In this updated, contemporary version of the beloved stage play and 1989 film, Steel Magnolias chronicles the lives and friendship of six women in Louisiana. Supporting each other through triumphs and tragedies, they share the mysteries of life and death, husbands and children, and all the other important topics that truly unite and celebrate women. From director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) and screenwriter Sally Robinson, the film stars Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad.
During this recent interview to promote the October 7th premiere on Lifetime television, executive producers Queen Latifah, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (the producing duo for Chicago and Hairspray) talked about how this version is different from the original, the challenges they had in producing this new adaptation, the universal themes of the story, putting this great cast together, how much the actors all supported each other during shooting, how they came to partner with Lifetime, their favorite moments on set, and what they enjoy about working with each other. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: How is this version of Steel Magnolias going to be different than the original?
CRAIG ZADAN: We approached it as though it was a new piece of writing. We’re not doing anything to copy the original production because the original play was amazing and the original movie was amazing. We wanted to do something that was brand new, and we wanted to do something that would be done our way, with our cast and our production. It’s using the material as the basis of that, in the same way as if you work in the theater and you do what they call revivals. Each production is relevant because they’re done with different directors, different producers and different actors. So, we feel like what we’ve done is fresh and different from the original, and yet as relevant as the original.
What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to produce this new version of Steel Magnolias?
NEIL MERON: I don’t think any of us thought about challenges to overcome. It was just a challenge to make the best movie we could. I don’t think any of us really looked at the past. We just looked at what we had, and what we had is something that we loved, so we just made the best version of that. We never said, “Oh, they did this before, like this.” You honor the material you have.
What do you guys see as the universal themes for this?
MERON: We think that Steel Magnolias is a timeless and universal piece and it just works in whatever community you set it in. You don’t even have to underline it, it just works. And I think that that really defines what classic material it is. Part of the reason why we also wanted to do it is because women’s roles aren’t written as well as these roles and we wanted to show off our great actresses.
ZADAN: In terms of casting, I think that you have to understand that we were looking at it based on what’s on the page, not on what’s been done, previously. For example, when you see Jill Scott’s performance, it does not make you think of Dolly Parton, even remotely. Jill Scott is doing her performance, as an actress, for that role that’s written on the page. She’s not trying to do Dolly Parton. She’s not trying to recreate Dolly Parton. And I’d say the same thing goes for everybody in the cast. They created the roles and we cast the roles, based on finding great actresses to play those great parts.
What was it like to put this great cast together?
ZADAN: Well, I think that we got such great actresses because Queen Latifah said yes. Once we had Queen Latifah on board, everybody wanted to be a part of the movie. So, we would decide with Queen Latifah who we wanted to go to. We all worked together as producers and we went to certain actresses. Luckily, everybody said yes because everybody was really excited about being part of it.
Queen Latifah, given M’Lynn’s journey throughout the story, how much support did you receive from the other actresses, in order to play her effectively?
QUEEN LATIFAH: I received a great amount of support, but I also tried to give a great amount of support because we had a lot of young actors that are extremely talented, who you should watch, in the years to come. I think we did a great job in casting this movie. Well, (director) Kenny [Leon] did a great job, and we supported Kenny, but I think we got a great cast who can do a great job. So, I got a great amount of support from our veteran actors, with Alfre [Woodard] and Phylicia [Rashad]. I know all of them and they’ve always been supportive. But I think we also got a lot of inspiration and support from the actors who have come after us. It was almost like a whirlpool of acting talent, with the love, support, pushing and challenging. It wasn’t all about being a love fest. It was about challenging each other and really expecting you to do your job, at the end of the day. We all have to show up and do our job, regardless of our life circumstances or situations. We don’t have to do it with an attitude. Everyone understands that life happens and we have to create a whole other life where our life doesn’t even exist anymore, but these characters exist. That is our life. That’s who we are.
So, I got a great amount of support and, on the off times, there was great conversation. How can you have “Clair Huxtable” there and not pick her brain? She is the world’s mom. She was Michelle Obama before Michelle Obama. But, she’s not Clair Huxtable. She is Phylicia Rashad, and she’s a different person with so much more cool points than Clair ever even had. She’s got all that, and then some. So, it was really about us all bonding together to make sure we got the job done, to make sure we really delivered for Kenny, Neil and Craig and, most importantly, delivered for the viewer. We wanted to make sure that you could feel an experience that felt as real as it possibly could because this material is great, in itself. Everyone had to show up and do their best job. I think it was pretty awesome. And the support didn’t just come from the cast. It also came from the crew. It came from everyone from the security guard at the gate to the person turning on the heat to the grips, the lighting and the DP. The support was everywhere, in order to accomplish something in such a short amount of time, and to make a great piece of work.
As a cast, what did you get to do with your downtime together?
LATIFAH: Well, we shot this movie in 18 days, so there wasn’t a lot of down time. A lot of our downtime was just hanging around the set, and then getting touched up. Some of our best downtime was just being in the hair and make-up trailer together, playing music and watching videos. Sometimes, our downtime was just a little conversation. Every once in awhile, we would pause and appreciate the fact that we were doing this film and we were all together that. We all admired each other, so much. We all encouraged each other, as well.
What sort of things did you do to kind of create the mother/daughter dynamic with Condola Rashad?
LATIFAH: I just met Condola, and we just kicked it. We’re not our characters, in real life. Let’s be clear about that. I’m not a mama, and she’s a very healthy young woman. We shared bonds over music. She can sing, amazingly, and we played music for each other. We played the records we love and we listened to a lot of diverse groups and just talked about what our visions were for things. She’s extremely well-practiced and well-versed. I knew she would show up for the job, so it wasn’t even about that. We just got to know each other. She’s a really, really cool girl. We didn’t talk too much about fashion because we’re in different eras. But, we cross each paths, in a lot of different ways. We talked about the material, the scenes, and how we felt about our hair or our make-up, that day. We just talked girl stuff, and bonded like that. It just all fell into place. I would check on her every day because I just automatically felt a nurturing spirit towards her. We were endeared to one another. She reminded me of a younger me. She really felt like she could be my daughter, and I’m pretty sure she felt like I could be her mom, even though we know who her mom is. We felt that kindred, fighter, adventurous spirit, and we connected on the attributes that we share together, even though we’re not related, in that way. We also encouraged each other and inspired each other. I felt protective of her.
With your grandmother having diabetes, did that make this film a little bit more personal for you?
LATIFAH: It did, in a sense, but my grandmother is so cool that you would never know. Shelby is really more like me, in real life. She’s going to put her mind to something and go for it. I don’t care if she has to rappel from a five story building, shoot some guns, ride a motorcycle, drive NASCAR or just be a mama with five kids. My grandmother has a life that’s very stable. She has already raised seven kids, so she’s like, “I’m good. I’m cool.” No, diabetes didn’t really play a part in it. When you have a family as big as mine, there are many things that affect my family members, in many different ways. It could be high blood pressure, it could be cholesterol, it could be obesity, it could be sleep deprivation or sleep apnea. An illness is an illness, especially if it affects younger kids. Illnesses affect your family and they impact you because you want to do the best you can to help your family member become more healthy, just as my family members want me to be healthy. It doesn’t have to be diabetes, specifically. But, when there’s something that impacts a family member or friend, that is difficult for them, you want to do what you can to help. Sometimes you can’t do anything and it makes you feel like you’re helpless, so those emotions cross a big barometer, but they’re a big, broad stroke when it comes to someone who you care about. If you have compassion in your heart, you just care. So, I didn’t have to have a relative with diabetes.
MERON: It just lends itself to the universal nature of what the film is about. We come together when people are needy. When people need you, you pull together as a community and you help.
How did you come to partner with Lifetime on this?
ZADAN: Basically, we had the idea of doing this production of Steel Magnolias, and we spoke to Queen Latifah about it and she got excited. We decided to reunite because, prior to this, Neil and I had the greatest experience of our lives doing Chicago with Latifah, and then we had the second best experience of our lives doing Hairspray with Latifah. So, we thought, “Wait a minute! Two is not enough. We need to do a third project.” Now, we feel that we need to do a fourth. But, we decided that we had done really fun, exciting and quality work together, as a team, and then we went to Lifetime and said, “We have this team. Are you interested in this movie?” And, without a second’s delay, they said, “When can you start shooting? Don’t even talk to us about it. Just start shooting. Just schedule it, put it together and go. Go make the movie!” They thought that it would make a great new version for a new generation, with this cast.
Queen Latifah, why did you decide to become involved in this project, as an executive producer, and what was your specific role, in that regard?
LATIFAH: I got involved with this project because Neil and Craig called me. I’ve worked with them and I trust them, so if they love it, I know how hard they work and how much they’ll put into it, and I wanted to be a part of it. And outside of just being an actor, my role was really in helping to create a great cast, and then also a great tone on the set, and to make sure that everyone was taken care of, whether it was cast or crew. You have to take care of your crew, so if there were things that needed to be dealt with, that were critical, I was there on the ground to be able to see it and relay that to Neil and Craig, or to Kenny Leon. My role was not to be the boss on the ground. I was there to see the gaps that needed to be filled, or the things that need to be taken care of. That’s what I do. Then, I take that hat off, so that I can be an actor. I’m not running the joint. It’s a team thing. And I’m also there to make sure that everyone knows about this film, about how great it is, and that we want viewers to share in the experience of Steel Magnolias.
Neil and Craig, what do you guys like about working together?
MERON: I think we share a similar vision. When our opinions differ, it only makes the work even stronger because there’s a lot of respect. It’s great to know that we have this mutual trust where one of us can be not present and still feel that the mutual vision is being executed, in the same way that either one of us would do. It’s fun. We love what we do and we love the projects we work on. Hopefully, that comes through in the finished product.
ZADAN: Neil and I share a desire for great quality in our work. If we are offered projects, look at projects or consider projects that don’t have that quality, then we don’t do them. Our first priority that we share is that the movie, the TV show, the Broadway show or whatever it is, has the highest possible quality, which is why we would never go to Queen Latifah with anything without that quality. We would be embarrassed, if we went to Queen Latifah and said, “Would you do this with us?,” when we weren’t 100% sure that it was going to be potentially really good.
LATIFAH: That’s why I took that job without even having read the script first.
MERON: Queen Latifah actually did the same thing with Hairspray. We had a lunch with her and she said, “I’m in!,” and she hadn’t read the script. She just believed that we were going to make the best movie we could. Hopefully, we haven’t let her down.
LATIFAH: No, they’ve never let me down. They’ll beat each other up behind the scenes, to the point where, when they get to us, we’re locked in. They’ve got their eyes on the prize. It’s tunnel vision. They’re going to make it a success, in every possible way. But, it comes from the heart. There’s passion. They’ll not sleep at night. They will make sure that it’s right and that everyone is taken care of. These guys are the best.
Do you guys have a favorite scene or moment on set?
LATIFAH: Kenny Leon walks around with a little box that says, “Fuck you.” He won’t say it himself, but he has a box that says it. It doesn’t matter how tired you are or how many hours we worked, when he presses the button to say it, it just like breaks the mood. That helped me out.
MERON: Not to sound to Pollyannaish, but it was one of the most joyful sets that I’ve ever experienced because there was such harmony, such a dedication to the work, such good spirits, and great material that it was a pleasure showing up, every day.
How much freedom did you have to actually make changes to story?
MERON: We did have freedom to make changes, but what we ultimately wanted to do was to honor the material that it was based on. We tried to respect that as much as we could while updating it and making the changes that were appropriate to setting the movie now, such as texting and Facebook, and also the big change that it’s possible for women to give birth with diabetes. We had to make sure that there were other complications involved that made pregnancy risky, so we consulted with doctors and then explored the idea of diabetes with a kidney ailment which seemed to be very serious.
Queen Latifah, what is your personal criteria for choosing which projects you’ll do?
LATIFAH: First of all, it’s the quality of the material and also it’s who’s involved. And then, I like to service the full audience of America, so I try to do things that are just real artistic, like when they don’t have the most money, but it’s a great piece of work. Then, there are big, fun comedies and big animated movies for kids. I want to do things for my nieces and nephews. Ultimately, we’re trying to deliver something entertaining to an audience. As long as it can entertain the audience, and it makes me or my niece and nephew laugh or cry, then I think it’s good. I definitely service my African American audience, but I also want to service other audiences of different cultures. If there are other cultural things that can be involved in it, I like to make it diverse because I grew up in New York and New Jersey, so I’m used to growing up around different cultures. If there’s something that can be involved, in that sense I always want to. Those are the main things, for me.
Steel Magnolias premieres on Lifetime on October 7th.