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THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE

About the Production
In late 2008, as the great recession began to sweep across the country claiming jobs, homes and retirement funds, screenwriter Michael Starrbury began to formulate the early ideas of a new script which honed in on the fact that some things never seem to change for certain classes of people. The poor remain poor regardless of economic and political shifts.

"I wanted to write a story about a kid who didn't want to become the product of his environment," said Starrbury. "I had this idea about a kid who wanted more and wasn't content in his current circumstances."

Starrbury began to examine all of the emotional and psychological factors, not to mention the social obstacles, that inevitably keep people stuck in a particular place in society.

The result of Starrbury's exploration became THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE, which follows two young boys in a Brooklyn housing project whose mothers have abandoned them. The character of "Mister" is older and more aware of the realities of their situation, and reluctantly takes the younger "Pete" under his wing as they struggle to make it through a long summer in Brooklyn without any food, income or air conditioning. The script was written with humor and pathos and strove to avoid cliches, pity and fairy tale endings.

The screenplay landed on a pile of scripts at the office of renowned director, George Tillman, Jr., who had explored a diverse array of contemporary African American characters and stories in films like Soul Food, Man of Honor and Notorious, but had never fully delved into the culture and psyche of life for individuals living in the projects. The script arrived on Tillman's desk on a Friday and by Monday Tillman called Starrbury and began a conversation that would continue over the next three years. They shared similar reference points and both had spent a significant amount of time in the projects. Starrbury lived in the projects in Hillside Projects in Milwaukee, and Tillman spent a lot of time with his grandmother who lived in the Lapham Projects directly across the street from where Starrbury lived.

"Michael's script came along at exactly the right time," said Tillman. "After making a couple of big budget films, I was looking to get back to basics, have more creative control and was looking for a story that was heartwarming, emotional, but honest at the same time. With MISTER & PETE, I was fascinated that the story was told from a kid's point of view and was drawn to the universal theme of friendship -- how we all need other people in our lives to survive."

All films come with their own set of unique challenges -- this script had two major ones. One, this emotionally complex story hinges on two lead characters under the age of 13. And two, the film had to be shot over a summer in New York so the two young actors could work a consecutive eight hour day without interfering with their education. Tillman initially started trying to take MISTER & PETE through the traditional studio system, but did not want to compromise any of the integrity of Starrbury's script. When Tillman reached out to iDeal Partners, an independent production company in New York City, they immediately fell in love with the material, optioned the screenplay and committed to making the film. After auditioning several hundred kids for the roles of Mister and Pete, Tillman knew that he had found the perfect complements in Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon. Producer Rachel Cohen discovered Skylan Brooks after he caught her attention in a short film he did in 2010. And Ethan Dizon came courtesy of LA Casting.

"After I cast Skylan and Ethan," said Tillman, "I saw this film could be a real possibility and that kept the fire going to find the additional resources."

Tillman brought Skylan in three more times to audition for the demanding role, which required the actor to appear in 157 scenes.

"Skylan had the quality of being a leader, but was still very much a kid," said Tillman. "He's from South Central Los Angeles, which allowed him to see his share of tough things growing up."

Tillman needed to form a partnership with the young actor because the success of the movie rested on that performance.

"I needed to direct him like I would an adult," said Tillman. However, the film would take two more years of development before it moved into production. Tillman worried that by the time cameras would roll (which finally occurred in 2012), Skylan and Ethan would appear too old for the roles. Fortunately the actors stayed proportionate to each other's height and their looks did not change significantly.

Starrbury was inspired by Tillman's determination to get the movie made. "It's amazing to see what happens when he takes a project on," said Starrbury. "No matter how long it takes, he'll see it through. And that's really admirable."

Tillman cast the rest of the ensemble with "pros", or as he describes, "well-known actors who could disappear into these roles from both an emotional and physical standpoint." In the role of "Gloria," Mister's drug-addicted mother, Tillman was looking for an actress that you wouldn't expect in the role ... someone that would surprise you and bring something unexpected to the part. Tillman then sought out Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Hudson for the role.

"Jennifer Hudson went full tilt for this role," said Tillman. "Many parts like this are often cliche, but Jennifer brought a reality to it that was refreshing. She worked with many addiction specialists to help prepare for the performance and that helped create this interesting reality."

Beyond her on-screen commitment, Tillman was impressed by Hudson's passion for the project as she was the first major star to sign on to the film and see it through its end.

"When I wrote the part of Gloria," said Starrbury, "I didn't want this kind of mother-son relationship where there was this gushing, 'I-love-you-no-matter-what-you-do- kind of love.' The characters have difficulty in expressing love to one another. It's very clear Mister loves his mom, but he's becoming more aware of her flaws. Instead of outwardly expressing that he loves her, he lays out a newspaper and circles the wanted ads."

"A larger theme that plays throughout the film is the fear of abandonment," said Tillman. "All of the characters wrestle with that. You see it with Jennifer Hudson's character and Ethan's character. Mister refuses to be abandoned and that's why he stays in the apartment believing his mother is coming back."

Tillman auditioned a number of actresses for the other female lead of "Alice." Actress Jordin Sparks happened to audition with Skylan Brooks -- and their chemistry was instant.

"The whole movie is shot from his POV and when Jordin comes into his life, she brings a sense of hope for him," said Tillman. "She also touches on the fatal flaw in his character -- his pride. Mister's too proud to ask for help and he struggles to overcome that throughout the rest of the movie."

"Having lived in the projects but recently moved out of public housing, Jordin's character is lonely and misses home," said Starrbury. "She's lost her innocence and Mister reminds her of that innocence. She finds comfort in him because he doesn't judge her."

The flavor of the neighborhood was brought out in a number of telling relationships Mister has with local characters. There's the homeless veteran, "Henry," played by award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright, who has an unexpectedly humanizing effect on Mister; the neighborhood pimp, "Kris," who controls all the "business" in and around the projects, played by Anthony Mackie; a mysterious member of law enforcement named, "Pike," played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje; a cantankerous Indian convenience store owner, played by Ken Maharaj; and "Dip Stick," Mister's tormenter and nemesis, played by Julito McCullum.

"In my mind, the character of Mister is like the biblical character of Job," said Starrbury. "As he encounters all of these people and circumstances, he's being tested. Through all of these engagements, Mister is learning that the rules are the rules."

"There's a journey in all of this for Mister," said Tillman. "You see it in his relationship with his teacher eight minutes into the movie where he very disrespectfully says, 'fuck you' to him, but by the end of the summer with all this experience under his belt, he is much more humble, admitting 'I can't do it alone.'"

Starrbury and Tillman felt compelled to break away from the stereotypes often associated with young African American men. They wanted Mister to have an ambition beyond hip-hop music and basketball.

"Mister doesn't have hoop dreams," said Starrbury. "I wanted his interest to be something quirky, something he would understand in his own way."

In the film, Mister gravitates to the craft of acting and classic films like the Coen Brothers' masterwork, Fargo, and the Eddie Murphy comedy, Trading Places. Starrbury recalled how these films resonated throughout his life as a young adult, and how television is often an escape for those kids who don't have anything else. Fargo was chosen because it was one of Starrbury's favorite films and it represented the distant lands kids from the projects often dream about as an escape.

"The character of 'Mister' probably didn't understand all the intricacies of Fargo, but he got it in his own way," said Starrbury.

These films lead to a key plot point in MISTER & PETE as Mister is an aspiring actor and sees an audition as his ticket out of the projects. The audition storyline yields important lessons for Mister as he learns things aren't always what they seem.

"Mister learns there's no easy way out," said Tillman. "You have to work for everything you get ... even in Hollywood."

The film was primarily shot in the Ingersoll Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York over 25 days. The production scouted about 50 housing projects in New York City before settling on Ingersoll. It was an extremely grueling shoot as Tillman and his cast and crew had to complete seven or eight scenes in each eight-hour day. To ensure his young actors were prepared for such a task, Tillman initiated a four week boot camp where Skylan and Ethan met and shadowed many of the kids living in the Ingersoll community. While there, they found a lot of common parallels between the community and the script. For example, the storyline about the Child Protective Services facility, Riverview, and Mister and Pete's fear of being forced to live there, was something the kids in Ingersoll related to.

"These kids told us about a children's home in the Bronx where they heard someone was killed," said Tillman. "They heard it, but didn't see it."

"It's a boogey man kind of thing," said Starrbury. "Kids build these kinds of stories up. In our film, Riverview is built up to be the worst place that you can imagine because the kids in the neighborhood don't actually understand what it is. In reality, it's not that bad of a place, as Mister and Pete learn. They're fed and well-cared for."

"Rumors become larger than life in the projects," said Tillman. "To the kids, Riverview is like Rikers Island. Rumors manifest themselves into much bigger things."

For Starrbury and Tillman, the misconceptions about Riverview harken back to Mister's fatal flaw of being too prideful to ask for help.

Another ace in Tillman's hole enabling him to meet the demanding schedule was cinematographer, Reed Morano, who had had a great deal of experience shooting under incredibly tight deadlines. Morano, a mother herself, was deeply moved by the story and, like many of the crew, became emotional on set watching young Skylan's performance.

GRAMMY award-winning artist, Alicia Keys was brought on to the project in the early stages of development and became so intrigued by the story that she signed on as an executive producer as well as the composer of the film's score. Later, Mark Isham joined Keys and together crafted the emotionally-charged peaks and valleys of the score.

With a title like THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE, the audience assumes the characters will not prevail in the end. But for Starrbury and Tillman, there was deeper meaning in that concept. Although Mister and Pete are caught by Housing Authority, the boys are truly undefeated as they've learned from their experiences and discovered what it means to have a resilient spirit in life.

"I never wanted Skylan to feel defeated until he is," said Starrbury. "Defeat doesn't mean the end. Some of the best and brightest people in the world didn't win in everything they did. Their defeats taught them something. The same is true with Mister and Pete."

"What I liked about Michael's script was he made sure there were light and humorous moments in a very dark story," said Tillman. "No matter how tough it gets, kids often have more hope than adults. Despite the obstacles, kids keep going because they're living in the moment, whereas adults can let their psyche bring them down."

"I wanted audiences to be inspired by the idea of not giving up," said Starrbury. "Defeat does not mean the end. You live to fight another day."

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