George Tillman Jr., Producer and Director

George Tillman Jr. has been captivating audiences for decades with his unique blend of heart, humor, and authenticity. From his breakout film Soul Food to his more recent blockbuster hits like The Hate U Give and Men of Honor, Tillman has proven time and time again that he is a master at telling powerful, emotive stories that resonate with audiences around the world.

A tale of two test screenings

Tillman reminisces about his disastrous first test screening in Beverly Hills and how that experience made him fearful of future audience screenings. He contrasts this with the audience screening for Soul Food and how that screening became one of the highlights of his life.

I started realizing the idea of having a really great title and having some actors in the movie that are recognizable, but that doesn’t really mean anything until they sit down and they watch the movie. And I was just blown away by that screening. It’s one of those highlights of my life, being in Marina and really realizing what a test screening or what an audience screening can do for a movie.

– George Tillman Jr. on audience test screenings

Early influences

George Tillman Jr. discusses the two films that influenced him as a teenager: Taxi Driver and Cooley High. Cooley High was the first film Tillman saw with African Americans in the lead roles, and it showed real friendships and relationships. Taxi Driver stood out to Tillman for its camera work and the way it controlled the viewer’s experience.

Working with De Niro

Kevin asks George about who influenced and mentored him as a filmmaker. George talks about working with Robert De Niro on Men of Honor and how De Niro guided him in post-production, even advising Tillman to cut some of De Niro’s own performance for the sake of the film.

Often a director will fall in love with a particular actor, and they will just be so precious with the performance and overstate their welcome for shot after shot. And I’m like, you are not helping the performance. You’re actually hurting the performance. And De Niro was, as you were saying, so smart to know that, actually, the performance is serving the overall film.

– Kevin Goetz on De Niro

The $150,000 movie success

Tillman talks about raising money for his first film, going mainly to family and friends in Chicago, and taking that movie to Hollywood and selling it to Savoy Pictures for $1,000,000. Unfortunately, Savoy Pictures went out of business, and that first film was lost, but it helped Tillman make connections that helped Soul Food get the green light.

Tell the stories you want to tell

Kevin asks George what he has learned on his journey as a writer, producer, and director. George talks about making movies from the heart and about telling the stories that you want to tell.

And I remember a lot of religious people would show up and knock on the door and say, hey, do you know the world is going to end in 1988 on Thursday? You know, it was like all these weird people coming by, but they were just coming to really eat my grandmother’s food. So, I just tapped in, and then I started writing the material. But over the course of the film of writing, you can find out what it’s really about. And it just felt like, wow, when you eat, family stays together. And it really just reminded me of a lot of movies that I saw just about family. And I just felt that’s something that, as a filmmaker, you tapped into what you know. And I think some of the films that I enjoyed the most were always when I was able to tap into something emotionally.

– George Tillman Jr. on writing Soul Food

Feeling the audience’s reaction

Kevin asks George to talk about audience test screenings and if the audience response was responsible for big changes in any of his films. George goes into what it feels like to participate in a test screening and sit among the audience. He talks about how he made changes to a movie based on what he felt around him at the audience test screening. They then go into positive test screenings as a validation of the filmmaker’s instincts.

…we’re back to content is king, and we both agree that great content is king. If you’re going theatrical, that’s what is going to differentiate you. A piece of advice that a friend of mine called George Tillman Jr. gave me, and I’m going to throw back to you, is just listen to your heart.

– Kevin Goetz

Join Kevin and his guest, George Tillman Jr., as they discuss Tillman’s journey from his early beginnings as a filmmaker to his current status as a leading voice in Hollywood. The intimate conversation ranges from Tillman’s influences to his creative process and the challenges and triumphs he’s faced along the way. Check out the fascinating discussion, and enjoy some insider stories on Kevin’s podcast, Don’t Kill the Messenger!

Don’t Kill the Messenger, hosted by movie and entertainment research expert Kevin Goetz, brings his book Audienceology to life. This bi-monthly podcast takes a peek behind the filmmaking curtain as Kevin talks with famous filmmakers, studio executives, stars, and other creatives about movies, filmmaking, audience test screenings, and much more.

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