JUST WRIGHT stars Queen Latifah (BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE) as Leslie Wright, a straight-shooting physical therapist who gets the dream job of working with NBA All-Star Scott McKnight (Common - DATE NIGHT). All is going well until Leslie finds herself falling for Scott, forcing her to choose between the gig of a lifetime and the tug-of-war inside her heart. Oblivious to her romantic overtures, McKnight is instead drawn to the affections of Leslie's gorgeous childhood friend Morgan (Paula Patton - PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE), who has her sights set on being an NBA trophy wife. Is Leslie destined to play the role of "best friend" forever or will Scott finally see that what he always wanted is right in front of him? Set against the exciting world of championship basketball, the game of love takes on the battle of the sexes in the romantic sports comedy JUST WRIGHT, starring three of Hollywood's most charismatic personalities as they navigate the full-court-press of love.
Directed by Sanaa Hamri (SOMETHING NEW, THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2) and written by Michael Elliot (BROWN SUGAR
The inspiration for JUST WRIGHT came from a deceptively simple concept: a Cinderella story set against the backdrop of the NBA. That phrase turned out to be the beginning of a six-year journey for Queen Latifah and her longtime producing partner Shakim Compere. "It's art imitating life," says Compere. "When you think about it, Latifah's life has been a Cinderella story."
The film's journey began modestly, in a barbershop in Studio City just north of the Hollywood Hills. That's where Compere, a childhood friend of Latifah and her partner in Flavor Unit Entertainment for over 20 years, ran into screenwriter Michael Elliot. "I mentioned that Latifah grew up playing basketball and her mother didn't like the fact that she was a tomboy," remembers Compere. "I always thought her mother would prefer her going out and getting a manicure. Mike and I started talking about creating a movie based on that conversation."
Combining romance and basketball seemed like a sure thing to the producer. "Anything basketball I'm a fan of," says Compere. "Two of my favorite movies are LOVE AND BASKETBALL and HOOSIERS. Our main character, Leslie Wright, is a basketball fanatic who basically bumps into her favorite Nets player, played by Common. He invites her to a party. She brings her friend Morgan along and the guy ends up falling in love with Morgan."
The idea was an easy sell to Queen Latifah. "It wasn't a stretch for me," says the Grammy® winning rapper-singer turned Oscar® nominated actress. "I definitely love basketball. And it's about the fact that it's not always what you look like, it's who you are from the inside. Beauty from the inside out is one of the themes that I have been interested in throughout my career. A lot of that comes across in this movie, and it comes across with humor, with sexiness, with style--and with basketball. Being from New Jersey and getting to work with the NBA and the Nets made it even sweeter."
The pair enlisted the help of Debra Martin Chase, who produced THE PRINCESS DIARIES and THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, to develop the idea into a screenplay. "From their concept, Mike Elliot and I crafted a story and created characters for a script that they loved," says Chase. "At its heart, the film is about figuring out what's important in life. Should you be guided by what other people think about you and their values--or what's in your heart?"
The part of Leslie Wright was tailor-made for Queen Latifah and her down-to-earth style, says Chase. "It is her story. It is her voice. There's nobody else who could play her. Leslie is really centered throughout the entire movie. She knows who she is when we meet her. She's got a good job. She's got a new house. She loves her family and she's got great friends.
Although Leslie is extremely capable and independent, so far her love life has come up short. "She always winds up being that cool girl you can talk to for hours," says Latifah, "but that romantic connection isn't there. She hasn't given up, but she's willing to wait for someone special. Until she finds him, she'll always have basketball."
The filmmakers knew the script would require a director with the skills to balance the emotional nuances of the love story with the high-energy action of the basketball sequences. Sanaa Hamri had previously worked with Chase on THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2 and had helmed fast-paced music videos for recording artists including Prince, Sting and Mariah Carey.
"The game here was to make a movie that is heartfelt, romantic, sexy and thrilling," says Chase. "Sanaa brought a strong sense of narrative. She also knows how to shoot beautiful scenery and beautiful composition. There's something very sexy about the way she puts the camera movements and the frames together."
Hamri was attracted to the easy way the script combined two seemingly disparate worlds. "The romantic comedy aspect of it is completely integrated with the NBA world," she says. "It is a fresh, unique approach to a classic form. We remain true to it as a romantic comedy, but the sports aspect feels authentic and true as well. We brought in NBA stars to help foster that feeling."
The director played basketball herself as a teen, and brought that understanding of the game to the table. "For me, film is about capturing motion and space," says Hamri. "It really doesn't matter what the motion is. Whether it's filming a sport or dance, it's just about capturing it as organically as can be."
Hamri came to the first meeting with a concept that dovetailed perfectly with the producers' vision for the film. "Sanaa had the right understanding of what this film could be from day one," says Latifah. "We knew we wouldn't have a whole lot of money to shoot it, and she was very specific about the look it should have and how polished it could be. Her presentation was a cut above anyone else who wanted the job. It has been a great working experience. I think we're bonded for eternity over this movie."
"When I got this script it was evident to me who should play Leslie," says the director. "You really feel Queen Latifah's voice in it. It's a great piece for her because she has that vulnerability and great comedic chops. She's hilarious, she's smart, and she gets it. I could give her a small note and she understood exactly what I was talking about. Sometimes, all it took was a look."
That's par for the course with Latifah, according to those who know her best. "Latifah's so honest in everything she does," says Compere. "She's a real person. In the past 21 years, we've missed flights or we've been late because she has to stop and acknowledge the people that have watched her all these years. She has remained the everyman and I think that's why she's been so successful."
The actress and producers promise JUST WRIGHT's combination of sports and romance make it an ideal date movie. "The basketball is going to appeal to guys for sure," Latifah says. "And the romance and humor will appeal to women as well. People are going to crack up at it and they are going to cry too. I love a movie when you laugh, you cry and it gets you excited."
A CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM
With an actress of Queen Latifah's caliber to anchor their cast, the filmmakers put their minds to finding equally capable actors to fill the rest of the movie's roles. "To me as a filmmaker, it's all about ensemble casting," says Hamri. "I want to get a group of people that will mesh together even if they never appear in the same scene together."
NBA star Scott McKnight, Leslie's unexpected love interest, is played by recording artist and actor Common. After a string of successful supporting roles in films including AMERICAN GANGSTER and TERMINATOR SALVATION, Common is tackling his first leading role in JUST WRIGHT.
"We always knew that the greatest casting challenge was going to be Scott McKnight," says Chase. "The character combines both machismo and vulnerability. He needed to be a terrific actor and credible as a basketball superstar. He has to be really good looking, athletic and all the things that come with being a basketball star.
"The stars all aligned at the right time," Chase continues. "Common embodies everything we were looking for. He's the right age and the right physicality and the right persona. It is uncanny because that combination of strength and vulnerability comes naturally."
His leading lady couldn't be more enthusiastic. "Common is fantastic!" raves Latifah. "It was a big role to undertake. He was training and shooting at the same time, going from rehearsing and filming all day to basketball training. He delivered 100 percent."
"And he was such a cool person to work with," she continues. "I would look at him some days and say, 'I hope you're not exhausted yet. Because you got to do it again and do it again.' It's been great to watch him stretch as an actor and do all of the things he's capable of."
"McKnight has a lot of heart to him and it shows in things like an interest in Joni Mitchell's music and some of the artwork that he chooses for his home." says Common of his character.
Common relished his first leading man experience and all the opportunities that came with it. "I knew I wanted to be a part of this movie," says Common. "It's about two of my favorite things, love and basketball."
The role showcases a previously unseen side of the actor, who has focused primarily on roles in action films including WANTED and SMOKIN' ACES. "I had emotional scenes," he says. "I had to be funny and charming. I went from romantic scenes to basketball scenes. One of the most fulfilling moments was hitting that three-point shot against The Heat. The pressure was on for real. It was like a real game because everybody's like, 'Yo, you got to hit this shot.' The crowd felt it, the team felt it and behind the cameras, the producers and the director were all saying, 'Come on, hit this shot.' That was very satisfying."
He sees a number of parallels, both personal and professional, between himself and his leading lady. "We both come from the inner city," says Common. "We were both educated by our moms. Latifah rose in music and then went into TV and film. I eventually rose in music and I'm moving into TV and films. And we're both Pisces, which is cool. I always hope people will say some of the same things about me that they do about Latifah--that she's a nice person and a good person. I really respect her journey."
Common remembers meeting his co-star for the first time in the early 1990s. "I was trying to get on as a hip-hop artist at The New Music Seminar," he says. "We were documenting the whole experience on video tape. She didn't know who we were, but when we asked her to give us a shout-out on tape, she did. I wasn't Common at that time to her. I was just a new artist trying to get out there and she was just so cool. There's a special something about her. How many people on earth can make a jazz album, a rap album, star in this film and host the Grammys? She's got a lot of gifts and I couldn't have picked a better leading lady."
Compere counts himself among Common's many fans. "He's been doing this as long as Latifah and me on the music side," says the producer. "We've bumped into each other over the years. He's been able to make the transition to films like Latifah and some of their other peers. It was only natural that we give him a shot at this."
Sanaa Hamri and Common met in 2001 when she directed the music video for his song "Come Close." "We have always talked about working on a film," says Common. "We both knew this one was the perfect one. She pushed me very hard. I had to be able to play the piano. I needed to be good with ball playing and be in shape. I love her passion. Her eye and her vision allowed this story to flourish."
Hamri's only concern was whether or not the actor could handle the basketball scenes. "I always knew he had the chops to act," says Hamri. "But then, lo and behold, I find out he grew up around basketball. Now when I see him on the court, I forget he is anything but a basketball player."
But like life, the road to love is never smooth and would-be lovers Leslie and Scott find themselves embroiled in a triangle with Morgan Alexander, Leslie's childhood friend. "This is a woman who is smart, who is drop dead gorgeous, who could have made many different choices in her life, but she's decided that her future lies in marrying someone of status," says Chase. "Morgan decides to target Scott McKnight. He is her prince and the key to her future. The complications ensue from there."
Paula Patton, who plays Morgan, says she had to rid herself of her judgment about a certain type of woman to get to the meat of her character. "Women are still raised with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as role models. We think we need the man to awaken us and give us a fabulous life. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have a hint of Morgan in us. There's a sliding scale of social climbing in my opinion. I would like to think of myself as on the lower edge of the scale, but I still want a man who is doing something in the world. I'm not afraid to admit it, because I no longer judge the Morgans of the world," says the actress.
When the audience first meets Morgan, she is surrounded by self-help books as she creates a "vision board" that represents the things she wants in the world--money, influence and fame. "What's sad is that she's so insecure," Patton points out. "She doesn't see how much she has to give. She thinks that only by being with a man like Scott will she be worthwhile."
Patton and Latifah are friends off-screen, which made the on-screen connection easy for the actresses. "We got kind of silly between takes," says Latifah. "Our chemistry comes through on screen. It just wouldn't have been the same movie without Paula. She was so funny and so true to the character."
"Latifah and I had so much fun together; it wasn't fair," agrees Patton. "Sometimes they had to quiet us down at work. I cracked jokes all the time. She cracked them back. We have a really great chemistry that way and we just play with it."
Having a director she trusted implicitly allowed Patton to really explore the darker side of Morgan. "I felt safe in Sanaa's hands," the actress says. "I knew she would guide me in the right direction. So it's been an awesome experience. We got two weeks of rehearsal together beforehand and she really let me create this character and then helped me mold her into what she saw."
When Phylicia Rashad, who plays Scott's mother Ella, arrived on the set, the effect she had on cast and crew was electrifying. The actress became an iconic figure as Claire Huxtable during the eight-season run of "The Cosby Show," and has gone on to become a fixture in the New York theater community. In 2004, she became the first African American actress to win a Best Actress Tony® Award for her work in the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
Her mere presence inspired respect. "Oh God, Mrs. Huxtable!" Compere says. "Who would not be excited by that? When I saw her on set that first day, I was kind of slumping over in my chair. I decided to sit up because she is Mrs. Huxtable."
Like Compere, Common grew up watching "The Cosby Show" on television. "What better mom could I ask for?" says the hip hop artist and actor. "When she walked into the table read, I was nervous for one quick moment. Phylicia Rashad is one of the great actors of our time. I've seen her in a lot of great theater and she's incredible. I want her to know that I hold her in high regard for her work and for who she is as a human being."
Rashad took a thoughtful approach to the script, recognizing that there is more to it than immediately meets the eye. "It's a fun, romantic comedy and yet it has some very interesting aspects to it," she says. "The film affords us another view of professional ballplayers. It's one that we don't see a lot. These people are grounded in something other than the game. I've been privileged to know some ballplayers and their spouses, so I know that they are grounded in reality. It's refreshing to see."
From the start, Ella is more intrigued by Leslie's straightforward charm than Morgan's more obvious attributes. "She can joke and play and she can talk a little trash, but not too much," says Rashad. "She's just honest. I think Ella sees that in her and she likes her immediately. Latifah has that same quality. I screened some of her films before the shoot and there's always a real sincerity and genuine warmth that just wins me over."
Leslie is blessed with two parents (Pam Grier and James Pickens, Jr.) who love her very much, but her relationship with her mother is somewhat strained. "Leslie isn't a girly girl, whereas her mother is very feminine," says Chase. "Janice's orientation in life is very much about her role as a wife and a mother. She is aghast at the fact that her daughter is 35 years old and not married."
The film gave Grier a chance to play someone very familiar. "When Debra said, 'You're going to play the mom of Queen Latifah in a romantic love story,' I said, 'Did I die? This is a great idea!' I love fairytales and I love the Cinderella story so I was hooked. But it's also a wonderful family story and Sanaa gave me great insights about having daughters and wanting them to be like you. I was able to incorporate a lot of my own mother into Janice."
The film's emphasis on being true to oneself hit home with Grier as well. "If you're not true to yourself, how can others find you true and honorable?" she asks. "This is about loving someone for who they are and not the fantasy of what you want them to be."
Leslie and her father Lloyd, on the other hand, are best friends. Pickens, Jr., has a lengthy resume including stints on top-rated television shows such as "The X-Files," "The Practice" and, currently, as Dr. Richard Webber on "Grey's Anatomy." "We had to beg James a little," says Chase. "It was the week before he was going back to 'Grey's Anatomy' and he wasn't sure he wanted to fly out to New York. But Leslie Wright is a daddy's girl, so it was very important to get someone who was a teddy bear of a father, a terrific actor and really handsome. We were so thrilled that he came."
Lloyd is still totally smitten with his beautiful wife. "But right now, their biggest concern is their daughter's well-being," he says. "Lloyd is a good guy. He's kind of a legend-in-his-own-mind kind of guy. He loves his daughter very much and he tries to reiterate to Leslie how beautiful she really is and that the man of her dreams will come along someday if she's just patient."
Pickens describes the working style on set as "organic." "Sanaa's got a really good eye. She comes out of the music video world and the pictures she paints are a little different. She trusted us as actors to make the choices. And as with so many really good directors, you almost didn't know she was there."
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING