Leslie Small is an L.A. based Writer/Producer/Director best known for the Kevin Hart films What Now, Let Me Explain, and Laugh At My Pain. Mocha Man Style journalist Lloyd Gite recently sat down with the 48-year old Small for this interview.
Mocha Man Style: We know what a writer does, but what does a producer and director do?
Small: The producer is basically the manager. He brings everything together. The producer goes out and finds the money and the creative product – idea, script, and develops it. He will then hire the director and oversee the hiring of the talent. Once the director is in place, he sort of becomes the plant manager. His job is to take the vision of the producer and make it manifest.
MMS: What are you currently working on?
Small: Right now we’re getting ready to do a Bernie Mack tribute film. I’m also developing a film for Lionsgate called All-Star Weekend and a series for Comedy Central called Out Late.
MMS: How did you get into the film industry?
Small: I was playing in a neighborhood band when I was about 10 or 11. We were playing in my father’s garage in L.A. when Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire happened to be driving by and heard us. We sounded terrible. However, he agreed to mentor us. From there, we were introduced to Barry White and Marvin Gaye. I came up in an environment where I was around these huge celebrities that were from neighborhoods in L.A. just like ours. They all had ideas about politics, religion, life, family and community. These were wonderful lessons. I was seeded in this environment. I’ve always been creative but this was something else.
MMS: Early on, you were never trained in film. How did you get that first job?
Small: Master P had a company called No Limit Films in 1988-89. He said, “I got $5,000 for you and I need a commercial done for an artist for his album cover.” He said if you can shoot a commercial for $5,000 that looks right, then you can come work for us. We took the $5,000 and made a wonderful commercial with one light and one camera. He loved it and they brought me in to start producing and directing for No Limit Films.
MMS: You have done several films for Kevin Hart, one of the hottest comedians in the world right now. How did that come about?
Small: I was doing Shaq’s All-Star Comedy Jam and my guys were like you’ve got to have Kevin Hart on the show. I wanted another comedian on the show because I didn’t really know who Kevin Hart was. When one of the comedians got sick, I decided to go with him. I figured I’d put him on first to warm up the crowd. He was so brilliant that in the actual film he closes the show. By the time we finished editing, he was the headliner. That was in 2009. I’ve been working with him ever since. It’s become a wonderful relationship.
MMS: What is Kevin like?
Small: Kevin is really funny. He’s very smart, extremely intelligent. What’s great about him is he’s profoundly locked into what he wants to do. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever been around. I don’t know when he goes to sleep. He is also humble. While he’s probably one of the biggest stars in the world right now, he’s still touchable. You can still have a good conversation with him.
MMS: You have a B.S. in Psychology, a Master’s in Statistics, and a PhD in Economics. Who in the film industry does that?
Small: I was doing a documentary on Louis Farrakhan and I was at his home one day. At the table were Drs. Nathan and Julia Hare, Dr. Naheim Akbar, and several others. They were having an academic discussion about the climate of young black men in America. Up to that point, my life had been purely creative and I realized that I didn’t have the intellectual capability to participate in the conversation. That bothered me. When I finished my project, I went back to school and went straight through to my PhD.
MMS: Let’s talk about racism in the film industry and in Hollywood.
Small: I look at racism as a constant and it’s going to be there. It was there before I was here. It’s going to be there after me. Focusing on racism has you moving side to side which means you don’t move forward, and I’m always trying to take a step forward in a perpetual way. The best defense against racism is our success.
MMS: How do you describe Leslie Small?
Small: I’m a teacher. That’s my essence. No matter what I do in an environment, I’m always teaching. Secondly, I’m a consumer of a lot of information. I have a voracious appetite for reading. I probably read more today than most graduate students. Third is compassion. I am concerned about the narrative of black men, specifically globally. When I was in grad school, I did all my work in places like Vietnam, Hanoi, China. I studied how to eradicate poverty in third world countries that didn’t have technological advances. So I’ve lived in the most impoverished environments in the world. One of the things I found out was the narrative about the black man around the world was horrible. We were thought to be rapists and drug addicts. Everything about us was negative. My goal was to transform that narrative so that when you think about the African-American male, it doesn’t have a negative connotation.
MMS: What do you say to young African-American men who want to get into the film industry?
Small: Be great at something. Not good. Find one thing and be the best at it. Whenever I wish to hire somebody, I’m looking for someone who has the capability to transcend our understanding of that area. If you’re going to be an editor or graphics artist, be the best editor or graphic artist. At that point you are defensible. I can say I’m bringing you to the table because there is no one better than you. Never be comfortable being mediocre. Be great.