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Screenwriter Brian Bird and "Not Easily Broken"
Screenwriter Brian Bird and "Not Easily Broken"

Screenwriter Brian Bird and "Not Easily Broken"

Brian Bird has worked in Hollywood for more than 20 years as a writer, producer and show-runner for both television and theatrical projects, including Touched by an Angel. In partnership with Michael Landon, Jr., Brian developed and wrote screenplays for Saving Sarah Cain and The Last Sin Eater. Two years ago Brian began working on the screenplay for Not Easily Broken, based on a book by Bishop T.D. Jakes, which releases nationally this week.

This film has been in development since 2006. How did you get attached to the film?

Brian:        I finished the first draft of the screenplay just before Michael (Landon, Jr.) and I started prepping The Last Sin Eater. So I moved from this screenplay right into that project. We got involved because Michael met Bishop T.D. Jakes (who wrote the source novel) at one of the Christian Booksellers’ Association’s events last year. It was a year or so prior to that when Women Thou Art Loosed was released, and they had a nice meeting. They talked about the possibility of working together at some point.

Then when the Bishop wrote this book, Michael and a few other people suggested me as a writer for the screenplay. I’ve written several scripts dealing with the African-American experience and community during my career, and for some reason I vibe with them. [I have a theory about how that works.]

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Michael introduced me to the Bishop and he read a screenplay I’d written several years earlier about the Emmett Till murder. I guess that was what lit him up over at The Potters’ House. At the same time, somebody else had sent that script to Sony and they loved it as well. So it was this amazing opportunity that just synched up for me.

It was not a Believe Pictures endeavor, but Michael and I have a great partnership that is big enough to include outside projects for either one of us from time to time. Michael has a film coming out this spring, a live action/animation adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” that he directed several years ago and is just now getting finished.

As you were adapting the book and crafting the story, what were the key themes and elements that were non-negotiable for you?

Brian:        The big elephant in the room is the interracial romance aspect of the story. That was a very bold stroke by the Bishop to sort of push that button, and the reaction has been very interesting in some of the screenings that we’ve done. Some folks will talk back to the screen, just like they do in church, sort of signifying and testifying. You’ll hear people really talk to the screen. It’s really a cool feeling for me to see them reacting that way.

It does push some buttons. It perhaps makes some people a little uncomfortable. The romance never goes past the point of no return. This is a man who is kind of “Waiting to Exhale.” When I read the book for the first time, I told the Bishop, “You know what you’ve written here is sort of a male version of ‘Waiting to Exhale.’” That’s all about women trying to get their courage to stand up to their men for not being better husbands.

This story is a little different. It’s about men trying to figure out how to live their lives in this modern world while their wives are sometimes more powerful than they are. We live in a culture where women sometimes make more money than men do now, where wives make more money than husbands. Men have, in a way, lost their provider role.

I didn’t know how the studio would react to that issue, whether or not they’d leave in that interracial aspect. I thought it was so unique and edgy in a way, that it was an important aspect of the story. Thankfully, they never did ask to remove or alter that, so for me, that is what’s so fresh about the storytelling.

In some faith-based films, relationships can be so vanilla that they’re not real. You know, life is messy, and that’s one of the things that Bishop Jakes always said to me. He said, “Life is not very clean. People make mistakes, and you don’t need redemption if you haven’t made mistakes.”

I have always felt that way about movie characters too, this idea in drama of a clean slate, of this backdrop of white. Where you get conflict is by splashing red on white. But if you splash beige on white, you don’t get anything. Redemption is red on white. That’s what the cross is, red on white, not beige on white.

That for me was such a key element of the story, not because it would make people uncomfortable, but because we knew we could bring them back around. I think a good movie experience can make people feel uncomfortable. It should provoke them a bit and get them thinking. It shouldn’t just be eye candy, pablum, or a pacifier just so they can enjoy themselves. A good film needs to make you think.

In some ways, the film resembles Tyler Perry’s films; it's very realistic about what happens in daily life. But I think having an interracial romance makes the story more universal.

Brian:        That’s what I take away from this story. The interracial romance could have been between any two people. This man’s marriage is in trouble and that he found solace in another woman’s company. That woman could have been anybody. It just so happens to be that she was Caucasian. The fact remains that he was still in trouble, and his marriage was still in trouble.

It’s an interesting story, because I have heard some people say, “Hey, this would be a good date movie.” I think it is because I think where it gets to is very powerful: redemption and reconciliation between husband and wife, which is fantastic. There’s nothing worse than seeing people’s marriages end. It’s maybe a little more provocative than other movies might be in that category, but it does have a powerful reconciliation.

It’s a bit of a psychological study. It’s entertaining and fun with some good humor in it. But it’s not a Tyler Perry movie, which is mostly about humor. I’ve always believed that all good dramas should have humor and all good comedies should have drama. This is more about the drama than it is about the fun. I believe it’s an interesting psychological study of both a man and a woman, what motivates a wife and what motivates a man.

Dave Johnson, the character played by Morris Chestnut, has a running voiceover during the film. He reveals his innermost thoughts and what it feels like for him as a man to not feel like he’s needed. He feels like sort of a fifth wheel, that his wife could do just fine without him. He believes that’s not what he’s created for. He’s created to be a provider and a leader.

The story does tweak feminism a bit, but it also allows men to sort of open up. I think it’s going to provoke some really interesting discussions not only between husbands and wives, but men in general. You don’t see men sharing like they do in this movie. For me, that’s sort of a fun aspect of it.

Having a voiceover in the screenplay is a different approach from your other films. How does that challenge you as a writer?

Brian:        It’s challenging to get it to feel right. What was enjoyable about developing the running inner-monologue was that it’s not in the book, so we had to sort of invent that. What I did was read another one of the Bishop’s books, called “He-motions.” It’s all about the male psyche and what a man goes through in life, what he thinks and feels when he’s going through different phases of his life. He discusses what it feels like to be a hero, or to not to be a hero and fail in life. Men feel these things very deeply. They may not show it, but it doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it.

This served as a great idea-generator for me. The Bishop had some great ideas about the voiceover. At one point, we sat down and started chatting about it and he started jotting down some stuff on a napkin. He wrote this one speech, which is in the script, as part of the voiceover, and it was just beautiful.

I think men are talking more now than they ever have. I’ve encountered this in my own life with friends. We’re relating, sharing more deeply and intimately with people we trust. We let them know what’s on our minds and hearts, what our burdens are, and what’s tearing us up. The audience is going to see that in this film, and it’s refreshing and healing, and I think we will start some conservations.

The voiceover is what’s at the core of Dave Johnson’s heart, and what he wishes he could say to his wife but hasn’t been able to. Either she hasn’t been listening or they’re out of sync, not firing on the same cylinders.

As you’re creating a story like this, and creating the characters, are you drawing on your own experiences?

Brian:        Of course. All humans, and all writers, we all have all the archetypes in us somewhere. We all have pirates inside us somewhere. I believe we all have the sin nature inside us that we're fighting, that without redemption and the message of the cross in our lives, we have great potential for great harm to ourselves and others.

Writers are just like everybody else. We put on masks. We put on the mask of the villain, or the hero, or the mentors from time to time. These masks are the great archetypes that have sprung up from all the great storytelling of all time. The great archetypes are very universal. You can go back and look at all the myths in history and these archetypes are very common in storytelling. We all have the ability to be the chameleon, the villain, the hero, the mentor, or the guardian at the gate, the ally or the court jester. We all have the capability within us to play those roles in life, so the writer is tapping into those great archetypes.

In this story, another interesting aspect is that there is no bad guy. The “bad guy” is life and how hard it can be.  If you don’t have a cord of three strands in your life, another person and yourself with God as the third cord in a marriage, life is going to beat you up. Without that three-stranded cord, you’re in big trouble. Part of the monologue in the story captures this idea, and it’s the meta-message of the story. It’s based on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

From the trailers I’ve seen, some of the language is a little raw, and I wondered if the idea is to reach the general market?

Brian:        It is interesting. There is a bit of a divide culturally in the filmmaking experience. I would think for certain viewers, this is going to be a very tame movie. The little bits and fragments of language in the trailer are about all there is in the whole movie. Maybe the marketing of the film is going for a little more edge. I know there was a trailer created to appeal more to men, and one created to appeal more to women, so I guess it just depends on which version you’ve seen.

This film is going to appeal to men because there’s some testosterone in it. There are some punishing basketball sequences in the movie. They play pick-up basketball and they play it hard. That was something that when we were first developing it with Sony, they said we had to make sure it wasn’t so soft that men wouldn’t want to see it. So the idea I came up with was a midnight pick-up basketball game at the local YMCA, guys on guys. It’s only featured in the movie a few times, but a little goes a long way.

This movie might be offensive to some people of faith, some Christians, and I’m OK with that. I think if they give it a chance, they’ll see the value of the storytelling and I think it will be quite powerful in how it reaches across the aisle and captures everybody.

Sometimes in the films Michael and I have made, we’ve gotten complaints. It’s very hard to please everybody all the time, and frankly, what I’ve learned in my experience after almost 25 years in film and television, is that you can’t please everybody all the time. And people have different standards for certain films. If you say, “Hey, here’s my faith-based film,” sometimes they want it to be so sanitized that it’s not real.

Those same people will go out and see R-rated films because they’re not faith-based. Somehow they give themselves permission to see those films. I believe you have to create characters who are real, living, breathing human beings on screen. They can’t be cartoons and they can’t be so vanilla that they’re not real. How do you relate to somebody whose life is plastic? It would be a tragic thing to write plastic characters, because they’re not real.

There are a handful of curse words in the movie, but it’s really pretty tame for PG-13. I’ve seen all of Tyler Perry’s films, and from my perspective, it’s not as edgy as his films.

Did you visit the set during production?

Brian:        I was sort of juggling some of the Believe Pictures’ work when this went into production, but I did work the set several times during production as a co-producer. This was shot a year ago last summer, and they’ve been waiting for just the right time to release it. During that time, I was able to participate many times, and it was a real pleasure to be there.

Bill Duke is a fantastic director. I love his work. He’s such a team player, and had great ideas about the story. After I wrote the first draft, it took a good six months before we went to the next level with it. Once it started building some momentum, I got together with Bill Duke to go through the script.

By the time we got to the production draft, I had taken two more passes at the script. It didn’t change a ton from the original story, it was just refined. We kept working to make it better with lots of good input from Bill, the Bishop, and Sony. It really worked out well, and I’m pleased with how well it came together. The set time was fantastic and Bill was very inclusive of me. He asked me opinions about everything he was doing, and that was a thrill.

How differently did the film turn out from what you imagined during the writing process?

Brian:        For any writer on a film, if you’re not the one directing it, there are differences between what you’ve seen in your head and how the director lays it out and puts it on its feet. Differences like how the actors are blocked in the scene, locations, all of that. Some of those things get locked into your brain when you’re writing, but those things change frequently. But I can’t say there are any aspects of the film that I’d wish they had done differently.

There were some moments in the film that I didn’t expect to have as much impact on me as they did. In the way Bill staged some of the shots and the notes he gave some of the actors, they found another layer far deeper than I had envisioned in the dialogue or in the screen. Sometimes there’s just magic that happens. When you put all of those people on a project, that’s a lot of brains, a lot of good brains.

I don’t care what anybody says, a movie can’t be made by just one person. It takes all the skill of 150 people with all of their unique abilities and input to make a movie right. When everybody’s in sync, believes in a project, and sees how special something can be, you can come up with something really memorable.

Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson were fantastic in the film, as was Jenifer Lewis. There’s not a weak link anywhere for me. As the writer, I’m thrilled at what ended up on screen.

You mentioned earlier that you have a unique ability to tap into an African-American vibe. Would you like to share that theory with us?

Brian:        My first writing partner, John Wierick, and I wrote a film called “Bopha!” that Morgan Freeman directed in Zimbabwe. It was my first feature film credit back in 1993. We had a great relationship with Morgan and Lori McCreary, who runs his company. About four years ago, they called me in on a TV project called “Simple City.”

It was to be a real gritty TV series, based on a true story, about a housing project in Washington, D.C. So we went in and sold the idea to Showtime. It was Morgan Freeman, Patrick Stewart, Lori McCreary, and Wendy Neuss. Patrick and Wendy had the rights to the story, and it was Morgan’s idea to bring me in as a partner on the project.

When he introduced me to Showtime, he said, “Guys, you’re asking yourselves ‘What is the whitest-looking writer in Hollywood doing in the room with me talking about doing a show about a mostly African-American housing project in Washington, D.C.?’” Then he told the story of “Bopha!” and the screenplay we did for him. He said, “Brian knows how to go into a community and write it from the inside out.”

It never really occurred to me that way, but I tried to explore it for myself a little bit. The screenplay that the Bishop read that sold him on me doing the script for “Not Easily Broken” was another African-American story I wrote about the Emmett Till murder. Part of it is a God thing. I think God has given me an ability to get into other people’s shoes.

Morgan said to me nce, “There’s one race of people: the human race. There are two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones. You and me, we want all the same things. Our backgrounds might be different and our experiences in life might be different, but we want all the same things from life. We want someone who loves us, a family, a roof over our heads, and work that is meaningful. All human beings want that. You have to look at it from that perspective.”

That explains it for me – why I can get into someone else’s shoes, their skin, and try to experience life from their perspective. I don’t claim for a second that I understand everything, and I wouldn’t presume to say I’ve figured it all out. It’s an exploration. But I do believe it’s possible for any writer of any shape, size, or color, to get into another’s shoes no matter what they look, and understand their world. I believe it, and I defy anybody to tell me I can’t do it. It’s something I work very hard at. And if there’s something I don’t understand, there’s something called “research.”

Most studios might not see it like that, but I say read my stuff and tell me if it doesn’t seem real. If it doesn’t, tell me and I’ll go away and do something else. But so far that seems to have worked out.

I love what Mother Teresa said: “Empathy is your pain, your joy, your hope in my heart.”  That’s very powerful, and it’s exactly why I think it’s possible for people of different backgrounds to be able to understand each other.

What are some projects on the calendar for you and Believe Pictures?

Brian:        We thought we were going to be able to film “Jake’s Run” last year, but this whole economic disaster has really hurt the filmmaking business, especially for the small independent films. We were in business with Fox on “Jake’s Run,” but they’re not financing the entire film. We have to use independent financing for part of it. That fell apart, and we think we’re pretty close to having that put back on track very soon, so we’re hoping to get it shot in the next several months.

We’ve got to finish “When Calls the Heart,” which is the next Michael and Brian project, then we have “The Shunning,” from Beverly Lewis. That was her first book, and it’s a great story. We’re very excited about that. There’s interest at a couple of studios in terms of the video and international distribution side. The screenplay is almost finished, and we’re talking with the Hallmark Channel about TV rights. We’re in partnership with Lightworks Entertainment on that project. [They are the ones that sprang out of the Faith and Values Network that worked on the Love Comes Softly series with Michael at the Hallmark Channel]

We’re also talking to Bishop T.D. Jakes about a film based on one of his other books, and trying to get that developed for him. Then there’s another project based on an amazing true story of forgiveness that’s set in Texas. It’s called “Deep in the Heart.” It took place about nine years ago. So we have lots going.

We’re also working on a screenplay for Janette Oke’s book called “Gown of Spanish Lace,” and then we have another one called “Tetloach’s American Dream.” It’s a very odd name, but we’re working with Kevin McCloskey, a very good friend from the Act One program, on that screenplay. It’s about a Sudanese sponsored child who grows up and comes to America to look for his family. Lots going on, and if the economy will just cooperate with us, we’re hoping to maybe get two or three films done this next year.


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