Martin Sheen was approached to play WOL station owner E.G. Sonderling. The actor notes, "I find most of talk radio today boring, but I could listen to Petey Greene all day. I really liked the script, which I saw as a very human story. When I spoke with Kasi, I said, 'I'm particularly impressed with the sequences following Reverend King's assassination,' because I remembered that time so very well, and I told her a personal story about being in Reverend King's presence."
McLaughlin says, "Having Martin Sheen in Talk to Me is a dream come true. He was in the civil-rights trenches in that time period."
Sheen states, "Those were extraordinary times - and painful ones. In five short years, we lost three leaders; John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Reverend King was the pinnacle, and we're not going to see that again in my lifetime, unfortunately.
"I saw Sonderling as corporate, but with a soul. He's a good man, but he's also practical. He's conscious about employing black people during this time, and he loves the music. Although his first - and second! - impression of Petey isn't very good, Sonderling gives him and Dewey trust, and then gets out of their way."
Lemmons notes, "Martin found the perfect balance of conservative and compassionate that we needed for Sonderling."
See It: the design
Of working with Kasi Lemmons, Martin Sheen says, "the thing that is so impressive about her is her confidence. I directed a feature film once in my life, and I remember it as the most strenuous of times. But she's laid-back yet is also 100% focused and supportive. It doesn't matter where an idea comes from - props department, camera operator, actors; if it works, it works."
The entire crew of Talk to Me concentrated on capturing an era - though not always one that was documented in the history books. Lemmons says, "A lot of
the story takes place in parts of Washington that are not monument-heavy, so we chose locations that had a community feel.
"[Cinematographer] Stéphane Fontaine and I wanted a lush look for the '70s sequences. In general, though, we all watched a great deal of documentary footage and tried to rise to the challenge of matching it."
Production designer Warren Alan Young felt the full weight of the past in his efforts to recreate Washington - where he resides part-time - from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. He offers, "The idea was to recreate what existed as best as we possibly could, so that Kasi could tell this story. A lot of time and energy went into researching exactly what things looked like - building façades, the front of the newspapers, the label on a 7-Up can…Our graphic artists had to make a lot of signage, because things we found are 30-40 years old and we needed things to look fresh in the scenes in the movie. We hope audience members who were will look at the film and say, 'Yes, that was it.'
"Washington is one of the most heavily documented cities on the planet, particularly during the '60s and '70s. Yet there are very few images from there - or anywhere in the Unites States - of black people outside of protests and crime, and in day-to-day life. I did find one man, on the Internet, who was uploading his family snapshots dating back to the 1950s, so that was helpful."
Young notes, "I wanted to - I wouldn't say, 'establish a color palette,' but apply the colors that we know existed in the time periods we're depicting. We also had to create colors that were complementary to all of our actors, so we did a number of camera tests with colors to find what would work where and with whom. Overall, we were able to cultivate a very warm feel with greens, oranges, reds, and yellows; the only time we see blue is in Dewey's apartment - a sort of federal blue, given that he's a formal guy.
"My department worked very closely with the costume department on Talk to Me; they had a copy of the color schemes for each set so they knew what they were walking into, or onto. We had to make some changes along the way; a lot of people tend to think of style in terms of decade-long increments, but we learned it's a lot faster than that. From the mid-1960s to the '80s, it was about every three years. You may have been 'in' with your hairstyle in '66, but by '69 or '70 you had to move on."
Costume designer Gersha Phillips took her cues not only from Young's color coordinating, but also from Lemmons' concepts of Dewey as "button-down and pressed" and Petey as "out there." Phillips searched through vintage magazines, books, and photographs for inspiration. Given music's importance to the era, she also looked at iconic recording artists' styles.
Phillips reveals, "I was truly excited to be exploring this particular period - where people became empowered and tried to effect change - and have a little more fun than on the average movie. Men's fashion was fabulous and exciting in the late 1960s - and into the early '70s, even; I wish men would dress more like that now! Just looking at the things that people actually wore - wow. There was so much experimentation with different fabrics and colors. To our eyes now, these outfits may look strange, but they're what actually was worn.
"We found an article in Esquire that talked about the 'male plumage,' as in peacock. It was all about dressing to be seen, combining accessories from head to toe so that everything was on and looking great. Petey definitely was a peacock, a dresser; he had a unique way of putting colors and combinations together. From the photos we had, you can tell that clothing was important to him. Kasi encouraged me to go as far as I needed to go with costumes for Don. The red velvet suit - which took four different tries - and the mesh underwear were particular favorites."
Don Cheadle sports over three dozen costume changes in Talk to Me, all designed by Phillips and her team to echo Petey's idiosyncratic approach to his life. Cheadle laughs, "All of those accoutrements - the wig, moustache, mutton chops, clothes that were tight as hell - helped me to find the character. Once I looked in the mirror, I wasn't looking at myself; I saw Petey."
"Don was my hero," states Phillips. "He allowed me to do what I needed to, and it was a joy to work with him. He wears the clothes amazingly well; he would walk right into them and become Petey. The day he was supposed to wear this jumpsuit, he said, 'Gersha, I can't…' But he did, and he strutted it!"
Cheadle admits, "It was fun to dress up and revisit those times. Now, you don't want to detract from the story, but I feel that Gersha did a great job in taking us back into that period in a way that was both believable and strong. When you looked around the set and saw the world the crew had re-created, with everyone costumed, you were like, 'Oh, okay, I know where I am.'"
Phillips adds, "There's a line that you don't want to cross. But when you're looking at one outfit alone, that's different from when it's in a room of people similarly dressed. So then it's not that far-out."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Phillips muses that Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Dewey, "wears one suit throughout a lot of the movie. It's always crisp and pressed. Petey and Dewey are like night and day. But as their friendship progresses, you see a little bit of Petey influence Dewey.
"With Vernell, it was 'anything goes.' The outfits she wears are risqué, and sometimes almost lingerie. It was hard to find vintage fabrics, so we got some vintage dresses and re-cut them, made them shorter and opened the necklines more. For the scenes between her and Petey, we had to balance between, rather than completely match, them; one simmers down a little as the other pops out, or the reverse. For example, when he's in the red velvet suit, we put red shoes on her and gave her a red purse. Every time, Taraji was a blast to work with and to dress."
Henson says, "It was lovely. I enjoyed all the different costumes, hair, nails, and lashes I got to wear. Vernell dresses over-the-top, and with lots of colors, which works for me. Although, with the middle cut out of so many of the clothes I was wearing, I couldn't eat dessert at lunch…"
The hair department, headed by Etheline Joseph and Allison Mondesir, worked closely with Phillips' staff and had its own trailer. There was an extensive collection of wigs, including Afros and other types of hairpieces. Any wig that was used during a shooting day had to be cleaned at the end of the day and readied for the next day's shoot. This required considerable effort, given the number of extras who were assembled for some sequences.
Meeting another challenge, the filmmakers secured permission from the estate of Johnny Carson to use footage from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Although Petey ultimately did not appear with the legendary host on his iconic NBC program, in Talk to Me Don Cheadle as Petey does - dramatizing a dream that was cherished by Dewey, if not Petey.
Executive producer J. Miles Dale clarifies, "We reverse-engineer Don, as Petey, into an existing show. In the script, Johnny Carson is Dewey's hero. So that appealed to the Carson estate; they also got the message of the script, and we got a telecast to use."
Young adds, "Working from video footage and photos, we built a re-creation - with the curtain, the chair, the desk, the bandstand - of the last set that Carson had in New York City before heading off to the West Coast."
Aside from New York, the film's seven-week shoot also took the production to such notable locations as Ben's Chili Bowl (in Washington's "Black Broadway" district) and the Washington Monument. Two full days were needed to film a sequence of the rioting that took place in Washington following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th, 1968. In what became a defining moment in his broadcasting career, Petey went on the air that night - and stayed on.
Michael Genet remembers, "I was at my grandmother's house having dinner when the news flashed across the TV. It was already a warm night, but when the news broke, you instantly felt the temperature of the city raise a hundredfold. That night, my father and Petey did a marathon broadcast to help squash the riots and convince people to go home."
Vondie Curtis Hall reflects, "Petey was the right man to calm the rioting crowds of D.C. that night, because people knew he was one of them. He wasn't trying to tell them how to live, or preach to them. He was saying, 'This ain't it, this ain't the way to go tonight, and I don't think Dr. King would have wanted you to do this. This is our community, and if you burn it down, we're burning down our own stuff.'"
This had long been Petey's counsel to his community, especially the young. Even before Dr. King was assassinated, he had said, "If we burn things down, ain't nobody going to get hurt but us."
Genet offers, "Although a lot of property and businesses were destroyed, Dewey and Petey's efforts at WOL saved more shops - and lives. Martial law was declared the next day, and LBJ sent in troops full of white soldiers."
Sheen remembers, "D.C. looked like an armed camp after Reverend King's murder, and it could have gotten worse; who knows what would have happened if Petey hadn't gotten on the air and calmed people? He made a huge contribution."
Genet states, "Petey made us feel, and he made us think - which, by definition, makes him one of the true artists of his time. He embodied a power in radio that we haven't seen since and aren't likely to see again."
Sing It: the music
Great music is heard throughout Talk to Me, and in one instance was re-created on-camera; hundreds of extras gathered on a large field at the University of Toronto to participate in the filming of a free James Brown concert introduced by Petey. Herbert L. Rawlings, Jr., who has long performed as the late great singer in tribute and revue shows, portrays him on-screen in Talk to Me, in a sequence set just after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rawlings proudly recalls, "Mr. Brown saw me perform once, in 1988, in Atlanta. He told me, 'Did great. Did great.' He was a legend. I loved him."
As the cameras rolled, Rawlings wowed cast and crew alike as he leapt and spun around the stage, and growled the Godfather of Soul's "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud." He offers, "James Brown's stamina was amazing, so I always have to be in shape. Filming these scenes, I felt like I was reliving 1968. It was an honor."
Don Cheadle adds, "That all felt so vibrant and alive. Herbert was amazing, doing jump-kick splits over the mike. There was a pregnant woman there, and she fainted; after receiving medical aid and food and water, she came back to the set, because she was having so much fun at the concert!"
Also having fun were local college students, who began taking photos; filming had to be stopped at least once when a 2006 cell phone got on-camera during the 1968 recreation. "Students came out of their dorms all through the night to party and dance - even though they were in the middle of their final exams," remembers J. Miles Dale. "Since they weren't in period wardrobe, we had to ask them to tuck themselves into the crowd of extras."
To keep the crowd's spirits up during filming breaks and delays, Cheadle performed his own original stand-up routines - drawing inspiration from not only the man he was portraying (who had performed stand-up comedy) but also Richard Pryor (who had died a few months prior to filming).
Michael Genet says, "The concert, along with Petey's words on-air, played a major part in getting the people to set aside their rage - for the time being, at least."
In addition to following Petey and Dewey's lives and times, Talk to Me tracks the changing currents of the country's music. "We go from Motown to Booker T. and the MGs, and Rufus Thomas, to name but a few," explains Josh McLaughlin. "It's a shift that's very important to the movie. The music is transitioning into the same vibe that the clothes and the inner city itself are moving into, which is more of an edgier, cooler scene."
Cheadle marvels, "The music from that era was so rich and lush in its orchestration and experimentation. These songs come on, and you remember where you were when you first heard them."
Gersha Phillips says, "Kasi Lemmons made discs for us with the songs she wanted. I played them at our costume fittings, and everybody would get into it and be grooving. That created the right environment. A lot of the members of my team hadn't necessarily heard this great music before, so it was a great introduction for them. I think Talk to Me will educate a lot of people about a lot of different things."
Lemmons states, "Music is a very important character in the film. While writing, I listened to Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, and the great Motown artists.
"It was very important to my process, and I came to realize that the script was musical. It had a rhythm and a beat, and Petey has a definite movement all his own. His message was, always to be true to yourself and keep it real."
Cheadle reflects, "Combining the fashions, the music, and the way people talked about important things then, I hope Talk to Me will create a resurgence for that era - one comparable to what happened when we did Boogie Nights. I believe people are going to say, 'I want some of that. I want back in there.'
"In my opinion, the conditions are perfect for a Petey Greene right now. Petey told it like he saw it, and at a time where that was so vital. I think it still is in this country. The youth of today should stand up; they're not conditioned to think it's the natural way to respond, as they were during the time period Talk to Me depicts. But, it is the time. It is the time."
About the Filmmakers
KASI LEMMONS (Director)
Kasi Lemmons' feature screenwriting and directorial debut, Eve's Bayou, was the highest-grossing independent film of 1997. The film went on to win the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and receive seven NAACP Image Award nominations, including Best Picture. Eve's Bayou starred Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, and Vondie Curtis Hall; and was an early showcase for young actors Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett.
Ms. Lemmons was also honored with a newly created award from the National Board of Review, for Outstanding Directorial Debut. Among the other honors for her and the film was the Director's Achievement Award at the Nortel Palm Springs Film Festival.
Her next film, The Caveman's Valentine, starring Samuel L. Jackson, opened the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. The following winter, Ms. Lemmons directed the moving salute to Sidney Poitier that was broadcast on the Oscars telecast during which Mr. Poitier received an honorary Academy Award.
Ms. Lemmons also wrote and directed the short film Dr. Hugo, starring her husband Vondie Curtis Hall and Victoria Rowell. Made prior to Eve's Bayou, Dr. Hugo has since been screened at film festivals around the world.
Her earlier acting work includes Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs (opposite Jodie Foster); John Woo's Hard Target; Rusty Cundieff's Fear of a Black Hat; Bernard Rose's Candyman; David C. Johnson's Drop Squad; Robert Townsend's The Five Heartbeats; Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss; and Spike Lee's School Daze.
MICHAEL GENET (Story; Screenplay)
Michael Genet is a writer and actor. His father, Dewey Hughes, is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Talk to Me.
Mr. Genet and Mr. Ejiofor both had roles in She Hate Me, for which Mr. Genet conceived the original story and then co-wrote the screenplay with director Spike Lee. Mr. Genet previously starred for the latter director in 25th Hour.
His other feature screenwriting credits include the telefilm Hallelujah (in which he also appeared), directed by Charles Lane and starring Dennis Haysbert, James Earl Jones, and Phylicia Rashad; Dream Racer, to be produced by Daniel Rosenberg; such recently completed scripts as Sunny Royal (A Very Romantic Comedy), Eagle Down, and Twelve; and Pork Pie, which was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and will be produced by Daniel Bigel.
Mr. Genet has also adapted the latter screenplay for the stage. The play version of Pork Pie was selected to the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference; went on to win the Kennedy Center Award for New American Plays; and world-premiered at the Denver Center Theatre for the Performing Arts.
His other acting credits include, most recently, the off-Broadway revival of Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play and the Broadway musical Lestat. He has previously performed on Broadway in A Few Good Men, Hamlet (as Horatio), and Northeast Local; off-Broadway in Earth and Sky and The Colored Museum; and, at the Long Wharf Theatre, in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (as Benedick).
Mr. Genet starred for six years on As the World Turns (as Lamar Griffin), and has guest-starred several times on Law & Order, among other television credits. In addition to the previously mentioned movies, his screen work includes Alan J. Pakula's Presumed Innocent; Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us; and Antonio Macia's recently completed independent film Ego.
He trained at the Juilliard School and the California Institute of the Arts.
RICK FAMUYIWA (Screenplay)
Rick Famuyiwa made his feature debut as writer/director on The Wood, the screenplay for which had been developed at the Sundance Institute. The sleeper hit movie starred Taye Diggs, Omar Epps, and Richard T. Jones.
He next directed and co-wrote another popular film, Brown Sugar, starring Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, and Queen Latifah. Mr. Famuyiwa's next feature projects are My Soul to Keep, which he will direct from his own adaptation of Tannarive Due's book of the same name; and The Wedding Pact and Bill Strickland, both of which he is writing and will direct.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he double-majored there in Cinema/Television Production and Critical Studies. During his senior year at USC, he wrote and directed a thesis film, Blacktop Lingo. The short brought him acclaim and industry attention, and was one of 29 films selected (out of 1,500 submissions) to screen at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, making Mr. Famuyiwa the first undergraduate from USC to have a film shown at the Festival.
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