Meet Debra Martin Chase, shot caller extraordinaire. Easily one of the most powerful and influential women in Hollywood, Chase has produced some of the most lucrative film franchises such as Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants, The Princess Diaries and The Cheetah Girls. She’s also dominated the small screen as well, with Disney Channel’s musical Lemonade Mouth being the most watched cable movie of 2011 (the soundtrack was the #4 album in the U.S.). Formerly a high pedigreed attorney (graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Mount Holyoke College, J.D. at Harvard Law School), Chase decided to chase her dream of entering of the movie biz, and soon found herself running production companies for Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington. Eventually Chase would land her own producing deal with The Walt Disney Company, making her the first African-American woman to do so with a major studio.
Chase also has an uncanny eye for talent, responsible for launching the careers of A-listers like Anne Hathaway, Blake Lively and Chris Pine. In her gutsiest move yet, this savvy mover and shaker is at the helm of two iconic remakes: the 1976 classic Sparkle and the steamy 1986 coming of age drama Dirty Dancing.
The Urban Daily caught up with Chase to find out which R&B chanteuse was originally up for the role of Sparkle, the controversial casting of Whitney Houston, and why America seems to be so obsessed with musicals.
TUD: Can you tell us how you came to be involved in the Sparkle remake?
DMC: Whitney and I used to be producing partners and one of our favorite movies was Sparkle. Warner Bros. owned it, so we approached them and we went into development, with Aaliyah as the lead. My good friend, the late E. Lynn Harris wrote the screenplay and we were going to shoot it either right before or after Matrix 2 when Aaliyah died tragically. It was sitting on the shelf for years and I would go back to Warner Bros every year, but they weren’t interested. One night I was having dinner with the head of Sony Pictures, Michael Lynton, and Sparkle came up. He said, “I’d make that movie.” So now here we are, two years later, in production.
Jordin Sparks has been cast as Sparkle. What qualities did Jordin possess that made her right for the role?
She’s perfect. Obviously she has an amazing voice and she has just the right quality about her. She’s young and still has that innocence about her, but sophistication as well. People will be thrilled to see that she’s a wonderful actress. She has great raw talent and instincts—she’s going to knock this out of the park.
Whitney Houston is also on board, in the role of the girls’ mother. It’s been a while since Whitney has been on the big screen. What do you say to those who feel she might not be up to the task?
She’s Whitney Houston, come on! She’s gone from The Bodyguard to Waiting To Exhale. She loves this movie and we’ve been working on this project for over 11 years, and it’s very dear to her heart. Ironically when we first started she had aged out of the Sister’s role and she was too young to play the mother. We are staying very true to the spirit of the original movie, but we’ve made some updates that will make it more interesting. Whitney is very excited, and she’s going to be fabulous.
What elements of the original Sparkle will remain the same in this remake? What elements will be different?
The movie will be set in Detroit, 1968. It’s the same plot for the most part, but we’ve sort of made it our own. It will have the same emotional impact and we’re keeping the most iconic of the songs, and adding some new original songs. We approached this with the idea of thrilling the fans of the original movie but also having something fresh for people coming to Sparkle for the first time.
General consensus, based on the web, is that the public is very resistant to a Dirty Dancing remake, especially in light of the death of Patrick Swayze. As a producer, what are the challenges in remaking a movie that is so close to America’s heart? What plans do you have to win over the public?
You want to keep the same touchstones as the original. The same emotion, the same romance, the same things that make the movie beloved, but you want to add some fresh elements that make it stand on its own.
One of the aspects of Dirty Dancing that people found appealing was the fact that the lead actress, Jennifer Grey wasn’t a “traditional” Hollywood beauty. She starts out as the ugly duckling and ends up blossoming towards the end of the movie. Is that something you’re keeping in mind when you cast the lead female role in this remake?
Kenny Ortega (the director) and I are going to look for the best people possible. We may get known players, but we’re going to look high and wide, for people who can bring those characters to life. If you think back, the original Dirty Dancing put Patrick Swayze on the map as well as Jennifer Grey. So the prospect of finding lightning in a bottle is just exciting.
You’re responsible for discovering new talent like Anne Hathaway (“Princess Diaries”), Chris Pine (“Star Trek”), and Blake Lively (“Gossip Girl”). What are you looking for when scouting for new talent?
It’s a hard thing to quantify and it sounds kind of trite, but I’m looking for that “it” factor. That light within them; a face that’s very attractive but interesting. Not cookie-cutter–someone that has their own flavor.
How do you feel seeing your “alumni” doing so well in their careers?
It’s great. I just had lunch with Blake Lively a couple of weeks ago and she’s still a lovely person. She’s going to be a very big star, she just has that whole package. I’ve run into Anne Hathaway a few times and she is huge. We always knew that from the very beginning, she just had “star” written all over her.
You have been involved in several successful musicals such as Lemonade Mouth, Cinderella, and Cheetah Girls. Why do you think musicals are so appealing to the American moviegoers?
Musicals have always been appealing. If you go back to great movies from MGM and internationally—Bollywood, which is the biggest film industry in the world, is solely based on musicals. I think we forgot for a while that we loved them, but the American public has rediscovered their affinity for musicals through “Glee,” ”High School Musical,” and Chicago. Now dance couldn’t be bigger with “Dancing With The Stars.” Musicals have the ability to take you someplace, that transcend your everyday life and bring joy and energy.
You can follow Debra Martin Chase on Twitter: @DebraMChase
Follow the cast of Sparkle on Twitter:
Jordin Sparks: @JordinSparks
Carmen Ejogo: @carmenejogo
Tika Sumpter: @iamtikasumpter
Derek Luke: @actorderekluke
Mike Epps: @therealmikeepps
Omari Hardwick: @OmariHardwick
Ceelo Green: @CeeLoGreen
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