EXCLUSIVE: What better to liven up a quite Toronto Film Market than a package for a movie set in the rap arena, that has stars and a slam dunk a top-selling soundtrack?
Justice Smith, Idris Elba and Taylour Paige will star in We All Die Young, a drama that Hamilton star Daveed Diggs has scripted for Jake Schreier to direct. Schreier directed Robot & Frank and Paper Towns, and has worked closely with such rappers as Kanye West and Chance the Rapper. The film will be produced by Temple Hill’s Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen and Isaac Klausner with Diggs, Schreier and Benny Blanco. Rapper YG is exec producing and Aaron Lammer is co-producing. CAA Media Finance and WME will handle domestic distribution, while FilmNation handles international. Production begins in March.
Based on a story by Diggs and Chinaka Hodge, the film focuses on Marcus (Smith), a rapper in the midst of breaking big and undertaking the biggest live tour anyone has ever seen. At the same time, he’s under pressure to make new music and is hopelessly blocked. It’s a midlife crisis like Fellini’s 8 1/2. Only here, that crisis comes in his early 20s, because young Black men in the rap industry often don’t live to see 30.
“The film follows a rapper who reaches the ripe old age of 25, which in rap years, if you ask any of us who participate in the culture, starts to feel like you’re entering a different era,” Diggs told Deadline. “He’s had regional success but when we meet him he’s on the verge of his big crossover hit and is going to become a bona fide superstar. The life he’s leading is at odds with everything he grew up living. There is a cognitive dissonance between where you grew up and where you find yourself and you start to wonder why and how you got to this place. It’s not unique to rappers, but when you talk to these young kids who are blowing up real fast, you start to recognize this is the dilemma they deal with: how to speak to the culture they come from, living the life they’re living.
“Our character is at a place where he can’t create anymore,” said Diggs, who is the vocalist in the experimental hip hop group Clipping. “He launches onto this insane world tour, the biggest thing he’s ever been on, taking him all over the world and interacting with all kinds of new people. He can’t stop and he can’t make new music. And everyone wants new music. In order to deal with these demons he develops a Lean addiction, it’s also called Sizzurp. It’s prescription cough syrup that is often mixed with sweet soda.”
He meets a young women (Paige) who convinces him to take a breath, which puts him at odds to the owner of the record label (Elba) who raised Marcus and is his mentor.
“He stops the tour, and in the middle of the desert, builds himself a compound and tries to make the next great rap album, hoping that fixes his problems,” Diggs said. “We witness the unraveling of this very brilliant young man. Jake and I have been thinking about this a long time. We actually had a band together and when we were in Berkeley High School, Jake was my first music producer and is a big part of why I started making music. It’s an artistic mid-life crisis, like in Fellini’s 8 ½, but in the world of these young rappers where you grow up so much faster and sometimes in the communities we come from, you don’t live much longer than 25 or 26. That crisis tends to come a lot earlier. That’s the part that hits home for me about today. We’re a really interesting place in the rap world. It feels wide open, the music is interesting and the personalities that are blowing up are so all over the board, but we’re not seeing a decrease in the fragility of the life of young Black men who participate in the culture. There are countless numbers of young rappers killed every year, by addiction, by gun violence, all sorts of ways. That’s one of the really interesting things about this, an artist trying to cope with his mortality, and what do you do with that? It’s not an uncommon art story, but I don’t think it has been seen before through this lens. Jake has worked with everyone and viewed this life through his work with Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and Benny Blanco who’s on board and has worked with the biggest rappers in the game, and YG who’s one of my favorite rappers of the moment. Our main character is from Los Angeles and YG will help add authenticity to this. I’m excited about the team.”
Schreier said the short life span of so many rap artists is a fact of life in that business.
“I’m very close with Benny Blanco, who worked closely with Juice WRLD,” Schreier told Deadline of the rising rap star who died in late 2019 when he was just 21 after suffering a seizure in a Chicago airport. “He was an amazing artist but you hear in his music he didn’t expect to live past being young. It’s in the songs, the expectation he would not make it past 22 or 23, and where 25 seems old.
Said Diggs: “When we look at rappers, we don’t treat them like artists. We assume the telling of street stories is somehow innate and all we do is spit reality. But these people are creating art and the art of creating is really hard to do. It’s really, really hard to make a hit song and a true artistic endeavor.”
Schreier worked with Smith in the adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns, and called him “a brilliant young actor, with a depth to his performances. You connect with him so easily and he can really represent this new wave of rappers, a different artistic perspective of what it means to be a rapper these days. Idris plays Marcus’ label head, a father figure but also a menacing presence in his life. And Taylour plays this woman Marcus meets along the way, who is the impetus for him calling off the tour and setting up this crazy compound in the desert. I love the way Daveed writes about her in the script, how ‘her laugh is an oasis.’ She’s a breath of fresh air that he hasn’t experienced and plants in him the idea that there could be something more real if he can just stop and spend some time in this place. She’s the catalyst for how he tries to create in the desert.”
Diggs wasn’t sure he would use his own rapping talents, but Schreier sounds like he would try very hard to persuade him. He won’t be alone.
“We have Benny Blanco and YG and between the two of them, I couldn’t think of better people to create essentially a guaranteed hit soundtrack representing the biggest music in the world,” Schreier said. “They’ve actually done it over and over again in real life, and Benny is so good at bringing in all kinds of people to work with him in a very collaborative and open space. We think a lot of people in the music world will take part.”
The team has been working on this for some time, and it will not be difficult to be ready to shoot in March.
“I’ve storyboarded every shot of the film, created an animatic for the most complicated scene,” Schreier said. “Idris will be involved in the music, also. Everyone involved is there because they love each other and believe in the music.”
They will try to do something that is common in rock movies, but not so in rap films.
“The first third of this film is trying to cinematically express what it’s like to be on the biggest tour anyone has ever been on,” Diggs said. “It’s a crazy life, wild where everything blends together and you don’t know where you’re waking up the next day, the hotel rooms start to look like each other.”
Added Schreier: As for the Fellini side of the film Daveed mentioned, I’ve worked Drake, Kanye and Chance the Rapper and when you’re in that world, the reality is so surreal that surrealism is the only way to express it,” he said. “I’ve seen it up close, how joy and excitement can go right next to darkness. Having that balance is something that makes me excited about this, and to make a movie that gets in the head of what it’s like to be in that world. It will be populated with all kinds of people from the music world, a lot of cameos. We didn’t write anyone in the script that we weren’t sure would show up for us to be in this film.”