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SHAFT

About The Production
Can you dig it?

"Shaft" is the next chapter in the film franchise featuring the coolest private eye on any New York City block.

Director Tim Story says it was something of a personal milestone to direct a new action comedy about the character he considers a cultural icon. "Shaft was, to a certain degree, our first black superhero," he offers. "From the start, he was a man's man with style and swagger, who didn't take any b.s. from anyone. He had a way of talking to everyone that, being black, I wanted to emulate growing up. It wasn't just a movie; it meant so much more."

The original 1971 film, starring Richard Roundtree in the title role, helped usher in a groundbreaking cinematic movement that became known as "Blaxploitation"-action films centered around powerful African-American characters.

Samuel L. Jackson, who starred as John Shaft in the 2000 installment and reprises his role in the new film, comments, "Out of all the characters of that era, Shaft is the one that endures. He is legendary-the best dresser, the toughest guy, the sexiest, the coolest...every 'est' that you could imagine. Shaft had a dignity about him that made us all proud. He's the guy everybody wanted to be."

In developing the film, producer John Davis says they wanted to honor that legacy while taking the franchise into the 21st century. "The idea of bringing together three generations of Shaft sounded like lightning in a bottle to me, and when all the pieces came together, I knew we had something special. We have the OG Shaft, Richard Roundtree; Sam's John Shaft; and his son, John, Jr., called JJ, played by Jessie T. Usher."

The resulting generation gap was an opportunity to mine both humor and heart, juxtaposed with the explosive action. Kenya Barris, who teamed with Alex Barnow to write the screenplay and also served as an executive producer on the film, remarks, "Those things blended together to make a perfect jambalaya of what this movie is."

The screenplay immediately piqued Tim Story's interest. "I was given the script by John Davis and I loved it," the director says. "I thought giving a son to Sam Jackson's character was a great way to relate to today's audiences and also reconnect with fans of the earlier films."

For Davis, there were several reasons that Story was the right filmmaker to put at the helm of the new "Shaft." The producer says, "Tim and I have been friends for 25 years and I adore him, but, more importantly, I love his work. He has an amazing understanding of how to integrate action and comedy and music, that played right into the tone of this film."

"Shaft" opens with a flashback to 1989 on a street in Harlem, where John Shaft and his main squeeze, Maya, are mid-argument-or, rather, she is mid-lecture about his crazy, irresponsible lifestyle. But Shaft is barely listening, hyper-aware of bad news that just rolled up in another car. And his instincts prove as sharp as ever. Shaft skillfully dispatches three would-be hitmen in short order, but when the bullets stop flying, a more painful shot hits him right in the gut. In the back seat of the car, Shaft and Maya's baby boy, JJ, is blissfully unaware of his brush with danger, but for Maya, this was the breaking point. She is taking her son out of harm's way...and out of Shaft's life.

Regina Hall, who stars as Maya, says, "When people start shooting at them, Maya decides that maybe it's not such a good idea to raise a child with Shaft as long as he's in that world. She moves out of the city and raises JJ on her own."

Jessie T. Usher adds, "JJ was whisked away from his dad when he was very young and grew up not having him in his life at all-other than receiving very inappropriate gifts from him on Christmas and birthdays. So JJ is entirely different from what you would expect when you hear the name Shaft."

In fact, from his clothes to his computer skills to his millennial mores, "JJ is the opposite of his father," Story states. "The contrast between the book-smart JJ and the street-smart Shaft opened up a lot of possibilities because while we have this exciting detective story, we also have a father and son trying to figure each other out. And then craziness ensues," he laughs.

"It's almost an odd couple thing," Barris observes. "It really plays into a millennial, more politically correct notion of what manhood is today versus the '70s 'I'm bad' version."

Richard Roundtree says, "This film gives new life to a character who's been around for a very long time, and it's fun to watch Sam now passing the baton to Jessie, who more than holds his own. Having the three of us join together to fight the bad guys...it's all come full circle."

Barris notes that Shaft isn't initially so sure that JJ is quite ready to handle that baton.

"Shaft might think his son is soft, but JJ is of a generation that is equally confident in their points of view. They are both unapologetic about who they are. We wanted to mesh those attitudes to not only find the humor in this father-son relationship, but also the emotion."

"I won't lie," Alex Barnow confesses with a smile. "It was somewhat refreshing to create dialogue for a character like John Shaft, who punches first and asks questions later and unabashedly says what he wants without regret, even though it might not be socially acceptable."

That meant sprinkling in some outdated and inappropriate sexist lingo and more than a few expletives, including what many consider to be Jackson's signature curse word: "Motherf**ker." Barris says, "Sam's claim to fame is he totally commits to everything he says and does not blush, which makes you love him even more. We went back and did a Sam pass on the script because you can't half-write a Sam Jackson line. It has to be 100 percent."

Twentysomething JJ, on the other hand, is understandably appalled by Shaft's choice of words, especially about the opposite sex. Barnow offers, "It was fun to write the clashing dialogue between Shaft and this young millennial, who was brought up in a different time by a single mother and is thoughtful and sensitive to other people's feelings."

The younger generation is also represented in JJ's lifelong friend Sasha. Alexandra Shipp, who plays the role, says, "This film is for fans who've grown up with these movies, but it's also for the next generation, who might be being introduced to 'Shaft' for the first time. It respects the earlier films, but it's not the same 'Shaft.'"

A recent MIT grad, JJ is now a rookie FBI data analyst, living and working in New York. But despite being in the same city as his father, he has no contact with Shaft...until his best friend, Karim, is found dead of an apparent overdose. But JJ isn't buying it. Somehow, he knows it was murder.

Determined to find out the truth, "JJ begins investigating on his own," Story shares. "He puts together a few clues, which leads him to Harlem, but he finds out the hard way that Harlem is a little rougher than he thought. He starts asking questions and basically gets beat up. He realizes he's going to need some help, so he goes to the only person he can think of: John Shaft." Little do the two men know that the dangerous criminal forces that once pulled them apart could be the same deadly forces that bring this father and son back together.

THE CAST

Samuel L. Jackson returns as John Shaft, almost two decades after first playing the role of the one-time NYPD detective who traded in his badge for a PI license to seek his own brand of justice. "It's always nice to revisit characters you like," the actor relates. "I do movies that make me happy, and I want audiences to have a good time and leave the movie theatre smiling. 'Shaft' is that kind of fun movie."

Story says that Jackson brought more than just his considerable acting talents to the part. "Sam is a vet; he brings tremendous experience and a wealth of knowledge to everything he does. In every scene, Sam knows where he wants to go and what he wants to do, so it's a pleasure to watch him work. He's also played Shaft before and knows the character better than I ever will, so I was gaining from him as much as directing him on this film."

According to Davis, Jackson possesses another quality that was key for the role of John Shaft. "Sam is cool. I don't think you can learn to be cool in that sense; you've either got it or you don't. Sam was born cool."

Describing his character, Jackson admits that as the years passed, Shaft didn't exactly move with the times, not only in his outmoded language but in his modus operandi. "He doesn't use a computer and doesn't know a whole bunch about that social media stuff. But he's still the guy who's got his finger on the pulse of the streets and knows what's going on. He's still on the scene and everyone knows who he is and they respect him. People come to him for help."

But Shaft is understandably surprised when one of those people is his own kid, whom he hasn't seen since JJ was a baby. Now, for the first time in his life, JJ realizes he needs his father, to help solve the murder of his friend Karim. An Army veteran, Karim had battled drug problems in the past, but he had proudly told JJ he was clean and sober, and JJ believed him, even after Karim was found dead with a needle in his arm. Maybe it was his FBI training or perhaps it was in his DNA, but JJ's instincts tell him there's more to the story, even if pursuing the case costs him his job at the Bureau...and possibly his life.

After an extensive casting search, Jessie T. Usher won the role of Shaft's son, who, at first glance, is not much of a chip off the old block...more like a splinter getting under his dad's skin. "JJ didn't grow up on the streets," says Usher. "He was raised by a single mom and has that whole momma's boy vibe. When I read the script, I thought it worked great having them live totally separate lives and then have them collide. JJ is all the things that his father is not: he's very clean cut, well-spoken and well-mannered and cares how he speaks to people. He graduated from MIT and now works for the FBI, which is a no-no for a Shaft-you don't work for the man, you do your own thing."

Jackson adds, "With JJ having that job, working for the FBI, Shaft is like, 'Whoa, you working for the man.' But then he's gotta stop and think, 'Yeah, well, I used to be a cop, so I worked for the man, too.' They are teaching and learning from each other at the same time. Generationally, things may change, but it doesn't change the essence of who you are."

"JJ always had something underlying in him," Usher attests. "No matter what he's done or where he is in his life, deep down he's still a Shaft. There's nothing anyone could do to take that from him. So JJ and his dad are like night and day...until they're not."

Tim Story calls Usher "a terrific addition to the Shaft clan," noting, "I wanted to see JJ grow up and come into his own onscreen, and Jessie gave me everything I thought the role could be and more. And the guy is hilarious; it was great to see him use those comedic chops in this film."

Usher says he appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with both Jackson and Story.

"When they told me Sam Jackson was going to be in the film, I said, 'I'm down, for sure,' because I've been wanting to work with Sam forever. And working with Tim was great. Before shooting, we took a lot of time to talk about JJ-where he's come from, where he's going, his relationship with his mom and how he feels about the name Shaft and everything associated with it. Tim is an actor's director who is very invested in character arcs and how even the smallest moments read onscreen."

As Jackson more succinctly puts it: "Tim's a nice cat. I like him."

The one person JJ does not tell when he reconnects with his dad is his mom. Regina Hall plays Maya, who has done everything in her power to keep her son away from the kind of trouble that seems to follow Shaft. "The one thing she did not want is for JJ to grow up and be like his dad, and she obviously did a good job because he is nothing like his father," Hall comments. That protective streak notwithstanding, Maya does still care for Shaft and the feeling is mutual. Hall confirms, "Shaft loves Maya. I think she's the one person who can mouth off to him and get away with it. They have a very contentious but genuine relationship where there's a lot of love...and a lot of disappointment."

Even after being apart for more than 20 years, as soon as Shaft and Maya are reunited, there is no denying "there's still that magnetism that draws them together," Jackson states. "There's a great give and take between the two of them."

"Maya's got Shaft's number," adds Davis. "She's good at calling him on his bulls**t, and he's good at trying to pretend that she can't. They have a unique chemistry, and it's a kick seeing the baddest guy in the world intimidated by his only Achilles heel, and also watching an actress who's really, really skilled at pulling that off."

"Shaft" marks the third film collaboration between Hall and Story, who says, "Regina is just a gift to me. For Maya, I needed somebody who could play against Sam, so I sent it to her, and once she said 'yes,' I exhaled. Regina played her effortlessly; it was a complete pleasure to have her on the film."

Hall reveals she was excited about the project as soon as she heard the title. "I'm happy to do anything with Tim, but then it was 'Shaft.' I was a fan of the original with Richard Roundtree and I was a fan when they reimagined it with Sam Jackson. This script had everything I loved about those films but was totally fresh, and I knew Tim would handle the combination of action and comedy perfectly. I was thrilled to be a part of it. I think it has something in it for everybody."

Apart from his mother, the other woman in JJ's life is his closest friend, Sasha, who grew up with him and Karim and is now a doctor at an NYC hospital. At first accepting the official line on Karim's death, Sasha soon discovers that JJ's suspicions were all too justified.

Alexandra Shipp, who stars in the role, offers, "Sasha is really cool and very smart, but what's beautiful about her is that she's a fighter who doesn't take crap from anybody. She's not a damsel in distress in any way, shape or form. In fact, when there's trouble, she's got your back."

Story recalls, "Alexandra came in to read for the part and was this ball of energy. She's feisty and intelligent and just an awesome actress. She truly captured the arc of her character going from looking past JJ as the boy she grew up with to seeing him as a man."

Sasha and JJ have always loved each other as friends, but now there is an undercurrent of something deeper breaking to the surface, though neither is sure how to make the first move...or if they even want to. Shipp explains, "They have the kind of relationship where they've been friends for so long, they don't want to mess it up and run the risk of saying I love you and having it possibly end badly. It's understandable that they would hold off expressing their true feelings because it's really scary to put yourself out there and be rejected, especially by someone who's your best friend."

As Shaft and JJ delve into their investigation, the stakes get higher, deadlier and far more personal, putting the people they love most in the line of fire. Needing more firepower of his own, Shaft turns to the patriarch of the family, his father, John Shaft, Sr.

Richard Roundtree reprises the role that catapulted him to stardom in 1971. He remarks, "Playing Shaft is like riding a bike for me, it just comes naturally. It's in the DNA."

Remembering their first meeting, Davis relates, "I suddenly thought, 'I'm talking to Richard Roundtree...the first Shaft.' Now, I've done a lot of movies and have worked with a lot of stars, but there's something about being with a movie star who is a hero from your childhood that's exhilarating and at the same time intimidating When he said he would return to the role I was like 'YES!' because, to be honest, we couldn't do it without him."

"Richard has still got it," Story states. "It's pretty cool to watch him go into battle with Sam and Jessie and be inside the action. He was absolutely great!"

The admiration, for both the actor and the role he originated, is shared by Roundtree's castmates. Hall affirms, "The character of Shaft created a legacy. The name alone embodied everything that was masculine and powerful and dangerous, and that was Richard Roundtree. He was a sex symbol, too. You know what I mean-the way he walked, his swagger...which he still has, by the way," she smiles.

Roundtree had also appeared in the 2000 "Shaft," though fans of that film might recall that he played Jackson's character's uncle. Jackson acknowledges, "We needed to clear up the fact that he was my uncle and now you're saying he's my father. We were trying to work that out until I finally said, 'I got it. Don't worry about it, I can fix it.' So I did. I fixed it with one line." But we're not giving it away.

The cast also includes popular rap artist-turned-actor Cliff "Method Man" Smith as Freddy P., a Harlem club owner whom Shaft can always count on to know what's going down on the streets; and veteran actor Titus Welliver as JJ's boss, FBI Special Agent Vietti, who is quickly losing patience with his rookie data analyst. Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones and Aaron Dominguez, respectively, play Major Gary Cutworth, Sergeant Keith Williams and Staff Sergeant Eddie Dominguez, three Army buddies of Karim, who joined forces with him to form a rehab center for returning vets. Avan Jogia appears as Karim Hassan, whose death becomes a catalyst for the story. Rounding out the main ensemble, Luna Lauren VĂ©lez plays Bennie Rodriguez, the owner of a neighborhood market, who is dealing in more than groceries, and Isaach de Bankole is seen as Shaft's longtime nemesis, drug kingpin Pierro "Gordito" Carrera.

Davis says, "The combination of actors we put together in this movie met a standard of excellence that was set by Tim. Everyone brought something special to the table."

ACTION BEATS

Action is the hallmark of any "Shaft" feature and Tim Story says he worked closely with his cast, stunt team and production teams "to create some fun action sequences that always had a 'Shaft' slant to them."

Jackson adds, "There is a level of danger that goes with being John Shaft and a level of high adventure that goes with being a 'Shaft' movie."

Story teamed with stunt coordinator Steve Ritzi, production designer Wynn Thomas and cinematographer Larry Blanford to choreograph and then capture the action scenes within the parameters of the sets and locations. Ritzi expounds, "It obviously started with Tim's vision and then talking with Wynn about the design of the sets, because parts of the space had to be purposely built for our stunts-more portable pieces that we could crash through, blow up, shoot up and replace as we go."

Interestingly, there was only one major fight scene involving hand-to-hand combat and it belonged to Usher's JJ. When Shaft takes his son to a Harlem club to blow off some steam, a reluctant JJ finally begins to get his groove on, plied by alcohol and the coaxing of two sexy ladies. Unfortunately, the large, hard-bodied boyfriend of one of the women is unamused, but he is also unprepared for the beatdown he is about to unleash from JJ.

Usher has had extensive martial arts experience, but for "Shaft," he had to learn a new discipline called Capoeira. "My dad is a martial artist so I've practiced a few different styles for as long as I can remember-none of them being Capoeira, by the way," he wryly concedes. "It's not like anything I've ever done; you work entirely different muscles. I was sore every single day. It was a lot of hard work just to get the basics down and make it look effortless and natural."

The actor trained for several months with Capoeira instructor Nito Larioza, who says, "Even though Jessie has a martial arts background, Capoeira is more fluid, so I had to break that rhythm, make him more relaxed, feel the vibe of it. I would tell him, 'Make it smooth, brother.' And after only a couple of sessions, he got it down. It was amazing because we didn't even need a stunt double. He did everything himself and the director loved it. At the end of the day, he killed it."

One of the biggest action sequences involved the climactic showdown in a penthouse, where Story wanted to pay homage to the first "Shaft." "The penthouse scene is our biggest set piece," the director notes. "One of the reasons it was chosen for that sequence is there is an unforgettable move that Richard Roundtree did in the first 'Shaft,' which we had the opportunity to times by three. You've got all of the Shafts smashing through the windows...except JJ's attempt doesn't work out as well. That is kind of to show that he's got a little ways to go before he's got his full-fledged Shaft card, so to speak," he laughs.

ON LOCATION

"Shaft is kind of the king of Harlem," Story asserts, "so from day one I knew there was no way we could do this movie without being in New York, even just to capture him walking down the streets and see him in the element of Harlem. There's no place like it."

A few exteriors were shot on location in Harlem, including the exterior of the famous Amsterdam News building, where John Shaft's office is located.

For the interior, built on a soundstage, Wynn Thomas details, "The thought was that he has been in this space for over 20 years and the furnishings haven't changed since the 1990s. It's not contemporary in any way and is reflective of the character, who is a little out of touch with many things going on around him."

By contrast, JJ lives in a modern loft apartment with-as his father predicts-an exposed brick wall, and it's as sparse as Shaft's office is cluttered. Set decorator Missy Parker offers, "His apartment is minimal, very neat and orderly. His furniture is meant to give the feeling that he went to Ikea or Crate & Barrel and just bought a full set, so he didn't have to think about how things went together."

Shaft Sr.'s brownstone apartment "was dressed with 1970s furniture and lighting fixtures from that time period," Thomas describes. "The story point is that here is someone who enjoyed his life in the '70s and just hasn't updated his space very much."

Just as Thomas designed the domains of the three Shaft men to mirror their diverse tastes, costume designer Olivia Miles took a similar approach in creating their wardrobe. "The three Shaft men look completely different," she confirms. "They each go their own way in their styles. Tim and I discussed early on about steering clear of the all-black look, except for Shaft, Sr., who gets to wear black as a tribute to his original role.

"JJ is just starting out," Miles continues, "so we made his clothes a little bit collegiate and slightly trendy. But as he spends more time with his father, he starts to shed his boyish layers and adopt some of the Shaft fashion traditions."

For John Shaft, the costume designer offers, "I really went to town on his jackets. He has about 15 different leather coats, including five long dusters and several blazers, all in rich, deep colors. The classic Shaft duster has the classic silhouette and we went with a rust suede for a pop of color. But the thing probably weighed 20 or 25 pounds. I could barely lift it."

The weight didn't bother Jackson, who reveals that the coat only added to the persona of his role. "I put it on and started walking in it, and I felt taller...I felt tougher. When you're walking down the street and the cars are parting for you, it's kind of great."

John Davis comments, "It's funny, because the things I remember most from seeing the first 'Shaft' as a kid, besides Richard, are the cool leather jackets and, of course, the music."

Music has always played a key role in the "Shaft" films, beginning with the instantly recognizable theme from the first film. In 1972, Isaac Hayes became the first African-American composer ever to win an Academy Award, for the title song, and was also Oscar-nominated for the score. Davis adds, "Isaac Hayes' score was energetic, it was techno and it captured my imagination. We had the benefit of his son, Isaac Hayes III, who opened up the vaults and gave us access to his dad's music, some of which has never been heard."

The film features a collection of songs spanning different eras, selected by music supervisors Dave Jordan and Trygge Toven to represent the three Shaft generations. Composer Christopher Lennertz also incorporated parts of Hayes' classic theme in the score for the film. Tim Story reflects, "To start off a movie having an iconic musical theme built in was like getting a head start. As soon as you hear it, your whole posture changes. You know the hero is coming."

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