After reviewing Lionsgate’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete last week, I was surprised to get a Twitter response from one of the first-time stars, Skylan Brooks, the director George Tillman Jr., and the screenwriter Michael Starburry. Starburry graciously agreed to the email interview that follows.
-The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is a moving coming-of-age story. Where did you get your inspiration for the details?
The details for the film come from everyday observations. Even cursory research on poverty and drugs will net you stories even more horrific than Mister & Pete. But specifically for me, in 2008, we were hearing a lot about the financial crisis and how Wall Street was suffering. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much talk about impoverished communities, communities that continue to suffer no matter what’s going on in the White House or on Wall Street.
Having grown up in the projects, I felt the if I could tell a story like Mister & Pete through the point of view of kids without being mawkish or maudlin, maybe I would be able to do something more than preach to the choir, so to speak. Many of the details come from experience, but also, as a fan of film, I have to say that I was inspired by great films like Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill, Boaz Yakim’s Fresh, even a little Of Mice and Men.
-Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done a study that asks participants to edit out the parts of an unborn child’s life that they want to. They unanimously edit out all of the bad parts. In your story, Mister and Pete obviously grow through adversity. Why is struggle important to our growth?
This is a FANTASTIC question, and deserves an answer more eloquent than I can likely provide, so I’ll start by quoting Theodore Roosevelt: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
There are so many reasons that struggle can be important to growth. In the film, our heroes Mister and Pete make it through what will likely be the toughest part of their adolescence. After this struggle, and with the right guidance, they will know that there is nothing they can’t achieve if they work for it. Persevering through struggle provides the kind of self-esteem that turns boys into men and into leaders.
–Trading Places plays a pivotal role in Mister & Pete. Why that film in particular?
The monologue from Trading Places sets the table for what the audience is about to witness. I think it is funny and poignant, but also subtle. I was able to use it to show Mister’s acting ability and a little bit of foreshadowing.
-What are some of the struggles you’ve experienced that have helped you get to where you are today?
You know, I can’t really say I’ve struggled much. There were some lean times, but for the most part things have been pretty good. I was writing for a long time before anyone ever paid attention, but I don’t think that was me struggling. I think it was just the natural way it was supposed to happen for me. I’m a self-taught writer, so I didn’t have a connection to Hollywood. I did not go to college and I live in Minnesota, which might as well be Siberia as far as Hollywood is concerned. But I really want to be a screenwriter.
-Tell us a about how your screenplay went from words on paper to action onscreen? How did you hook up with George Tillman?
I sent the script to my friend George Tarrant (who I met via my friend Julie, who I met online at a screenwriting site) in February of 2009. He used to work with George Tillman, Jr. Tarrant read Mister & Pete and thankfully he liked it enough to ask Tillman to read it. George liked it and that’s pretty much it. It took a few years to get going but thanks to George and iDeal Partners (the producers) we got it done.
-What goes through your mind when you watch the movie and realize those actors are saying your words, taking your cues?
It’s very strange, but I love it. It’s great to see young actors like Skylan and Ethan breathe life into their characters. To see guys like Julito McCullum and Anthony Mackie elevate their characters. It’s certainly something I want to happen again, and again, and again…
-Were you involved in the onset experience? If so, what was it like working with two, first-time young kids?
George Tillman, Jr. kept me involved throughout the entire process. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s a friend now, so I feel like I can reach out to him whenever.
The kids had a great acting coach, so I would never interfere with that. I did get to see the auditions and had some input, especially when casting Ethan.
-The film received high marks from critics (including this one) but only had a three-week run in theaters. What needs to happen to get more stories like these out in front of mainstream audiences?
Filmmaking is a team sport. Everyone needs to be on the same page, particularly with the marketing and distribution. It takes guts to release a film like Mister & Pete and stick with it. I guess my answer is, we need more distributors with guts.
-If you were to write an epilogue of the stories of Mister and Pete, what might that look like?
Mister grows up to become governor of New York and sets up mentor and leadership programs to help parents and kids struggling with addiction and poverty.
In a twist, Pete becomes an Emmy winning actor for his portrayal as a tough inner-city cop on Law & Order: 2025.
-What’s next for Michael Starrbury?
I’m looking forward to writing a couple of feature films in 2014, and hopefully a TV show or two. Things are starting to happen at an accelerated rate. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, God willing, is just the beginning.