Acclaimed playwright David E. Talbert stakes Claim with romantic comedy

by Mark Burger

The romantic comedy Baggage Claim, which opens Friday (see review, page 38), marks the second film from writer/producer/ director David E. Talbert, the awardwinning playwright whose stage credits include Lawd Have Mercy, Talk Show Live, What My Husband Doesn’t Know, Suddenly Single and A Fool and His Money, the latter inspired by his own family.

Baggage Claim stars Paula Patton as Montana Moore, a 30-ish flight attendant who suddenly, rashly decides that she has to land a potential husband in a month’s time. With the help of fellow flight attendants Jill Scott and Adam Brody, she tracks down her former flames to rekindle the relationships — but this only complicates her life even further.

The men in Montana’s life comprise a handsome and dashing all-star line-up: Derek Luke, Taye Diggs, Boris Kodjoe, Trey Songz and Djimon Hounsou. But which one is her Prince Charming?

“I wanted to do something universal and mainstream,” explains Talbert, who also wrote the novel upon which the film is based. It wasn’t until well into preproduction “that someone noted I was the first African American to write and adapt a novel for the screen.”

Only a few filmmakers have had the opportunity to adapt and direct big-screen versions of their literary works, including Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun) and Michael Crichton (The Great Train Robbery). “Pretty good company,” Talbert smiles.

In adapting Baggage Claim to the screen, “The director was a bigger pain to the writer than the writer was to the director,” Talbert admits. “I had to distance myself from the novel.”

Talbert, along with actor Affion Crockett, who adds to the film’s fun as an aggressive TSA inspector, attended a special preview of the film earlier this month in Greensboro along with students from NC A&T State University, where Talbert and Crockett had toured earlier that day.

Talbert made his feature film debut with First Sunday (2008), starring Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan and Katt Morgan. Making the transition from stage direction to film direction was, he admits, a learning experience. “They require different sensibilities,” he says, “which I soon discovered!” “First Sunday was more of a gritty urban comedy,” Talbert observes. “For this one, I wanted to make a beautiful love story.”

With that experience, he was more comfortable and more willing to take chances on Baggage Claim, and “I’ve got to give a shout out to” editor Troy Takaki and cinematographer Anastas N. Michos.”

He was also able to land a star-studded cast by offering many of the actors a change of pace, even in smaller roles. Hounsou is a two-time Oscar nominee (In America and Blood Diamond), but is often relegated to costume pieces. Luke has appeared primarily in dramas (Antwone Fisher, Catch a Fire, Notorious). Patton, Talbert notes, is playing a role that not long ago would have seemed tailor-made for Sandra Bullock. In the case of Diggs, “he said to me, ‘Man — I’ve got to do something where I smile again!’” Talbert recalls.

He was particularly delighted when Hollywood veteran Ned Beatty expressed interest in playing the role of a corporate fatcat with rather antiquated notions about race and gender. “When they said, ‘Ned Beatty,’ I fell backwards over my chair,” Talbert recalls with a laugh, “because I’ve been a huge fan since I was a kid — and he got the character. You don’t hate him; it’s just that his world view is somewhat perplexed.

“I wanted to take these actors and put ‘em in a different lane,” Talbert says, and the actors eagerly responded. It’s clear from that he loves and trusts actors, and according to Crockett the feeling is mutual. Crockett’s role, which didn’t exist in the novel, was completely improvised.

“Once we got over the shock,” Crockett quips, “it was a matter of David trusting his comedic friends with his baby and trusting the talent that I have.”

“I feel it’s my job to throw a nugget in there, to throw that lob and let ‘em do what they do,” Talbert says.

Their mutual trust become second nature. Crockett admits that he was willing “to go all the way to 11,” he says. “I’d have done handstands on the airport counter. But David could just look and me and say: ‘Give me a six on this one.’” Talbert says that Crockett’s ‘level-11’ outtakes were outrageously funny and he hopes to include them on the DVD.

Although he has primarily mostly in comedies (Soul Man, Dance Flick, A Haunted House), “I want to do it all,” says Crockett, a Fayetteville native who counts among his inspirations Jeffrey Wright, Gary Oldman and Robin Williams.

“[Crockett] came up with so much on his own — in the moment,” praises Talbert. “When he’s grilling the passengers and telling them, ‘I want you to take your pockets out of your pockets!’ it always cracks me up. Even at the time we were shooting, I thought: ‘Where did he come up with that?’ It was better than I could have written!”