Few producers have had the sort of impact in Hollywood than Will Packer has had, while remaining based in Atlanta, Georgia. From his early days producing independent films like Trois and The Gospel to producing the hit dance movie Stomp the Yard, taking him all the way through enormous hits like Think Like a Man and Ride Along and their respective sequels. In all his ventures, Packer has found a way to produce material that connected with African-American audiences in the country while finding and cultivating talent like Columbus Short, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy and many more.
Packer’s latest film Almost Christmas teams him with writer/director David E. Talpert (Baggage Claim) to create an amazing ensemble comedy, starring Danny Glover as Walter, a widower and head of the Meyers family: feuding sisters Rachel and Cheryl (Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise), Christian (Romany Malco) who is in the middle of his campaign for Senate, and the youngest Evan (Jessie T. Usher), a college sports here on the rise. The laughs are elevated further by the likes of Walter’s sister-in-law, played by Mo’Nique, and Cheryl’s husband Lonnie, played by the one and only J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Put all of them in a big house together in the days leading up to Christmas and you just know that fireworks are going to start flying, especially as a few of them get into trouble that they have no business getting into.
LRM had a chance to talk to the Packer last week during a series of phone interviews with him and the cast.
LRM: I’m so glad I finally get the chance to talk to you. I've been following your career in my “Weekend Warrior” column for as long as I've been doing that. I always underestimate your movies.
Will Packer: Oh, Weekend Warrior, that's you?
LRM: That's me. You're always busting on me that I underestimate your movies.
Packer: Uh-oh. What does that mean? What are you thinking for this movie?
LRM: I have to say that I saw it last night, and it’s been rare that I get to see any of your movies before writing my column.
Packer: Okay, well, then, I have to give it to you, then. You haven't been able to see the movies, so your estimation is not based on all the facts. This one, you should be really close. This should be your best guess yet.
LRM: I think so. The screening I saw last night here in New York, the movie absolutely killed. I have not seen a movie kill an audience like that since I saw “Superbad” at Comic-Con. People were laughing so hard I couldn't even hear the dialogue, which is a good problem to have.
Packer: Love it. I love it.
LRM: For some reason, I thought you worked with director David Talbert before, but you haven’t worked with him before. How did you guys hook up to make this one?
Packer: Yeah, yeah. The industry's small, obviously. Dave and I have known each other for a while. We've been talking about working together. It's just, we hadn't found that right project. I made a movie called This Christmas. It has been one of my favorite movies that I've made. It's one of those movies that audiences really responded to. It shows on cable TV every year. People will hit me and go, "When are you going to do a sequel? We want another Christmas movie." I feel like we hadn't seen a Christmas or holiday movie, with a family like this in years. Dave sent me a script at the perfect time and it was about a family coming together around Thanksgiving after the death of the matriarch. I called him and I said, "Dave, I've got one big note for you." He goes, "Uh-oh. What's that?" I go, "Let's make it Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, and let's go make this movie." He said, "All right. I'm in." That's how this came to be and how we started working together.
LRM: It's amazing the cast you guys pulled together for this one. There are a few people you've worked with before, and there’s comedians like Mo'Nique and J.B. who are just hilarious. Even the kids in this movie are great and are stealing scenes from the adults, which is not something you see normally. How do you guys put together this cast and figure out who to get, especially Danny Glover, who is great in this, too?
Packer: He's incredible. The first person I called was Gabrielle Union. I called her first when I got the script. I've known Gab for awhile. We've done a bunch of projects together, and I said, "Gee, what do you think? I think this is the one we should do. We should produce it together." She goes, "I'm in." Having her on board was really the anchor that I needed to attract the rest of the cast.
LRM: She does a lot more physical humor than I've maybe ever seen her do before. Also, she looks a lot younger. I was surprised when I looked up her age. She's been around for a while now, but she still looks really young.
Packer: She looks incredible. She just aged another year, which, I mean, you would lose any bet you want to make if you tell people how old she actually is. She just takes care of herself. She works out. She's somebody that has just got amazing genes.
LRM: Did she pick that character? Was that the character that stood out for her in David's original script?
Packer: Totally. Yup. I sent her the script and I literally asked her, "Who do you want to play?" That was the one that we were thinking. I figured it would be her character or the Cheryl character that Kimberly Elise plays. She said, "You know what? I've seen that before. I've kind of done that character before. That's not as interesting. Let me try Rachel." I said, "All right. Let's do it." She played Rachel as only Gab can.
LRM: I loved seeing Kimberly Elise, also. I feel like she hasn't been in many movies lately, and when I first started seeing her work in “Manchurian Candidate” with Denzel or even Tyler Perry's first movie, she is a great dramatic actress. I really haven't seen her as much lately, and it’s great having her back.
Packer: She's so incredible and underused. She is really, really, one of the best doing it. Having her opposite Gab--because their characters are in conflict and this is something that is so relatable to so many people. The interesting thing about the holidays is that it's literally the best of times, and the worst of times. It's when you get together with people you've been avoiding the whole rest of the year and you just can't avoid them anymore? Kimberly Elise and Gabrielle Union are going toe-to-toe as the feuding sisters. You couldn't hope for better actors to play those roles.
LRM: Do you yourself come from a big family? I remember “This Christmas” and would think you have to have come from big family and can see parallels to be able to make two of those movies.
Packer: Well, you know what? I just love the holidays. I love family movies. My nuclear family itself actually isn't that big. I have one sister, and I grew up with both my parents. Family was always very important, and extended family was always around. The holidays were the time when all the extended family would get together. I did grow up in the South. I grew up with a great sense of culture and tradition and all of that. I feel like when you do a movie like this, these happen to be African-American characters, but I very much feel like these are universal themes and that no matter your background or ethnicity, you can relate to the elements that are in this movie in this family.
LRM: One of the things David really nailed was the tonal switches. That was one of the problems I had with “This Christmas,” because when trying to go back and forth between comedy and drama is tough, but in this, David really nailed it, so how is that done so effortlessly while keeping the audience?
Packer: You know, listen, it was obviously a collaborative effort, but I do have to give props to Dave for taking a really, really, solid script. I was able to help pull together an incredible cast for him. Then, he was smart enough to step back and let the actors do their thing. The good directors, they do that. They know how to have a guiding hand, but not a heavy hand, and not make the actors feel like they're not able to truly embody the characters with their own perspective and skillset. David did a really good job with that. What that means is that when you talk about the tonal shifts in the heart and the comedy, a lot of that feels really organic, because the actors are able to pull from natural places of their own family, their own perspective. That's what Dave did really, really, well.
LRM: Watching the end credit outtakes with Mo'Nique, she’s really an incredible comedic force. I don't know how much she stayed on script or did her own thing, and J.B. How does a director keep forces like those two on script and get the work that needs to get done?
Packer: You don't. You don't. You give them the script and you get out of the way. When you've got people that are so good with improvisational comedy like that, you can't stifle them. The good thing about David is he wasn't so precious with his words, like some writer/directors are. He didn't mind. He'd let them really flow and do what felt natural for them. The interesting thing is that--and you saw the movie--we also have John Michael Higgins and Gabrielle Union, who’ve got great comedic timing. Then you've got, you know, the young comedians like DC Young Fly, and even the kids. Like you said, the kids are really good. You have to have comedic timing and chops to hold your own with an ensemble like that.
LRM: Those kids have such great reactions, but they're reacting to stuff which I'm not sure you could even have them on set for with some of the stuff J.B. and Mo’Nique were saying and doing.
Packer: Listen, early on, Mo'Nique asked David, "What rating are we going for?" Dave said, "Listen. It will be whatever rating we need it to be. You just go and do your thing." I think that was so smart. There's a lot of stuff that's unusable. There were some things that she said when we didn't have the kids around, and we couldn't have the kids around. Mo'Nique does do blue better than anybody. It ultimately all came together for a great PG-13 version of this movie. We've certainly have got someouttakes that I cannot put in a movie that I'd hope to have anything but an NC-17 rating, I've gotta tell you.
LRM: That opening title credits also helped get the audience invested in the Meyers family, and David did an amazing job putting that together, and he had to cast thesekids who were literally on screen for three seconds, so the way that was put together was pretty amazing.
Packer: It was patterned after Up, and it was always written like that. It was one of the things I enjoyed when I first read the script. I knew that it was going to be important. We shot this in Atlanta, so those are all local actors. It's going to be important not only that they look the part, but that they embodied what we knew. By the time we cast them, we knew who the main actors were going to be. It's always fun, and by fun, I mean nerve-wracking, trying to find younger versions of existing actors.
LRM: I’ve always wondered how deep do you get into your marketing for your movies? Movies can be tough to market, but whatever you’ve been doing has been working so far in terms of showing audiences honestly what the movies are going to be when they pay to see them.
Packer: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I've still got to here what your number is now, especially since you like the marketing. It's a crowded marketplace. It's tough to open any movie. I don't care what the theme is or what the audience is, one of the things that I always do on all my films is that I am very hands-on with the marketing, especially the grassroots efforts. One of the ways that I am able to surprise some people is--in addition to what the studio is doing, I call that the aerial attack of marketing--I have to have a ground game that complements that. The ground game is actually taking my cast, going out, doing events and promotions with real people in markets that are usually passed by when we think about major studio campaigns. I'll take cast members to places like Charlotte, North Carolina or Tallahassee, Florida, where they've got great demographics and a great audience that I know will be loud and persuasive and talk about the film. A movie like this, you've got to have strong word of mouth coming into it in order to get people excited about it.
LRM: When I spoke to Kevin Hart last year on the set of “Central Intelligence,” I get the impression that he really has a great business sense, and I wondered if that’s stuff he learned from you or did he always have those instincts?
Packer: No question. I think he would happily admit that. We definitely complement each other well. You can watch from our first movie together, Think Like a Man, until what he's doing now, and how he's been masterful at using social media, going out and going direct to his consumers and audience and not just relying on the studio to promote his films. That's that ground game I talked about. That's something that I've been doing since I was making independent movies as a college student in Florida.
LRM: You know who I'd love to see you work with? Leslie Jones. I don't know if you ever watch her on SNL, like some of her Weekend Update stuff, but she absolutely kills when she's doing her own thing. I think that if someone gives her the right vehicle, she would be the biggest star in the world. She'd be like Eddie Murphy was in the 80's.
Packer: You know what? I am such a fan of her. I know her a little bit and we've talked about working together. I think you may be on to something.
LRM: Hopefully, someone will jump on getting her in something while she’s hot. I want to ask about the “Jacob’s Ladder” remake you’re doing. I'm a huge fan of the original movie. It seems like that would be scarier and veering more towards horror than previous thrillers you’ve done like “No Good Deed.” Is that the case?
Packer: Yeah, it is true to the original, in terms of the tone. It's not an out-and-out horror. It aims to be a psychological thriller/horror. We're in the process of editing that movie now. I'm excited about it. Michael Ealy, I think does one of his best performances. I am a big fan of his and I think that he is one of the more underrated actors working today. Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams and Nicole Beharie are the three leads.
LRM: Very cool. Well, listen, congratulations on this one. Good luck with it. Going by the audience I saw the movie with last night, it opens my mind a little more about the movies you’re making, which I rarely get to see before writing about them.
Packer: Well, I'm glad. Listen, man. It's good to make your acquaintance. I'll still be following you online, and I'll still give you sh*t if I need to, but all in fun and love.
Almost Christmas opens on Friday, November 11. Look for our interviews with Romany Malco and J.B. Smoove very soon.