Teenagers have always been perceived as only acting in their own best interest, and what immediately will be most beneficial to them. However, the new comedy ‘We the Party’ shows that teens can succeed in whatever they put their minds to. The film, which was written and directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also stars in the movie, ultimately helps prove the idea that teens can mature and overcome any obstacle that gets in their way.
“We the Party” takes a contemporary look at the struggles and coming of age of the first generation of high school students affected by the Obama administration. Set against the latest trends in music, dance and fashion in an ethnically diverse Los Angeles school, the comedy follows five friends, including Hendrix Sutton (played by Mandela Van Peebles), as they struggle with romance and money.
While Hendrix is concerned about making money to buy a car and impressing the older Cheyenne Davis (portrayed by Simone Battle), his father (portrayed by writer-director Mario Van Peebles), who is also one of his teachers, wants him to improve his grades. Hendrix is caught between impressing his peers and pleasing his father, and must decide which road he wants to pursue.
Mario generously took the time to speak over the phone about what inspired him to write and direct “We the Party.” The filmmaker also discussed why he enjoys working with his children and father, and why he thinks it’s important to feature contemporary issues plaguing society in movies.
Question (Q): ‘We The Party’ is a hip-hop infused dramedy about the first generation of high schoolers to come of age during the Obama years. What was your inspiration in chronicling the struggles of modern day society through the eyes of the current high school generation, against the latest trends in music, dance and fashion?
Mario Van Peebles (MVP): Well, the big inspiration was my five teenagers. (laughs) I have three boys and two girls, all going through various stages of teenagedom. I felt like I was taking a crash course in it.
I wound up going out with them. They wanted to go to parties and all-age clubs, and my response was heck no, you can’t go without me. We went back and forth, and finally one son said how about you go out with me, but not as my dad? You go out with us as our bouncer, as our friend. (laughs)
So I went out with them to the clubs. We heard all the bands playing, and heard all the rap groups. I saw what they were going through, and I started writing the movie. That became the basis for “We the Party.”
Q: Speaking of your children, you cast several of them in “We The Party,” including your son, Mandela, who plays the main character, Hendrix. What is your motivation in working with your family on your films, and how did you come to decide that Mandela would be the right choice to cast as Hendrix?
MVP: Part of it is when I direct shows like ‘Boss,’ ‘Damages’ or ‘Lost,’ when you direct a series, it’s almost like you know the characters well. You’re putting them in new situations, and seeing them grow and evolve in different places. I felt like I grew up with my kids, and I knew them well, and I could really write their voices well. They’ve been acting with me since they were kids.
I saw their friends, and Snoop Dogg’s sons and P. Diddy’s son. It felt organic, because I knew their voices so well. So a lot of the characters and the things that happen in ‘We the Party’ are inspired by them. So I think that was a big part of it.
For example, my one son was studying with a girl who was a 4.0 student. They were studying over Skype, and that’s in the movie. He’s on the debate team, and he’s very, very bright. They nicknamed him Obama, and that’s in the movie. My oldest daughter’s a big drama queen, and knows all that’s happening socially. So that was in the movie.
A lot of things in the movie are based on things they did. That’s what made it so much fun, and made it feel so authentic, and their voices are real. I really worked on getting their real voices.
Q: “We The Party” features up-and-coming actors in the majority of its main cast. Do you feel that hiring actors who are truly teenagers, who audiences may not be familiar with, helps bring an authenticity to the film?
MVP: Yeah, I did. They’re not carrying anything else with them into it, any other baggage, into it for the audience and themselves. Then you get kids like Moises Arias, who was on ‘Hannah Montana’ for years, and Orlando Brown from “That’s So Raven.” But a lot of new faces as well, and mixing it up.
Then not being afraid of the context of ‘We the Party,’ to continue a conversation with a young audience that society’s already started. Society’s already bombarding them with hyper-materialism and hyper-sexuality.
Let them know in the context of the movie, as their teacher, that you probably won’t be able to buy your self-esteem at the mall. You probably won’t get a real sense of self from new rims or that fly car that society’s convincing you that you need. Real secure people, like Gandhi or Mother Teresa and Malcolm and Martin were probably not appreciated for what they owned or bought, but what they stood for, and sometimes even died for.
“We the Party” has the music and the stuff that teens are going through. Some of the things they’re going through are legitimately big things. From social networking to bullying, I didn’t want to shy away from any of those realities, either.
Q: Besides the up-and-coming actors, “We The Party” features several well-known stars as well, including Snoop Dogg. What was the working relationship between the cast like, and did the more experienced actors provide advice to the younger cast?
MVP: It was interesting. Snoop is a cool dad; on the one hand, like me, there’s the friend dynamic. Snoop and his son in the movie and me and my kids in the movie and P. Diddy’s son in the movie, and having the families around, there was a good energy between the generations. Giving them their voice and letting them be themselves and who they are.
I was inspired by movies like “16 Candles,” “Stand and Deliver” and “House Party,” of course. Those were all movies that were rated R. Kids don’t really talk PG when we’re not around. So “We the Party” has a heart. It’s made with love, and I think you can feel that. The movie is real enough that it’s rated R, like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was and “Animal House” was and the original “Fame” was and “Risky Business” was.
So part of it was accepting making a movie how you want it to be and how they really are. I think Snoop, like me, accepts his kids, and sees the beauty in his kids. He’s there for them, and they can be themselves around him.
I’m sure my kids still do stuff when I’m not around, but by and large I think they can be themselves. I was making a movie saying who you are is worth caring about, is worth making a movie on. I love you, be yourself and let’s see what happens.
Q: Besides directing the film, you also appear in “We The Party” as Mr. Sutton. Why did you decide to appear in the movie, and how did you balance your duties as the director with your acting duties?
MVP: It felt natural, because I am Mandela’s dad, to play his dad. I also wanted to have a real ease in his shorthand and love, which we have. I guess I had that dynamic growing up with my dad. I’ve gotten to work with him, I’ve directed him in lots of different pictures, and he’s directed me.
In fact, the other day, Mandela was directing me in a short that he’s working on, called “Flipped.” They had me acting the movie for free. After they wrapped me as an actor, they asked me to stay and be the boom sound man.
Someone said we’re like a dynasty. I said no, we’re more like a family farm. My dad’s on the porch with a fiddle, I’m with the tractor, my son’s in the field. It’s more like that, it’s very natural. When you grow up in an independent filmmaking family, you learn a little bit about editing and directing and sound. Even if you don’t work in the film industry, hopefully you’ll get a good work ethic.
Q: Your father, Melvin, is also a director, actor and writer. What is your working relationship with him like, and what is your working relationship with Mandela like?
MVP: Relatively easy. I get to be that connecting tissue between my father and son. It’s a real cool place to be. I’ve spent time learning from my dad, and pivoting around, and learning from my kids. You have to realize that your kids come through you sometimes, and not necessarily from you, and be okay with that, as I think my dad knows.
If he’s the director, he gets the final say as the director. If I’m the director, I do. We joke around, and he calls me the wanna-be that never will, and I call him the has-been that never was. We joke around a lot, and you get okay with it.
Q: Besides directing “We the Party,” you also wrote the script for the film. Do you feel that writing the movie helped in your directorial duties?
MVP: Absolutely. There’s a shorthand with it, I think. I know the characters, and I know their voices well, and I know when their voices ring true. There’s an ease with that. But I think besides getting the voice and the culture, and where these kids are, and taking a snapshot of it, I had to sculpt it into a narrative that makes sense, where the characters could grow and learn some life lessons that would be of value to them. They were the life lessons I learned from watching my kids and their friends growing up.
There was a shorthand in that, it felt easy to cross over with that. The actors knew they could come in and do it the way it was written. I would say Mandelafy it, and he would sculpt it around a little differently. He’d say, okay, I like that better. Then I could always pretend it was my idea later.
Q: Besides being a writer and director, you also have an extensive film and television acting career. Do you draw on your own acting experiences to help you as a filmmaker?
MVP: Oh yeah, all the time. Like right now, I’m going off to direct “Boss” with Kelsey Grammer. When you’re an actor and a director, it gives you a different bedside matter, because you’ve been going back and forth.
Not every actor comes from the same place. Every human being comes from a different place. It’s not just working with camera and lighting, it’s working with people. It’s about creating an environment where people are doing their best work. So I think that’s always a value. But I think it’s heightened by the factor that I’m a writer and director.
Like when I’m working with my kids, I can not only explain to them what I want, but also explain how to get there. Maybe not always the way that will work for them, but I can give them a way on how to get there
Q: Why do you feel it’s important to focus on the problems of contemporary society in films? Do you feel “We The Party” will serve as a catalyst for families with teenagers to discuss the problems they’re facing?
MVP: I think it’s not just the problems, it’s also a snapshot of where our generation is. A partial snapshot, the movie can’t be all things to all people. But if your film is based on reality, instead of mimicking art, art isn’t just mimicking art, but has some sort of foundation in reality, then you’ll often find the reality in your way to your art.
In the course of the movie, there’s a scene where my character tells the CC character, you’re wearing your hoodie, no one can see your eyes. They may want to pre-judge you, and may not judge you. You look at what happened with Trayvon Martin, who died in Florida. You’ve been informed by those real events. I’ve got two boys in the movie, 17-years-old, and the same color as Treyvon.
You see, like I tell my kids, whatever events unfold, they’re still obstacles out there. Having Jackie Robinson play baseball was great, but it didn’t mean baseball was integrated. Having Obama as president is terrific, but it doesn’t mean we’re post-racial. There’s still isms, sexism, classism, racism. Sometimes when you deal with real things, things happen over the course, and you go, wow, it’s weird that it’s being played out in the streets.
Q: You mentioned that you’re going to direct “Boss.” Do you have any upcoming films that you can discuss?
MVP: Well, “We the Party” was such a labor of love for me, and because it was an independent film, I produced it and paid myself a dollar to direct it, and ten dollars to write it. I just want to see how this plays out. If it does well, we’ll do more. I don’t know after this, exactly. I’m going to direct “Boss,” and several features in development. I hope whatever I do in the future I can have as much fun with.