The 1989 film “Steel Magnolias,” an appealing ode to female bonding and the frailty of life, developed a beloved fan base and rewarded Julia Roberts with her first Academy Award nomination.
Robert Harling, who wrote the original play in 1987, was thrilled to see his stage version continue to be revived the next two decades. But he wondered if there was a viable way to get it back on screen — this time with a black cast.
Enter Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, a duo who produced the Emmy-nominated version of “A Raisin in the Sun” with Atlanta director Kenny Leon in 2008. They hired Leon to direct and help cast the TV update of the film. Leon knew the source material well because he did a multi-ethnic casting of “Steel Magnolias” a decade ago at his Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company.
The Lifetime cable TV network, which targets women viewers, jumped aboard and debuts the remake, at 9 p.m. Sunday
Though “Steel Magnolias” is fictionally set in Louisiana, Leon convinced Lifetime and the producers to shoot the TV version in his home city earlier this year.
“It wasn’t a hard sell,” Leon says. “We have great tax breaks and Craig and Neal have already had good experiences here” as producers of the 2011 remake of the film “Footloose” and the Lifetime drama “Drop Dead Diva,” both shot in metro Atlanta.
They cast Queen Latifah — who worked with Zadan and Meron on the film versions of “Chicago” and “Hairspray” — in the role of the mother, M’Lynn, played by Sally Field in the original movie. Leon chose Phylicia Rashad’s daughter Condola to play Roberts’ role as the stubborn diabetic daughter Shelby.
The film remains faithful to the original, keeping many of the most resonant lines, including Shelby’s early pronouncement, “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” Leon even revisits the line at the end of the film because “I want viewers to walk away with the idea that life is precious.”
Leon does incorporate elements specific to African-American culture. For instance, at the wedding reception scene, the guests do a Soul Train-style line dance. And when Shelby gets her hair cut, her mother saves the clippings, a gesture reflecting the importance of hair in black culture.
“Even when people die, things you miss is that smell,” Leon says. “I sort of had that in my mind with that hair. And it wasn’t a weave or a wig. That was Shelby’s hair.”
“I felt like the more specific you can make it to the culture,” he adds, “the more universally appealing it would be.”
Leon also added three scenes to flesh out the male characters beyond their roles than in the movie version.
And, because the film is set in 2012, the scriptwriters sprinkle in references to Facebook, “Bridezillas,” Beyonce and Michelle Obama.
Several of the actresses, including Alfre Woodard, had never seen the original film — and avoided it on purpose. Woodard plays the irascible Ouiser with far more subtlety than Shirley MacLaine. Others from the cast who were deeply familiar with the film, such as Jill Scott — who portrays Dolly Parton’s sassy hairdresser Truvy — says she had to “wipe it all away from my mind.”
Phylicia Rashad — cast as the chipper, yet elegant, widow Clairee — says the storyline helped draw her to the TV remake, and not just because her daughter plays a key role in it.
“You could put this story in Ireland,” she says. “You could put this story in Batswana. At the heart of this, it’s about humanity that’s universal. It’s about women who really love each other.”
Camaraderie on the set
Leon says he had to make concessions the original filmmakers didn’t have to worry about. For instance, he had only 18 shooting days, where the original had 50. And he had to trim the film to 89 minutes — 30 minutes shorter than the original. That meant some scenes, such as the egg hunt, were cut and dialogue significantly tightened.
Given the time crunch, Leon worked to develop quick camaraderie with the cast.
“From the first day, I said, ‘We can’t spend any time in our trailers. We can’t waste time in makeup. We have to spend our time on set.’ The women were committed and they delivered.”
And when Leon became frustrated, instead of cursing, he pressed a button on a gag box that cursed for him.
“It doesn’t matter how tired you are, how many hours we worked,” says Latifah, “when he presses this button, it just breaks the mood. You’re having a serious conversation and it’s like, ‘What?’ That helped me out.”
9 p.m., Sunday, Lifetime.