Notorious: George Tillman Jr interview
In 1997, at the age of 24, Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace was set to become one of the biggest selling rap artists of all time with the release of his second album, Life After Death. However, just 15 days before it went on sale, he was gunned down on the streets of Los Angeles. Now, 12 years later, his mother Voletta Wallace and his record producer Sean "Puffy" Combs have come together to produce Notorious, the official biopic of Biggie's life. It fell to long-time fan George Tillman Jr (Men of Honour) to direct the film, so we caught up with George and asked him how he went about fitting such a larger than life character into just 120 minutes.
LOVEFiLM: Were you a fan of Biggie Smalls before you got involved in the film?
George Tillman Jr: Yes, I was a huge fan. In ’95 I traded in my Method Man CD for Biggie Smalls’s CD Ready to Die and I just loved his music. From a story standpoint he was one of the best storytellers in hip hop at that particular time.
LF: The film is produced by Christopher Wallace’s mother, his two former managers and executive produced by Puffy. It’s hardly the usual set of money men, is it?
GTJ: You know, when I first started out on the film I was concerned about it because it was a lot of individuals who hadn’t made a film yet. And then little bit by little bit I started meeting everybody. I spent time with Miss Wallace and I was very happy that she wanted to show the good side and the bad side of Christopher Wallace. I met Sean Combs much earlier in the process and he was concerned with what my take on Christopher Wallace was. And after talking with him, he felt comfortable. And after a while I started seeing that all these people were there to make a film and make it the best they can.
And Miss Wallace was on set everyday. It was very helpful for me to get what it was like in those early years, how that household was in the early 90s, and also the relationship with Puffy and all those guys.
LF: Did Miss Wallace and Puffy have direct input into the way their characters are in the film?
GTJ: Definitely. Early on I set up a programme with the actors where they spent time with the characters they’re playing. Angela Bassett spent time with Voletta really trying to understand what it was like to be a single mother coming from Jamaica. And Derek Luke playing Puffy spent time with Puffy and also André Harrell who fired Puffy at one point. We just used these people to really help us get where we needed to go.
LF: Biggie’s real life son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays young Biggie in the film. What was it like working with him?
GTJ: It was interesting. You know, he’s a non-actor, so I was very surprised how natural his performance was. He’s a very talented kid. He’s very emotionally in the moment. If the scene called for him to be emotional or upset, he just got there and understood it. The more complicated scenes where Biggie’s father leaves early on in the movie were tough for him. He thought a lot about his father in those emotional scenes.
And it was a plus for me to have him there, because he looks so much like his dad. And when you look at him you feel like you’re looking at his dad. So it was really great for the spirit of the movie.
LF: I imagine the biggest problem you faced was casting Biggie…
GTJ: Yeah, it was tough because I really wanted to find… I felt like I wanted to find a new Forest Whitaker. If this movie was made 20 years ago, Forest Whitaker would be great. But it’s hard to find somebody who’s heavyweight, who can rap, who can act and who can really get the whole swagger of Brooklyn down. We looked at everybody in Hollywood and couldn’t find anyone. We had open calls, a lot of stuff came in online. We saw about 100 people out of New York and I was wondering if we were ever going to find anyone. You don’t find the right Christopher “Biggie Smalls”, the movie doesn’t work.
Jamal Woolard came in on one of the open calls and Miss Wallace was there and she said, “That’s my son”. And I know she was talking about the charm, the personality, the charisma. Jamal had that.
LF: What do you think the reaction of the hardcore Biggie fans will be?
GTJ: I think they’re going to be surprised more than anything. You know, surprised that this movie is hip hop, but it’s a real movie. It’s a dramatic movie, it’s sophisticated, the characters are fully developed. I think they’ll be surprised at the different sides of Christopher. There’s many different sides to his personality that you didn’t get in the documentaries or you didn’t read in the magazines. And also I think they’ll be very happy because we stay true to the music.
LF: One thing that’s striking about the film is the number of talented unknown actors in the lead roles.
GTJ: I’ve never worked with so many unknowns at one time, but it’s very exciting. You don’t know what you’re going to get each take. And I think it was very important for a movie like this, especially when you have guys like Puffy and Faith Evans, people you see on TV everyday. Sometimes to get past things, you really need to have a new face to have the audience identify with these people all over again. Alexander Pashby Notorious is released on DVD and Blu-ray from the 22nd June
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