Superstar Kevin Hart and superproducer Will Packer play-bicker and tease each other as effortlessly as a comedic duo on tour. The banter belies a deep mutual respect between two colleagues who have experienced exponential growth and success since joining forces more than 11 years ago.
They first met at the Los Angeles airport in 2007. Hart remembers Packer‚Äôs ‚Äúwhole producer speech‚ÄĚ but found the new acquaintance ‚Äúvery modest, very humble.‚ÄĚ He was skeptical in a town where he‚Äôd heard it all before and ‚Äúeveryone‚Äôs a producer, writer or movie director,‚ÄĚ but Packer proved his persistence and shortly thereafter flew to Dallas to see Hart perform stand-up.
‚ÄúNight School‚ÄĚ (opening Friday) will be their seventh movie together. Hart‚Äôs character Teddy goes back to night school for his GED. An ensemble cast of downright bizarre misfits make up a modern ‚ÄúBreakfast Club‚ÄĚ with Hart as the ringleader.
Wrangling all of the students into doing the hard work and not taking shortcuts is teacher Carrie, played by Tiffany Haddish. She had a breakout summer last year, ignited by the success of ‚ÄúGirls Trip,‚ÄĚ also produced by Packer.
Packer‚Äôs had nine consecutive No. 1 films. His 26 movies combined, including ‚ÄúThink Like a Man,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúStraight Outta Compton‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúRide Along,‚ÄĚ have box office returns of more than $1 billion. An African-American filmmaker, he‚Äôs achieved cross-cultural appeal by putting quality of story and characters first.
‚ÄúAudiences are very, very critical. There‚Äôs an oversaturation of content. So audiences are not going to spend their hard-earned dollars [on] anything,‚ÄĚ said Packer. ‚ÄúThey can smell it if the content isn‚Äôt interesting, it‚Äôs not engaging, it‚Äôs not quality. They just won‚Äôt come.‚ÄĚ
Packer has always done things a little differently, like living in Atlanta, focusing on mid-budget films instead of blockbusters, having a specific target audience in mind for his movies and focusing on what‚Äôs popular and hot outside of the bubbles of Los Angeles and New York.
Not prescribing to Hollywood methods helped Packer discover Hart. That, and he can thank his son.
The boy, then a preteen, repeatedly watched bootleg videos of Hart‚Äôs stand-up, laughing hysterically and repeating Hart‚Äôs catchphrases. Hart wasn‚Äôt yet on Hollywood‚Äôs radar ‚Äúbecause at that time he didn‚Äôt have huge DVD sales numbers or box office numbers. That‚Äôs how the industry works. They like tangible numbers, so there was nothing quantifiable to see the heat that Kevin was generating on his own,‚ÄĚ said Packer.
Packer thought, ‚ÄúIf this guy had the right platform, if he had a movie platform, he could really pop and bring what‚Äôs working so well to broader audiences. And that‚Äôs what we did.‚ÄĚ
The formula for success in their films together ‚ÄĒ¬†including ‚ÄúAbout Last Night,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Wedding Ringer‚ÄĚ and two ‚ÄúRide Alongs‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ is getting audiences to care about the characters they create. ‚ÄúWhere does the heart come in? You have to have levels [of growth] or you just have a bunch of jokes,‚ÄĚ said Hart.¬†
Working together has inspired Hart to further develop the reach of his production company, Hartbeat Productions. It was because of Packer‚Äôs encouragement that the actor developed, co-wrote and co-produced ‚ÄúNight School.‚ÄĚ
Hart‚Äôs role as producer is similar to his approach as an actor. A consummate team player, Hart is an A-Lister who relishes being cast in an ensemble and sharing the spotlight.
He likens his role as lead actor to that of a lead singer in a band. ‚ÄúOh my God, we love the lead singer,‚ÄĚ said Hart, ‚Äúbut the lead singer is the guy that every two seconds is going , ‚ÄėPlease do me a favor and give it up for the saxophone player, give it up for Robert on the drums ‚Ä¶‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Said Packer, ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs smart. The best are like that. They want the best people around them. You have some talent that‚Äôs insecure and they‚Äôre saying, ‚ÄėI‚Äôve got to make sure I‚Äôm the funniest person on set. I don‚Äôt want anyone to infringe upon that.‚Äô But that‚Äôs not who Kevin us.‚ÄĚ
During our conversation, Hart seemed to light up when talking about his castmates and their story arcs in the film. He seemed happy. He relished his new role as producer in a major film and working alongside Packer again.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve been through some of the roughest [times],‚ÄĚ said Hart. ‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre not going to be authentic and true to who you are ‚Ä¶ then who are you being?‚ÄĚ
There seemed to be no angst or demons within this comedy star.
‚ÄúIn all seriousness, I don‚Äôt have time to be negative because that takes too much energy,‚ÄĚ Hart said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm so happy doing what I love and that people actually love what I chose to do.‚ÄĚ