In 2017, director Emmett Malloy (The White Stripes’ Under Great White Northern Lights, Thicker Than Water, A Brokedown Melody) announced he would be making a documentary about the late great Notorious B.I.G.
As you’d expect, the project was an epic undertaking, but unlike other Biggie films, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell focuses on the late rapper’s life rather than his demise, digging deep into his Jamaican roots, his upbringing on the mean streets of Brooklyn, and his meteoric rise to fame. It’s an incredible film, but you’ll have to wait till March 1 to watch it. In the meantime, get your goosebumps with the trailer above and check out our behind-the-scenes pics and interview with Emmett below.
First question, Emmett: How was the pressure on you to get this film right? It must’ve been heavy.
Oh yeah, and I got to carry that internally. This film was announced in 2017 and I’ve been making it quietly ever since. It took me quite a while to get the idea right where Netflix and everybody were signed off and ready to send me on my way to make it; but short of that, nobody said a word.
How was that for you?
Actually, it was cool because I didn’t have to sit and reflect on it and hear about it and feel it in that way. So, I got right into the innards of sitting with Biggie’s mom for a long lunch at the Red Lobster in the Poconos.
Yeah, up in the mountains outside of New York. So, right away I kinda got her and the management—who are all his boys from when he was young, and who have been managing his estate this last couple of decades. They were just like, you know, ‘It’s your film, Emmett. Do what you do.’
Wow. That must’ve been a huge relief.
Yeah. I’ve done enough [documentaries] to know that the thing you struggle with most is access. Sometimes I’ll get to make a film, but then in the end, ultimately, the access wasn’t that great. But I’ll find something cool to make of it, but it won’t be one of the one’s where you feel like, ‘Oh man, I got it!’
But you got instant access on Biggie.
Yeah. I got to move into that headspace pretty quickly because they liked me and they gravitated to my ideas, and they gave me their trust. They were like, ‘Good fuckin’ luck.’ [laughs]
It sounds too good to be true.
Well, over those three years I had to win every friend over one-by-one just by, you know, being myself.
I imagine Biggie’s family would be able to smell disingenuity from a mile off.
Oh yeah, I think in the end they could tell I was a good person.
Having Biggie’s mother onside must’ve been helpful in getting other people involved?
Yeah, it was very much, ‘This is the [film] the mom really wants to do, so would you be in it?’ But there were still a lot of no’s.
Yeah, but one of the things that helped me was going to Jamaica. I got to go to Jamaica first…
Biggie’s folks were from Jamaica, right?
Right, and that was the story that really stood out to me when I started to work on this with my writer, Sam Sweet, who is a really great writer; he got into the innards of why the neighbourhood that [Biggie] grew up in is super-critical of [his] story, and those were the things I really wanted to bring out in this because it was so much about, ‘How can we not make this the same old thing?’ It felt like this impossible undertaking.
So it wasn’t difficult to get Biggie’s mum on-side?
Well, you always want a simple pitch and you often struggle to have it, but it was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we make the film about his life rather than his death?’
Which is awesome.
Right, and it just slid me right through the competition.
The other people pitching film ideas?
Yeah, because you know, I was just an outsider, and this was one time being an outsider had an advantage.
Based on the trailer for the film, it looks like this is the first time the audience gets to meet the real Biggie, the real Chris [Wallace]. Is that about right?
Yeah, we got to really get in there, and we got the footage from his boy, D-Roc [Damien Butler].
Yeah, and D-Roc has this footage that allowed us to dig a little deeper and present Biggie in a way where you feel him in the film, you feel what he was like, the incredible personality he had, his sense of humour…
He was funny?
Oh yeah. In the beginning, I thought, like anybody, that he was dark all the way around, you know? The character bled into my version of what I thought his reality was. His stage presence made me feel, like, fuuuck, but that’s because he was good at what he did, but it was a total eye-opener.
So shooting in Jamaica first was what opened the door to other people?
Yeah, I came back from Jamaica with this great thing to show D-Roc, to show Puff (Sean Combs) and show everybody like, ‘Look, I already interviewed his grandmother,’ and they were like, ‘Woah.’ They didn’t know these people existed. They knew his upbringing, but this was all new even to them. So yeah, the whole project took four years but I was persistent and just moving it along slowly.
I love that this is a film about Biggie’s life because, as you said, every other doco is almost exclusively about his death.
Yeah, we made a film about his life; that’s what you’ll watch. We ended up having to make it a little more… You know, you’re with Netflix and you’ve got these fans that weren’t even born when this was going on, so they gave me some strong roadmaps along the way like how to make sure people don’t need to go Wikipedia while watching the movie, you know? [laughs]
And I’m a filmmaker that listens and wants to make the best version of the film I can make; I listen to all the helpful hints along the way. We kind of thought this movie would just hover around the Ready to Die album, but our approach changed and the film ended with the release of Ready to Die because that was his big moment. It felt important to take it all the way through with his life, but I think we did it in a cool way.
I think people are going to trip out watching a Biggie movie that hasn’t been shared down the middle with Pac, too.
That’s been done enough.
Yeah. And we didn’t have anything new to offer anyway, so we made a film about how he became an artist, a film that focuses on his talent, his relationship with his mother…
What did his mum think of the finished film?
She was just really complimentary and super-impressed with the honesty of it. That was kinda the biggest thing.
The thumbs up from Biggie’s mum.
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is out on Netflix March 1st.