From writer Ryan Engle and director James McTeigue, the dramatic thriller Breaking In shows what can happen when the family home of Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) is broken into and her two children (played by Ajiona Alexus and Seth Carr) are taken hostage. Even though they are trapped in a remote house designed with impenetrable security and they’re being threatened by four very scary men, nothing can stop a mother determined to protect her family.
At the film’s press day in Downtown Los Angeles, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with producer Will Packer to chat 1-on-1 about currently being in production on his 27th film, why Gabrielle Union was the only person they considered to lead Breaking In, what he hopes people will learn about her from this movie, and why they wanted to have fun playing with the conventions of the genre. He also talked about what audiences can expect from Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish in Night School (out in theaters on September 28th), and whether he’s ever considered directing.
Collider: You recently said that you’re now on your 27th film, as a producer. How does that feel? When it’s such a challenge to get a movie made, get it in theaters and get people to see it, what does it feel like to know you’ve done it 27 times?
WILL PACKER: It’s crazy! It’s hard to make one movie. It’s really, really hard to make one movie well. I’m now in production on my 27th, and I’d like to think that I did at least a few of them well. I feel very blessed because I know that I’m in a position that allows me a certain level of autonomy, responsibility and visibility, and I take that very seriously. A lot of us that are in the industry and who are very busy, are always on to the next one. You keep going, keep pushing the boulder up the hill, and keep chasing the brass ring. I like to try to make sure that I take time and just exhale and say, “You know what? Look at what we’ve done. Let’s turn around and look at how far we’ve climbed up this mountain.” We’ve got a lot more that we want to do, but we’ve come a long way. That’s how I feel. I feel very fortunate.
If you can’t enjoy it, why do it?
PACKER: Exactly! But a lot of us don’t, especially in this industry. It’s dog eat dog, and it’s very competitive. Nobody wants to rest on their laurels, and I’m not encouraging that, but I do think as people, and not just people in the entertainment industry, we need to take time to just enjoy life. I don’t know that we do enough of that.
What is the 27th film?
PACKER: It’s What Men Want. I’m producing a remake of What Women Want, starring Taraji Henson. This is the time for that movie, so how could we not do it.
And Adam Shankman is directing that, correct?
PACKER: Yep, Adam Shankman is directing. We’ve got a great cast that’s coming together, and we just started production in Atlanta.
I’m all for kick-ass women, so I enjoyed Breaking In and thought Gabrielle Union was great!
PACKER: Thank you!
It seems like the success of a movie like this relies heavily on how believable the woman at the center of it is.
PACKER: You’re right.
What is it about Gabrielle Union that not only makes her that woman, but makes her strength believable?
PACKER: Gab was the person we always thought about for this role. It was brought to me as a pitch, from a very talented, up-and-coming producer, named Jaime Primak Sullivan, had this idea of, what if we took the home invasion conceit and flipped it on its head? I thought, “Wow, that movie has a reason for being. I don’t know that I’ve seen that, and I certainly haven’t seen it with a protagonist like a Gabrielle Union.” Gabrielle was the person we thought about, from the beginning. I was actually working on another project with her, and I asked her if she was interested in getting back into doing some action. Because we’re so close, I know, in real life, that she has a physicality. She’s super active and super capable, and that’s part of her skill set. I also knew, to your question about believability, that Gab would bring a grounded-ness to the role. She’s a bad-ass and she has to kick ass, but she also has vulnerability.
You just really want to root for her.
PACKER: You do, but it’s not because she’s an ex-Navy Seal or she’s got CIA training. One of my favorite lines from the movie is when the guys in the house say, “She’s just a mom.” That’s the understatement of the year. The vulnerability she brings to it helps to make that a believable character and a real entry point, I hope, for our female audience.
What don’t people know about Gabrielle Union that you hope they’ll learn from this movie?
PACKER: People know that she’s physically capable, just from her real life persona. She’s obviously in amazing shape and she works out a lot. There’s a fierceness to this character, with that mamma bear protective thing, that I don’t know that we’ve seen her do. She captures it really well. She is a mom, in real life, to her husband’s kids, so she knows how to be a mamma bear and how to be protective. The way she brings this character to life is like any woman with biological kids. She definitely understands that you protect your own. In real life, Gab is fiercely loyal and fiercely protective, and that’s just about the people she loves and cares about, whether they’re blood relatives or not. I think that comes across. I think you’ll see that in this movie.
I also really love how these are not weak kids. They’re not crying in a corner, but instead, they’re fighting for themselves because of what they’ve learned from how they’ve been raised.
PACKER: That’s right. I agree.
Was that important to you?
PACKER: We wanted to have fun playing with the conventions of the genre and we didn’t want to do the damsel in distress, where the guy comes to save the day. We didn’t want kids that are just tied up the whole time and can’t help themselves. We didn’t want that white male protagonist that you always see in this kind of movie, who comes and saves the day. We wanted to be a little different and we wanted to have specificity to it. That was something that she and I talked about, very early with this project. There’s a specificity to her character, so Gab was always saying, “I want to do what I would actually, really do. I want to make sure that there’s a nuance to this character that’s real.” She didn’t want to be super mom or robo-mom, and she didn’t want to be weak and tripping over things and falling down the whole time, either, because that’s not what she would really do. That’s not who she is. So, we tried to strike a balance there.
Obviously, we all know what Kevin Hart can do, but now everybody also knows what Tiffany Haddish can do. What are you most excited about with Night School?
PACKER: You’re welcome, Kevin and Tiffany! They’re two of my faves.
The world needs more of Tiffany Haddish.
PACKER: Who doesn’t, right?! I’m excited because, in my opinion, those are two of the foremost comedic voices of this generation, period. When you think about the two of them together, this movie lives up to the promise of that. Tiffany plays the teacher at the night school, and Kevin Hart plays the student who needs to get his GED, along with a group of fun, misfit characters. It definitely plays into Tiffany’s skill set, where she shoots from the hip, she’s real and she’s high energy, but her character has some modulation because she’s an authority figure in this film. We haven’t seen her do that yet. And Kevin is a movie star. Kevin has been doing it for awhile, so he gets it. He does self-deprecation very well, and he brings some of that to this role. It’s funny to see them go head-to-head, and we do. Malcolm Lee directed the film, who also directed Girls Trip, and he did a good job of letting them spar.
When you produce a movie like that, are you the one that has to come in and say, “Time to keep it together,” when they’re on set, or do you just let them go?