Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind the Making of “Waiting to Exhale”

July 16, 2012  |  
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When Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale sat on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 38 straight weeks in 1992, it was only natural that the studios would want to capitalize on some of those potential earnings. So, just three years later, in 1995, Fox Studios brought us Waiting to Exhale a star-studded, female-led film. As expected, the film was a huge box office success, eventually raking in $67.5 million. Though some critics claimed these women’s problems weren’t that drastic, it was an instant hit and an eventual classic among the black community.

Close Casting Calls

It’s only natural that all the hot black actresses of the day would want to be a part of this potentially awesome film. Actresses Halle Berry and Robin Givens both auditioned for the role of “Robin.” But Forest Whitaker decided that after he’d cast big names like Whitney Houston and Angela Basset, he wanted to go for lesser-known actresses. Which is where Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon came in. (Even though Loretta was already well-known in her own right for her role as Lorrell Robinson in Dreamgirls.)

Earlier, when Bassett was filming Malcolm X, she met Terry McMillan. McMillan told Bassett that she wanted her for the lead role of “Savannah” but Angela said she preferred Bernadine, claiming she was drawn to the character. Good thing. Only someone with Bassett’s skills could portray Bernadine properly.

Forrest as a Director

Despite his limited experience, (This was Whitaker’s first feature film.), producers and screenwriters all agreed they wanted Whitaker to take on this project. It turned out to be a great choice. All the cast members and Terry McMillan have expressed their fondness and appreciation for him. The year the movie was released, Angela Bassett told the LA Times that she and Whitaker understood each other.

“We speak the same language, Forest and I. He was like my third eye, which was what you like to have backing you up. He kept me honest and focused at the same time.”

And Lela Rochon said that Whitaker helped her prepare for her scenes by playing DJ. He would ask her what songs would help to best put her in the right frame of mind for her upcoming scenes and play them right before he yelled action.

Was there drama on the set ?

With so much female star power in one film, naturally, the media ran with the idea that these women couldn’t get along. But according to the cast members that couldn’t have been further from the truth. You saw the kind words and the very real, visible emotion they displayed during the Whitney Houston tribute at this year’s BET awards. But before all of that, Whitney and the other cast members described the bond they developed before they even started shooting. According to Whitney, the cast members met, had champagne and talked and laughed until 6 in the morning. She went on to say that, “These three ladies have become friends of mine. And I know that  from here on out, at least once a year, we’ll get together to exhale. I know that.”

Working with Whitney?

Her cast members shared those same warm feelings for Whitney. When asked if they were initially apprehensive about working with a star this is what each of the ladies had to say. You canread the transcript or watch the video below:

Lela Rochon: “I loved her! I was a Whitney Houston fan, actually. I loved her in The Bodyguard . I saw it three times and I thought ‘God what a wonderful project that’ll open the doors for me one day.’”

Loretta Devine: “I was really glad that she got it because I felt like, all the people that come to see her,  are gonna get to see me. And if it were the other way around, she’d be in trouble.”

Reporter : Were you at all reluctant to work with Whitney?..

Angela Bassett: Not at all. Why would I be? Oh no, I’m sorry, go ahead.

Reporter: Were you fearful that her fame would eclipse that in anyway?

Angela Bassett: “Not at all. I thought, here’s this woman, as hard as it is for a black girl to make it in this world, she’s a superstar all over the world.”

The Soundtrack

Forest Whitaker decided to work with Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds before shooting for the film had even begun. They talked about the direction they wanted to go because they wanted the soundtrack to make sense to the film. So Babyface wrote the music to actual scenes in the film. He wrote all the songs first and then decided which artists were going to perform them. He later decided, with input from Whitney, that all of the artists would be and should be women, to keep up with the theme of the movie.

McMillan on the film

Terry had a large hand in the actual production of the film. She told Ebony that they wanted to keep the production as black as possible. And with 70 percent of the crew being black, you could say they accomplished that. As far as the cast, McMillan was partial to Loretta Devine, saying that she was the most natural. In that same Ebony article, at the end of the day this is what she said she wanted audiences to take from the movie:

“Black women “love and care for Black men,” and that they are not always jealous and envious of each other. “We really are supportive and have a sense of sisterhood, at least intelligent women do,” she says. “We all want to be loved and appreciated, without being taken advantage of. We want to know that someone’s got our back, because we want them [Black men] to know that we’ve got theirs.”

Male Bashing?

Many criticized the film, claiming it didn’t portray black men in the best light. While there were “negative” representations, Houston said that it wasn’t male bashing it was portraying men the way women had experienced them and known them to be. McMillan’s words were a bit stronger. She claimed that the book and the subsequent movie are “forms of entertainment, not anthropological studies,” and her male critics “need to go march again, stop being so immature and write their own books.” Whoop! You know Terry is not one to bite her tongue. But Loretta Devine also pointed out that the women in the film aren’t portrayed in the most glowing light either considering some of the horrible choices they make when it comes to men.

Sequel will go on without Whitney

Loretta, Angela and Terry McMillan have all been saying for months that a sequel, starring the original cast, had been set in motion. Bassett claimed, before her passing, that Whitney was on board for the project. Now that Whitney and Gregory Hines are both gone, Fox has announced that the project will still go forward. Fox 2000 Pictures president, Elizabeth Gabler said she doesn’t believe Whitney would want them to abandon the sequel.

“I don’t think she would want it to [cease]. It’s almost in her honor that we think to soldier on.”

Gabler also spoke about Whitney’s replacement.

“We literally have not talked about anybody for that part. Forest, I know, is just…grieving. He’d been the one who was speaking with her, updating [Houston] on its progress.”

At one point or another Oprah’s name was mentioned. Eek! Though Oprah can certainly act, I can’t imagine what role she’d play in the film. Either way, I’d still be down to see a sequel and I hope it comes together. What about you? Are you ready for Waiting to Exhale part two?

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