In the intervening years, the proposed film has seen its share of ups and downs; before it could even gain traction, production company Morgan Creek filed suit against Ms. Shakur’s Amaru Entertainment in Feb. of 2009, claiming that they had a contract for the rights and that she had used the contract as a baseline to further negotiations rather than accept the terms. Amaru disagreed, filing a lawsuit the following month and setting off two years of litigation that was finally settled out of court in 2011. During those two years, the film acquired a director, script writers, and held an open casting call, and had numerous filming dates on the schedule, leading many to believe that the production was underway.
Three years later, all that has been wiped out, and the film is getting a fresh start. With the ink on the Open Road deal just beginning to dry, XXL spoke with one of the biopic’s producers, Program Pictures CEO L.T. Hutton, to clear up all the confusion surrounding the film, set the record straight on what is coming down the pipeline, and lay out everything you need to know about the Tupac biopic. Keep ya head up. —Dan Rys
In June 2010, despite a heavy flirtation with Boyz N The Hood director John Singleton—who worked with ‘Pac on the 1993 film Poetic Justice—Training Day director Antoine Fuqua signed on to direct the film, despite the fact that Afeni Shakur and Morgan Creek were involved in competing lawsuits over the pic’s rights. Fuqua had a major role in revamping the film—bringing in new writers and helping broker the deal between Ms. Shakur and Morgan Creek that ultimately led to their out of court settlement—and was involved at least tangentially until as late as September of 2013, at which point Morgan Creek was announcing that the project’s production was due to begin in 2014.
Ultimately, Fuqua passed on the film, and the producers brought Singleton back on board in Feb. 2014 to direct, produce and co-write the new script. “Tupac was the guy who I planned to do a lifetime of films with,” Singleton told Variety at the time. “His passing deeply affected my life as well as countless people in this world. His life story is as important to my generation.”
Hutton feels that Singleton brings something to the film that most other directors wouldn’t be able to touch. “He knows the culture, he knows the world, he was in the world, so he has a point of reference to pull from,” Hutton says. “Some of these people in Hollywood, they’re not cultural experts, and to get them into a certain place, it would take 40 years of black culture. John brings that into the fold along with myself and everybody else. So it was important to have someone like a John Singleton on the film, because it makes it that much easier to be authentic.”
The film’s most recent update is also its most positive since February, as Open Road Films has agreed to screen the film in at least 2,000 theaters around the country. It’s a positive step for the final fate of the film, as long as it gets made in the meantime.
“It was a decision that was made for the sake of Tupac being a cutting edge artist,” says film producer L.T. Hutton, who has been working on the Tupac biopic for years now. “They gave us a state of the art deal that was a little bit better than anything else that was on the table. And by them I mean the owners of the movie theaters, they gave us a more dynamic power. We wanted to team up with people that were just as passionate as we were about the project. So that’s how we ended up deciding on the Open Road deal.”
The script has been one of the biggest flash points for the film ever since its inception, with a series of high-profile screenwriters brought in to help fix things up. In August 2010, two months after the announcement that Fuqua was taking over directing duties, the big-name director brought in Stephen J. Rivele and Chris Wilkinson, who had both worked on Ali and Nixon, and who modified the film from its original scope as a biopic centering on Tupac’s life to one that would be solely focused on the day of his death, with flashbacks providing context.
“He was just beginning to shed that anger and look for a purer voice… He was in the process of changing himself, and entering a new phase of his life,” said Rivele at the time, despite admitting that he knew nothing about Tupac before starting work on the project. “He saw the contradiction between the musical persona of ‘Thug Life,’ and his essential nature as a gentle, sensitive person. And that was partly responsible for his murder: He was not a gangster, but the people around him were.”
Years would pass with no word of the film’s script until Jan. 2013, when Michael Starrbury was brought on to help with rewrites; as late as March 2013, Fuqua gave an interview where he stated that the script was still not up to par, and that the film was stalled until the complications could be sorted. “We could’ve shot the first script; the first script was good, but it was not great,” Hutton says. “Tupac deserves epic. There’s no way I would rush that and not serve it with greatness.”
Now there’s a new script by Jeremy Haft and Ed Gonzalez, with John Singleton in charge of rewrites as well, and Hutton feels it’s much more reflective of the direction of the vision for the biopic. “We’re getting into the making of the man, what made him tick, the process of what made him have that dynamic drive that caused him to make so many records and do so many things at the age of 25,” Hutton says. “He was in a race, and we’re getting into the excitement of the drama that was his life. We’re getting a window into his soul.”
Once Antoine Fuqua signed on in June 2010, the quest to fill the title spot was on, and the new director wasted no time in laying out his plans to find a new star out of the woodwork rather than trying to shoehorn an established actor into the role. That idea was finally put into practice in March 2011, when Morgan Creek announced an open casting call through a custom web site, where aspiring actors were encouraged to submit their audition tapes and their favorite ‘Pac song for consideration for the role.
Two months later, reports surface that Soulja Boy had been called in to audition for the role of Tupac, after discussions arose regarding a remake of Juice, one of Tupac’s earliest film roles, with Soulja looking to fill ‘Pac’s old role as Bishop. Nothing came of either role, and Hutton moved to play down that story.
“One thing we will not do with this film is dilute it with someone that Hollywood wants to portray,” Hutton says. “Our mission is to find the greatest portrayal of Tupac we possibly can find, and that takes a whole lot. I’ve seen thousands of people. I’ve seen white Tupacs, I’ve seen old men Tupacs… We’ve started the process on looking for Tupac; that hasn’t stopped.”
Though Hutton says that casting is still ongoing, reps for the film told XXL that casting has not begun, and there is no set date yet for that to get started. Yet even though the actor who portrays Tupac may be a relative unknown, that doesn’t mean the film won’t have some surprise guests. “When we talk about the way Tupac walked, the way Tupac’s character was—we know how he walks, we know how he talks,” Hutton says. “There’s not a person that we haven’t talked to [about what he was like]. Even Suge—Suge has been instrumental on his piece. It’s not a one-sided story; it’s really a very diverse story… We’re gonna splash you at some parts with superstars, but they won’t just be random, they’ll fit the role.”
The biggest holdup in the film has come from the previously-undefined role of Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who reportedly sold the rights to the biopic to Morgan Creek Productions in 2007, setting off a series of negotiations and lawsuits that would last for around four years. The fact that the biopic was in the news at all didn’t come until February 2009 when, seemingly out of nowhere at the time, Morgan Creek sued Ms. Shakur for reneging on that written contract; Shakur’s company Amaru Entertainment countersued for $10 million, claiming that Morgan Creek tried to strongarm them into a deal that did not provide ‘Pac’s mother with the level of creative control she requested.
The case was eventually settled in Feb. 2011, just days before it was set to go to trial, following a conversation Ms. Shakur had with Fuqua, who shared his creative vision for the film and promised that she would remain involved as executive producer of the film.
“She’s always been the executive producer; she wants to make sure her son is protected and in the right light, and she has all of those rights, so she’s EP’ing the whole project,” Hutton clarifies. “So her hand is in there, too. With that type of team assembled, there’s no way to go off the track. If people go off the track, it’s because there’s no guidance; they haven’t assembled the right team. This team, there’s not a person who wasn’t there.”
Shakur will be joined as an executive producer by Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg and Peter Lawson.
The one constant throughout the years of upheaval has been the producers attempting to get this biopic off the ground. Since the initial negotiations with Amaru Entertainment and Afeni Shakur, Jim and David Robinson of Morgan Creek and Hutton have been pushing to get things done. Last September, Morgan Creek partnered with EFF, bringing on Randall Emmett and George Furla as producers, and the deal to bring Singleton aboard puts him on the production team as well.
“This will be one of the realest films, with me and John Singleton and we got a great team assembled around us—Open Road, EFF, Morgan Creek—they are really understanding and are [focused on] procuring the culture,” Hutton says. “When people go to the theaters to see this film, they’ll already have an opinion. We’re trying to create a better understanding to help those opinions be accurate, because [viewers] have learned so much about who this guy was, how to have compassion for what he went through, and how he made it in spite of—The Rose That Grew Through Concrete-type of scenario… Tupac wrote his own story, and we’re just bringing that forward for the world to see.”
The scheduled start of filming has been the last thing set, despite multiple announcements that the day was imminent. Fuqua initially planned to get underway in Sept. 2010 before producers switched up the script and pushed things back until November. Script issues and outside delays meant that the project was shelved for a year, with an open casting call leading producers down the path to nowhere until Fuqua finally demanded a new script be commissioned in Jan. 2013. Producers in Sept. 2013 then said things were all set to get underway this year, with filming taking place in Atlanta, despite the fact that casting was again on hold, with a Spring start date rumored.
Now things are pushed back again until later this year, with conflicting reports stating that either a summer start date is planned or a decisions hasn’t been made yet. The latter is most likely, though Hutton is very optimistic.
“We’ve always been in a very good space; the issues of the timing, and people saying how long its taking, it hasn’t really taken that long,” he says. “It hasn’t been about money; we been had the budgets. We’re fully financed; everybody knows who Jim Robinson is. Morgan Creek has always been in a great space; we’ve been fine on that. The only thing we’ve been doing is making this film incredible. John Singleton just doubled down on making it even better than it was.”
Of course, in the nearly 7 years it has taken for the Tupac biopic to get to this point, a number of other similar-minded films have been made or announced, both about ‘Pac and about other hip-hop artists as well. Prior to talk about the biopic, Tupac: Resurrection, an officially sanctioned documentary, was released and grabbed an Oscar nomination in 2005, while two further documentaries—Uncensored And Uncut: The Lost Prison Tapes and 7Dayz—were announced in Sept. of 2010 and Feb. of 2013, respectively.
And while Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have spoken publicly about collaborating on a film titled Everything’s Corrupt about their exploits as hip-hop pioneers in N.W.A, it was The Notorious B.I.G. bio pic, titled Notorious, that the Tupac film has been most compared with. Released in 2009, that one came with its own set of problems, from mixed reviews to factual inaccuracies to major blowback from the likes of Lil Kim, who felt she was exploited in the film. Hutton says the Tupac crew has learned from Notorious’ mistakes.
“I just wish all the hip-hop movies would take the time and make sure that they’re correct and live up to what they’re supposed to be,” Hutton says. “Because we’re not gonna get Notorious 2. We’re not gonna get Tupac 2. There’s no sequels. If you don’t do the proper research, you’re story is gonna be full of nonsense. They don’t have enough people of certain backgrounds to tell these stories correctly. Tupac spent his entire life keeping it real—he died on that fact—so how could I let Hollywood take that from him?”