Moviebill has a 'Little' conversation with writer and director Tina Gordon

Universal Pictures’ “Little,” opening in theaters this Friday, has a fascinating origin, developing from an idea by star Marsai Martin, now officially the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history. Behind the camera, however, is another powerful talent without whom “Little” could never have become a reality. Meet Tina Gordon, who launched her career as a screenwriter with projects like “Drumline” and “ATL” and who made her directorial debut with the 2013 comedy “Peeples”. With “Little,” she is again directing from her own screenplay (with Tracy Oliver).

“Will Packer called me to work on the script,” Gordon recalls. “He told me that he had the amazing actress Marsai Martin, who had come into his office and pitched this idea and acted out scenes. I was like, ‘Isn’t she like 10?’ So he sent me the script and I started working on the script to get it ready for production as a writer. I had not come on as a director yet. I was just trying to solve some story problems and get it ready to go into production. Then I did that and I thought I would be on my way. Then he asked me to direct and I was very excited.”

(from left) Director and co-writer Tina Gordon and producer Will Packer on the set of Little.Although her first love was writing for the screen, Gordon has found her perfect artistic balance in helming her own screenplays in the same way that her cinematic heroes have.

“Spike Lee was my first time noticing that a black person could write these really realistic characters that were just funny and quirky,” says Gordon. “He blew my mind with ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. That was the beginning of that. Then I became interested in Nora Ephron. I just thought, ‘Wow, a female writer first and then director!’ Those were the early beginnings of me paying attention to the people behind the camera. Those were two that sort of made me think it was possible for me.”

Although the high concept plot of “Little” may seem familiar, Gordon’s aim is to deliver a story that, despite potentially seeming familiar to some, offers an angle that audiences have never seen before.

“It’s exciting to tell these stories through the black experience,” says Gordon. “Through new characters that bring new cultural references and different attitudes. You don’t want to give up on some of these tried and true story ideas, but you do want to be authentic to the story. I don’t really give it too much thought about, ‘I have to be different’ or ‘I have to make sure I’m not like that film or that film.'”

Part of what helps set “Little” aside is the fact that the characters themselves have seen movies like “Big” and “Freaky Friday” and are able to make use of the same pop culture touchstones.

“[There] are little winks to the fact that they’re from a real world,” Gordon continues. “These movies have been told by no one that looks like us, but they’ve been told many, many times through people that don’t look like us. That was just my way of saying that white people have experience this for a long time and they’re like, ‘It’s happening to us?! It can’t be happening to us! We don’t have the time!'”

Regina Hall as Jordan Sanders in Little, co-written and directed by Tina Gordon.After Martin, Regina Hall was the first actor to board “Little,” playing the adult version of the lead, Jordan. Fresh from the critical acclaim of last year’s “Support the Girls” and “The Hate U Give,” Hall was given the chance to cut loose and build Jordan into a protagonist that audiences will love to hate.

“She just, no matter what, has a good spirit to her,” explains Gordon. “She can be covered in mean, but somehow you’re still rooting for her. The audience still laughs at her meanness. I think it’s because audiences know that it’s just a wall she puts up… The audience knows that it isn’t who she truly is. She covers that up. I think that the audience remembers that and that they’re rooting for that part of her to come back… I must say, the character is written mean, but Regina took the mean to a level that even I had no anticipated. She seemed like she would relish the idea that she would embody this characteristic of mean. She was full of surprises and improv all the time.”

Improvisation can be tricky to do well, especially when your director is also the screenwriter.

“Some actors really don’t like it,” laughs Gordon. “Some actors do like it, but they can’t do it well so you wish that they didn’t like it. You’re like, ‘Damn. You just don’t have it. Don’t do it.'”

Fortunately for Gordon, “Little” boasts a central cast well adept at taking what’s on the printed page and adding something special.

“Regina added funny improvs,” Gordon continues, noting one particular moment where Jordan, furious that one of her employees, Scott (Marc Hawes), is eating during a meeting, takes the man’s apple and aggressively licks it. “Regina likes to do these quiet little sidebars to surprise me when we start rolling. She had had a quite sidebar with Scott and said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I said, ‘Oh my god!’ when I saw it.”

Of course, Gordon also has a powerful weapon in her comedy arsenal with Issa Rae. Rae, who plays Jordan’s hapless assistant, is able to have a lot of fun with a shifting power dynamic when her overbearing boss wakes up as a little girl.

(from left) Devon (Tucker Meek), Isaac (JD McCrary), little Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) and Raina (Thalia Tran) in Little, co-written and directed by Tina Gordon.“It was after I met Marsai and realized that she could really go toe to toe with a really funny woman like Issa and that the scenes wouldn’t be overwhelming to her,” says Gordon. “Then it came to life as this almost buddy comedy idea. A lot of scenes were added once I saw their acting off one another… Issa is very naturalistic and can be deadpan sometimes. Marsai is very strong, very powerful and very prepared. They have a different energy and it just links up in a great, comedic way.”

Gordon was also kind enough to indulge this reporter’s pedantic question about the film’s magic, specifically regarding two background characters who are targeted by the same magic wand that transforms Jordan. One is wished into a marshmallow and one is wished into a piece of chocolate cake. We don’t actually see either of them transform, but might they have woken up the next morning to find themselves desserts?

“I love that you asked that question,” Gordon laughs. “Because, believe me, that is the type of question a studio exec would ask. ‘Tina, you’ve left something unanswered!’ …What happened to the marshmallow guy? It’s a simple question. What happened to the marshmallow guy and how will be reversed? That’s the question that you need to answer. How will he be reversed back to his normal self? It’s a wormhole that I could discuss for the next hour. God, I feel like I should just give you an answer to let you off the hook. Let’s say that, in that case, Stevie’s magic is gonna be reversed. They are going to go on their own journey and they are going to figure out how to change themselves back. ‘Little 2: Still Little’!”

Check back with Moviebill later this week for our conversation with star Marsai Martin. In the meantime, click here to check out four clips from “Little”.

Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.