Dare it be said? This interview with Camille Tucker is so informative for budding screenwriters that it should be a guidebook.
Not only does she give the scoop on why Lifetime’s The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel is an important addition to their roster, Tucker also details the journey to getting it made and what it’s like for writers who work in television or dream of doing so.
What was the motivation for writing this story?
I was really blessed to have actually been with this project since 2005. TV writer Sarah Finney-Johnson, showrunner for Moesha and The Parkers, approached me and said, “I have this opportunity to write a feature film but I haven’t written features before. Will you join me?”
I was very passionate about doing a family story because I come from a strong family. My father was an associate pastor in the Baptist denomination, and my brother currently is a pastor. So I felt a personal connection for the material, of how you manage [family dynamics] and how that plays out in your life.
It talks about faith, preacher kids and how hard it is for them, and then the rest was that my father was a pastor. So I made a decision to be involved in the story and not let them be vilified and not do something on the surface. This is an analysis of their life and how to manage ups and downs and still maintain family and family bonds.
In 2005, we pitched it to several outlets and it didn’t go over as saleable. Sometimes you have projects that sit on a shelf for a minute, where you go, “The marketplace isn’t there for this idea we are having right now.” We didn’t give up on it.
In 2017 I contacted one of the producers connected with Queen Latifah and Shakim Compere who works with her company, and it ignited a spark. With that partnership, I was finally hired to write the script.
My friend Sarah was working on another project, so I did the script solo. That ended up going to Lifetime. So it was from 2005 to 2017 when I actually got hired to write the script and then in 2018 sold it to Lifetime.
Is it fair to say that the writing process from conception to the table read was 2005 to 2018?
Yeah, it was.
Did you get any input into casting?
No, that was all Christine Swanson, the director. She’s a phenomenal director. She directed Love Under New Management: The Micki Howard Story. She wanted these singers Shelea, Angela Birchett, Christina Bell, who could also act. That’s a conversation that anyone has to have who is directing a film that involves singing. Do you want to use actors who can also do the voices, or do you want to work with people who can SANG! and try to hone their acting ability.
When people recall things, sometimes they have very different stories to tell. How did you, the producers and the Clark Sisters get to an agreement as to how the story should be told?
We knew we wanted to find a way to enter the story. We wanted the story to be equal and balanced. What we did was find a way in through the eyes of Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, the mother, because she is so much the glue.
After several drafts of the script and looking at what was going to be the point of view of the story, that was the conclusion, because each daughter’s relationship to her mother is so important. The film does look like the sisters’ story but the perspective would be through Dr. Mattie.
Are there going to be explanations as to why there was such a gap between continuing to make music once the Clark Sisters found success?
The story you see is like real life playing out. The dynamic I saw, even as a creative artist in the entertainment industry, is that it’s really different for men and for women.
Usually men go out and conquer the world and they have some strong woman at home holding down the fort. For women — who have [marriages] and/or are raising a family — to be a creative, prolific artist while living life and doing all these things is not going to always be the same level of output.
You get to see when they first have their success, each one of them, in their way as women, as wives, as trying to raise their family. Maybe that might be some of the gap you are speaking about.
Also, there’s a conversation in film when the man is saying, “Why are you always traveling? Why are you always in the studio?” I think that is one of the bittersweet things, that any woman who is dynamic in ministry or in artistry constantly has to negotiate with her partner and her husband.
For those you don’t know gospel music or the success of the sisters, what is the core message that this movie will tell?
The core message is the Clark family, which may sound a little simplistic, but when I look at my own experience and what I brought to the script, whether you are feeling at the highest point in life or the lowest point, my father would always say, “You always have your family.” He used say to stick together. You might fall out but you can always come back to your family.
You see that trickle down from Dr. Clark [in] what she is teaching her daughters about sticking together and the core family.
You are from Compton, California, which is now famous for its association with rappers and with gangs. But what is the other side of the city?
I am a daughter of Compton. My father was the mayor from 1989 to 1991, when he passed away from cancer. Then my brother [Walter Tucker III] was the mayor of Compton, and then he became a U.S. Representative, so I have very deep ties to Compton and lived there for a lot of my life.
I grew up in a neighborhood called Richland Farms where there are Black cowboys and people had houses on an acre of land with chickens and deer. Sometimes we try to paint a place or a people as one thing or one way, and we don’t really see the tapestry for what it is.
You also forget that Compton is the home to Venus and Serena Williams. I remember as a young girl going to Compton College and seeing Venus and Serena on the tennis courts! Compton is a big part of who they are; those little girls with their braids playing on the tennis courts.
Ava Duvernay is from Compton. When I found out she was from Compton, I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of art going on in Compton!” So I am very proud to be from there.
I also think there should be a Black cowboy movie set in Compton. Maybe I’ll do it, maybe someone else will do it.
Your writing dreams took shape there early on?
Yes, my Montessori school got burned down and my parents decided to send me to a private school in Palos Verdes, California.
So my experiences of being bussed from this all African American school to this predominately white school was the impetus for my writing. I began writing about how it felt straddling two walls. It did cause me to start writing poetry and short stories at an early age.
Then I started reading authors like Octavia Butler and Maya Angelou, and that made me feel like I could be a storyteller.
How did you meet Bill Duke?
When I first started in this business, I made a small film: Sweet Potato Ride. We were looking for sponsors or mentors, and we actually met Bill Duke at a party.
He said, “If you’re serious, send me a packet and I will think about it.” He was serious. So we sent him the script and information. He ended up being the executive producer on Sweet Potato Ride, which was the first short film I ever did. That got me into the industry.
Bill Duke has been a mentor ever since. I have actually taught at his screenwriting youth boot camp and stayed in touch with him periodically. He’s given wise words about this industry and is just amazing. He loves to help people of color and to nurture people. I saw that at the boot camp, and I am grateful to have him in my life.
What was it like working with John Singleton and Robert DeNiro?
Let me tell you how I met John Singleton. I was in the first video that John directed. He was going to school at USC. Flash forward, we both graduate; me from UCLA, him from USC. And then we’re in the industry. He had already gotten his Oscar nomination for Boyz in the Hood, and he approached me and my former writing partner and said, “I have the project that is very female-centric and I want you guys to write it.”
We co-wrote a movie called Gold Diggers that sold to Universal Studios. It didn’t get made at the time, but it was a great experience. John was such a visual genius. He was a cinematic storyteller. He loved the art of cinema. He was a cinephile, and he studied all the great filmmakers and could break down their artistry. One thing I loved about John was his respect and love for the craft and passing that on.
We met Robert [DeNiro] at a party. I yelled out “Bobby!” I had heard that his nickname was Bobby. I didn’t even know him. He looked at me like, “Who is this woman?”
I walked up to him and explained. I was very fortunate because was able to say that my writing partner and I have an agent and a screenplay and we were trying to get it set up and we would love for him to read it. I was shocked when he said, “Yeah, give it to me.”
About a week later, my writing partner and I were sitting in our little office and the phone rang. This lady said, “I have Robert DeNiro calling for you.” We’re jumping up and down. He is cool DeNiro, and says, “I liked your script.” We are falling on the floor.
It was great for him to say he loved our script. He loved the short film that we did. And the script we sold to Sony with [DeNiro] as executive producer didn’t get made. It was basically a Cinderella story with African American characters.
What is the one piece of advice struggling screenwriters should take from your personal story?
One thing I will say is that I am not only a writer. I am also a professor. I teach at Biola University [La Mirada, California]. It’s in Variety’s top fifty film schools.
One thing that I tell my students is not that you have to have a Plan B but that you have to have a job. I believe that artists have to have that job that pays their bills because we are trying to afford our lives so that our art can take shape.
Do whatever it is that you [can do] and continue to pursue your art. That is important. When a person is hungry and the lights are getting shut off and the bills aren’t getting paid, it’s hard to write and create.
The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel airs Saturday, April 11th, 8 PM PT/ET on Lifetime.
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Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based former staff writer covering entertainment whose work has appeared in Variety, The New York Daily News, TV Guide.com, The Crisis, Vogue Japan and Italia, and Harper’s Bazaar China, among others