Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “ATL”
I have to admit, I’m a little late to the ATL train. In fact, I just watched the movie last week. And I dug it. I can see why it has the mini cult following that it does. It’s a cute, little movie– which surprisingly took only 45 days to shoot in the summer of 2005. So here we are, getting ready to dive into the little known facts behind the film, produced, in conjunction with T-Boz and Dallas Austin, by Will Smith’s company Overbrook. Let’s dive in.
Rashad and New-New/Dallas and T-Boz
You may know that the story behind ATL is based on the lives of Dallas Austin and T-Boz and their experiences around the time they were in high school kicking it at the rink on the south side of Atlanta. The only difference is that T-Boz and Dallas were never romantically involved. An escape from the madness of the outside world, the skating rink was the place for teens who weren’t quite old enough for the club scene. It ended up being a breeding ground for talent as people like OutKast, Jermaine Dupri, Little Jon, Trillville and of course TLC.
In an interview with MadeinAtlantis.com, T-Boz said that that skating rink influenced the trajectory of her work. “I’ve made a whole career out of what I learned going to Jellybeans every Sunday night.”
It was such an important part of her life, her mother would punish her by forbidding her from going to the rink. “Yes, I’m the New-New of the movie. But unlike New-New, my mom supported me going to the skating rink. If I did something bad, my punishment was that I didn’t get to go- and I’d just die twice. Of course, Mom didn’t know that I’d sneak out the window and go anyway.”
Antwone Fisher was no one trick pony. After he had success with his own autobiographical, eponymous film, he continued writing and is actually the man behind the story for ATL. He conceptualized the story but the actual screenplay was written by a woman named Tina Gordon Chism. If her name looks familiar, that’s because she was also the screenwriter for Drumline and the director for the recently released Peeples with Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson and David Alan Grier.
Chris Robinson, the highly regarded music video director, who has worked with high profile artists like Jay Z, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, and Usher is the man Dallas Austin tapped to direct this film. Austin figured that since Robinson was used to shooting with music as a focal point, he’d be able to do this movie justice. And even though Dallas had faith in him, Robinson wanted to do some more research, so he traveled to Atlanta, visited Dallas’ house, met his mother and observed the culture.
Chris Robinson on T.I.
Just as Robinson had worked with other artists, he managed to cross paths with T.I. Four years before ATL was released, Robinson directed T.I.’s first video and was impressed by the southern rapper’s steez. It was this impression that made him want to work with T.I. and even suggest his name for this film. “He had a crazy charisma and so much presence. But on this film he came to the table, worked so hard and never tried to be T.I. – he became Rashad. Over a three-month period he turned down huge opportunities to do shows paying lots of money to do this project. He totally dedicated himself to making this film.”
T.I. explains how he got the role
It would be fair to say that his position in the industry and the access he had to certain people helped him to land this role. In an interview he explained how he put in work, lobbying for the film.
“I heard about it and had caught wind of the project a long, long time ago. I read for ‘Drumline’ when Dallas did ‘Drumline.’ I just told him, ‘Next time you do a movie I need to be a part of it’. He told me when they were doing casting and then I found out Chris [Robinson, the director] was involved. I knew Chris from doing videos and I hit it from that angle. Then I found out Will [Smith] was involved so I hit them.”
Diana Ross on set
You already know that Evan Ross is in this movie, his first movie actually. So it doesn’t really come as too much of a surprise that his mother, Diana Ross, showed up a couple of times on set. And apparently, she was there to stunt or be a diva. She was there on Mommy mode, checking to see how her son was being treated on set. According to Evan, she took issue with one of the scenes.
“It actually was the day we were fighting. You know what? She was being such a mom. She met everybody and was really just there to be there. She had missed me because I’m usually always with her. I had been away for a while. She sat in on the set. It was actually during the scene where me and T.I. fight. You know that scene where he’s pushing me, hitting me in the head? My mom was like, ‘Come here.’ After I’d come over there she’d be like, ‘He’s hitting you in the ear? Don’t let him hit you in the ear.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s fine.’ She had this guy Tony who was with me on set. She’d be like, ‘Go [ask] him if he’s OK.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, I gotta keep my rep.’”
T.I. on working with Evan
But it turns out having a protective mom didn’t do too much to diminish him in the eyes of his costars. In fact, T.I. said that during the course of shooting, art imitated life and he began to regard Evan as a little brother figure in real life. “Evan’s a cool kid. I felt like a big brother to everybody. I felt it was my watch. I felt like if anything happened or something needed to be taken care of, I felt responsible to do it because I was the only one who was really from there and this is about my character. I guess you could say I took my character home with me and kept taking care of them even after we shot.”
Jellybeans and Cascade
If you look at T-Boz’ very early interviews regarding the film, you may hear her calling the project “Jellybeans.” That’s because that was the original name of the skating rink in Atlanta. They were even planning on filming there. But the rink, which was poppin’ in the ’80’s had been shut down. And instead they had to find another location. Which is how they discovered Cascade. Before they even got into the building, the full parking lot let them know that the energy was what they were looking for. Production designer Robb Buono explained, in the film’s production notes, how he and Chris Robinson discovered the place.
“Chris and I had been to several other rinks. We got to Cascade about 10:30pm. There were cars parked all along the highway, the parking lots were full and the gas station across the street was full. We had to park about two blocks away and walk in, and there’s such a scene, such energy outside. We’re just in awe. Then we went inside and the energy was even greater.”
So to fix it, Buono made the colors red and black to convey intensity and make the rink feel larger than life.
Contrary, to what the film would have you believe, everybody in Atlanta doesn’t know how to skate all that well. T.I., who’s a native struggled himself. And so, three months before filming even started the cast was in intense practice making sure they looked official on skates. They had two practices a day. One from 9:00- 11:00 am, they took a break and then rehearsed again from 3:00-6:00pm. The women of the film were able to catch on quickly, while the men struggled. Their skate captain, Vaughn Newton, said that everybody was a good student and was supportive in helping their cast members. Here’s what T.I. had to say about learning: “I can’t say that I was a skater,” says Harris. “I did go to the skating rink but I didn’t do moves or special routines and I didn’t have a skate crew, so I wasn’t really a skater, but what I didn’t have in skill, I made up for in heart,” he confides. “No time out.”
The film cost $20 million to make. And during it’s opening weekend in the US, it grossed $11,554,404. A month later, in May, it had earned $21,160,089, allowing it to cover the initial budget.
Are you trying to find out what happened to Rashad and New-New? Did she find her a Morehouse man across the street and end up breaking up with Rashad? Did Ant stay on the straight and narrow and leave the drugs alone? What did Esquire make of himself? Did Brooklyn ever learn to hold down a job? Personally, I’d like to know and I’m sure people would bum rush the theater to check it out. That’s why people were so crunk this past summer when Robinson, posted this picture on his Instagram page.
And he included the caption, “Spring 2014.” I can’t tell if Robinson was just posting this image to get people talking and gauge interest or if there really is a movie in the works. Looks like we’ll have to wait and see.