‘Little’ Director Tina Gordon on Balancing Tone and the Pressure of Being a Black Female Director

     April 12, 2019

From director Tina Gordon and producer Will Packer, the comedy Little follows highly successful tech mogul Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall), who lives the glamorous life, but is a nightmare boss with a management style that sends people running. One morning, Jordan wakes up and finds that she’s suddenly trapped in the awkward 13-year-old version of herself (played to perfection by Marsai Martin, who also came up with the idea and executive produced the film), and she realizes that she must rely on her long-suffering assistant April (Issa Rae) until she can figure out how to return to her adult self.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Tina Gordon talked about her 20-year career journey, working on a set full of such impressive black women, what she added to the script, balancing the comedy for an adult and a teen audience, the scene that she debated cutting down, how she chose the song for the duet between Marsai Martin and Issa Rae, what she hopes audiences take from the film, that she’ll be directing another comedy next, and the drawer full of scripts she’d still like to get made, someday.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Collider: First of all, just to tell you where I’m at, I actually saw Drumline in a theater, when it first came out, and loved it, so thank you for that.

TINA GORDON: Thank you! It’s my mom’s favorite movie, no matter what I make.

When you think about the nearly 20-year career journey that you’ve been on since then, are you surprised at where you are now, or do you feel like this has been a pretty organic journey for you?

GORDON: I don’t know. I’ve never actually really thought about it, as a whole like that. I’m appreciative of the fact that I’ve been able to find stories and tell stories that I’m passionate about. I feel really proud about this moment because I love the message of the movie. I’m proud of the comedy in the movie and of the actresses that I got to work with. I’m just extremely humbled to work with them. They’re so talented. So, I’m grateful for this moment and all of the elements that came together, to do a movie that came from a 10-year-old’s desire and goals. The most inspiring thing to me is that we could come together and push Marsai’s idea into the world. That’s how I feel about it, at this moment.

This was clearly a film set full of impressive black women, and you’ve talked about how that inspired you, but how do you hope that you were also, in turn, able to inspire them, throughout the shoot?

GORDON: With Marsai, I just wanted to stay open to not only being the director, but sharing the process with her and answering questions, and also collaborating with her to make her feel empowered. I wanted her to feel like she was a part of not just acting, but the continued filmmaking process. I’m proud of keeping that integrity, and keeping that line of communication and instruction, open for the movie.

It sounds like, no matter how young she is, that she had a very strong and clear vision for what she wanted this film to be. When you were brought in to work on the script, what aspects of this idea did you most respond to and what did you want to make sure you brought to it?

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Image via Universal Pictures

GORDON: When I first came on, I came on as a writer, and then I met Marsai and I realized that, in the early versions of the script, she had a lot of scenes with kids her age, but the comedy of the movie, and even the strength of Marsai, is that she has an old soul, beyond her years energy. So, I shifted the story a little bit to be a buddy comedy and an evolving sisterhood friendship, between Issa Rae’s character, April, and Marsai’s character, Little Jordan. I realized that Marsai could really handle long comedic scenes with an extremely funny woman, Issa Rae. Those scenes between the two of them evolved, after I got to know Marsai and Issa came on board.

It seems as though one of the biggest challenges with this film would be making sure that it appeals a teen audience and an adult audience, and has humor that both can identify with and find funny, but isn’t too adult or too young. How did you gauge that balance?

GORDON: It was a tightrope. It was a balancing act. I shot in both directions, and did edgier, but not too edgy because it was Marsai. So, to achieve that, you shoot a little more on the edgy side, within reason, and then you shoot a little sweeter, for the younger audience. And then, it’s about sitting in the editing room and finding that balance. There are things that were left on the cutting room floor that are absolutely hilarious, but they might make a mother going with her daughter uncomfortable. There are things that are just super sweet, that may just be too kid-like and would lose the parents. You just have to keep experimenting until you find the balance that can be a little edgy, a little fun, and a wink to the parents, and the kids are potentially enjoying a totally different movie, within the same movie.

Is there a deleted scene that you were most bummed about having to cut?

GORDON: I never had to cut a scene. The one scene that I kept, that I probably could’ve trimmed, but I just gave it up to the moms and some dads that will be at the movie, was Luke James’ striptease. I could’ve trimmed it down, but I was pretty sure some gals and guys would enjoy watching him do that whole number, so I just let it roll.

I love the duet of “I’m Going Down,” that Marsai Martin and Issa Rae have in the restaurant. How did you come to select that song? Had you thought about or tried any other songs, or was it always that song?

GORDON: I know there are all of these iconic songs, but I just always thought it would be funny to have a child sing a really, “I have been through it,” love song. A 13-year-old or 14-year-old would have never been through those experiences, so just seeing it from a little body, I felt like that would be funny. And nobody says, “I have been through this,” like Mary J. Blige.

You have such a talented trio of women in this movie, with Marsai Martin, Regina Hall and Issa Rae. What did you most enjoy about watching the three of them do their thing, both individually and together, and how was it to direct them, on set?

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Image via Universal Pictures

GORDON: Issa and Marsai have scenes together, but Regina and Marsai never did, so that was a bummer because that would’ve been really funny. I loved the intros for all three of them. It was just really reassuring, when I saw those scenes. I realized that when audiences meet each one of these women, it’s so clearly defined and so different. Marsai created two characters, Big Jordan and Little Jordan, and we did Big Jordan first, then went back and did Little Jordan, in the braces and the Afro. I enjoyed creating that with her, and I enjoyed Regina in that ridiculous pink bonnet, screaming at Issa Rae’s character, April, walking down the hall. And I enjoyed Issa’s intro, too, meditating and trying to think about how she could get through working with this bitch. There was something very quiet and sweet about those intro days.

Along with being funny, this is a movie that also has important messages and themes in it. What do you hope audiences take away from seeing this film?

GORDON: Authenticity, being yourself, and maybe just spending some time to look at yourself and wonder if you’ve put walls up, if you’ve stopped believing in dreams, if you’ve believed people when they said you weren’t good enough, if you couldn’t achieve what you wanted to, or if you thought your dream was too outlandish. The movie is saying that there are always gonna be haters out there. You can’t avoid that, but you can make sure that you’re not becoming one, and also make sure that you’re not being influenced by them. It’s just that simple.

You’ve previously talked about being a bit nervous when Will Packer asked you to direct this, especially with his track record for success with his movies. What were you most nervous about, when it came to the directing and what did you do to work past that?

GORDON: It was not the directing that I was nervous about. I was nervous about the movie being well-received, as most of his movie are. I thought, “Oh, god, please, there are not that many female directors. There are not that many black female directors doing comedy. I don’t wanna be the one where they say, ‘Remember that time when we hired her at Universal?’” When you’re in a space where you’re the first, or one of a rare number, you just wanna do your very best job, and you really want it to succeed for yourself, but also for the women that are behind you. That’s the pressure that I was thinking about, and that I always think about.

Well, you certainly did an awesome job with this film.

GORDON: Well, thank you. That means a lot. Tell your friends.

Do you have any idea what’s next for you?

GORDON: Yeah. I think I’ll jinx myself, if I talk about it now, but in the upcoming weeks, I’ll be announcing it, hopefully. It looks like I’ll be directing again, later this year, so I’m excited to go right back to work.

Are you looking to stick with comedy?

GORDON: It’s another comedy, but it has a message. I don’t know how to describe it yet. I hate to say that it’s dramedy. It’s a comedy. It’s tricky.

Are you someone who has scripts written in a drawer somewhere, that you’re hoping to get into production?

GORDON: I do. I have scripts that I haven’t gotten made because they’re considered not sell-able. It’s the same struggle that everybody goes through. So, yes, I have that drawer, and I look in it and go, “That could still get made.” I hope they do. I still talk about them. I just talked about one this week, so we’ll see what happens. They might be a little unusual. I don’t know what it is about them, but honestly, they’re some of my best work that I’m most proud of, that’s been un-produced.

Little is in theaters now.

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