Producer Will Packer and director Tim Story’s new buddy cop action-comedy, “Ride Along,” is a hilariously entertaining story about a tough detective (Ice Cube) and a high school security guard (Kevin Hart) who dreams of becoming the cop’s brother-in-law. Producer Packer, who worked with Story and Hart on “Think Like a Man,” thought the pairing was natural because Cube is the ultimate straight man who never breaks and Hart is absolutely unhinged. Opening January 17th, the film also stars Tika Sumpter, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill and Bryan Callen.
At the film’s recent press day, Packer and Story talked about what they look for in a story, what it was like bringing this particular story to life on screen, how they wanted to hit the obvious emotional beats but also keep audiences guessing, what inspired them to pay homage to “Training Day,” why they chose a Dodge Ram over a Prius for the hero’s car, Story’s directing philosophy on set and why he allows for improvisation, how he helped shape Hart’s acting career, why he’s excited to see the film reflect the increasing diversity of America, how casting Fishburne was a dream come true, and the possibility of a sequel.
QUESTION: You’ve both had varied careers and I’m curious what does a story have to say to you for you to invest your time and effort in it?
WILL PACKER: I bet we look for different things. For me, I look at a project that has a story that’s going to resonate in some way. It doesn’t have to be about a message. It doesn’t have to have some underlying theme of overwhelming importance. I never want someone to come out of one of my films and say, “Damn. I wasted an hour and a half of my life.” I’m trying to avoid that. At the same time though, I also do at this stage in my career look for films that have commercial viability. That’s a big component of it. As a producer, that’s part of my job. I’m looking for films that can resonate and hopefully have some level of critical importance but also have commercial viability and can put butts in seats. At the end of the day, that is the name of the game. And if you can find that perfect balance, then that’s the sweet spot. For me, I’m looking at material with that in mind.
TIM STORY: For me, it’s more subjective. There is one big test. I have two. Once I read a script or whatever it is, if I can remember and if I can boil it down to a very specific… We were talking yesterday about how with “Ride Along” it’s a little bit more of a “don’t judge a book by its cover” or the whole thing about I put myself in the same position. I had a little bit of a thought of who’s good enough for my sister. I have a twin sister and her husband now, it was one of those same things where I could [relate]. It was accessible to me personally. And then, of course, because I do like comedy and I do like that kind of fare, I do like to laugh. If it makes me laugh because of the reality of it and it’s not so much jokes. It’s humorous because of the human nature of the piece resonates with me.
Q: There were a couple of allusions to “Training Day” in this which I thought was funny because it was such a serious drama and this is a comedy. Was that already in the script when you guys got involved or was that added in as you went along?
PACKER: I think we added it. As we tooled the script for Kevin and Cube, the “Training Day” thing of it just came to us. The writers did a good job of infusing it in there. We paid homage but at the same time we were doing our own organic story. It’s just something that seemed funny to us at the time and hopefully it works.
Q: How much improvising did you let the guys do?
STORY: With improv with Kevin and Cube and the guys, my style is to let them do their thing. I find that if we have a good base, being the script, which is the case in this movie, as long as we stay on course telling the story, then I hope my actors will give me more than what’s on the page. You even come to the set with ideas that are on the page and you push them in one direction or the other. But Kevin as well as Cube, they’re just good in the sense that they know how to tell the story and give us those nuggets that you look for, that magic that you look for and those happy mistakes. But at the same time, they don’t get off course in terms of telling the story. So I’m very open to that kind of stuff.
Q: Tim, Cube said that you were a most relaxed and laid back director. What’s your philosophy on being on the set and dealing with the cast and the crew?
STORY: My philosophy is making a movie is difficult enough and I just feel as if you should have a really good time when you do make films whether it’s a drama or a comedy. Obviously, my stuff has been more in the comedy realm, and I really believe that if I’m laughing behind the camera, then I think the film will be funnier. It’s funny when I first started. I had such a good time with making some of the films that I didn’t know whether we were doing anything worthy in front of the camera. But I’ve learned that if you can keep it calm and keep it fun and loose, then that allows for ideas from the crew. I don’t care where an idea comes from, whether it’s the crew or my producer or the actors or anybody. I just want it to be fun, and if that’s the case, then I think you make a better movie.
Q: We’ve seen a surge of films with African American leads. Is it still hard to get them made in Hollywood?
PACKER: In terms of the African American leads, it’s exciting to me that “Ride Along” is the movie that has two African American leads. It’s even more exciting to me that it’s not a movie about two African American leads. They just happen to be African American. It’s a universal story. It’s a story about a guy in love with a girl and he’s got to get the approval of the overbearing, mean brother which is a universal theme. It’s tough to get any movie made, but I think that it’s becoming less and less important who’s playing what unless it’s a movie about race or culture or ethnicity, and you see it on the big screen and on the small screen. I think that’s great. That’s exciting. America is more diverse than ever before and it’s continuing to become more diverse and our content should and is reflecting that.
Q: There are certain moments in a movie like this that you have to hit, but you also have to do things that are different and that people don’t see coming. Can you talk about making sure you hit those moments but also make a movie that is different and can keep an audience guessing?
PACKER: (laughs) It’s as simple as we asked ourselves how to do it differently. There’s a structure to these movies. It’s not like we’re completely reworking the wheel. But we also take those moments and we have a lot of fun doing that. We’ll sit in the room, especially with the writers, and we’ll just say, “How do we do it differently?” and you’ll ask yourself. We’ll go through all kinds of films. “Okay. They did it this way and they did it that way, and even though that is a structural point or a plot point that we must hit, what’s another way for it to come out?” We literally do that because the first stuff that comes out will…okay, we’ll put a pin in that. There’s that way to do it. Now what else? We’ll just keep asking ourselves what else and sometimes it really gives you an opportunity to do something different. It’s that specific. We literally have to just ask ourselves how do we do it differently. What haven’t we seen before? And that’s what’s interesting.
Which one of you hates the Prius?
STORY: With the Prius thing, I’ll tell you what’s funny is that Toyota didn’t give us any money. That’s how those things work. Dodge did. So, if you noticed, the hero car was a charger. He said, “Get the bullshit Prius out of here” and what pulled up? A Dodge Ram. That’s how it happens, guys. You gotta keep the producers and the filmmakers happy. Note to corporate America.
Q: You’ve helped shape the acting career that Kevin Hart has and you’ve done some very diverse films with him. Can you talk a little about what you see in him? Also, when you come across a project, how do you know that it will work for him even though the characters are so completely different?
STORY: I’ve gotten to know him really well because we have such a great working relationship, so I’ve got a good sense of his skill set and material that I know he will just nail and stuff that I know he will gravitate to. I think with Kevin, he’s been around for a while and new audiences are discovering him now. What it is, is in comedy like a lot of things, it’s all about timing. I think that his style of comedy, he’s honed it and it’s at a different place. He’s sharper than he’s ever been. But his style of comedy is resonating more now with audiences than it ever has before. It’s a really good time for him. For somebody like him that works as hard as he does, I’m so happy for everything that’s coming to him because he deserves it. He deserves all of these successes and he will continue to be successful. There’ll be people that are funnier than him. There’ll be a time when people will say, “Oh he’s not that funny anymore.” But nobody will outwork him. And that’s one thing that he has, and that’s one thing that he knows, and that’s one thing that will continue to buoy him throughout his career.
Q: What did you guys think about Tika and her performance in the film? How was it to work with her?
PACKER: I worked with Tika before. I have some familiarity with her. I like her a lot. She’s a real up and coming talent and she’s getting an opportunity to do a variety of things. She had a really good year in terms of the movies and TV shows that she was in. She’s somebody that is on the cusp. I think she could potentially break out. I saw potential in her and pushed for her, and Tim was open to it, and she came in and rocked it.
STORY: I think it’s the same thing. I was introduced to her by Will. She did a small part in “Think Like a Man” and from that you just say, “Well this girl’s got something.” And so, when we did start thinking about who to cast for this movie, her name came up and it was like, “Wow, what a fresh face!” That’s the thing we look for, too. You look for when can you put that fresh face in a role and give them a shot. Kevin was definitely up for it so it worked out great with her.
Q: When Laurence Fishburne came on screen, everybody gasped. What was it like getting him? Did you always have him in mind for that role?
STORY: Him. It was a dream come true. As soon as we started and the script came to be what it was, we knew there was going to be this role that somebody has to take up almost three-fifths of the way through the movie or even the last quarter. You knew that whoever that was had to walk on screen and basically just command immediately when he walked on. It’s Morpheus. It’s Laurence. I like to call him Sir Laurence. He was like first choice. Luckily, he said yes. But it was a dream come true. I’d worked with him. He did the voice for Silver Surfer in “Fantastic 4.” So I was familiar working with him before, but I’d never worked with him in front of the camera so this was definitely a dream come true.
Q: I understand the writers are working on a sequel to this already. Can you give us any idea what’s happening, and Tim, will you be back to direct?
PACKER: The first one’s not even out yet.
PACKER: There’s definitely an idea.
STORY: There’s definitely an idea. If we do another one, there’s no way in the world I’m not doing it. I can’t give away much, but we do have an idea that’s being worked on in the event the audience votes that we can come back and do this again. In two weeks we’ll know.
PACKER: One thing I will say on this side of the table is that there’s nothing more exciting than to have a project that you like, that you’re proud of, and you’re waiting for that validation for the world to see it and say, “Yeah! You know what? That was pretty damn funny!” and for people to go see it hopefully by the hordes and for there to be talk of the possibility of continuing the journey and the ride with these characters that we’ve spent so much time with, honing and executing this film on all levels. The idea that there’s already interest in the possibility of a sequel is super exciting. I’ve never been in that position where that conversation is a serious conversation before the movie even comes out. The good side about that is that’s so great because you’ve got such great potential. The other side of that is that there’s a level of pressure because now that clearly means that there’s an expectation level from the studio side, potentially from the audience side, from our side. It’s always better if you can keep the bar low and then exceed the expectation. When they’re high, that makes the job even tougher. But I think we’re up for the challenge. We’re ready.