*This conversation has been edited for clarity and length
When The New Edition Story aired on BET Networks in the latter part of January 2017, no one would have envisioned the amount of success that would follow. The New Edition Story, which chronicles the triumphant and turbulent times of one of the most notable groups in music history, brought in record-breaking numbers for the Viacom-owned channel. During its three day run, the film captivated audiences that were familiar—and not-so-familiar with the influential boy band.
BET is looking to strike gold again with the premiere of The Bobby Brown Story— a 2-night affair airing on September 4 and 5. Written by Abdul Williams (The New Edition Story, Lottery Ticket), The Bobby Brown Story is technically not viewed as a direct sequel, but will further extend the New Edition Story arc, while most importantly, bring the life of the charismatic, Bad Boy of R&B to center stage. Woody McClain is set to reprise his role as the King of Stage from the previous film.
Supreme Culture caught up with the Cleveland, Ohio-born, now Los Angeles, California-living screenwriter Mr. Williams just days after The Bobby Brown Story went into post production. During this interview we talk about his humble beginnings as a screenwriter, the success of the New Edition Film, and what audience will expect from Woody McClain as Mr. Prerogative himself.
How did you get your start as a screenwriter?
I started in screenwriting by first working in feature film development. Basically I was a script reader for different producers and directors. I did that for many years and it helped me learn the craft. I had always wanted to write, but didn’t know if I could really do it until I became a reader.
That’s pretty interesting.
I studied structure, dialogue, characters—etcetera. I learned why some scripts work and why others don’t. Once I felt confident enough, I started working on my own stories and [I] never looked back.
You’re originally from Cleveland, Ohio, correct?
You moved back and forth from Cleveland to Los Angeles?
I moved from Cleveland to L.A. for good in 1994 after I graduated college.
Oh, I see. Now let’s switch gears for a moment. After the success of The New Edition Story was there already a plan in place to branch off and do a direct sequel?
No. The Bobby Brown Story is not really a direct sequel. We used some of the same actors, obviously, but Bobby essentially wanted [the film] to be his own story. The fact that The New Edition Story performed so well, it gave BET the confidence to do this movie. We [now] had an audience that would trust us. The decision to do a Bobby Brown film wasn’t made until after the N.E. movie. BET felt like, “OK, let’s give it a shot.”
“I had always wanted to write, but didn’t know if I could really do it until I became a reader.”
Were you shocked at how well the New Edition movie was received? It really broke numbers for BET. The most the channel has seen in years.
Yes, I was. I knew they had a core audience of fans that would rock with us. I didn’t quite expect the reception that it got. I was pleasantly surprised. Not to say, I didn’t think it was going to be good. We were confident in it, but you’re never really quite ready for it to pop like that. It was great. It blew my mind. [Laughs.]
Honestly every member of New Edition has a unique story. Each member could have their own miniseries of some sort. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah they could. But I think if you tell a story, and you tell it well enough, you can just come to a certain point of just leaving it be.
Don’t want to go to the well too many times, huh?
Yeah, the audience would get fatigued with that, you know?
Did the movie pull any inspiration from Bobby’s memoir, Every Little Step? If so, how did the process go when deciding what to pull from the book and what to leave out? I know that had to be a difficult decision, because books are so detailed and can go further in depth than a movie can.
Yes, we were able to use all of it, but the vast majority of the movie is from my interviews with him, people in his life–his family—I used interviews over and over again. I would use the book and pull stuff from it and then would go to Bobby and talk about it—to get other context. I would also go to someone else and get their perspective as well. So every scene in the book is facts about his life, but I couldn’t just use that as face value, I had to fact check it. I had to do my own research.
So what from his memoir did you use?
I always trust my own research more. Not to say anything against the [author] that wrote the book, but I like to do interviews, because people can remember their own lives differently, you know what I mean? And then when you talk to somebody else about that very same incident, they’ll remember it completely differently. It’s your job as a writer to find that truth, and what’s the most consistent story. It’s the small things, like a specific day, time, or year. Then of course, sometimes you have to take certain things and dramatize it for the sake of a movie. You might have to take certain liberties, because there’s only so much time [when developing a script]. Like, you might take a couple of different people and put them into one character, or you might shift the timeline a little bit. But we try to stay as close to the facts as we possibly can. That’s what people want to see. They don’t want an interpretation of someone’s life–they want to see as close [to the truth] as that person’s life was. I would say at least 80 percent of my job is the research.
Makes sense. Like, I noticed from the New Edition movie, that the Michael Rapaport character, Gary Evans, was really a combination of New Edition’s managers that screwed them over.
Yup, that’s what we did.
Aside from Woody McClain and Algee Smith returning to play their roles as Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant, respectively. Can viewers expect to see anyone else from the original film reprising their characters from The New Edition Story?
I’ll just say, “Yes they will.” [Laugh.] Not give away too much, because everyone hasn’t been announced. [*Editor’s note: At the time of this interview many of the cast from The Bobby Brown Story had yet to be announced to the public.] But there will be faces that fans will recognize from The New Edition Story.
Let’s talk about Woody McClain. A lot of people believed he stole the show in The New Edition Story, like Leon did for David Ruffin in The Temptations, or Michael Wright as Eddie King Jr. in The Five Heartbeats. Woody is no longer playing a piece to a puzzle, this is essentially his film. What did you think of Woody’s portrayal as Bobby Brown for this film?
That’s the biggest difference. The New Edition Story was basically an ensemble piece, and everybody had their storyline and there are moments where their storylines will merge, but at the end of the day, it was a story of six guys—well, seven, really with Brooke [Payne], you know what I mean? With this movie, it’s all on Woody’s shoulders. Out of the two nights [the movie airs], there are maybe two scenes Woody doesn’t appear in. On the last day of shooting his final scene, I pulled Woody aside and congratulated him, and said, “We put this entire movie on your shoulders, and you carried it.” I mean, he absolutely does. He does an amazing job. What we do, we cover such a large span of time. A lot of biopics would cover maybe 10 years of a person’s life. Ali was like from 1964 to 1974, I believe. In The New Edition Story we really go back to when they were 10 or 11-years-old, and we go into their late-30s and early-40s. In Bobby Brown Story, we take it back to his childhood to when he was like 11—who’s played by Tyler [Williams] from the original movie. We pick up with Woody, who’s playing Bobby from age 16—
This was during the King of Stage period, right?
Yeah. That’s exactly it. I think he was like 17 when he made that record. So basically we pick up the story after Bobby was kicked out of New Edition and sent back to Boston. We try to focus on what he was doing during that time before he got the deal. We [try] to fill in the gaps that The New Edition Story had. But in the terms of Woody’s performance, Woody had to portray Bobby from that age to that age. Then it goes into fatherhood, marriages, divorce, the health problems, the drug problems. Like most movies, we shot it out of sequence, so one day Woody might play Bobby at 18, and then one minute, he’s Bobby in his 40s. We realized we put a ton of this on Woody, but he carried it as well as any actor could.
I noticed from the first film that Whitney Houston’s name was only mentioned once. Was that intentional, because y’all didn’t want to take away from telling New Edition’s story?
Yeah, that was by design. We didn’t want to dive into that. We wanted to give her character the attention she deserves. Plus, Bobby wanted to tell his own story with that.
“We realized we put a ton of this on Woody [to play Bobby Brown], but he carried it as well as any actor could.”
Speaking of Whitney Houston’s character—she’s being played by actress Gabrielle Dennis. I know her for her role in Luke Cage. What did you think of her portrayal of playing such an iconic figure?
I’m bias, obviously. [Laughs.] I’m a big fan of [Gabrielle], and this is the first project we worked on together. She did a fantastic job. She’s obviously not a Whitney Houston lookalike, right? But she does step into the role and interpret it the best way possible. She’s a fantastic actress and everything we could ask for and more. Like, during the [filming] takes, a lot of people were on set who knew Whitney and Bobby from back in those days. They would watch Gabrielle doing some kind-of-Whitney-movement, and be like, “Damn, It feels like I’m watching her again.”
That’s deep. I feel like Gabrielle Denis probably had the hardest role in the film because she didn’t have Whitney Houston around for pointers or references. A person would really have to go to great depths to channel that person they’re portraying.
I heard that comment several times [about Gabrielle]. That is credit that goes to her for doing her homework, and really study.
Was Bobby on set a lot?
He was there everyday.
He and his wife are attached as producers of this film, correct?
Yup, he and [his wife] Alicia are producers. They were very hands-on. They told us when we got it right, when we got it wrong. Even down to the wardrobes and hairstyles. “I wouldn’t say this. I wouldn’t say that.” You know that kind of stuff.
Authenticity is very key when doing a movie like this.
Yes. We wanted to get it as authentic as possible, and tell the truth about Bobby’s life.