What Men Want is a new comedy starring Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Hidden Figures) and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock, SNL) about a sports agent who develops the ability to hear men's thoughts. The film is a gender-swapped, re-imagining of the 2000 Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt romantic comedy, What Women Want, and is directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray).
When Screen Rant visited the Atlanta set of What Men Want earlier this year, producer Will Packer (Girl's Trip) explained not only what a great vehicle this is Henson, allowing her the opportunity to show off her comedy chops, but he shared how excited he is to be involved in such a progressive and unique film. He also made sure to mention how it they managed to secured their athlete cameos who supportive the Atlanta community has been overall.
The way that Adam Shankman - who’s doing a terrific job - is directing this movie falls right into Taraji’s sweet spot. She's so good at physical comedy, at comedy that is at the same time big but also emotional. She's got depth. And she's been doing dramas for so long. One of the early conversations I had with her when we were talking about this movie was, she was like, ‘I wanna laugh. I have been Cookie for so long. And in my movies, I have been like, the distressed single mom with something horrible happening to me. I just want to have some fun.’
And the last time she did it was in a movie that we did together, which was Think Like a Man. And in that one, if you go back and look at that movie, it had an incredible cast, but like, her and Kevin Hart definitely were the comedy drivers. Just like the way that that movie was constructed. I'm excited she's getting the chance to do that.
How much of this movie is rom-com versus just a straight-up comedy?
It's more comedy. It’s not about--y’know, rom-com is always centers around a relationship and usually the woman has to find her way to the right man and figure that out. And there's definitely a love story here and there's a love interest. Aldis Hodge comes in and - y’know, I love the fact that he's a little bit of a fresh face and he hasn't been in just everything but he's super talented - but it's really about, it's really a comedy. And it’s a comedy about this woman in a man's world figuring out how to play the game using this very cool device she gets in the movie to her advantage. And it's really more about a woman becoming empowered than it is about a woman finding love. It's fun that that happens along the way, but it doesn't have the typical machinations of a rom-com.
I think that's what's so special about it, because the climate that we're living in right now where women are becoming so empowered and being more vocal, this really seems to be coming right on those heels.
I think it's the time for it, y’know? I love the fact that our culture is changing, our sensibilities are changing - but for the better. And I definitely think that the days of movies that highlight women who need a man, who are figuring out how to adjust to the sensibilities of men, I think that feels very '80s to me. And I feel like now, people who have been on the sidelines - be they women or people of color or people of various sexual orientations - I love the fact that we’re centering them in movies now. And I'm proud to be a part of that.
Where did the idea for this remake begin? What did it grow from?
It was brought to me by Paramount. I got a call from the new head of Paramount Players, Brian Robbins, and he called me with this idea, and I think it had been bandied about internally. My understanding is that for a while a potential remake, re-imagining, revisiting of this I.P. had been discussed. But when he came to me the first thing he said was, ‘What Men Want,’ the second thing he said was, ‘Taraji.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Absolutely! Come on. Stop it.’ I hung up with him and called Taraji. It was like, this is so pitch perfect, tonally perfect, on point with kind of where we are now in society. And so, of course, you do this version with Taraji - with a woman at the center and that woman being Taraji.
I get pitched a lot of bad remakes and ideas of how to revamp stuff, but sometimes you get one that feels like, ‘Y’know what? That's got a reason to be.’ And that's what this feels like.
How did your prior success with Girl’s Trip and everything else like that help in getting this done?
One of the great things about Girl’s Trip was we saw how far we could push the boundaries of mainstream entertainment. And we found that as long as you're real, and authentic, and you're not, like, doing things just to have shock value or doing things without thinking about the characters or emotional arcs, and if you're painting women as real women - not perfect women, not like women that the guys think women ought to behave like - but if you let the women be like real women, like full-circle, three-dimensional people, that audiences will respond. So I was hoping that was the case with Girl's Trip. It was very successful and so I know audiences responded to it, and it gives myself, as a producer, a lot of license coming into a piece like this.
And you did Girl’s Trip and then you also did Breaking In and then next year, you'll be doing this film. Why is it so important for you, specifically, to bring these films that star black women at the center?
It's the time. It's crazy that we've had such a dearth for so long that there are so many stories that have yet to be told from that perspective. And when I say that perspective, it really is an inclusive perspective, not exclusive. Not one of those movies where, like, they happen to have a black singular woman or women at the center were only for that audience. They all felt very much like universal stories but told through this lens, which I think makes them very interesting. Because we have had for years stories that were told through the lens of any number of white men and then sometimes you would get white women, and you would also get black men, but like, way down the line would you get a story that has a woman of color at the center. So I love the fact that I can be a part of that. It feels very 2019 and beyond, it feels very, like, where we are as a world.
It’s long overdue. Like, this movie comes out in 2019 and we're still talking about this.
Right? Exactly. But to me it means that we've got stories yet to be told. We’ve got a lot of stories that that you haven't seen from this perspective. I think we're doing a good job, and Adam Shankman and the team are doing a great job of painting a very--like a real world in this movie. And so it's not a world that feels like only one particular demo or only one particular culture, this feels, like, y’know, the world that we know and see. And Taraji happens to be at the center of that and I think that's very cool.
This cast looks different. It's people you know, like Taraji, people you are like, ‘OK, he's next,’ like Aldis, and then there's Pete [Davidson], too. It’s a great cast, how was it--
I love that. ‘And then, there's Pete.’ That's a good way to refer to him. And then, there's Pete, because he's just Pete. No, Pete, Max Greenfield, I mean the cast is-- I love the fact that you've got Taraji at the center. I think Aldis is bringing something really cool and different to this. Richard Roundtree playing her dad is cool. Then you've got like this huge comedic engine in Tracy Morgan who comes in and just, like, blows the roof off every scene that he's in. He and I have known each other socially for a while and have talked about working together, but hadn’t had an opportunity to get it together. So I'm super excited to do it and he's not disappointing at all.
And then you got, like, these comedy snipers all around who fill out the cast. I've done a bunch of ensemble comedies and they always work when the chemistry works with the cast. When it feels real like not everybody's trying to figure out, ‘Where do I land my joke? How do I do my stand up? I'm just waiting for you to stop talking so I can talk.’ It works better when it feels like there is a rhythm to it and this movie has a rhythm. And that supporting cast fills it out in a really great way.
What problems are you having to figure out making this movie? Are there budget concerns? Or are you trying to get people scheduled? What are you having to figure out while making this?
Typical movie things. You're always trying to figure out how to make sure you’re maximizing your resources. And that's everything, from your talent as a resource, you're making sure you're scheduling that correctly, making sure that the film feels big and has scope, we're not just inside, we’re outside, we're getting trailer moments. Marketing is such a big part of what I do with all my films and these days there is so much content out there, so much saturation that you’ve got like 30 seconds to convince an audience that this is worth, like, taking a second glance. And so you need things that work out a context, completely independent of the film. That you can see something and go, ‘Oh OK. I get that, that concept is intriguing, like, I may buy into that.’
Because especially when you talk about theatrical films and theatrical comedies it just becomes very, very difficult. It's more like making sure we’re positioning the film to succeed than anything else. It’s making sure that we’re putting the right elements in the film that will allow it when it drops in 2019 to have a fighting chance in what is going to be an extremely crowded landscape because it's always an extremely crowded landscape. And there is going to be a new Netflix special, and streaming, and sports on TV, and everything. It's making sure that we're positioning it in a way that it can win.
Do you need to win at a certain level now because Girl’s Trip was so big?
Every film is different and so I think for me personally as a producer, I was flying under the radar for so long and it was kind of cool. Well now, I think, there is a little bit of an expectation. Like you just said, ‘Oh, OK, well you did Girl’s Trip. What's next? What are you going to do with this one?’
I don't mind it, though. I don't mind that the bar is continuously being raised because I am--I don't hide from that, I'm a competitive person and I want to make the best content and I want audiences to receive that content. So, y’know, look, I think the bar is high for this. Taraji herself will tell you that. She really wants this to work, she really wants this to win. Everybody knows how incredibly talented she is - she hasn't done a comedy in a while. And I think people forget how funny she is. She is so on point with this, she is like big when she needs to be big, she's focused when she needs to be focused, earnest when she needs to be earnest.
And so none of that surprised me because I know how good she is, but to see the comedic timing - I can't stress that enough about a comedy. The timing and the rhythm and the way it all comes together is so important. You’ve got a lot of comedies that have not worked that had funny bits in them or funny scenes, but as a whole it wasn't like this enjoyable ride that you went on. I'm hoping that that's what we're doing here.
What Men Want has a lot of cameos from different athletes? How difficult was that to arrange with their schedules? Was there anyone you wanted who you couldn’t get?
We got the people we really wanted but listen, it's tough, because we do have a bunch of athletes in here and the schedules are crazy. In order to really get somebody to commit to coming in and doing 12-hours a day you need somebody in their off-season, and so that limits, y’know? It takes out all the NBA players that are in the playoffs right now or an NHL player in the playoffs or baseball. You have to have, like, certain folks that you're going after and in their off-seasons, they're everywhere. So I got a bunch of buddies in my phone that I've been texting and they're like, ‘Dude, I'm in Mexico or I would!’ Y’know, what I mean? And I’m like, ‘Mexico!? You play for the Bears.’ But not right now - he's off.
But we got some really cool--Shaq and I, he's been giving me a hard time about not putting him in a movie. As if he needs me, y’know? Shaq is in a bunch of stuff. But he and I have been having fun giving each other trash about it because I was like--Shaq will always say, ‘I want to be in a movie, and I want to have a big gun, and I want to be killing people.’ And I'm like, ‘Shaq, that's what's expected from of you. Like, play a ballerina! Y’know what I mean? Let's put you in a love story where you're like a teddy bear.' I'm always messing with him.
So he came by, and Grant Hill. The centerpiece team is the Atlanta Hawks because that's where our fictional NBA draftee lands. I'm a member of the board of the Atlanta Hawks so that's a great relationship I have there, the owner is a buddy of mine and--she's one of the female owners, the wife of Tony Ressler is going to come in and do a cameo, Grant Hill is one of the owners also of the Hawks and he came in and did a cameo. We shot in the arena where they play. The Atlanta community has been great. I have a great relationship with the Falcons, and they’re letting us shoot at their new stadium. It's called the Mercedes-Benz Dome, it's huge, it's where the Super Bowl is going to be this year, and they let us come in. I think we're the first movie to shoot in there. I can't confirm that. So the city has been very supportive of this.
What type of consulting did you do? Did you speak with any female sports agents?
Yeah, that's good. We did, and Adam actually reached out. You won't find this surprising but there are not a lot female sports agents, and especially not women of color. So when we were trying to find like, ‘Who's the real Ali?,’ the character that Taraji plays, like, y’know, there's just not that many. But we did have--we reached out to real agents, we've got cameos from some real agents. And I think Adam may have had a conversation with some female sports agents because he was always coming to me and saying, ‘I found so and so and she represents,’ y’know, what I mean? And these are people that I wasn't aware of prior to. So I think a fair amount of research.
The movie is not so inside baseball, in-depth about sports so that if that's not your world you wouldn't enjoy it. Like, that's not what the movie is. So it wasn't like we were trying to recreate very specific minutiae around the sports world. The thing that we did need to do--'cause we do have a partnership with the NBA and the NBA has been great overall. And they wanted to make sure that we had, like, the machinations of recruiting a college draft pick, the actual NBA draft, how that all worked. They wanted to make sure we got that right and there were some things there that I didn't know. And so when they went in and read the script, they were like, ‘Well, actually.’ And there were things that we had done because they were fun in the movie world but they wanted to make sure we were accurate. We did as well. And we're going to shoot at the actual NBA draft in June in New York, so the NBA has allowed us. We're hopefully going to get a cool cameo from commissioner Adam Silver, which should be fun. So we will actually shoot our actors on that NBA draft stage. ESPN is giving us some cameos, NBA TV, so it will feel real, it will have the texture.
So today, the NFL kneeling controversy is happening, but that offers up opportunity to inject humor into this movie. Are there rewrites when stuff like this happens?
Y’know, that one we haven't put it in yet since it just literally happened yesterday. But we're not--listen, we're going there. The cool thing about this movie is that, like, so that just happened today, we will finish shooting this movie through about halfway through the summer, then we'll be editing the movie into the fall. And because so much of it is what are in our actors heads and we will go back later and do ADR. So we've always said we've got an opportunity with whatever that hot button, pop culture thing is, we can go and we’ll have the opportunity to add that stuff and make the movie very relevant later on, even closer to the release date. Y’know, so today it’s the kneeling thing, who knows when we come out what the Kardashians would have done, y’know what I mean? But if we choose to we can put that in our movie, that’s kind of cool. And it’s the first time I've been a part of a movie that had that kind of malleability when it came to, like, what actors are really saying/thinking. We’ll be able to add that stuff in through like the end of post-production.
This movie has the opportunity to re-validate how great Taraji is as an actress. We all know she's good, we all know she's great, but I feel like sometimes we forget just how good. She's been doing dramas for so long, she’s been Cookie for so long. But she's not Cookie. Is that a conscious thing you guys are thinking about?
No question. That's one of the main reasons she did this was to have that opportunity to do exactly what you just said. To remind people about her range, her depth, and her breadth of talent. The great thing when you're on a hit TV show is that global audiences know you and you’re defined by that character and that show. The bad thing about being on a hit TV show is that you’re defined by that character and that show. And so there is nobody else who could bring Cookie to life like her, but she is somebody who long before Cookie had an incredible career playing all kinds of characters in theatrical films.
This is something she had not done and she was really eager, I can't stress that enough, how important it was for her to have some levity. And I told you, ‘I just want to laugh. I want to go in and show people have forgotten that.’ And that's really who she is, she's really like a fun, kind of silly person who's got a great wit about her and this is showcasing that.
When Paramount came to you with their idea for What Men Want and said to you, ‘Taraji,’ was she already signed on with it?
She wasn't signed on, that was their idea. I called her and said, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ Paramount, they reached out to me, they reached out to Taraji, I reached out to Taraji, but at that time it was, like, just the kernel of an idea. I think they were trying to, y’know, it was one of those where a studio goes, ‘We think this is a good idea, what are you guys thinking?’ And everybody was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ It was one of those.
Were there any other cast members where you looked at the script and said, ‘This has to be Max Greenfield?’ Or, ‘This has to be Pete Davidson?’ Or anything like that?
It kind of came together organically. I know we talked about Richard Roundtree very early on. Oh! Y’know what, Erykah Badu. She is in it and it is a cameo. She doesn't play herself, she's a great character that plays into her strengths and her skill sets as an eclectic figure. Right? That's who Erykah Badu is. She's fun, she’s eclectic, she’s one-of-a-kind and super unique. And so when you see it, you will see that she is somebody very early on we were like, 'Ooh, Erykah Badu should play that.’
Are there any young comics that you put into this movie that you would like to mention?
We actually have a pretty good stable of established, they are folks you have seen. But now Phoebe Robinson from 2 Dope Queens, she is not somebody who's been in a bunch of stuff and I can't wait to see what she does. Tamala Jones is in it, you haven't seen her in this kind of movie in a while, Wendi Mclendon-Covey is in it, I can't wait. So they make up the crew because Taraji has her own crew of girlfriends and that squad is fun.
So I guess I would say Phoebe is somebody, she's got a big fun character and we haven't shot with her yet, but I'm very excited about her potential. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she broke out from this.
- What Men Want (2019) release date: Feb 08, 2019