Honey Daniels (JESSICA ALBA, of television’s Dark Angel) has been waiting all her life to show the world her dance moves and now, everything she ever wanted is just a step away.
For years, her spirit and her ambition have given the dancer and aspiring choreographer the guts to move ahead, even when those who love her best have doubts about her possible success in such a tough field. Not content with her parents’ world of safe choices that promise a secure future, Honey has moved to the heart of the city, where the streets are a barrage of sound, energy and music—and it’s the music she’s after.
Living there is difficult, but she is willing to take it all in stride while she continues to struggle with making ends meet—her dream is worth it. During the day, she shares that dream by teaching hip-hop classes in a local center to the kids in her neighborhood. At night, watching the clock until her bartending shift ends, Honey comes alive on the dance club floor, where her training collides with her passion and her smooth moves get her noticed.
And then her one-time-in-a-million break comes in the form of a video director, who sees Honey in the club and offers her a chance at a spot as a back-up dancer. From there, her true ability shines through, and she begins to finally live her dream—choreographing for some of the hottest acts in hip-hop and R&B (Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, Jadakiss & Sheek, Tweet) and for Honey, it feels too good to be true.
And almost as quickly as it arrives, the dream starts to dissolve. Back in the workaday world, Honey returns to what she knows best—the urban music she loves—and rediscovers her love of dancing though the exuberant energy of a group of neighborhood kids.
A high-energy drama with music, Honey also stars LIL’ ROMEO, winner of the 2001 Billboard Music Award for “Rap Artist of the Year,” as Benny, a kid who needs a break even more than Honey does. MEKHI PHIFER (8 Mile) portrays Chaz, Honey’s boyfriend with no angle to work—he’s the constant, the real thing, the down-to-earth voice of reason who just wants Honey happy and in his life. JOY BRYANT (Antwone Fisher) plays Honey’s protective, best friend Gina, who views her pal’s newfound success with equal parts excitement and skepticism. The young, vibrant cast also includes DAVID MOSCOW (Just Married), ZACHARY ISAIAH WILLIAMS (TV’s Romeo!) and LONETTE MCKEE (He Got Game), with cameo appearances by hip-hop/R&B stars MISSY ELLIOTT, GINUWINE, 3rd STOREE, SHAWN DESMAN, TWEET, and JADAKISS & SHEEK.
BILLE WOODRUFF, who has directed music videos for stars including Usher, Britney Spears and Toni Braxton, debuts as a feature film director with this multi-ethnic contemporary urban drama energized by music and propelled by dance. The film is written by ALONZO BROWN & KIM WATSON. Veteran filmmaker MARC PLATT (Legally Blonde) and music mogul ANDRE HARRELL (Strictly Business) serve as producers, with BILLY HIGGINS (Simon Burch) executive producing.
The film’s exciting soundtrack includes a diverse lineup of some of the best R&B, hip-hop and urban music superstars working in music today. New songs from Missy Elliott, Fabolous, Tweet, Yolanda Adams, Knocturnal, Amerie and Nate Dogg are just a few of the musical offerings, with additional contributions from Sean Paul, Blaque featuring Chingy, Lil’Mo, Mark Ronson and Jadakiss & Sheek.
The creative team behind the scenes includes director of photography JOHN R. LEONETTI (The Scorpion King); production designer JASNA STEFANOVICH (Josie and the Pussycats); editors MARK HELFRICH, A.C.E. (Red Dragon) and EMMA E. HICKOX, A.C.E. (A Walk to Remember); costume designer SUSAN MATHESON (Blue Crush); composer MARVYN WARREN (The Wedding Planner); and entertainment industry choreographer LAURIEANN GIBSON. All of the songs in Honey are original compositions by songwriter/producer RODNEY JERKINS, who has created hits for artists including Britney Spears, Toni Braxton, Brandy, Monica, Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Lopez.
About the Production
Having attained success within the music industry as an initiator of some of hip-hop’s most groundbreaking and creative ventures, Andre Harrell was looking for a new challenge…and the film industry seemed a natural place to explore. Harrell knew that hip-hop culture was a treasure trove rich with characters and stories that could easily be translated to the screen. A screenplay by Alonzo Brown & Kim Watson about a dancer who wants to attain success outside of her urban neighborhood proved to have the right elements.
Harrell says, “So much of the music that I’m involved in deals with stories about finding your dreams. There’s a lot about empowerment—so many of the artists I work with are all about that. It’s about taking action, it’s about taking chances, which is exactly what I’ve always done in my career. Dreams don’t just happen, you create them. And that’s the idea that drives Honey, this kind of hip-hop rags-to-riches-to-reality story, so I was glad to roll up my sleeves and get involved with it.”
Marc Platt didn’t need much persuasion when Harrell approached him with the screenplay for Honey. Platt was already familiar with the way the genre had spread well beyond its urban origins. He had witnessed its cross-cultural popularity and was eager to become involved with the subject matter.
Platt offers, “I welcomed the great opportunity to produce this film and surround myself with the culture, the people, the music, the feel and the kids—in a way that is exciting, exhilarating and hopeful.”
With a commitment from Platt, it soon became time to find a director to bring the story to the screen, and Harrell thought of Bille Woodruff. Woodruff had established himself as a visually astute director of music videos for such artists as Britney Spears, Usher and The Backstreet Boys.
Platt wasn’t initially familiar with Woodruff’s work, but was impressed by the talent he saw. He comments, “I thought if he can evoke that kind of emotion and character in three minutes, think what he can do in the course of a full-length feature film.”
It became clear that Woodruff’s experience in directing music videos would be an asset to Honey’s urban-infused energy. “It’s a world Bille knows and since we’re exploring this world, the truthfulness, the spirit and energy of it, it’s something he can intuit and recognize easily,” adds Platt.
Woodruff wasn’t entirely sure that, as a music video director, he wanted his first feature film to be about hip-hop, but he soon saw the potential of the project. Honey was a chance to draw on his considerable knowledge about the world in which the film unfolds, while being able to showcase some of his more nascent skills.
Woodruff says, “It is a blessing that my first film draws on stuff that I’m very familiar with. But then I also get to show that I can handle narrative and tell a good story on a larger scale.”
Woodruff approached the script with the eye of an expert and remembers, “We talked about ways to keep it realistic, given my background in the world of music videos, hip-hop and rock. So we included some things that can happen, given the real world that comes into Honey’s story.”
Honey’s theme of overcoming adversity to make your dreams come true struck a deep chord in Woodruff; it took him back to his own childhood dreams. He offers, “The script appealed to me because I’d seen movies like Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Flashdance, Mahogany and Breakin’—they all spoke to me in a certain way. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a famous dancer, or a singer, or a rock star.”
The director also responded to the story’s inspirational quality and continues, “The idea of Honey’s journey got me excited. People often see these kind of stories and relate them to their own lives and the goals they would like to achieve. It would be a dream of mine to inspire a dream in a kid who sees this picture.”
Finding an actress with the right balance of emotion, sensibility, spirit and physicality to fill the role of Honey proved to be key for the filmmakers, who combed the music video and acting worlds to find their star.
Woodruff remembers it being a very grueling process in which the filmmakers and the studio explored several possibilities of how the film could be cast. He explains, “I’m very happy with the cast we found for the picture. I learned a lot through the casting process, especially that it’s very difficult because there are so many good actors and actresses. Sometimes you have to look for such a subtle quality that you really just can’t define.”
When Jessica Alba appeared in Marc Platt’s office, it suddenly became very clear that Honey Daniels had arrived. “There was something about Jessica that embodied that spirit, drive and determination of our title character,” says producer Platt.
Woodruff agrees, “It’s obvious to anyone who meets her that Jessica is a very strong person, very opinionated and very direct. I knew that she had the strength and the stamina to pull this off. I felt she could draw you into the story and take you along on her journey. I was aware of her work from Dark Angel and her beautiful, beautiful face, as well as her L’Oreal commercial. She just walked in and I liked her and she liked me. We had the same concerns about the character, we had the same notes and the same things that we wanted to bring out in Honey. So it just worked.”
Alba was also inspired by films she saw in her childhood and particularly remembers watching Flashdance as a child. She explains, “I’ve been waiting for a story like that. So Honey is a dream come true for me. This is a story people can identify with. The character of Honey is real and smart—she realizes her real love and passion is sharing the dance with the kids in her urban neighborhood. These kids could fall into gang-banging or into drugs and she provides them with a positive outlet.”
Though a naturally athletic person, Alba had never before taken dance lessons. Choreographer Laurieann Gibson had limited time to get the actress prepared to execute Honey’s smooth moves. Platt describes Alba as being up for the challenge and offers, “She worked for months in aerobics class, exercise class, workouts, and then lots and lots of dance training. She’s able to inhabit the character of Honey. The dance becomes second nature to her and the movement is an expression of who she is.”
For the role of her supportive boyfriend Chaz, Alba suggested Mekhi Phifer. “Mekhi is amazing. I felt he was the only person who could play Chaz. His presence and his heart just glow through,” Alba says.
Platt concurs, “When you watch Mekhi, you’re riveted. There’s something striking about his good looks, his performance, and his affability—which just comes through in the course of this film. The chemistry between him and Jessica is real and he makes Chaz a real, warm character.”
Woodruff recalls, “Mekhi met with Jessica and me first and we were both thinking, ‘I hope he likes us.’ Fortunately, he did. His thoughts about Chaz reflected the same types of thoughts that I had been having, and he was a great choice for this character with a great heart.”
The filmmakers worked to accommodate Phifer’s shooting schedule on NBC’s long-running, critically acclaimed drama, ER. Platt notes, “I was intent on having Mekhi in the film and he was intent on playing this character and luckily we both made it work.”
Chaz’s qualities appealed to Phifer because “he’s a motivator, a support structure for Honey. He’s successful at what he does and he doesn’t have to worry with trying to find himself.”
Honey was also a welcome departure from the film work the young actor had previously done. “This is one of the first movies I’ve done,” smiles Phifer, “that I can bring my son, my grandparents and everyone I know to see.”
The producers also wanted to involve some up-and-coming talents in Honey. “I was working on a project with Lil’ Romeo’s father, Master P, when I first met him,” explains Platt. “As Honey started to evolve, it just came into my head—Lil’ Romeo is Benny.”
Woodruff is also effusive in his praise of the young star. “Lil’ Romeo is a superstar with a million-dollar face. He takes it very seriously by studying his lines and always being prepared. And he takes direction perfectly. The subtlest little thing that I ask him to do with his eyes at the end of the scene to convey a certain emotion—he nailed it every single time.”
“He’s a great dancer, but he has a real bad attitude,” says 14-year-old Lil’ Romeo of his character Benny. “He has bad influences like B.B. and Otis. Honey is the good influence. He wants to be on the good side, but his street friends keep pulling him back.”
Filming Honey did not keep Lil’ Romeo from his studies. “I always have to go to school, even on the set. I have to do schoolwork for about four hours a day. When I’m not shooting, I do it for five hours. If I didn’t have my education, I would not be doing this,” he explains.
Recently seen in Denzel Washington’s critically acclaimed feature directorial debut Antwone Fisher, Joy Bryant appears as Honey’s best friend, Gina. Bille Woodruff notes, “There is something very real about Joy—the fabulous, effervescent Joy Bryant. She has this earthiness about her, this instant likeability. She also provides some great comic relief. She seems like a girl who lives in the Bronx, and would be friends with Honey and be the spirit and drive behind her.”
The filmmakers were pleased with the chemistry between Alba and Bryant, and it was a feeling that the actors felt, too. Bryant explains, “I wanted to make sure that the friendship between them was authentic—that there was a genuine good friendship between the characters. Gina’s like an older sister to Honey. She may not know about the specifics of the music business, but she knows a lot about people and she knows a lot about men. She can recognize game when she sees it.”
Woodruff had a clear vision of the type of actor he wanted to cast in the role of Michael Ellis, the music video director who encourages and then derails Honey’s early success. “We needed someone who could be likable to a certain extent and then turn on a dime. We didn’t want the audience to automatically think he’s a jerk and see what’s coming.”
David Moscow had recently worked on a project with Marc Platt and was cast in the role. Moscow was familiar with the film’s setting, having grown up in the Bronx, gone to school in Harlem and now lives in New York City.
In describing his character Michael, Moscow says, “In Honey’s eyes, he is the man of the moment. He can take her and change her world, which he does, and then he snuffs it out just as quickly. And the crux of the film is whether she can survive that and still thrive.”
Eight-year-old Zachary Isaiah Williams secured the role of Raymond, Benny’s lonely little brother, despite his lack of expertise in a key area. Woodruff explains, “Zach is amazing. I knew instantly that I wanted him to play Raymond. But Zachary couldn’t dance and Raymond becomes a good dancer with Honey’s help. But I didn’t care, I knew he was perfect for the role. And I have to hand it to him, he ended up getting some moves.”
Casting Lonette McKee in the role of Mrs. Daniels, Honey’s disapproving mother, was a dream come true for Woodruff. Her seminal role in the film Sparkle and her embodiment of beauty has affected much of what he’s done as a music video director.
“Having Lonette McKee in this film was a personal treat for me. She’s an icon in the African-American community, so having her in my first movie is such a big deal to me. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Sparkle, and they say, ‘Oh my God, you got Lonette!’” enthuses the director.
Playing the role of Honey’s mother was easy for the Tony-nominated actress, who recognized the character and her relationship with her daughter. McKee comments, “I’ve had very similar problems in my past, so I knew that Mrs. Daniel was within my reach.”
McKee acknowledges that she really does have a passion for hip-hop and adds, “My actual reasons for wanting to be involved in this project were specifically Bille Woodruff and Andre Harrell. I’ve been a fan of theirs for years and I’ve actually known Bille for years. When I heard he was doing his first film, I was more than happy to be involved. The icing on the cake was discovering it was such a clean, beautiful, youth-oriented and uplifting script.”
The major differences between shooting a music video and filming a feature quickly became apparent to Woodruff. He notes, “With a video shoot, I can be on top of everything, but on a feature film, you have to delegate and let people do their job and trust them to bring you what you need.”
He considers himself fortunate to have assembled his creative team, crediting them with helping him to realize his vision for the film. He says, “I found a team of people whose work I really like. I feel very, very blessed. My director of photography, John Leonetti, is a prime example; he has done huge, large-scale action pictures. Honey appealed to him because it’s so different from the other kinds of things that he’d been doing. His excitement fueled my excitement. Every department head brought their best ideas to the project.”