Spring 2014

The Whole Story

After the early success of Barbershop and Fantastic Four, Tim Story has experienced the ups and down of a director’s life. Now with Ride Along and Think Like a Man Too, his career is on the rebound.


Tim Story 


Tim Story always had rules. He started making them when he set his sights on directing movies as a teenager—and while the rules changed over time, and sometimes he didn’t actually follow them, they laid out the path for a kid who knew where he wanted to go and was searching for a way to get there. Some rules were designed to get his career moving forward (double your budget with each new movie), others to remind him of his creative priorities (don’t take an assignment just for the money), and another, one of the first he hit upon, was designed to send a message to himself and to others: Never take a job in Hollywood other than directing.

“Early on, I did a couple smaller jobs in the industry,” says Story, “and I quickly realized, ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to direct.’ If you’re going to be a director, never get a [different] job. I’m not saying that works for everybody, but it was a rule that I had. If somebody asks you what you do, you say, ‘I’m a director.’ ‘What have you directed?’ ‘Nothing. But I’m a director.’”

He shrugs. “I guess you might say I was a good pretender, until the dreams became reality.”

The reality for Story has been an intriguing one, and it’s reflected in the furnishings of his modest office in Playa del Rey, not far from where he grew up in Los Angeles. On the walls are posters of the hit urban comedy Barbershop (2002), with which he made his name, and his follow-up, the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon vehicle Taxi (2004). But the shelves also contain a number of maquettes prepared by the visual effects department of his two big-budget Fantastic Four films (Fantastic Four in 2005 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer in 2007), which made him the first African-American director to take the reins of a superhero movie. Then there are posters of the comedies Think Like a Man (2012) and Ride Along (2014), which helped him escape from a post-Fantastic Four slump and led to upcoming sequels.

The decorations are testament to a hot-and-cold, back-and-forth career that has found Story swinging between the kind of movies Hollywood expects from African-American directors, and the kind they don’t: between raucous comedy and effects-laden action, and between the movies that made him, the one that almost wrecked him and the ones that brought him back.

“I know my career seems weird, and people wonder what I’ll do next,” he says. “But I find now that I love all these worlds. I love moments when it’s just an actor in a room with another actor, but I also love speeding cars and stuff blowing up, and at some point creature makeup and visual effects.” Story shrugs, “I guess we’ll see.”

Tim Story 
SERIOUSLY FUNNY: For Story, the challenge of directing the buddy film Ride Along, with Kevin Hart (center) and Ice Cube, was finding the right tone.

The wall to Story’s right sports the oldest artifact in the room: the 8 mm movie camera on which his brother used to shoot home movies, and on which Story began using at the age of 12, when his brother got bored of it. “When I look back, I always knew that I wanted to make movies,” he says, nodding toward the camera. “And now I think, wow, I’ve been doing this thing [professionally] for twenty-something years. I’ve been lucky in the sense that I didn’t grow up with anybody telling me that I couldn’t do something because of my race. In everything I’ve done, I never felt like race was part of the conversation.”

But Story admits that a handful of predecessors did help show him what was possible when he began shooting movies with his friends, or using his Star Wars and Lego figures to create his own versions of scenes he liked from the scripts he bought at the Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood. “Spike Lee and Robert Townsend were around,” he says. “I remember in late high school or early college, you could go to events where they spoke. They were the first guys I actually saw, and was able to say, ‘Wow, it is accessible in some way.’ I remember early on, Spike Lee would print books on exactly how he made his movies. I’d read those books cover to cover, and think, ‘Oh, so that’s how you do a movie.’”

Story briefly tried a career as a rapper, then went to The USC School of Cinematic Arts and focused on directing. When he saw a newspaper story in which Kevin Smith, who’d just made Clerks (1994), detailed exactly how he had made that $27,000 production, Story figured he could raise that much money. “I literally followed his story to a T,” he says. The result was an independent film called One of Us Tripped (1997), shot on 16 mm and made on a shoestring: “I had a crew of one, and if you weren’t in the scene, you held the mic.” The film cost $30,000 (which he considered going over budget) and ended up making most of the money back on a distribution deal.

His rule was to double the budget for each subsequent film, but the cost of his next film, The Firing Squad (1999), ballooned from the planned $60,000 to $200,000. “I tried to shoot on 35 mm this time, and it just got out of hand,” says Story, who began to direct music videos to pay off this debt. He worked with ’N Sync, R. Kelly, Tyrese and many others before leaving the field. “I remember it hit me one day,” he says. “I’d just bought a new car, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not supposed to be buying cars, I’m supposed to be preparing to make another movie.’ And from that day on, I started to calm the lifestyle down and put money away and try to figure out when I was gonna shoot another movie. I just stopped working in music videos. There was one crowning moment where I was supposed to do a music video and they needed me to rework something. I had a meeting on Barbershop that same week, so I literally said ‘no thanks’ to the video and started preparing for the Barbershop meeting.”

But while Story abandoned music videos to make Barbershop, that experience was an invaluable help. “With music videos, you always had to do these little stories in two days, sometimes one day,” he says. “We always had to make a lot of looks out of a three-wall set—there was never a fourth wall. Barbershop was shot in a little shop, and I remember people around me were freaking out, saying, ‘How are we going to keep it visually interesting?’ And I thought, this is simple. The fact that I get a fourth wall means I can turn the camera around. We’ll shoot from over there, and we’ll put the camera behind the mirror. Then let’s put the camera behind a chair. And here’s something else I learned in music videos: If you’re running out of time, shoot handheld. An endless amount of angles and images came to me, directly connected to music videos.”

Tim Story 
LINE READING: On Think Like a Man, which followed the romantic ups and down of four couples, Story rehearsed extensively to make sure his cast was on the same page.

Barbershop was successful, and Story went on to what a friend of his dubbed “the water tour”—an endless series of meetings with producers and studio executives in which he filled up his trunk with the water bottles he’d been given at each meeting. “I’d made this small black movie,” he says, “and given the way it was made, I guess people saw more than just an urban movie. I was being offered all types of movies, everything from romantic comedies to sci-fi.”

He took the action comedy Taxi because he wanted to work with Queen Latifah, who he’d met years earlier when Latifah’s best friend and Story’s sister were on the USC basketball team together. The film gave him an education in car chases and action scenes: “One of the biggest things you realize is that you don’t have to do everything,” he says. “You can direct the attitude of the action, the personality of the action, but there are professionals who do this, and they do it well.”

The blend of comedy and action in Taxi landed him Fantastic Four, based on the series of Marvel comics. He didn’t think about the historic nature of his assignment, but focused on the bigger budget and the extra layer of complexity caused by special effects. “With those types of big movies, you’re directing three movies,” he says. “There’s the movie you’re shooting, there’s the second-unit action stuff, and there’s the visual effects movie. You’ve got to learn how to deal with all of them.”

But at times, he admits, he accepted too much help. “The other thing I learned from those two Fantastic Four movies, is that sometimes you can be too lax on how much control you give to the visual effects team, or the production design team, or whoever. If you end up in situations and you’re not happy with certain things, it’s because you didn’t stay on top of them.”

In the aftermath of his two superhero movies, Story wanted to get back to actor-heavy character pieces. “Doing the big movies with the special effects—that’s not 100 percent what I set out to do,” he says. “I wanted to get back to what I knew was in my heart. I think as a filmmaker, there’s the bigness of Hollywood, but if you come from small, personal pieces, you want to get back to that at some point.”

His small, post-Fantastic Four movie was Hurricane Season (2009), which starred Forest Whitaker and Taraji P. Henson in the true story of a New Orleans basketball coach and his team in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Weinstein Company backed the movie, but then opted to scrap a theatrical rollout in favor of a direct-to-video release. “I think if released, it probably would have done fairly well,” Story says. “But it was caught up in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, and the Weinsteins decided it just wasn’t a movie they wanted to release.”

The result, he said, effectively stymied his career. “In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last film,” he says. “And there was a stigma: ‘He does movies that go straight to DVD.’ It hurt career-wise, and the one thing you have to do is just lick your wounds. But I knew, because I studied Hollywood’s past, that Hollywood loves a comeback story.”

Before he could enjoy a comeback, though, Story had to find a way to downsize. “My family was getting bigger, my wife was pregnant and we were losing value on our home, so you do start to stress out,” he said. “I got out of the big house that I had, we moved to a smaller home, and I tried to make it so I could create again. When you get caught up in doing projects to pay bills, you’re in trouble.”

Story did consider a few movies just for the money, but he didn’t get them. He told his longtime agents to find him the kind of film he knew he could do well: character-oriented films with comedy, whether urban or not. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to go out on any other stuff that’s just a pipe dream,’ and I told them: ‘Here’s what I’m looking for, this is what I know I can do, find me this.’ And they brought me Think Like a Man.

Tim Story 

Tim Story 
HANGIN' OUT: (top) Fantastic Four, with Jessica Alba, was the first superhero movie directed by an African-American; (bottom) Story shot Barbershop, with Ice Cube, mostly in one room.

He had to persuade producer William Packer that he could make a $12 million movie after doing two $100-million-plus ones, and then he worked with the film’s four couples—Terrence J and Regina Hall, Jerry Ferrara and Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy and Taraji P. Henson, and Romany Malco and Meagan Good—to make sure that everybody was on the same page. “I knew I had an all-star team when it came to ad-libbing,” he says. “But I had to focus on rehearsing with the couples, saying, ‘Here’s what I think your story is.’ I’ve learned to make sure that when you sit down to do a movie with an actor, you have to be telling the same story. If the actors are doing that, then you can let them go—and if they go too far, you can bring them back.”

Think Like a Man was an instant hit, grossing close to $100 million on its $12 million budget and immediately got Story out of the Hollywood limbo in which he’d been stuck since Hurricane Season. “It hurt, but you know you’re gonna get your ups and downs,” he says. “You just have to persist.” The success of Think Like a Man not only prompted a sequel, due this summer, but it also prompted Packer to come to Story with a cop movie called Ride Along: an action comedy and mismatched buddy picture. Story figured the buddy humor between Kevin Hart and Ice Cube was easy; the tone a little trickier.

“I never looked at it as a comedy,” Story says. “I always knew that I would use Kevin’s humor; the fact that Cube and Kevin were together, it would be funny. And the other part of my job was making sure the film always had kind of a serious tone. I knew that once you put those guys in that situation it would be funny, so I just had to make it so the jeopardy actually exists. It was a lot of me looking at movies like Midnight Run (1988) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984): if you take people like Eddie Murphy out of those situations, those are fairly dark movies. I pulled from other movies too, and tried to figure out the best way to give the actors moments where the stakes are high, but we’re still gonna laugh through it. That’s a tone I grew up with in those ’80s comedies, and don’t see a lot of anymore.”

And now Story has another rule: Don’t rush into anything. “I’m kind of allowing myself to relax for a second,” he says of his plans after Ride Along 2. “I’m doing two sequels in a row, so you want to see what else is out there. And the only way I’ve found you can do that is by not saying you’re booked. I know for a fact that there are some opportunties that I wasn’t able to get coming off Ride Along opening the way it did. So for a moment, I just want to stop and see what might come my way.

“What’s been fun about Think Like a Man, Ride Along, and now the two sequels, is that these are movies I want to make. It’s not me doing it to pay a bill.” He laughs. “Because, you know, now the bills are paid. I’m good.”

Director Profile

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