Producer Debra Martin Chase Talks SPARKLE, Initially Casting Aaliyah, Remembering Whitney Houston, the DIRTY DANCING Remake and More

     August 15, 2012


Sparkle tells the story of a 19-year-old innocent young woman growing up in late 1960’s Detroit, who dreams of becoming a music star.  Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dee (Tika Sumpter) are sisters who love each other fiercely, but each have their own ambitions.  When they form a girl group and set out to take the music world by storm, the harsh realities of the spotlight take their toll on the girls and threaten to tear apart the tight knit family, which also includes their less than supportive mother (Whitney Houston).  The film also stars Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick and CeeLo Green.

At the film’s press day, producer Debra Martin Chase talked about the 12-year journey of bringing Sparkle to the big screen, how Aaliyah was originally set to star, how proud Whitney Houston would be of her work in the film, what made Jordin Sparks the right choice for the role of Sparkle, and what moment from the shoot stands out the most for her.  She also talked about her overall producing deal with ABC, and how she’s developing the remake of Dirty Dancing, which has been pushed until Spring 2013, in order to give them time to find the right actors for Baby and Johnny.  Check out what she had to say after the jump.

debra-martin-chase-sparkleQuestion: How did this project come to you, and what was your main goal in seeing it come to life?

DEBRA MARTIN CHASE:  This has been a 12-year journey.  Whitney [Houston] and I were producing partners at Brown House and, every now and then, she would call up with an idea.  So, she called one day and said, “What do you think about remaking Sparkle?”  I was like, “Oh, my god, that’s one of my favorite movies,” and she said, “Mine too.”  Warner Brothers had the rights, so we went to them and they had just signed a three-picture deal with Aaliyah.  They said, “If Aaliyah is interested in it, we will develop it for her.”  So, I got on the phone with Aaliyah and her mom, and they said, “Oh, my god, Sparkle is our favorite movie.”  So, were on.  We were going to make the movie.  We had a blinking green light.  We were going to try make it either right before The Matrix 2 or right after.  On the Saturday when she was leaving the Bahamas, Aaliyah was on her way to L.A. and, on the following Tuesday, she was going to have a meeting with the director and we all thought we’d walk out of that with a green light.  

So, the movie went on the shelf for a few years.  None of us wanted to touch it.  And then, I finally started calling Warner Brothers again, and they were like, “I don’t know.  Who’s going to be Sparkle?”  So, I tried other studios.  I always believed in the movie.  This is my second remake.  I remade The Preacher’s Wife.  When you look for a remake, you look for something that’s a universal story, that’s timeless, and that can be moved into a more contemporary set of circumstances and characters, so you can keep the essence of what people love, but give them something new to come and enjoy.  And while Sparkle is a beloved movie, and a huge title in the African-American community, it wasn’t a perfect movie.  As a young girl, I was like, “The clothes are fabulous and the women are beautiful and the guys are handsome,” but there was stuff to improve on, and I think we did.  So, love was ultimately what brought us here.

sparkle-movie-image-whitney-houston-jordin-sparksDo you feel like things just aligned at just the right time? 

CHASE:  I truly believed that the stars finally aligned for it to happen.  When we set it up originally, Whitney was talking about playing Sister, and I was like, “No, that’s not good.  You look too old.”  It just wasn’t right.  She was like, “Are you sure?”  This time around, my immediate thought was that Whitney should be the mom, but Emma was 45 or 46, with three grown daughters, so I wasn’t sure.  I called her longtime agent, who’s my dear friend, and I said, “What do you think?,” and she was like, “Talk to her about it.”  This was right at the time when she was doing her comeback album.  I was in New York , so I went to one of Clive Davis’ listening parties, which are fabulous, and I whispered in her ear, “I have something to talk to you about.”  She grabbed me and said, “Girl, I’m in!  I heard that we’re finally going to make Sparkle.  I’ve got ideas for the music.  I’m so happy!”  We gave each other a big hug, and that was the beginning of this journey.

It’s safe to say that we didn’t get enough of Whitney Houston, the actress.  Why do you think that is?  Was she just particular, or was the rest of her life in her way?

sparkle jordin sparksCHASE:  You know, Whitney always saw herself as a musician, first.  That acting came her way, wasn’t something she fought for.  Kevin Costner approached her about being in The Bodyguard.  So, in some ways, she took it for granted.  She didn’t train, but she had natural instincts.  But, she would always say, “I’m a singer, first.”  And I think she went through a period where she wanted to live.  She had done everything.  She had been on the road, since she was a young woman.  You get to a point in your life where you want to catch up with your life, and spend time with your child and your husband, or whatever.  Obviously, her life had its tumultuous periods, but she was also an African American woman of a certain age.  There are not a lot of great roles.  But, she was really ready.  In terms of the priority of comebacks, it was more important for her, personally, to come back as a singer, with that album and the warm reception that that album received.  And then, when the right thing came along, she was ready to get back into acting.          

How proud of this performance do you think she was?     

CHASE:  The first day we were at the house, she was just doing the acting, on a whole other level.  I went up to her, after one of the scenes, and I said, “You’ve always been a movie star, but now you’re an actress.”  She beamed and was like, “Really?!,” and she hugged me. S he knew it.  Above anything, Whitney was a pro.  Her instincts were honed [from when she was a child].  She was in the studio with (her mother) Cissy, with Elvis [Presley] and with Aretha [Franklin], and she knew everybody.  For all the craziness that would go on, she had great instincts.  She knew when she was on, and she knew when she was off.  It’s funny, when I first started working with her, she would sit in her trailer and she would watch her old performances.  At first, I was like, “Really?!,” but she studied her performances to see what she did right, what she did wrong, and what she could improve on.  She was a pro.  So, she knew that she was great.    

jordin-sparks-sparkleYou’ve been involved in some fantastic franchises, in TV and film.  What do you look for, as a producer?

CHASE:  I look for the message, and the essence of what the material is about.  It’s got to mean something.  It doesn’t have to be weighty, and certainly not preachy.  For me, Sparkle is about believing in yourself, so that you can realize your dreams.  All dreams are possible.  You can’t reaffirm that enough, in the world.  And then, it’s about the universality of the story and if it’s something that everybody can relate to.  Even if you’re telling it in a specific way, with an African American cast, or with young women, or whatever, it has to be something that everybody can relate to.                                    

Is there a scene or a moment, from making this movie, that stands out for you?

CHASE:  There are so many scenes.  Honestly, Whitney singing “Eye on the Sparrow” was just such a moment.  We were all in tears.  Her voice was not what it once was, but it carried a gravity and the richness of a life lived.  That made the emotion of it all the more real and compelling, and it was a beautiful moment.

What made you decide to cast Jordin Sparks?

jordin-sparks-sparkle-movie-imageCHASE: The first time that Salim and I sat down, we were having lunch in the Sony commissary, just to toss around casting ideas, and Jordin’s name came up.  We were all immediately like, “That makes sense!”  So, Salim met with her pretty much immediately, and then told us, “I think she’s it.”  That being said, we saw everybody.  We saw everybody for all of the roles because they’re great roles.  Certainly for African American actors, roles like this don’t come that often.  But, we went into the process with Jordin being the one to beat.  She just seemed so perfect.  She was the first one we saw, so we had to look at some others, but she’s a movie star.  She carried the movie, beautifully.  She just has those great instincts, and she obviously had the voice.  She has just been a delight to work with.  And she and Whitney had a very special relationship that just happened.  Bobbi Kristina is a couple of years younger than Jordin, so there was that relationship of mother and mentor to a young woman that age.  Whitney relished that, and she just adored Jordin.  I think she identified with her.  She’s a beautiful young woman with a great voice, thrust into the limelight, at a young age, trying to still figure out who she is and keeping it real.  They really had a special time.

jordin sparks sparkleWhat led you to Carmen Ejogo, and the rest of the cast? 

CHASE:  The thing is, you don’t realize it, when you’re putting your pieces together, but this was special and important to [everybody].  It was Jordin’s first movie.  Derek Luke had never been cast as a leading man before.  This is a game-changer for Mike Epps.  For Tika [Sumpter], her biggest role had been Gossip Girl.  This is her first big motion picture.  Hopefully, for Omari [Hardwick], who is just such a leading man, this will be the thing where people can really see who he is and give him a shot.  And 15 years ago, Carmen Ejogo starred in the Sally Hemmings mini-series, had a little heat, did Boycott, and then married Jeffrey Wright and basically retired to have kids.  And then, a few years ago, she started coming out again.  

There was another actress, who I won’t name, who we thought was going to play Sister, in the beginning.  At the end of the day, we were unable to make a deal with her, so we were like, “Who are we going to get to play Sister?”  It’s such an iconic role, so we literally saw everybody.  Everybody came out of the woodwork for this.  And then, one day, our casting director called and said, “I got a tape that I need for you all to see, right now,” and it was Carmen.  She had taped herself, and we were all like, “Done!”  She’d never seen the original movie.  One day, I said to her, “I bet, a few years ago, you never thought this would happen again.”  Like so many of my friends, she left her careers to raise her kids, and they love their kids dearly, but it’s the conflict of what could have been.  And she got tears in her eyes and was like, “I didn’t know that I would ever get my acting career back.”  She’s amazing!  And she’s in the TV show, Zero Hour.  She’s so lovely.  It’s fabulous.

sparkle-movie-posterWhat have you got in the works now?

CHASE:  I am developing a remake of Dirty Dancing at Lionsgate with Kenny Ortega.  That was supposed to be shooting now, but we pushed to the spring.  And then, two weeks ago, I just signed an overall producing deal with ABC.  I’m really going to dig into series, which is exciting ‘cause all the good drama now is on television with strong women characters.  I’m really excited about that.  I’m going to do some different stuff.

Have you cast your Dirty Dancing leads?

CHASE: No, that’s why we got pushed.  It’s all about Baby and Johnny.  It’s a great script.  We cast our dancers, after seeing every dancer in America.  We have our locations.  We were nine weeks out from starting to shoot, and we couldn’t agree on Baby and Johnny with the studio.  That one is more pressure than Sparkle.  As a practical matter, Dirty Dancing, in its original form, is still played, over and over and over, and it’s a damn near perfect movie.  We are going to bring song and dance into it.  It’s not going to be a musical, but we’re going to take it to another level with the musicality of it. 

Does it help that Jennifer Grey has already given her blessing to the project?

CHASE: Yes.  Kenny didn’t want to do it without Jennifer, without Lisa Swayze and without the original screenwriter, all giving their blessing.  

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