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’s “whole producer speech” but found the new acquaintance “very modest, very humble.” He was skeptical in a town where he’d heard it all before and “everyone’s a producer, writer or movie director,” but Packer proved his persistence and shortly thereafter flew to Dallas to see Hart perform stand-up.
“Night School” (opening Friday) will be their seventh movie together. Hart’s character Teddy goes back to night school for his GED. An ensemble cast of downright bizarre misfits make up a modern “Breakfast Club” 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 “Girls Trip,” also produced by Packer.
Packer’s had nine consecutive No. 1 films. His 26 movies combined, including “Think Like a Man,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Ride Along,” have box office returns of more than $1 billion. An African-American filmmaker, he’s achieved cross-cultural appeal by putting quality of story and characters first.
“Audiences are very, very critical. There’s an oversaturation of content. So audiences are not going to spend their hard-earned dollars [on] anything,” said Packer. “They can smell it if the content isn’t interesting, it’s not engaging, it’s not quality. They just won’t come.”
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’s 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’s stand-up, laughing hysterically and repeating Hart’s catchphrases. Hart wasn’t yet on Hollywood’s radar “because at that time he didn’t have huge DVD sales numbers or box office numbers. That’s how the industry works. They like tangible numbers, so there was nothing quantifiable to see the heat that Kevin was generating on his own,” said Packer.
Packer thought, “If this guy had the right platform, if he had a movie platform, he could really pop and bring what’s working so well to broader audiences. And that’s what we did.”
The formula for success in their films together — including “About Last Night,” “The Wedding Ringer” and two “Ride Alongs” — is getting audiences to care about the characters they create. “Where does the heart come in? You have to have levels [of growth] or you just have a bunch of jokes,” said Hart.
Working together has inspired Hart to further develop the reach of his production company, Hartbeat Productions. It was because of Packer’s encouragement that the actor developed, co-wrote and co-produced “Night School.”
Hart’s 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. “Oh my God, we love the lead singer,” said Hart, “but the lead singer is the guy that every two seconds is going , ‘Please do me a favor and give it up for the saxophone player, give it up for Robert on the drums …’ ”
Said Packer, “He’s smart. The best are like that. They want the best people around them. You have some talent that’s insecure and they’re saying, ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m the funniest person on set. I don’t want anyone to infringe upon that.’ But that’s not who Kevin is.”
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.
“I’ve been through some of the roughest [times],” said Hart. “If you’re not going to be authentic and true to who you are … then who are you being?”
There seemed to be no angst or demons within this comedy star.
“In all seriousness, I don’t have time to be negative because that takes too much energy,” Hart said. “I’m so happy doing what I love and that people actually love what I chose to do.”