Lifetime’s Aaliyah: The Princess Of R&B doesn’t air until Saturday, November 15 at 8 p.m. but it’s already been through its fair share of controversy. Aaliyah Dana Haughton, the hit-making R&B singer who joined with Missy Elliott and Timbaland to create some of the 90’s most seductive, ahead-of-its-time hits, died in a plane crash on the way back from a video shoot in the Bahamas in 2001. She was just 22.
Aaliyah’s family is not in support of the project, so some of Aaliyah’s music couldn’t be used.The original star, Disney actress Zendaya Coleman was set upon by social media to the point she dropped out of the movie. Singer/actress Alexandra Shipp replaced her and the movie went on with Wendy Williams as an executive producer and Angela Bassett in her first directorial role.
BAW Correspondent Shirley Vernae caught up with Executive Producer Debra Martin Chase screenwriter Christopher John Farley to discuss the behind the scenes controversy and more.
BAW: After you knew all of Aaliyah’s music wouldn’t be available why did you decide to continue? And how did you feel about the family not supporting this film?
Debra: Most of the music was available. There were only a few songs that weren’t available. We’re trying to honor this woman. We’re trying to tell the story of her journey of overcoming obstacles. We felt we had enough music to tell the film. We were excited about the music. We moved forward because we were really excited about what we had.
Chris: We were making a movie to pay tribute to the artist. The music is a compliment to that ,but really the story we’re telling is of a woman overcoming obstacles to get her dream. That’s why people will tune in and like the movie.
How did this movie get to Lifetime?
Debra: Lifetime came to me. They had been thinking about doing a movie. and seeing if I’d be interested. Sparkle happened a couple of years ago and had it’s own tragedy associated with it. In doing press for Sparkle, I found myself talking a lot about Aaliyah [Aaliyah was originally due to star in the Sparkle remake]. When I got approached to do the movie it was about me celebrating her and making sure she was not forgotten. And introducing the story of her life to the new generations.
Chris: I came to the story when I first interviewed Aaliyah. One of the most dynamic performers on the scene, her final album was top 10 on my list for the year. She was someone breaking ground in style, music and movies. I wanted to get her in Time Magazine and I wanted to get her story in front of readers. When she passed, I was distraught. The lost of a human being, which is terrible and her music – not knowing where it was going to go from there. I then wrote a book about her life.
How many people did you audition for the role?
Debra: We did a North America-wide search. It was really kind of like no stone unturned. There were hundreds of people looked at. We saw the cream of the crop. Biopics are very hard to cast. We were looking for a great actress. Also, there has to be a physical similarity so the person can remind you of them. They had to be able to dance, because dance was an important part of who Aaliyah was. Finding those things in the right person was critical. We got incredibly fortunate with Alex, that she was a credible singer. We saw her in the first go-round and she ended up taking another movie. When Zendaya decided to leave the production, Alex was wrapping up, so the timing worked out perfect.
How did Alexandra Shipp do in bringing Aaliyah to life?
Chris: At the end of the day, if you have the right intentions and keep moving forward, you end up where you’re supposed to be. Alex did an amazing job of capturing and embodying and making the movie shine. We started with Zendaya and she’s fantastic. We have no doubt she would have done a version that was great too, but she chose not to proceed.
Debra: Alex lights up the screen. She’s fantastic. She embodies Aaliyah and I couldn’t be more excited that she did it in every way. A lot of this we owe to Alex. It was a huge acting challenge for many different reasons. Alex dug in and did a great job of showing the age evolution.
Chris: Singing, dancing, choreography – she was remarkable and a trouper. Alex did her own singing. She re-recorded the songs.
How will fans and viewers react to her relationship on screen with R. Kelly?
Chris: R. Kelly was apart of her life. He’s not the entire movie, but he was apart of her life emotionally and a musical influence. The actor who played R. Kelly was really fantastic and I hope the viewers and her fans will appreciate all he brought to her life. We’re excited about it.
Debra: The evidence is there that they were married. We tried to be very tasteful and respectful our portrayal, but it’s there.
Chris: They’ve published a wedding certificate. It’s not fiction or drama, it’s facts. It’s a public record.
Why do you think this story is so important?
Chris: I thought this was important to tell because Aaliyah added something new to the hip-hop culture. She found a place for women to raise their voice. Beyonce said she was someone who deeply influenced her. A lot of people wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Aaliyah. . Hopefully people will look at it and say ‘Hey, I can do that too.’ She has a very active fan base that loves her very much to this day but for new generations and people who weren’t there at her prime we wanted to make sure they knew who she was and to celebrate her life.
What would you like for the viewers to take away from the movie?
Debra: For me it’s on a more human level, she was just a really special young woman. At the time of her death, I was developing Sparkle for her. I had been in communication with her and I remember we had lunch – tea – at The Peninsula a month before she died. She was captivating, charming, smart, really intellectually curious, lovely– she was really special. For me personally, and for the team in general, we wanted people to realize that.
Chris: One thing I was struck by when I interviewed Aaliyah was her sense of herself and musical history, her grace and her sense of style. She was a great role model, not just for artists but for people who listen to her music. I was so glad when Lifetime decided to make this movie. They’re celebrating young women. Saying ‘Yes, your lives matter, let’s celebrate Aaliyah and your culture as well.’
Have you tried to reach out to her family?
Chris: We reached out to the family before it was filmed and they chose not to cooperate. We absolutely reached out and Lifetime reached out. That’s the status. They choose not to cooperate
Have they seen the movie?
Chris: Not that I’m aware of.
Media correspondent Shirley Vernae Williams is a NYC based TV producer who specializes in all things productions. From overseeing series for networks such as VH1, A&E & WeTV, Shirley also produces original content, writes and brings us exclusive interviews and coverage. Be sure to follow Shirley on Twitter @ShirleyVernae. To contact Shirley or read more about her visit www.shirleyvernae.com