he read "One Night In Miami..." you kind of - like, you know what you're getting. Let's put it that way.
SAGAL: Right, yes.
POWERS: And then I flew up there and was really just pleasantly surprised by just this idea of - like, I mean, I was really stunned about the jazz of it. I was like, really? We're going to do a kid's movie about a middle-aged jazz musician? That's...
POWERS: And I was like, all right. I'm down for that, you know? Like, you - tell me about this character. And he's like, oh, I see him as being about 45 years old. I'm like, oh, what a coincidence. I'm 45. He's like, oh, he's - you know, he's from New York. I'm like, oh, what a coincidence. So am I, you know? And so everything that he said about him, I was like, oh, you know what? This guy's literally my age. So I felt uniquely qualified, especially the journey he was going on, being a little bit older and just finally kind of breaking into the career he'd been trying to do for so many years, which I understood quite personally (laughter)...
SAGAL: Right. So...
POWERS: ...That in a weird way, I felt like it was the film - the Pixar film I was meant to write and co-direct.
SAGAL: And how did - I love Pixar. I love everybody at Pixar. There are not a lot of Black people at Pixar. And...
POWERS: Oh, no (laughter). Yeah, I know.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: (Laughter).
POWERS: I know. It was so funny because, you know, Pixar uses a car service up in Emeryville to pick people up from the airport. And...
SAGAL: Right, yeah.
POWERS: ...Shortly after we got going in production in "Soul," the car - because, you know, it's - Emeryville's right next to Oakland. So a lot of the car service drivers are Black men. And I remember once I was in one of the car services. And the guy - like, they don't usually say much. But the guy looked around. And he's like, level with me, brother. Y'all are making a Black movie, aren't you? I was like - what...
POWERS: I was like - I said, why would you say that? He's like, because - he's like, I picked up Angela Bassett, Jamie Foxx, Donnell Rawlings. He's like, I ain't never picked up this many Black people and brought them to Pixar. So you guys know.
POWERS: I - tell me. I was like, oh, I can't say what we're working on. He's like - well, what is your job? I'm like, I'm the writer. He's like, man, you know y'all doing a Black movie. You need to stop.
POWERS: So I was, like, being interrogated by the car service drivers because they're like, yeah, we've never driven so many Black people to Pixar before in all these years.
SAGAL: Well, Kemp Powers, it is an absolute joy to talk to you. And we have asked you here, though, to play a game that this time we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: One Actual Knight In Miami.
SAGAL: So you wrote "One Night In Miami..." - which made us wonder how much you knew about an actual knight who lives in Miami. And by that, we mean Sir Barry Gibb, founder of the Bee Gees, knighted by Queen Elizabeth, longtime resident of Miami. Answer two out of three questions correctly about Barry Gibb, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - any voice of their choice from our show on their voicemail. Are you ready to play?
POWERS: Yes, let's do it.
SAGAL: Bill, who is Kemp Powers playing for?
KURTIS: Andrew Sales of Omaha, Neb.
SAGAL: Here's your first question. In the late '60s, before the Bee Gees transformed into the disco gods we came to know and love, Barry Gibb wrote a concept album for the group called "Odessa." According to a recent retrospective in The Guardian, the record "Odessa" was what? Was it, A, quote, "what you get when you combine three young men with a large amount of peyote"; B, quote, "a collection of harps, flamenco guitars, mock Gregorian chanting, a burst of 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' with lyrics about icebergs and vicars and emigrating to Finland"; or, C, quote, "a total of four hours of a discussion of hair products set to a drum track?"
POWERS: I'm going to say A.
SAGAL: No, it was actually B, a collection of harps, flamenco guitars, mock Gregorian chanting.
SAGAL: That's what...
SAGAL: I've never heard it. It flopped, you know? I guess that's why they got into disco. All right. Not a worry. You still have two more chances here. They were - of course, as we all know, became huge worldwide stars. But they had to cancel several shows they once scheduled in Singapore after the government demanded that they do what if they wanted to enter the country - A, cut off their long, luscious locks of hair; B, transpose all their songs from falsetto down into a baritone range; or, C, record a dance mix of the No. 1 song in Singapore at the time, "The Pina Colada Song?"
POWERS: Is it A?
SAGAL: It is A, Kemp.
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SAGAL: That's what they did.
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SAGAL: Singapore had these rules. The Bee Gees were not the only '70s-era rockers who didn't play Singapore 'cause Singapore required people to cut their hair. All right. If you get this last question right, you win our prize. One of the last great acts of the Bee Gees in the '70s was starring as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in a movie adaptation of the Beatles album produced by their own manager.
Now, the soundtrack album to that movie has a unique distinction in music history. What is it - A, it was included on a Russian space probe but as a warning to any aliens who find it not to come visit; B, it was the first album to inspire a vote on a declaration of war against the United States in the British Parliament; or, C, it was the first ever record to go return platinum, meaning record stores sent 4 million unsold copies back to the distributor?
POWERS: Unsold platinum? That's got to be - it's got to be that, C.
SAGAL: That's what it was.
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SAGAL: The "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" movie starring the Bee Gees was one of the worst films ever made and one of the greatest disasters in pop music history. Bill, how did Kemp Powers do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Two out of three. And that's a win, Kemp.
SAGAL: Congratulations. May it be the first of many more wins to come in the weeks. Good luck at the Oscars. Congratulations on an amazing year and lots of well-deserved success.
POWERS: Thank you.
SAGAL: And good luck in whatever you do next.
POWERS: Yeah, this was great. Thanks for having me (laughter).
SAGAL: Thank you, Kemp. Kemp Powers is nominated for two Oscars for his movies "Soul" and "One Night In Miami..." Kemp Powers, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
SAGAL: Take care, Kemp. Bye-bye.
POWERS: Take care. Bye-bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND")
BEE GEES: (Singing) We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sit back and let the evening go.
SAGAL: In just a minute, our Listener Limerick Challenge has a tart oaky finish. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.
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