Tyler Perry is nothing if not prolific. And busy. Already a wildly successful writer, producer, director and performer in film, television and theater, he added studio head to his résumé with the 2019 opening of the massive Tyler Perry Studios production complex in Atlanta. In 2021 he received an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for his charitable work.
When asked how many shows he currently has on the air, Perry said, “I try not to think too much about it. I think it’s six, five or six.”
His latest film, “A Jazzman’s Blues,” which premieres Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of a limited theatrical release on Sept. 16 and Netflix launch on Sept. 23, feels like something new from Perry. Based on the first screenplay he ever wrote, in 1995 and brought to the screen with collaborators including choreographer Debbie Allen and musician Terence Blanchard, the film is told with a scale and sweeping accomplishment that Perry has never before reached for.
Framed by a murder mystery plot in the 1980s, the film’s core story is set in the Deep South in the 1940s and follows two young Black lovers, Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer). Pulled apart by circumstances, they meet again years later when Bayou has become a successful singer in Chicago while Leanne is married and passing as white. A false accusation against Bayou threatens to tear apart both their lives.
Perry recently spoke to The Times from Atlanta in advance of his first film festival world premiere.
Can you talk about the backstory of “A Jazzman’s Blues”? It’s the first script you ever wrote, some 27 years ago. What brought you back to it now?
I always knew that I would do it at some point. I just never knew exactly when. My entire focus over the years was about success. As a Black filmmaker in Hollywood, especially in years past, you could not have a flop. And taking a chance on a period piece such as “Jazzman’s Blues” was really a risk. So I stuck with what I knew would work, which is all of my Madea, bigger, broader shows, the “Why Did I Get Married” shows. Because I wanted to build a brand and build the studio and build all of those things that I have now, and then I could return to “Jazzman” and other films that I’d love to write and produce as well.
From “Jazzman” forward, do you think you’re going to make whatever movies you want to make as opposed to what you think you should be making?
I just feel like I have the space to be able to tell stories like “Jazzman” and also, if I want to go back and tell a Madea story, do that as well. Because I will never abandon the audience that has brought me over to this place. And they are very clear about what they love and what they want. I think that they’re going to enjoy “Jazzman” just as much as they enjoy the others, but I won’t abandon all that I’ve built. I won’t do that.
It’s striking how much the themes and ideas of all your subsequent work are really present in “Jazzman.” It doesn’t feel like an old piece. Were you surprised by that when you came back to it?
What I loved about the story is just that the way it poured out of me and the way that the characters spoke to me in my head to be able to tell their story, and that’s what the focus was. And unfortunately what’s happening in the country right now, and this reimagining of the history of Black people in our country, I thought now is the time to do this story, to let people know that as it is for us now, it wasn’t always that way.
Tell me more about that aspect of the story in regards to things happening today, the way that people are understanding, or misunderstanding, Black history.
Well, just look at where we are politically, where everything is politicized. They’re banning books in libraries, and there’s certain stories that certain political figures don’t want told of the history of Black people. I even read somewhere where someone was saying, a politician, that slavery wasn’t that bad. I think it’s up to us who have a platform and abilities to be able to tell stories and write stories, to make sure that these truths don’t go by the wayside.
In going back to the script, were you surprised at all by your younger self? Were you shocked by how fully formed you were as an artist at that time?
Let me find the best way to answer that. It’s always been difficult to have people critique and tear apart my works of the past when I was very specific in what I was doing. So having “Jazzman” was something I always knew that I had, and I have more stories like that. I always knew it was there. So it was always very much, “One day I’ll be able to tell this story and hopefully people will understand that I have different sides that can tell different kinds of stories and even interpret them in different ways.” But again, for these last few years, it’s only been about the business.
You have such an idiosyncratic way of telling stories — you don’t follow conventional screenwriting rules. Is your way of telling stories just intuitive to you, or how did you find your own rules of storytelling?
There are many people who have followed the rules of storytelling, but just like life, the rules are all over the place. I’ve never succumbed to following anyone’s rules on the way that I wanted to tell a story. It just comes through me in the way that I want it told. It’s the same for a [musical] artist: There’s songs that have been sung hundreds of thousands of times by different artists, and they all have a very different interpretation. So I think that in filmmaking, the filmmakers should have the ability and the right to be able to just go for whatever story they want to tell the way they want to tell it, rather than having to be burdened by the rules of storytelling.
In the story of “A Jazzman’s Blues,” there’s so much happening — there’s a nod to Emmett Till, it grapples with the notion of white passing, it deals with addiction, it deals with Northern migration. What is it that compels you to have so much in there? Is there ever a concern that there’s too much story in the story?
Again, I look at my own life, just being Black in America. I sit in a room with three other family members of mine and all of those things you just mentioned could be represented in one dinner conversation. So I never felt like it was a story. I felt like each character had something they wanted to say in a way they wanted to say it. And I allowed them to express themselves, I just let them all tell their stories the way they wanted it to be told.
If you had made this film when you wrote it 27 years ago, how do you think it would be different?
Casting-wise, I wanted to play Bayou. I wanted Will Smith to play Willie Earl. I wanted Halle Berry as Leanne, I had a whole cast idea. I wanted Diana Ross as our mother. That’s the actual casting difference, but as far as me as a filmmaker, I think it took this time for me to learn and cut my teeth and completely understand what it all meant. Because for me, directing came as a necessity rather than something that I enjoyed. And this I really enjoyed.
I’m interested in that idea that at first you were directing because you felt you had to.
Well, the very thought of my first movie — I had hired another director and I just did not understand the waste, because I was also writing the checks as producer. I did not understand the waste, did not understand the time it was taking. And I didn’t understand the sitting around contemplating what the next step is when all of that should have been done before we got to set. So it was quite frustrating for me.
However, understanding that, I was able to streamline a lot in television and how that all works. And in filmmaking, getting to this process and looking and focusing on each shot and the beauty and the light and the lens and all of those things were really inspiring and helped me to enjoy it much more. As well, working with David Fincher and Ben Affleck and understanding a lot more on “Gone Girl.” I learned so much on “Gone Girl.”
This will be your first film to play at the Toronto Film Festival and, if I’m correct, this is the first time any of your films have played at a major film festival. What made you want to bring this film to a festival?
Actually having people see it and them saying to me, “No, no, Tyler, here’s the way we need to take this. Here’s the way we need to roll it out,” because there are people who know this world much better than I do. I can count on one hand the film festivals I’ve actually been to, it’s never been something that I’ve done. So to see this happening, I’m pretty intrigued and inspired.
What are your expectations? What are you hoping to get from the experience of going there?
More than anything, and this is the honest to God’s truth, I want to see the faces of these kids — I call them kids, even though I’m not that much older — Joshua Boone and Austin [Scott] and Solea [Pfeiffer]. And I want to see them in this space and what that means for them. At this point in my life, it’s things like that that get me up in the morning. What would this mean for someone else? So to see that for them would really, really be great. The expectations I have — I’m hoping that people enjoy it for what it is. And that’s it.
Your movies typically don’t screen in advance for critics, and part of the festival experience is presenting your work to critics as well as audiences. Is the respect or attention of film critics something that you want at this point in your career?
This is all very, very new to me, festivals, how it works. I’m hoping I don’t make a bunch of mistakes to say the wrong thing. I’ve been talking to people about how to do this. So it’s completely new to me and I don’t want to be offensive or out of sorts. So I’m just trying to make sure that I’m respectful inside of it, because yes, it is something very different than what I’m used to. And I’m not after anything other than, “Here’s something that I’ve done that’s different.” And I’d love for people to give it a chance and see what it is.
You mentioned “Gone Girl” and David Fincher and Ben Affleck. You were also more recently in “Don’t Look Up.” Would you like to do more acting for other filmmakers?
If you noticed a lot of those, I’m not in the film a whole lot, and that’s simply ’cause it’s about the timing, how much time would it need to do it? I’d love to do more, but it’s about the amount of time that it will require for me. I am running a studio and all the TV shows are on the air. So that’s what it boils down to.
And would you like to do more acting even in your own projects? The Madea movies aside, you haven’t had like a starring role in one of your own films in quite some time.
It depends on something that’s going to excite me. I haven’t had anything that excites me as an actor for a long time. It’s got to be something that really, really challenged me, that makes me want to push all buttons, and I haven’t written anything like that for myself. I wonder why — that’s a good question. That’s a really good question, “Why haven’t you written anything for yourself?” I don’t know, but if I do, you’ll be the first to know.