The highly anticipated Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me” hits theatres this weekend, and The Knockturnal had the opportunity to speak to the film’s writers Eddie Gonzalez (Empire, Gang Related, Street 2: Motor City) and Jeremy N. Haft (Tamara and Grizzly Mountain about capturing Tupac’s legacy and their experiences creating the script.
How did you want to make a film that appealed to fans but didn’t just illustrate everything they already knew?
Jeremy: I think that a lot of people know the big, iconic moments: joining the Digital Underground, signing with Death Row, everyone knows those big, huge moments. What we wanted to do was show Tupac as a very nuanced man with tons of different character traits, and how he became that man through his adolescence and childhood. So for us it was very important to show how Tupac became Tupac, and that meant going back to his childhood in New York, in Baltimore, the Baltimore School of the Arts, Afeni, his mom was a Black Panther, so also seeing the social awareness and social activism that he was raised with.
What were the points in Tupac’s life that you wanted to make sure you included?
Eddie: There were various points that we wanted to include. Obviously the Baltimore School because the Baltimore School had a huge impact on him, but even before the Baltimore School, his mom. It really all begins with his mother. Afeni impressed upon him the power and the meaning of the Black Panthers, she impressed upon him the idea to question authority, and it’s something that carried through his life. It carried through his lyrics, it carried through his actions, and I think those are the things that began right there, so when you see that, you then wanted to move on and go, let’s talk about his time in Digital Underground. While he enjoyed his time there, he had a voice and he wanted his voice to be heard. He wanted to be a solo artist because he had to get that voice out there, so we made sure to hit that point.
Jeremy: I think it also goes back to, you know, everyone knows those big iconic moments, it was really important for us to show what made Tupac the man that would question authority. That was very important.
Eddie: Unfortunately we never got to meet him, but people who knew him, we wanted them to watch this movie and think, “Yeah that was Tupac,” and we wanted to introduce him to a new generation of 12 year olds, 13 year olds who may know some of the songs, of course everybody knows “California Love,” but it’s so much more than just “California Love.” We wanted people to understand the poetry, we wanted them to understand that this is a nuanced character, a very complex character, so that was one of the driving things when we were writing this was to make sure we hit those moments.
What were you surprised to learn about the person behind the icon while developing the script?
Eddie: For me, I’m a huge hip-hop fan. I grew up in Compton, buying CDs out of trunks in cars, I grew up on Chuck D. from Public Enemy, and Ice Cube in N.W.A., so the two things that surprised me the most about Tupac, because obviously I was a Tupac fan, is the poetry. Honestly when I started this project I had no clue how much poetry he had written. I knew a few things, but when we read ‘The Rose That Grew From Concrete’ I was blown away by it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but that’s one of those things that I learned among the process. The second thing I learned was his charity, and how empathetic he was. When we were doing research and while we were talking to people that knew him, I can’t tell you the countless stories we heard about his charitable things, and these were things that he did outside of the public eye, outside of the press, people that he helped. So those were the things that I’d say we discovered while we were doing this.
Did you alter the story at all when filming started based on what you determined was and wasn’t working when production began? What scenes exactly?
Eddie: It wasn’t so much what was or wasn’t working, there were several things (and this happens in most films) where you don’t have a certain location, so we’re going to have to adjust that scene. Or too, the chemistry between the actors is so strong, why don’t we adjust this scene. I’ll give you a great example of that, Demetrius knocks it out of the park in this film, there is a scene in the movie where Tupac is speaking to Jada, she’s on the set of her show. When we originally wrote the scene he was in the back of a limousine driving to the album release party, and they’re having this conversation over the phone. When we saw the two actors together, it was a great idea by L.T. Hutton (a very strong producer on this project) to say you know what, that scene should put the two of them together, it shouldn’t be a conversation over the phone. So what we did is we then put him surprising her on set, it spoke to their chemistry not just as actors, but as real people, and the audience I think is going to love those moments.
Jeremy: I think the other thing that goes into being on the set, because Eddie and I were on the set for almost the entire shoot, was the other little adjustments we would make. We were fortunate enough to have E.D.I. Mean and Noble there, two of the “Outlawz” with Tupac and his really good friends, so they were able to tell us certain things like, “Oh Tupac smoked a cigarette this way” or “Hey what you guys have is awesome, but Tupac would always have this little thing.” So actually one great example of that little tweak that we would do within the scene is with Tupac’s sister, everyone called her Seg. E.D. told us, “Oh by the way, Tupac called her Setch.” None of us knew that, it was a little inside story that you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. Even Money B. for instance, we spoke to [him] over the phone, and he was telling all about when Tupac tried out for Juice, and that gave us a bit more color and flavor to the scene.
Diddy and Suge Knight recently said they approved of the film, what did that mean to you?
Eddie: We don’t know them, but to get that feel of approval from them means a lot, that’s great. Again, because it’s all about authenticity, and you’re talking about two icons in the music industry, it means a lot to us that they approve the film
This film does against the grain in terms of biopics, Tupac isn’t portrayed as flawless but we see the cracks in his character. Can you talk a bit about bringing that to life?
Eddie: I actually think it makes him more three-dimensional and I think the flaws are great because that is a human. We’re all flawed, and I think when people see that, it’s not a criticism of the character, if anything it enriches the character, because he’ll be the first one to tell you he’s flawed. So I think that in terms of a biopic, it’s honest, it’s authentic, and I don’t think anyone is going to see the film and call bullshit on it because we weren’t sitting there trying to make him be something that he wasn’t. One of the guiding principles was that Tupac has already written his story, he’s already told his story, and in many ways that’s what we did, we channelled his story. There are certain scenes in there that it’s his dialogue, that’s not our dialogue. There are things that he actually said, so I think that when you see that, you do see a flawed individual, but more than anything else you see a human being. We’re all flawed, so it’s great that that comes out.
Last question, there’s a strong commentary here about the role of women in the music scene at the time. How do you think that role has shifted for better or worse since 1996?
Jeremy: Speaking about women in the film, we have three very powerful women in the film. First and foremost is Afeni, his mom. Second and third would be Jada Pinkett and also Kidada Jones, so we have three very important, very strong women in the film. The movie was almost a love letter to his mom, his mom was so inspirational, and so important, I mean she was a Black Panther, she was one of the Panther 21, so for us it was really important to portray three strong women, especially his mom who was one of the biggest influences in his life.
All Eyez on Me hits theatres nationwide June 16.
Justine Browning contributed reporting.