Beginning with 2009’s NOTORIOUS and continuing in 2015’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, the movie world has slowly been building a unusual type of cinematic universe that seems to have the common element of featuring people who have had dealings with or worked for Death Row Records and its infamous leader Suge Knight. And while Compton featured a character (Dr. Dre) who worked for the label briefly, the new film ALL EYEZ ON ME throws the spotlight on its biggest artist, Tupac Shakur. Thankfully, the film doesn’t limit itself to that relatively brief time in Shakur’s life and career, but it’s interesting watching the pieces fit together.
To tell Tupac’s story, L.T. Hutton, a Chicago-born music producer who worked with Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and other Death Row artists before branching out, started up the film production unit Program Pictures, which worked with Morgan Creek to get the biopic All Eyez on Me made. The story is the cradle-to-grave telling of Tupac’s life—from being the son of a Black Panther leader to his brutal slaying in Las Vegas—with newcomer (and dead-on lookalike) Demetrius Shipp Jr. taking on the role.
Among the array of interesting actors in the film is “The Vampire Diaries” star Kat Graham as Tupac’s longtime friend Jada Pinkett. The two had known each other since attending a performing arts high school together in Baltimore, and kept in touch as both of their careers took off. As the film portrays things, she was a grounding force in his life, but even she couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening.
I had a chance recently to sit down with L.T. Hutton, Demetrius Shipp Jr., and Kat Graham in Chicago and talk a bit about the beginnings of the project, deciding to make ALL EYEZ ON ME an epic-length biopic, and casting an unknown in the lead role. And it turns out that this idea of a shared universe around Death Row Records wasn’t all in my imagination. Enjoy…
Capone: I guess the first question is, where do you even begin to tackle a story this big, because most music biopics don’t cover a life from birth to death. They usually highlight a particularly interesting period in the person’s life.
L.T. Hutton: A section.
Capone: Yeah, this starts even before Tupac was born. When you’re conceiving this film, where does that even begin?
LTH: Here’s the thing, with most biopics that you see, they tend to pick a section and highlight that section, and they don't give you a full scope, they give you a small look into that window. With Tupac being so complex and so difficult to solve—I call it solving the Rubik’s Cube—you have to give him a full plate. You can’t give him a half, because any different turn will give you the wrong perception of Tupac, so you have to understand the whole story. To put that into two hours and 20 minutes, that was the problem. If you take a puzzle right now and you throw the pieces on the floor for all of us, we’re all intelligent, right? It would still take us maybe a couple of hours to put this puzzle together, so imagine doing that with Tupac. So that’s what took so long.
You have to understand he was born into the fire, and I always say that if you have the discipline and respect to listen to what Tupac says, he would give you the answers you need to tell his story. So going back to your original question, in Tupac’s voice as I was doing my research, he said, “I remember one moment of silence, and that’s when I was born. After that, it was on.” He said he never had a quiet moment after that moment when he was born. That was very interesting to me, and then doing the research, I understood what he was saying, because you have to understand, as an embryo, as a fetus in the womb, he was already in prison. Then he’s being fed that energy as Ms. Shakur defends herself against life imprisonment. She doesn’t just defend herself. Another 21 lives depend on her education, her source of information, her understanding of the material that is being set in front of her. As all of that going on, Tupac is in the womb.
So it was very important to flesh it out that he had things going into him before he came on this earth. So when people say, “Do you start it as a child?” I say, “I start it before he was even born, when he was in the stomach.” There’s information and historic things happening around him in the movement before he even is born. He’s born into fire. We wanted to try to give you a sense of that feel and that frenetic energy. You sit there and you’re like “Wow, does this guy ever catch a break?” He didn’t, and that’s what kind of fueled him. That was the fire, that was the installation.
One of the number one things in the judicial system is motive. You always have to find motive. Motive a lot of times wins the case. “Did he have motive to steal? Did he have motive to commit the murder?” I wanted to show Tupac’s motive. What was the motive to put him on a path that he did all these great things at such a young age, and he accomplished almost everything in the world that you can accomplish, except for a few personal things that he was robbed of because he was cut down short, you don’t get to do everything.
So we wanted to give you just that journey, that energy where he was racing the clock. I’ll add a personal thing: When I first met him, he always seemed to me that he had a watch in his head that was ticking. We were always like “Tomorrow,” but he was all about “Right now, right now, right now,” everything had to be right now, and it was like you never really understood when you’re in the moment “what was that about?” But then he passed, and then you see what that was. It almost felt like he knew his time was short.
Capone: Demetrius, how did you get involved? I’m sure maybe you’ve been told once or twice you resemble Tupac slightly
Demetrius Shipp Jr: [laughs] Not necessarily. My good friend told me about this role, this audition.
LTH: How good of a friend? Where is he?
DS: He happens to be right here [points to a person sitting across the room].
DS: So he told me about the Tupac movie coming about, and there’s auditions. He would tell me, “You look like Pac, so you need to audition.” And I was like, “Nah, I don’t think so.” He tried his hardest and ended up convincing me to go ahead and audition, and I waited to the last day to put the audition up on the website. At the time, that’s where it was announced, through the website, so you have to submit it there. But along with that you have to submit it on Facebook and YouTube.
Capone: A video?
DS: Yeah, an audition reel—a monologue and a verse from one of his raps. So I submitted that to Facebook. My father, who was a producer, who happened to produce Tupac’s “Toss It Up” single off the Makaveli album, he had seen that and he forwarded that video to L.T. Hutton, and that’s how the ball got rolling in 2011 and all the years after that, I was in preparation to try to get the role.
Capone: What was the preparation?
DS: Oh man, L.T. gave me a ton of Tupac videos to watch and look at. I still got that on my laptop to this day. I think it was a DVD. I uploaded that on my computer and just watched it. And then through the years, I took on watching YouTube videos and finding my own Tupac interviews and actually learning certain interviews of his. Eight minutes long, I would learn the whole entire interview, trying to get the mannerisms down as best as possible, the speaking patterns, the cadence. Tupac is a very, very unique person. There’s nobody in the world that I’ve come across that has even half that energy or complexity to them that he has.
Capone: You do a great job of capturing the way he uses his hands all the time. That’s a big part of the way he talks.
DS: So I started that back way before I even knew I had the role. I put that on myself. I’m like, “If I want to get the mannerisms down, I have to start using them myself.” So there was a point where my grandpa was like, “Why are you talking with your hands so much?” and I was like, “Because I’m trying to get this role.“ I started doing it just on my own. It’s actually like a habit.
LTH: And this is one of the unique things that I haven’t shared with too many people. We did a worldwide search, and I decided to take it to YouTube and submit your videos because I wanted to cast the net as wide as possible, and what bigger net do you have than the internet? We were going to turn over every rock, every stone, to find the perfect person to play this. I never wanted anybody to say, “They only limited it to LA. or New York.”
Capone: Not everyone can get to LA.
LTH: Yeah, so I wanted to literally see everything that was out there, so we designed a system where you could audition online. Like I said, literally flooded thousands and thousands of auditions of every kind and every person. But Demetrius, he had those mannerisms almost all ready from day one. I just had to put that out there.
Capone: I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to meet Jada, and she is just nothing but energy. Kat, what was the key to capturing her, especially when she was younger, still in school. What did you focus on?
Kat Graham: I focused on everything. Everything that I could get my hands on. Any interview, any photograph, any film that she’d done. For me in working with my coach, Ivana Chubbuck, on this, it was really important that we embodied as much of her as possible, but we definitely didn’t want it to be like an imitation. She’s somebody who’s also pretty complex and she’s got a lot of layers, and she does a lot of things, and their relationship was really special.
A lot of people didn’t know that they were childhood friends, and they rose up to stardom together in a lot of ways. We wanted to capture her in the most organic way and find things that maybe I was going through in my own life that connected me to her. Yeah, it was a fun process for me because I’ve always loved her and always followed her career. She’s amazing, and I think they brought out a lot in each other.
Capone: Those are some of my favorite scenes, because his life is getting busier and more tumultuous, and he finds her and it grounds him, at least temporarily.
DS: You’re making L.T.’s day right now.
DS: What was that word again?
Capone: Which one? Tumultuous?
DS: Hell yeah, I need that word! I’m going to use that.
Capone: I assume that wasthe point of those scenes, to bring him back down to the guy that he was when she met him in school.
KG: Yeah, we were really proud of those scenes.
Capone: The film is a combination of very iconic moments, videos, courtroom stuff, and then what you call on the poster the “untold story.” Talk about balancing the more familiar aspects of his life with lesser-known events.
LTH: I called it the chicken and the fish. At a wedding, you can’t serve everything, but if you do the chicken and the fish with a salad for your vegetarians [points to Kat], you’re pretty much safe. So with that being said, we couldn’t give you the pork, we couldn’t give you the steak, so we did the chicken and fish, which are the most important parts. So in that balance, everybody thinks they know the life of this over-personified character; they feel like it’s a certain way. I wanted to take away the myth of what people think they know and not give you just that highlight that you’ve been seeing on YouTube all the time. I wanted to give you a perspective behind the man and a different complexion to oppose what you’ve seen.
Like you said, you see how we use the Jada character. The Jada character comes in in a certain way. Then Ms. Shakur comes in in a certain way. Suge Knight comes in in a certain way, all of these things helping you to understand the holy trinity of who Tupac was, who he wanted to be, and who he had to be to survive the worlds that he was introduced into. And with that type of trajectory you’re able to go deeper behind, because you see how Tupac deals.
If I asked your mother who you are, she’s going to tell me a story. If I ask your friends who you are, they’re going to tell me a story. If I ask your wife who you are, she’s going to tell me a story. Which story is wrong? None of them. They’re all you, but just different parts of you at different times. The thing I wanted to take away was the myth that Tupac was one-sided and was one way all the time. That is not the truth, so I wanted to show you a reasoning behind his methods. People criticize people for making choices, never knowing what they had to choose from. I wanted to give you a full plate of what he had to choose from, so now you may not be as critical on the decisions and the choices he made, because now you understand a point of reference of where he got that from.
Capone: I’m sure you did not intend to do this, but bringing Jamal back to play Biggie—
KG: He’s very intentional [laughs]. I’m just going to say that right here.
Capone: It’s a great idea to bring him back in and have those moments when the two movies intersect. Also, we just saw a couple of years ago in COMPTON, all the Death Row scenes. You’ve created this rap-biopic cinematic universe.
LTH: But that’s intentional.
Capone: You’re in a unique position where you can actually say, “You already have this history and this history. Now here’s a little bit more you maybe didn’t know.”
LTH: At the start of all of them, I did that on purpose. Where STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON leaves off, we pick up at Death Row. It goes STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, ALL EYEZ ON ME—the sequel to both of those is my Death Row story. So we give you certain pieces in certain movies, and it’s like it’s going to keep going like that into the culture. And that was to spark a whole new wave, and now, like I said, everybody’s going to search and reach for certain things, and it just creates a whole new ecosystem of these type of movies. This is real life, but I always liken it to Marvel Comics, how you have a spinoff of this, spinoff of this, and each character ultimately coming together for an AVENGERS type of scenario. I put that into the universe for a reason. I’m glad you got that.
Capone: Alright. It was great to meet you. Best of luck.