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Todd Black talks ‘Great Debaters’

Producer discusses working with Washington

There was cause for celebration at the Variety Screening Series presentation of “The Great Debaters” Monday night, as The Weinstein’s period drama nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture just days prior. Producer Todd Black was on hand at the Arclight for a candid conversation about his collaboration with Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and college buddy Forest Whitaker.

“Forest was originally going to play Denzel’s role and Denzel was going to play Forest’s role but the financiers said they’d give us more money if Denzel played the bigger role and we needed that money, so that’s how it happened,” Black confesses.

Black also produced Washington’s directorial debut, “Antwone Fisher,” and spoke about the high standards the actor holds himself to when he works behind the camera.

“Denzel likes a quiet set. He doesn’t over-rehearse. He’s all about reality. If someone is delivering a line that doesn’t feel right, he’ll stop, he’ll go up and give them a little whisper, and then he’ll do it again. He gets it and moves on,” said Black.

Though the film is based on a true story, Black admitted that scribe Robert Eisele took some liberties with the script. “They did not debate Harvard on record. They actually ended up debating USC and winning but we thought that Harvard was kind of the gold standard. We changed things because when you make a movie, you have to make it entertaining and you have to make it count for as much as you can. Certain characters and venues were changed and obviously we made up many of the debates to make it work dramatically, but the basic story is the same,” the producer promised.

In spite of Washington and Whitaker’s formidable presences in front of the camera, the film wouldn’t work if its young cast couldn’t hold their own onscreen. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem thanks to scene-stealing newcomers Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker (no relation). “Our casting director, Denise Chamian, brought Jurnee in as a reader with one of the young men we considered casting for the Henry Lowe role, and she was so good in that reading that after she left the room, Denzel and I looked at each other and went, ‘that should be Samantha.’ She was great! We saw a couple other girls after her but we knew she was it. No one could beat her.”

Pic was co-produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and a special episode of “Oprah” devoted to the film will re-air on Dec. 21. “The Great Debaters” opens on Christmas Day.

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