Todd Black interview: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ producer
“It started at a lunch in 1989,” recalls producer Todd Black of his long standing collaboration with Denzel Washington. Back then, Black had just seen “Glory” and was eager to work with the actor. “When you read something that keeps you up at night… call me,” said Washington, “but don’t call me before then.” That project was “Antwone Fisher,” and the pair has kept their “very fruitful, very trusting” relationship going strong. After earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture with “Fences,” Black is once again producing an August Wilson drama with Washington. This time it’s the music driven “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Washington’s plan to bring the entirety of Wilson’s ten-play “Century Cycle” to the screen first found a home with HBO, before the deal moved to Netflix. Black admits that with the rise of streaming “we all have to prepare ourselves now, in a very different way than we ever had to before.” But he sees immense benefits to these web based services. Because of Netflix’s need to constantly serve up entertainment to its subscribers, Black explains that “we can now make projects that normally we would have had trouble getting made at a studio.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” sets itself apart from a typical studio film thanks to its roots in theater. Director George C. Wolfe expertly opens up the world of Wilson’s story, but the playwright’s words remain paramount. “The goal is to respect the plays,” describes Black, “It should always lead with respect for what August was going for, but opening it up enough so that it feels like a filmic experience.” Part of the joy of authentically representing Wilson’s play is getting new audiences comfortable with his robust language by “maintaining the theatricality” of the source material. “We’re educating people now,” says Black.
Since the late playwright is so revered, Black confesses the team “had our choice of actors.” But the most important performer to nail down was Viola Davis for the title role. The producer remembers that upon hearing the offer, “her immediate response was: ‘I don’t sing!’” With reassurances from Wolfe that they would find a solution, and trust in the strong working relationship Black built with her over previous films, Davis found a way past her fear and signed on. “Once we had her,” explains Black, “we were able to put together the rest of the movie.”
Black sees projects like “Ma Rainey” through the entire creative process, but he reveals that his favorite stops on the journey of a film are the beginning and the end. “The most exciting part of the process for me…is truly the developing of the script.” It involves collaborating with the writer and director, and witnessing a play, novel, or idea condense into a tight text. “And then to be in the cutting room,” he gushes. He loves the “fascinating” process of watching those scenes crafted on paper get edited into their final form on screen. For Black, those are the “most satisfying, most gratifying, and scariest” aspects of filmmaking.