“Soon after Best Man Holiday came out, Will Packer called me. We were trying to figure out a movie to do together and a way to work together," says Malcolm D. Lee. He continues, "He called me and he pitched me the idea of women just like men going on a trip, behaving badly, getting away with it.” The Queens, New York-born 47-year-old filmmaker was excited at that idea. “I said yeah man, I’m a 100 percent in on that. That sounds dope.”
Lee and Packer found their writers in Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Tracy Oliver (Survivor’s Remorse). In addition to the notion of a female-centered road trip comedy, the film would have a unique, outside twist as well -- all the hilarity and havoc would take place in the midst of the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Named after the black women-focused beauty and lifestyle publication, The Essence Festival is the largest annual festival that showcases the best of African-American popular culture. On the face of it, it was a herculean feat but Essence, Lee states, was supportive of the idea from the outset.
Packer’s original idea became Girls Trip, starring Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett and Tiffany Haddish. Having already seen the film, I can attest that Lee exceeded himself. The film is downright, outright funny and delivers on all levels. This, as Lee indicates, was no easy accomplishment. Girls Trip was shot on location in New Orleans and on location at the Essence Festival, which brought with it a lot of logistical issues on top of all the normal movie shoot issues. Lee said, “Logistically, it was very tough. There were extras. It was a live event. People who recognized the stars were screaming for them and wanting to take selfies and get autographs and get hugs and all kinds of stuff.”
He remembers with just a bit of astonishment that at certain points, it was a lot even for his usual unflappable persona. “I lost my cool a couple of times.” he admits. “Generally speaking I’m a pretty even-keeled person but it was stressful.” He emphasizes, “People are like ‘Wow, it sounds like a whole lot of fun.’ It was but parts of it wasn’t. There was a lot to do and little time to do it in. Sometimes it was hot and people weren’t listening and there are crowds and the air conditioning doesn’t work sometimes.”
Still, sweltering heat and unruly crowds did not daunt the veteran director. Lee reveals that he had the audience topmost in mind while creating the movie and had definite ideas about how he wanted people to feel while they were watching the film. Achieving this demanded a lot of technical gymnastics. First, he restructured the whole beginning of the film because it wasn’t the energy level that he wanted or thought the audience deserved. “It just wasn’t moving the way I wanted it to.” He explains, “You want your movie to start off with a bang because it’s a comedy, the audience is there and they’re like, ‘okay, make me laugh.’ If your first few jokes don’t land, you’re dead.”
He also wished to put the audience at the center of all the action. To do that, he reveals he took advantage of the fact that there was a lot of footage being shot on hand-held cameras. “Knowing we were shooting at a live event and had hand-held cameras I wanted to incorporate much of the hand-held work into a lot of the other scenes.” Raising the bar even more, he used GoPro and iPhone footage mixed in with other footage to have an “immersive feeling.” He said, “I wanted the audience to get the feeling that they were at the festival, at the convention center. I thought it was a great way to tell the story.”
Though a tale about a wild road trip, Girls Trip bore Lee’s trademark sensitivity and authenticity, which something he points out is the result of deliberateness and intention. Speaking of the main characters, he states, “I want these characters to be relatable no matter how silly or crazy they get at the end of the day they are human beings. There's a human connection there’s a vulnerability underneath Dina’s craziness there’s more going on than what’s on the surface.”
Also lending to the realistic feel of the movie is the fact that almost none of the festival performance scenes were staged. “A lot of it was shot at the Essence Festival; (performances) like Diddy, Morris Chestnut, Mariah Carey, Doug E Fresh, MC Lyte, Lalah Hathaway, Common, New Edition, Ne-Yo. We shot them at the actual festival.” He explains excitedly, “Some people came back like Iyanla , Carla Hall and Estelle. It was all very organic. I don’t like movies where there are random cameos just for no reason.”
Though no stranger to stories of friendships and relationships, this was his first foray into telling a story that held female friendship in such exclusively tight focus. Confident as he was in his ability to pull it off, there was a hint of consternation, as he said, “I would say that there was a little trepidation.” He admitted with just the slightest bit of hesitation. “However, whether it’s women or men, I approach them all as characters.” He goes on, “I am telling a story about people and certainly, you’re talking about women, black women. I love black women, I get a lot of joy out of black women. I am married to a black woman, some of my best friends are black women and I’m like 'y’all are dynamic.' Essence is a dynamic place, and it needs to be on film. You need to be represented in the way you see yourselves, not the way that other people see you.”
Catch Girls Trip in theaters on July 21.