EXCLUSIVE: “As far as the type of projects that we’re doing at Get Lifted, we just really like to shine a light on really important moments in time, and people that help create those moments,” Underground executive producer Mike Jackson says of where his company is coming from — and going. In the five years since Get Lifted Film Co. started, the partnership launched by Jackson, John Legend and Ty Stiklorius has grown on to the big screen with the just-opened Southside With You, the small screen with the record-breaking Underground, Sing it On and the HBO documentary Southern Rites, and the stage with Neal Brennan: 3 Mics and Turn Me Loose, the Dick Gregory bio starring Joe Morton. Next week will see the company at the Toronto Film Festival with the Damien Chazelle-directed La La Land, which Legend stars in and Get Lifted executive produced, and last week saw them ink a development deal with the WGN America for a second series titled Black Wall Street.
For many, Get Lifted is primarily known as Legend’s company, but it is in fact a real partnership with real desires to produce a variety of high-caliber projects on different platforms. As well as a pretty packed slate, Get Lifted also has a film in development with IM Global, the half-hour MTV comedy It’s The Real, the Cary Fukunaga-scripted and -directed Black Count, and the feature AIR coming down the pipe.
With the second season of Underground having just started production and the pic Monster set to begin shooting next month, I chatted with Jackson about bringing hidden history to the screen — big and small. The EP also revealed the reality of partnering with a superstar, getting Hollywood to see the worth of spotlighting “smart, elevated” stories of struggle,and the onset of early Obama nostalgia. Jackson also dropped a couple of new projects Get Lifted is working on including a documentary about Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell and why they’ll keep examining mass incarceration in America.
DEADLINE: It looks like Get Lifted is solidifying its relationship with WGN America, going into a second season of Underground and developing a potential new series with Black Wall Street. So, long question short, why them?
JACKSON: The simplest way to answer that question is that WGN has offered us a platform. You know what I mean? A lot of networks don’t want to touch controversial subjects, and especially stuff that deals with race and history, and WGN stepped up as incredible partners and gave us that platform.
Prior to Underground airing, if you actually went to various networks around town and said, “We want to do a series about the Underground Railroad,” they would have laughed you out of the building. And you know, not only didn’t they laugh us out of the building, they gave us a straight-to-series order. Those very first impressions resonated so deeply, because we knew right away that we had partners, and then that they were kind of willing to do a deep dive and get into worlds that other networks were afraid to explore.
And I think we’re thankful for that, and it’s proven to be a successful formula after Season 1. I think that trust in them as a network and their belief in us as a production company has forged ahead and allowed us to get involved in our second project with them as well.
DEADLINE: Underground has certainly touched a nerve in America and for WGN America.
JACKSON: Look, we’re living in a crazy time right now. There’s a lot of craziness going on in the world and in the United States in particular. You know, racial tensions are tight. Technology’s become the great prism for what’s going on in the world, and I believe that the story of the Underground Railroad and the things that we touch upon in the series is still relevant, and, as importantly, it still resonates with audiences and folks of today. So, I think it’s really easy to draw parallels, unfortunately, to 1800s Antebellum South and 2016 America.
DEADLINE: Are these the type of projects you want to produce?
JACKSON: As far as the type of projects that we’re doing at Get Lifted, we just really like to shine a light on really important moments in time, and people that help create those moments. You know, we never set out to be a company that just highlighted black and brown, and all of our folks. But at the end of the day, we’re really just drawn to stories that do highlight our people and do show our people and people of color in a positive light.
We like to show Caucasian people in a positive light, like in Underground, as the first integrated civil rights movement of our country. We’re just really attracted to projects that have, that give folks without a voice a voice, they give people without platforms a platform, and that we can really feel proud to kind of put out there.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you think the track record of Hollywood on these topics and themes has been weak, at best?
JACKSON: Well, I think if you look at Hollywood as a whole and the type of content that they put out over the years, it’s pretty homogeneous, right? They haven’t done a really deep dive into a lot of stories of people of color. I don’t want to say that there haven’t been attempts, and there has been some great product that has come out over the years, but I think in 2016, we’re in a world of struggle. It’s not just about race, it’s also about the LGBT community too and others. There’s just so much negativity that surrounds sub-cultures of people in our country, and I think the fact that technology has caught up, we’re going to capture a lot of these moments and share them with the world.
I think it got to the point where Hollywood just can’t ignore it anymore, and you can’t say you’re unaware of the problems in America and the problems in the world. It would almost be beyond irresponsible if we as a community didn’t tell these stories. Now, to the point of telling stories that are more elevated in regards to the types of stories Get Lifted wants to tell, we feel a responsibility where if we’re going to put our name on something and put our energies behind it to develop it and produce it and get it out there, we want it to kind of represent our taste. And we know that there’s a lot of people that look like us and don’t look like us that are interested in really smart, elevated stories, and we want to kind of create content for those people.
DEADLINE: Like with the Barack and Michelle Obama first date movie Southside With You, which had a pretty solid opening weekend.
JACKSON: Oh my God, we’re so proud of Southside! You know, obviously we saw cuts of the film before it premiered at Sundance, but the response coming out of Sundance was tremendous. Then moving forward to the release date with all the press that’s kind of been circulating around the film, and the great job Tika’s doing and Parker’s doing in promoting the film, as well as, we couldn’t be more excited about everyone getting the chance to see this film.
We also feel that it’s timely, right? I mean, there are no third terms, so this is it for the President and the First Lady. And I think with the climate as it is around the Trump-Clinton race, I think people were kind of getting nostalgic for Barack, for the president. Also I really think people are going to be excited to see this love story, and it’s bipartisan. It’s just a love story, and it’s early stages of the life together of two tremendous people.
DEADLINE: For a lot of people, Get Lifted is John Legend’s production company. As his partner, is that a help or a hindrance or something in between?
JACKSON: I think a lot of people think that just because you have a celebrity attached to your company, that all things are easy. I don’t have a stat to back this up, but my experience has shown me that more often than not, celebrity production companies fail. John represents so many things that are great in this world. He’s passionate about so many things beyond music. He’s an activist. He cares about his friends and his family, so, and his community at large, so any affiliation to John Legend is always a wonderful thing.
Now, if we segue that relationship in our production company and being known as John Legend’s company, it does pique the interest of people, like, what is he up to, what is he doing? So, when we were first starting out, you could get a high-level meeting, you know, people want to hear what you have to say, mostly because you have John Legend in the room. But beyond that, having access to, some of the access that you get being affiliated with John, I mean, you have to do the work. You know what I mean? You actually have to roll up your sleeves and develop and go to set and be present in post. You have to do the work.
DEADLINE: To that end, Underground broke viewership records for WGN and saw wide critical acclaim but didn’t get a single Emmy nomination this year. Why do you think the show was snubbed?
JACKSON: Do we feel upset that we weren’t nominated? Of course we do. What the acknowledgment from the Academy does, it just lets you know that people are watching, and we know people are watching. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t disappointed, and I think collectively as our group felt that we were disappointed that we weren’t acknowledged in that way. But you know, The Americans weren’t acknowledged for many seasons as well, and there are other great shows that haven’t gotten that love right away. We believe that we produce a really, really great show, and the actors on the show are phenomenal. [Underground creators] Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] are the best at what they do, and we’re really excited to get back into Season 2.
In regards to the influx of black content and Roots and all these other shows, we’re really proud that these shows exist. We’re really proud to see programming that highlights people of color. We love Will Packer and what he did with Roots and we love Kenya and what he’s doing with Black-ish, and what Courtney’s doing with Power. These are all our contemporaries and our friends, and we’re all working towards the same common goal, and that’s just to put out great product, great material.
DEADLINE: Speaking of great material, your new series project Black Wall Street seems like another piece of hidden history.
JACKSON: Yes, this is another opportunity to explore a world that many folks don’t know about. In a similar fashion to Underground, which outside of the word Underground and Harriet Tubman, a lot of people didn’t know much, what attracted us to Black Wall Street was quite simply the fact that there was this period in American history, roughly 1910 to 1921, that there was black wealth and black prominence, and black-owned businesses. Not a black-owned business, but several businesses — banks, restaurants, everything — and it’s like we don’t know about it. It didn’t exist. It wasn’t in the history books.
There’s no such a place as Utopia, obviously, and this Black Wall Street ended in tragedy, but for a period of time, it probably felt like what Utopia would feel like. By that I mean, as far as the ability to live free, make decisions for yourself and your family without threat of violence, and to prosper based off of your own hard work for yourself and for your family. It is a story that shows us working together, showing us achieving levels of success, showing what a community really looks like if you build it and support one another, as opposed to fighting with one another.
DEADLINE: Black Wall Street is one of several projects you have in the pipeline – where is Black Count at? The Cary Fukunaga project based on Tom Reiss’ Pulitzer-winning 2012 bio of French Revolution-era General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was announced in 2014 but we haven’t heard much since.
JACKSON: (Laughs) Black Count is looking really good. We are working on the script. Cary is very focused on it right now. I don’t know exactly when he’ll finish, but we’re really excited with the progress. Obviously, he’s been busy the last couple of years, as have we, so it was the perfect time to kind of finally, like, get into Black Count over the last two or three months. So, we’re really excited about the direction we’re headed in, and look forward to all those next steps.
DEADLINE: You guys have been very active on the festival circuit in recent years. What’s on your plate for Toronto and then next year at Sundance?
JACKSON: We’re executive producers of La La Land, and John also acts in La La Land, and we have an original song, so we’ll be there to support the film in Toronto. La La Land is also opening the Venice Film Festival, and then it’s also at Telluride. And Damien Chazelle is brilliant, and the film is brilliant, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are phenomenal. So, we’re really proud to be a part of that film.
Outside of that we don’t know what’s going on with Sundance yet. We’re certainly going to take some shots. We have some projects that we’re really excited about. We’re going to hopefully get them into Sundance. No matter how we grow as a business, even if we are doing studio-level films, we’re always going to want to do smart, smaller independent films and documentaries as well, which is a big part of our portfolio.
DEADLINE: At the TV Academy last month, John talked about the documentary Get Lifted is doing with the Free America project.
JACKSON: It’s actually untitled at this point, so we just refer to it as our mass-incarceration documentary, but the hope is simple, man. We’re hoping we can get to get it out there, we want people to see it, we wanted to continue to engage the conversation with folks that can make decisions and help create change. The system is broken, and we can fix it. It’s not hard. We just have to do the work. We’re also going to continue to talk about mass incarceration, and the work to be done.
On that theme, we also have a film that we shot, that we’re executive producers of, and we’re in post on called OG. It stars Jeffrey Wright as a guy who’s been in prison for 30-plus years, and he’s two weeks away from his release. We examine what those last two weeks are like in his life from the perspective of awaiting release.
There’s one other documentary that I would mention that we’re working on, that we’re really excited about – it examines the relationship of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, all through archival footage.
DEADLINE: Who’s directing that?
JACKSON: We partnered with a guy named Josh Alexander who we worked with on Southern Rites, the HBO doc Gillian Laub directed last year. He was our producing partner on Southern Rites, and yeah, we’re just really jazzed about this project. It’s Ali.
DEADLINE: It’s very timely, with Ali’s death earlier this year.
JACKSON: Yeah. The general idea of the documentary exploring these two iconic figures is if you look at them as individuals, they’re very different people. Howard Cosell is a white, Jewish male, and Muhammad Ali, well … he was Cassius Clay at first when they met, and then he became Muhammad Ali. And the great thing about these two is that they, through their differences, were able to find this mutual respect, and it quite simply was done through communication and openness, and willingness to listen, and we’re hoping that that, that’s kind of what, that’s the message that people take from the film once we’re finished. It just feels applicable to the world today, and it’s like, if we could just take a minute and listen to each other, no matter how different we are, we could actually get along.
DEADLINE: On getting along, how has the overall deal with Legendary TV you inked two years ago working out?
JACKSON: Everyone at Legendary is great. We’re no longer there. Our deal is over. So, we’re no longer in our deal. We also made a deal at UCP prior to that, but the folks at Legendary are great. Bruce Rosenblum was a great captain, and we really enjoyed our time there.
DEADLINE: So, are you looking for another overall deal?
JACKSON: You know, never say never. We are enjoying the flexibility of not having the restrictions of certain studios on what networks you can sell to. So, to be able to have full autonomy is exciting to us. But you know, we’re always open to smart business decisions. So if a studio came to us and expressed interest in working with us, and we felt like it was beneficial to our business, then we would totally be open to it.
DEADLINE: Get Lifted opened its doors five years ago but it’s really been in the past two and a half years that things have borne fruit for you – I mean, nothing says yes like success and you guys have had a lot of that, but how has the transition been?
JACKSON: The great thing about the timing of the last couple of years when things started to really take off was, we had three years prior to really think about material and the type of stuff that we wanted to develop. So, we were ready for this shift that happened with the growth of our company. A lot of our projects, we partner with great people, so we get to share the wealth with, the workload, with them. And some of the stuff that we’re doing on our own, we just prioritize and get the work done.
To be completely honest, it is a blessing to be able to work in this business. So many people dream of working in Hollywood and move here with their hopes, and the fact we’re able to actually be a part of the Hollywood system and put out material is a blessing. So, we truly just look at it that way and just do the work.