ComingSoon Visits the Set of Shaft!
In February of 2018 we visited the set of Shaft, the new action sequel/reboot of the classic franchise which is now playing in theaters everywhere. We got to speak to stars Samuel L. Jackson (star of the 2000 Shaft directed by the late John Singleton), Richard Roundtree (the original star of Gordon Parks’ 1971 classic Shaft, as well as 1972’s Shaft’s Big Score!, 1973’s Shaft in Africa, CBS’ Shaft TV series and the 2000 Shaft), Jessie T. Usher (Independence Day: Resurgence), Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix) and Regina Hall (Girls Trip), as well as the film’s director Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Think Like a Man, Ride Along).
In this updated version of the “black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” Usher plays JJ, aka John Shaft Jr., who is a cybersecurity expert with a degree from MIT. Much like the plot of Beverly Hills Cop, he’s trying to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death along with his childhood friend Sasha (Shipp). Unfortunately he’s going to need help from his estranged father John Shaft (Jackson), who agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. While JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather duster, there’s no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s professional and personal.
“The second version, what Sam did, was kind of an extension of what Richard created, who he was,” Usher told us. “When we meet JJ we see there’s a whole different take on what a Shaft can be. How he carries himself, how he speaks, how he walks, how he interacts with people. It’s vastly different. You see an entirely different type of Shaft living in a whole different world and those two Shafts eventually intertwine and then you get an evolved third generation Shaft!”
“This one’s pretty funny,” Jackson says of the difference between this one and the 2000 version. “I generally infuse my characters with some sort of sense of humor, but the other movie was essentially an action drama. This one’s more of an action comedy.”
“Sam is a piece of work,” says the legendary Roundtree, still going strong at age 76. “You can’t keep a straight face with him. He ad libs and just goes off on tangents.”
We got to see that tendency to ad lib at Nash Studio in Decatur when we visited the set on day 34 of a 43-day shoot. During one scene we saw shooting which we can’t entirely describe because it takes place at the end of the film, Shaft (Jackson) and his ex-girl/JJ’s mom Maya (Hall) are complimenting their son and his newfound manliness.
SHAFT: That’s my boy.
MAYA: That’s OUR boy. I pushed the little motherf**ker out.
SHAFT: I skeeted him in.
That last line was an ad lib that instigated Hall (and the rest of the crew) to corpse on camera, and the line would evolve from that to “I pushed him in” to eventually “I shot him in.” We also witnessed a hilarious instance where Jackson was having his wire mic under his clothes adjusted by audio people, causing him to say in quintessential Sam Jackson fashion, “What the f**k can y’all not hear? I SPEAK LOUDLY!” Once Sam starts doing his dialogue in close-up it becomes funnier and more emotional as he does it.
SHAFT: Can I get one of those? [a kiss]
MAYA: Not ’til you get tested.
SHAFT: Tested for what?
MAYA: All the s**t you picked up in the last week.
SHAFT: Girl you ain’t kissin’ that, you kissin’ this.
Once we saw some of this filming, production designer Wynn Thomas (Do the Right Thing, Analyze This, Hidden Figures) showed us around his sets. This included Richard Roundtree’s apartment in Harlem, which has a retro 70’s chill vibe, and then a whole separate room full of guns. Sam Jackson’s Harlem office is a bit in shambles. His Shaft has fallen on hard times, but he still has a fancy bar with leopard walls in his closet. A huge penthouse apartment set, the lair of bad guy Pierro ‘Gordito’ Carrera (Isaach De Bankolé), is designed for action. Our three generations of Shaft heroes come through big windows. The glass is in them at this point, but when they eventually swing in on ropes they will remove it and add it in later digitally. The reason they can’t use candy glass is they don’t build candy glass that big. There are no real visual nods to the first one, as the production is taking a “that was then, this is now” approach to the material.
However, just because this Shaft is for a new generation doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten where they came from, as evidenced by Roundtree and his sage presence on set.
“A few years after the third Shaft I began to realize what Gordon Parks was doing,” Roundtree mused between takes. “I feel like I touched a lot on that character, and what was distilled from Gordon was his own personality. Gordon Parks has gotta be the coolest guy I’ve ever met. And classy and compassionate. I hope that’s what I bring to this character. It’s all a tribute to Gordon Parks. I’ve always maintained that I was very fortunate to be under the tutelage of Parks. Anything you can take away from those early movies, he stacked the deck that way. I can remember being in Bangkok, Thailand and going into the hotel and the elevator operator greets me, and turns around and says, ‘Mr. Shaft, I’ve watched all your movies.’ In Bangkok, Thailand! Wow.”
“When they asked me to do the last one I insisted that Richard be in the movie because I didn’t want the responsibility of being Richard Roundtree,” Jackson said respectfully of his predecessor, who played his uncle in the 2000 version but has now been retconned as his actual father and JJ’s grandfather. “Shaft is still Shaft. He’s the Shaft he used to be, and it was 2000 so I said I need to be able to create a Shaft for the new Millennium. He has to be present so people will know he’s still John Shaft. I’m the next Shaft, and now Jesse has to find his own way to become a Shaft.”
“I didn’t get much advice from Richard, but I did get some advice from Sam throughout the shoot,” explained Usher. “Sam has been very… Y’all know Sam. He’s outspoken, he’s boisterous, he’s got this big massive persona. It’s there all the time. Becoming a Shaft, I’m still figuring out pieces. What am I gonna bring from the traditional Shaft? What’s Tim gonna be doing with this new version. Sam has been there to help bridge the gap. He’s been telling me stuff since the first day of shooting, like… ‘Don’t f**k up!’ (laughs)”
“He’s a hero because he has an opportunity to foster his son AND to save his life in a life threatening situation,” said Jackson of his situation in this movie.” He’s getting an opportunity to re-enter his son’s life because he hasn’t had a chance to shape who he is. He’s having the chance to discover who his son is and what his responsibilities are as a father in terms of helping his kid to understand who he is. There’s a legacy. Like if you were Michael Jordan’s son and you wanted to be a basketball player. You better be good or don’t do it. Showing him what it means to be a part of this iconic family, which is what his mother has sheltered him from.”
“Shaft’s lifestyle is the problem,” added Hall of Maya’s predicament. “When they have a child and she becomes a mother they get shot at by like ten men, so she decides to raise the baby away from Shaft so the child is not in danger.”
Years after that opening scene, when Shaft and Maya reunite, the sparks are still there despite her understandable hostility towards him. “The only time he’s not in the power position is when he’s with Maya,” said Hall of Shaft. “He’s a man in love.”
The other love interest in the film is a nurse played by Shipp, whose platonic relationship with JJ flowers into something else as his character evolves throughout the story.
“When I got this job I took the chance to watch all of them over again,” said Shipp of entering into the franchise. “I watched Sam’s last one before my audition, and then when I got the job I rewatched Richard’s. I loved them, and I love the comparison because this movie is a different kind of Shaft. This new wave of Millennial generation movies is always about social media. What I love about this movie is it’s not about social media, it’s about how Millennials are woke. There’s a difference. Instead of calling someone ‘pussy’ he’s like, ‘Please don’t call my mom pussy.’ He can still have all the swag but he doesn’t have to be misogynistic and over-the-top, because that’s not what Millennials are like. So it’s really nice to see this new generation of Shaft come through.”
“What was great about the script was it brought Shaft into this domestic space where he’s now dealing with a kid and his ex-girl and his dad,” said the director Tim Story. “He’s dealing with all these domestic situations. When I read it the script had a fair amount of humor, but my kind of humor. I don’t really do slapstick, I do real world. Almost everything that happens in my movies –unless there’s big rock figures- could happen to any of us. You’d probably respond the same way the characters in the movie respond, it’s just when you put a Sam Jackson or a Kevin Hart in the movie they respond how they would in that situation. I feel very at home with domestic situations, how to not make them too crazy and have people respond to them. What I thought was exciting is you take Shaft, who is guns and drug cartels, and put him into a domestic situation. It’s like putting Ice Cube in a situation of having to deal with a possible brother-in-law. With Shaft having to deal with a kid and change a diaper, it’s instantly funny because that guy would never do that.”