Director X lets the past inform the present in ‘SUPERFLY’

Trevor Jackson in SUPERFLY. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director X has been marrying striking aesthetics with the hottest music for years now. Top acts in the music industry like Rihanna, Drake and Miguel have recruited him to better aid their artistry, making it ascend to a higher level. His skills and style are incomparable. His work was even lampooned on SNL.

With SUPERFLY, a remake of 1972’s popular blaxsploitation film, he, once again, excels at making the imagery and the music sing. The drama focuses on Priest (Trevor Jackson), a cunning, successful drug dealer who has become disillusioned with the business and wants out. He, along with his best friend Eddie (Jason Mitchell), orchestrate one last big deal before their planned exit. Challenges from the local competition arise, but when mayhem lets loose, you better believe Priest is always acting (and looking) super fly.

At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable filmmaker about everything from building on the original’s foundation, to the new sound of the city, to if he had to clear the name “Snow Patrol” with the popular band.

One of things in the original that I questioned was it shows Priest snorting cocaine regularly. Wouldn’t that have thrown him off his game? In your update, he it’s important he doesn’t to stay sharp, and use his wit and wisdom to get out of bad situations.

By using the original the way we did, we built something very special. Essentially, he’s outsmarting everybody. I treated the original almost like a beat sheet. There are much more interesting and compelling bad guys here. Now the junkies are drug dealers and they’re not letting up. The suppliers are now Mexicans and they don’t let up. Now the dirty cops are dirty f*cking cops and they’re not letting up.

I also appreciated how you built out the female characters as they were severely lacking in the 70’s film. Georgia is still Priest’s support, but also she’s an independent badass by herself.

Exactly. We wanted the girls to be very yin and yang-ish in how they interact with each other. Have a strength about them.

The music scene has changed so much since 1972. Soul was the sound of the city back then, but now, trap music is now more reflective of the culture. How did all of that gel?

It wasn’t just the story that we said what matters. It was, ‘What were the things of the original?’ The hair was a thing. The music was a thing. The fashion was a thing. Since music was a thing, I felt it was important to have a singular vision for the music. No one is Curtis Mayfield. Making the battle be about something Curtis did was impossible, but we took the essence of what he did for the movie and said, ‘Let’s bring that here.’

In the original movie, he was a commentary of what was going on. We made our music very much a commentary. Even the tracks that were not Future tracks. The song that’s playing in the car was saying, ‘Gotta get my way out,’ when they were discussing leaving. We put some really specific on the nose music references in there. Future ties it all together – it all came from that place.

Director X directs SUPERFLY. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

The use of color in lighting and wardrobe is a common thread in a lot of your work. Was that something you discussed with your director of photography and the costume department? 

The whole philosophy for every department was, ‘We’re super fly.’ So the guns need to be super fly, the lighting, the camera moves, the fashion. Absolutely everything is just a touch bigger than real life might be. When you see what’s on the screen and it makes you wonder…every single department had that directive.

I know for your “Hotline Bling” video you were inspired by other artistic influences. Were there any touchstones you pulled from to create your vision here?

Not a whole lot. Not in that way for this. It’s a flood of references when you’re doing a film like this.

Silly question, but did you have to clear the name “Snow Patrol” with the band?

Um. There’s always a legal thing going on and [laughs] somehow it worked out. There is a Snow Patrol in the world and for some reason we were alright with it. Sony legal definitely checks everything.

If I were Snow Patrol, I’d definitely be owning it.

[laughs] They’ve got a bunch of great samples now.

What was more challenging to shoot: The martial arts sequence between Michael and Trevor, which having live – not ADR – dialogue in addition to the fight action, seemed pretty intense for the actors? Or was it the Lexus/ Lamborghini car chase?

I mean, everything has its own set of difficulties. We had a day to shoot that fight scene. You have stunt doubles. You have coverage. You have a world of things you need to get. The car chase was, for them, sitting on green screen, but it’s time consuming. Everything takes time. Even your simplest day could turn into hellish overtime in a split second.

Do you have a favorite memory from the shoot?

Maybe with Jacob [Ming-Trent] and he ad-libbed that line with Rick Ross and completely changed the scene. When he says, ‘We don’t need these motherf*ckers,’ that’s not scripted. Everyone else reacted and went with the flow of where the scene was going. I thought, ‘This is good.’ It really made something bigger.

How did making this movie creatively satisfy you?

Again, my philosophy about source material. I’ve been watching, for a very, very long time, when you watch these movies and they would ignore the source material, or they would start changing fundamental things in the source material, because they thought they had a better idea. I’m not here for your ideas, or thoughts on a favorite comic, or book, or whatever it is. I’m here to bring it to the big screen. So I brought that to this. Let’s make something based in the original source material so the people who know the original SUPER FLY can go and see it and say, ‘This is SUPERFLY, but it’s new,’ and for the people who don’t, they can go back and say, ‘Oh wow! Now I see why people love the original so much.’

SUPERFLY opens on June 13.

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