Todd Graff was born to sing—literally. His father was a musician, his mother a piano teacher and choir master, and by the time Todd was 11, he was on the original cast recording of Sesame Street. Where he really rose to fame, though, was on The Electric Company, and when that show ended Graff was 18 and determined to stay in show business. Which he did: touring with James Taylor and Carly Simon, doing a stint on Broadway, and then taking up a word processor to pen screenplays like the Kiefer Sutherland thriller The Vanishing and the Fran Drescher comedy The Beautician and the Beast. In 2003, Graff decided he was ready to direct his own movies, and the result has been a trilogy of musically-themed comedies Camp, Bandslam and now Joyful Noise—a comedy that pits Dolly Parton against Queen Latifah in the struggle to control a small town church choir—that capitalize on his background on the stage. But did all that prepare him for having to tell Dolly Parton that he didn't like her latest song?
What triggered you to write the script?
My mom was a choir director and the ladies would come to my house every Tuesday and Thursday night and smoke cigarettes and sing these songs. It was a Hadassah choir, so it was all Jewish songs, but it was drilled into my head while I was trying to do homework upstairs. The thing that stuck with me was that even though they were an amateur choir, my mom really knew what she was doing. She was a real taskmaster and she got amazing—relatively—performances out of these middle-aged ladies of Queens. When I woke up one day and thought, "I really want to write a movie for my mom," it all dovetailed into this story.
It sounds like by eavesdropping on her, you learned how to direct.
The thing that both of my parents drilled into me was the importance of craft, that things don't happen by accident. Spirit and emotion are essential, but they don't get you all of the way there. That idea that it's also about detail and preparation and professionalism was absolutely formative for me.
And also in learning how to deal with interpersonal dynamics and conflicts.
My mom was like the Henry Kissinger of Queens. She was a community activist, she was a fundraiser—I have all these memories of her downstairs in the basement on a mimeograph machine running off flyers. Her personality was rather quiet and sweet, but she got a tremendous amount done. And in order to do that, you have to figure out how to be a good CEO.
Did you write the script with Queen Latifah already in mind?
I didn't. I had my mom in my head the whole time. It wasn't really until I was done and started thinking, "Okay, there's not going to be an enormous pool of actors that a studio is going to bankroll a movie on where the lead role is a middle-aged black woman who can sing." As soon as you start to think about who the character really is, Queen Latifah would be at the top of any list.
Which put a lot of pressure on whether Queen Latifah would agree to make the film.
Yeah—and even more for Dolly Parton because she I really did have in my head when I wrote it and she hadn't made a movie in 20 years, so there was no reason for me to expect she'd say yes. And if she didn't, that would entail a while rewrite and reconceptualization. So that was just a Hail Mary pass that worked out, thankfully.
Why do you think she said yes?
She says she just hadn't been offered stuff that she responded to. But the thing I think is that the character is so close to her that it felt comfortable—she's not looking to be stretched into something else other than what she is, and what she is is so iconic and delightful. Here, she felt like she could relate to the character—and she wanted to do a movie, so lucky me.
Dolly grew up singing spirituals—her grandfather was a pastor. How much input did she have in the music?
Dolly wrote three of the songs, so she had a lot of input into the music. I asked her at the first meeting if she would consider writing songs and she said yes. I didn't know at the time that she was the most prolific songwriter imaginable. She's written thousands of songs—it's crazy. The way the process worked was I would tell her, "I'd like a song for this scene, this is what I'd need." We'd just talk it through and then she would go off and write. And she likes to do very elaborate demos. She doesn't like to just send you an MP3 of herself with a guitar—she likes to really present it. So she'd go to enormous trouble and I would listen to it and I might call her up and say, "I think it's a great song. For the scene, here's what I think needs to be different: You've written it in two, I really need it to be in four with all these walking bass lines." And she would interrupt me and say, "Darling, if you don't like it, I'll just write you another one-it only takes me an hour." She wrote 11 songs for the three slots.
Was it intimidating to tell such an icon, "No, I'm not happy with this."
You'd think it would be, but that would only be if you don't know Dolly. It's corny when I talk about her, but she's really like an angel. She's a magnificent human being who goes to enormous lengths to make you not feel intimidated and feel like she's just one of the team. Her work ethic is incredible. She would do things like in the middle of the day, she would see that I would eat crap like chocolate bars to keep my energy up on the set. And one day she came in with Tupperware full of four pounds of fudge that she had stayed up the night before baking. She said, "I don't like that you eat all that horrible stuff. This is made with real eggs and real milk and a whole lot of love-and when you finish this, I'll make you some more." I said to her, "You were on the set at 7 AM this morning and you were here until 7 PM last night and you had time to bake fudge?" She said, "It's good for me. I zone out and I think about what I have to do during the day and what the scenes are, and I really enjoy baking." She goes even further to make you not feel awkward.
And how much input did Queen Latifah have in creating her own character?
Well, we rehearsed for a month before we shot and had the luxury to really dig into the characters with all the actors. Latifah is the kind of actor where if it doesn't pass the smell test for her, it's not that she's not willing to give it a shot, but you don't really want her to give it a shot because she's such a transparent actor. So when there were lines or situations that just weren't gelling, inevitably it was a probably with the writing and not her performance because she's just too honest an actor-you really can't catch her acting. The role ended up being tailor-fitted to her during the rehearsal process.
About those rehearsals, were the singing parts and the acting parts blended? Was the set always just bursting out into song?
We had virtually a campus down there in Atlanta where we had our own building and a bunch of different rooms. In one room, there'd be a dance rehearsal going on. In another room, I'd be in there with two actors working out a scene. In another room, Mervyn Warren and Ron Hoyt, our musical guys, would be teaching a song to the choir. It was the constant beehive of activity, a crazy, concentrated period of learning time. Just work, work, work. And then when we got on set, everyone knew their parts cold and no one was nervous and it was much looser. And people were inevitably blowing takes because they'd just had a rift, or between takes they were singing gospel songs. It was a very happy, energized set in that way.
Speaking of Mervyn Warren, you worked with him to add a gospel flavor to modern hits—were some songs natural fits, while others took more rearranging? Were there any you just couldn't pin down?
Merv is the go-to guy for this kind of thing. I did The Preacher's Wife with him and he's one of the founding members of Take 6. The only times a song wouldn't work is because we couldn't get the rights to it. We had hiccups like Sly Stone who, bless him, is a genius but is not the easiest personality in the world. Whereas for the other songs, the other writers graciously allowed me to rewrite the lyrics to make them faith-based praise music instead of secular, he would only let me change one word of "I Want to Take You Higher."
"I Want to Take You Higher" became "He Wants to Take You Higher." And that was it—I couldn't change anything else.
I guess if you can only change one word, that makes sense.
Yup, that was the one.
How did a guy who grew up with a mom in a Jewish choir decide to instead write about a Christian choir?
That's who these characters are. To me, the movie is not about religion. I think a lot of people who see it seem to be moved by the spirituality of it, which is great and I'm very happy that that's what they get out of it. But for me, it was always about the transcendent power of art and music and the ability for music to band people together. Choirs represent to me the idea of submerging the individual ego in service of something larger in order to create something bigger than yourself. All that kind of stuff that's what I needed to hook into the script may or may not be what other people get out of it. But to be true to these characters in a gospel choir, you can't not write it that way, so that became what it was.
On that idea of submerging the individual, you have two unique singers in Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton—can you talk about both working to blend them in to the rest of the choir and giving them moments to stand out?
The fact that they are so different and yet ultimately learn to blend together is kind of the point of the movie. So the further apart that they were stylistically and in terms of personality, and that their characters don't get along, it's more dramatically satisfying to then bring it all together and make it all blend so that they can win this competition and overcome the obstacles that they're facing. And then they have their individual moments, so that Dolly wrote "From Here to the Moon and Back," a country waltz that she does remembering her late husband, and Queen Latifah does "Fix Me, Jesus," which is a Negro spiritual that's gotta be 150 years old, maybe. And so they individually have moments where they can establish their particular voices, and then after that it's all the choir. Their solos don't happen in the choir. The solos in the choir are the kids. Their solos are separate from the choir because their characters are too far apart and they, in the course of the movie, by the end sing together as part of the choir.
You have an advantage over other directors because, as a singer yourself, on set you can sing what you'd like to be done.
It's interesting because as a director, you never want to give a line reading to an actor. But when it comes to music, you can literally sing the phrase and say, "You're missing that interval," or "You're not hitting that G-sharp here," and no one considers it over the line or insulting. But yeah, it's very, very helpful. And with Merv, we were able to double-team-not that there was resistance—but we were able to double-team and reinforce to the actors what it should be. There was always somebody for them to turn to who could show them what to do. And also, Dolly and Queen Latifah are consummate musicians, so it's not like they needed a lot of guiding.
How do the politics and competitiveness of a church choir compare to the politics you saw firsthand on Broadway?
I only ever did one Broadways show and it was a very happy experience, so luckily, while I'm sure it happens, I didn't have firsthand experience with that kind of thing. But really, when you're on Broadway, you're professionals—you're professional actors who are getting paid extremely well to perform. Whereas, an amateur choir is made up of amateurs, and in a small town like we picked for this movie, they have all this baggage with each other, they've known each other their whole lives there's all these other elements that are much more personal than you're going to find than if you were working on a Broadway show.