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
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
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
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
wanted to be."
In developing the film, producer John Davis says they wanted to honor that
taking the franchise into the 21st century. "The idea of bringing together three
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"It's almost an odd couple thing," Barris observes. "It really plays into a
politically correct notion of what manhood is today versus the '70s 'I'm bad'
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
"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
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
unabashedly says what he wants without regret, even though it might not be
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
"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
Twentysomething JJ, on the other hand, is understandably appalled by Shaft's
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.
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
Determined to find out the truth, "JJ begins investigating on his own," Story
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
could be the same deadly forces that bring this father and son back together.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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.
we took a lot of time to talk about JJ-where he's come from, where he's going,
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
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.
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,"
That protective streak notwithstanding, Maya does still care for Shaft and the
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
there is no denying "there's still that magnetism that draws them together,"
"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
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
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
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
something deeper breaking to the surface, though neither is sure how to make the
if they even want to. Shipp explains, "They have the kind of relationship where
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.
"Playing Shaft is like riding a bike for me, it just comes naturally. It's in
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
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
castmates. Hall affirms, "The character of Shaft created a legacy. The name
everything that was masculine and powerful and dangerous, and that was Richard
was a sex symbol, too. You know what I mean-the way he walked, his swagger...which
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
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
respectively, play Major Gary Cutworth, Sergeant Keith Williams and Staff
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
excellence that was set by Tim. Everyone brought something special to the
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
cinematographer Larry Blanford to choreograph and then capture the action scenes
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
The weight didn't bother Jackson, who reveals that the coat only added to the
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
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
recognizable theme from the first film. In 1972, Isaac Hayes became the first
composer ever to win an Academy Award, for the title song, and was also
the score. Davis adds, "Isaac Hayes' score was energetic, it was techno and it
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
supervisors Dave Jordan and Trygge Toven to represent the three Shaft
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
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