Emmys: ‘The New Edition Story’ Writer Abdul Williams on Telling the Group’s Epic Story, Warts and All

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
BET's The New Edition Story (Screengrab: BET)
The New Edition Story (Screengrab: BET)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to June 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

This, for those about to embark on a biopic movie or miniseries project, is how it should be done. BET kicked off 2017 with the three-night tale of R&B boy band turned supergroup New Edition, and it remains not only one of the best programs in any genre we’ve seen this year, but also the new standard for how to tell real-life stories.

From an incredible cast that depicts the young friends who formed New Edition while living in the projects in Boston, and another set of Hollywood breakouts who portray Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, and Ralph, as teens through the present, to spot-on wardrobe and a focus on the group’s music that includes shot-by-shot re-creations of classics like the “If It Isn’t Love” video, the miniseries is a New Edition lover’s reward for more than 30 years of fandom.

And there’s Lottery Ticket writer Abdul Williams’s script, a long-in-the-works labor of love that came as a result of years he spent with the New Edition members getting their full cooperation, memories, and opinions on their history (even as, as Williams notes, it continues to evolve).

Yahoo TV talked with Williams about the decade it took to get the miniseries onscreen, the process of weaving so many different points of view into an honest story, and why the group members were willing to be so open about their lives.

Williams, who’s currently writing a script for a BET follow-up project, The Bobby Brown Story, also shed more light on New Edition manager and choreographer (and “surrogate Dad”) Brooke Payne, whose influence on the group’s continuing success is one of many big reveals in The New Edition Story.

Yahoo TV: This miniseries is so honest, even when the stories being told aren’t necessarily flattering. There’s such a focus on their music, and the group members’ individual stories, their relationships with each other, their business relationships. With that many different perspectives involved, how did you even begin to tackle this?
Abdul Williams: It was a very long process. When I first got the call to start working on it, it was the summer of 2006. A producer reached out to me, Jesse Collins. He had a relationship with those guys, because he used to work in radio before he was producing full-time. He produces a lot of award shows, and one of the shows that he does is the BET Awards. In 2005, New Edition was doing BET’s 25th anniversary show. It turns out to be the last scene in our miniseries. It was like kind of a New Edition reunion. They hadn’t been on stage together in a while. Jesse got to see, as they were prepping for their performance, how New Edition works, and how they don’t work. It was a lot of drama. We left all that out of the movie, but there was a lot of drama in that particular performance, and Jesse knew right there — he was like, “There’s a movie in this.” Plus, he started getting stories from them about certain periods in their lives and how things came to be. He knew that there was a movie, so he convinced them that he was the one who could make it happen, and somehow he got in touch with me through a mutual friend. He had read a spec script that I had written that was set in the music industry, and he felt I just might have the right voice for it. I said, “Of course.” He said, “OK, let’s just do an introductory call, just to see how you vibe with the guys. Let me put you on with Mike Bivins and Ricky Bell, just to say hello.” I said, “Cool.” He puts me on a call with them, and I think it’s going to be a 10-minute call, and they just started telling me their life stories, essentially, in bits and pieces. Like, “Let me tell you about the time we met Kurtis Blow.” And, “Let me tell you about what happened when we recorded ‘Mr. Telephone Man’” I had a notebook sitting by. I grabbed it, I started writing it down, and the next thing I know, we’re off and running. After that call, Jesse’s like, “That went well. I wonder if Ronnie would talk to you. I wonder if Ralph would. I wonder if Bobby would.” And on and on.

Throughout the rest of that year, that’s essentially what I did. I would interview them, get their story from six different perspectives — seven, including Brooke Payne. And then pretty much everybody else that’s in the movie, over the course of the years, I talked to all of them too. I was just getting all of this information and crafting like, “What is this going to be?” I didn’t know what the point of view was going to be at first, but as I kept doing the interviews, the movie started to take shape. I did the bulk of the interviews with the guys themselves [in 2006], at least the first round of them, but it was all the way into production, they were always in my ear, and I was always asking them stuff. They were very hands-on, which was great. They were very willing to share opinions with me. “I would say this. I would say that. I wouldn’t say this. I wouldn’t wear that.” All that kind of stuff. And then I came up with the treatment. I knew what the story was going to be. Jesse and I were comfortable with that.

At the time, we conceived of it as a feature, kind of like Straight Outta Compton. Although from that very first call with Ricky and Mike, I remember them saying that they thought their story had enough to be a miniseries. They referenced the Jacksons’ miniseries. They were like, “Could we do something like that?” At the time, I was like, “How juicy was the story?” Because I didn’t know yet. And as I started talking to everybody, I started panicking, because we’re crafting it as a feature, and I’m like, “This is way too long. I have too much stuff. What am I gonna do with all this?” We took it all around town. I remember we brought New Edition with us in all these meetings. The meetings themselves became kind of like a circus; all the staff would run out. BET was actually the first stop we made. It was under a different regime at the time, different president of the network. I remember he said to us, “You guys can take it to whoever you want, but I’m telling you right now, BET is gonna be the one to make this movie.”

We ended up selling it, though, as a feature, to Paramount. This was in the top of 2007. BET was going to be a producer on it, but it would really be like a Paramount movie. Then one of the reasons it took 10 years to get made is that they couldn’t secure all the life rights. I didn’t used to tell people this, but it’s out there now: Bobby Brown wouldn’t sign on. Everybody else signed on, all six [including Johnny Gill] and Brooke, but Bobby wouldn’t. He wanted a bigger chunk than what everybody else got. The bosses were all like, “No.” They go, “No, it’s either everybody gets the same deal, or no deal.” Bobby just held out, and it drove everyone crazy at the time, but looking back on it … I was just at his house this week, and I reminded him of this. I said, “If you hadn’t done that, if you hadn’t been stubborn, we never would have gotten a miniseries.” The guys themselves have even gone on record saying, “Bobby screwed us, but it actually worked out.” That, and the other thing that put the movie into turnaround was the writer’s strike of 2007. Between the rights issue and that, Paramount just decided to put the movie on the shelf, and it sat there for a long time, until BET eventually negotiated to pull it out.

Were you a New Edition fan before you started working on the movie?
Absolutely. I mean, we’re right about the same age; I’m maybe a couple years younger than those guys. I grew up on their music. I remember the first time I heard “Candy Girl” on the radio. Every little part of my life … “Cool It Now” comes out when I’m in sixth grade. The next album, I’m in junior high. The Heart Break album, I’m in high school. [Bobby’s] “Don’t Be Cruel,” Bell Biv DeVoe, all that stuff, and [Ralph’s] “Sensitivity,” I’m going to college. It’s like I can track the different parts of my life by the music that they put out. It’s crazy. I found that talking to a lot of New Edition fans — their music really was the soundtrack to our generation’s lives.

How much did you know about them, then? Because my brother and I have always been New Edition fans, but I was surprised by so many things in the miniseries, and a lot of other fans have said they were too. That was a big reaction to the movie on social media — just how little we knew about the group in a lot of areas of their lives.
I was very surprised too. The funny thing is, I remember the year before I became involved in this, they did a VH1 Behind the Music where they revealed some of this. For most groups, when they do something like that, they pretty much put it all out there, right? So you really know all there is to know. [But here], it was really just the tip of the iceberg. They held a lot back. I had already seen that, so when I started the process, I was like, “OK, they start off, and they got screwed on their money, they were little kids from the projects, and they eventually do this and do that, whatever.” But as I started talking to them, there was just so much. I went in thinking that I understood it, and that I knew this group, but I really didn’t. They came up in the era before social media. Can you imagine if some of the things in the miniseries, like that show in Oakland where they fight onstage, [happened now]? That would be all over Instagram. There’s no way something like that could happen and you wouldn’t know it. I would look for any kind of digital footprint when I was doing my research. … But in those days, there were no cellphone cameras, because that wasn’t a technology then. There were no blogs. If you weren’t there that night, you didn’t know it. It might as well have not happened. That was kind of their blessing, you know? Because it allowed people to think, “Oh, they’re the best of buddies.” Then you see the movie, and people were shocked.

Looking at how honest the miniseries is, it’s obvious that the New Edition members trusted you. Did it start out that way? Were they completely open from the beginning?
I think the way they kind of work is, once you’ve got your hand stamped, once they know that one person started talking — whether it was a trust, or it could have just been simply, “I’m not going to let the Ralph version of this be the central version. I’ve got to tell you my opinion” — it got competitive. They love each other, but they are competitive. Once you got one to open up, then it was much easier to get everybody else to open up. In subsequent conversations, they reveal more, and what I began to realize as we went through the process was, they needed to get this off their chests. It wasn’t just that they wanted a movie made; I felt like an interviewer and writer, but also like a quasi-therapist. They would tell me some of these things: “He did this, and he said this and this to my mother in 1985, and I never forgave him for that.” I would ask, “Did you ever tell him that?” And it was like, “Nah. I never said that.” I’m thinking to myself, “But you’ll tell me, a stranger, when you can go out and perform with this guy every night, go in the studio and make music, photo shoots, putting on this image, and you’re still holding on to these things, and you never said anything?” I think they just had an issue that a lot of people, particularly men, do, where we just don’t share. You know what I mean? They don’t emote, and they still kind of don’t. But they told me, all of them at different stages, that this was very therapeutic.

When we were about to go into production, we were a few months out, and all that time we had never let the group actually read the script, until we — me and the producers and the director and the network — were all on the same page, and we felt strong about it. Because we just anticipated they’d want to pick it apart. We wanted to get it into that fighting shape. Then we went on a retreat, where we gave [the script] to them on a Friday night, all the guys got it, including Brooke. Everybody gets it at the same time. They’re all staying at the same place, and they get two nights to read it, digest it, and then we would all come [together] on Sunday. I’m anticipating they’re going to tell me how much it stunk, how I got their lives completely wrong. I was just prepared for the worst, right? We got there, and we all met in this big room, and I’ll never forget: Johnny said something like, because this was a long script, like over 200 pages, he goes, “I had only planned to read [a little] the first night, and I figured I’d pick it back up the next day and get through the rest. I couldn’t put it down.” They were all reading it, and then they all got together in somebody’s room. They said there were things that they read in the script that they didn’t even know, that another person had said or thought. All these years — 25, 30 years knowing each other — and they were like, tears were shed and hugs. You know, just really talking things out. It was very emotional for them, and it was emotional for me to hear that coming from them, because at that point, this wasn’t just like any other project for me. I’m emotionally invested in it, and for whatever reason, I got tapped to do this. And if nothing else had come of it, then I was one small tool to kind of help them heal some of their old wounds or understand each other better. That really kind of separated this project in my mind.

There’s that great scene at Ronnie’s wedding, when Ralph and Mike finally have a real conversation, really talk about things that have been bothering them for a long time. Was that inspired by these conversations they were having?
That was directly inspired by that, yeah. The reality of it is, New Edition, as a friendship and as a group, is a continually developing thing. Think about whoever your best friend was when you were 10 years old. Imagine that you agreed to start a business with that person at that time, and you’re gonna split everything equally, and it’s your best friend, and at that time you can’t even conceive that there’ll be a time when you are not friends or you outgrow each other. Cut to 30 years later, 35 years later, you’re still in the same business with them. You’ve got families now, you’ve completely grown and changed and moved on. All kinds of different stuff has happened, but you’re connected, and in the fans’ minds, you can never not be. That’s the story of New Edition in a nutshell. You pick a group like the Jacksons, DeBarge — those were family members. New Edition was just friends, you know what I mean? Kids who were legit good friends, who hung out anyway, and decided to do this. And they had no idea what it was going to turn into. I was telling people, when I was trying to sum up the movie, the theme of it was, “Accept your family for who they are and not for who you want them to be.” That was the point all the guys had to eventually get to.

Are you finding that fans, and maybe so many of us who are close to the group agewise, relate to a lot of things in the miniseries? We’re at a point of our lives where this all means a lot more because we understand it, and because, as you said earlier, a lot of their history takes us back to our own.
Absolutely. One of my goals was, I wanted to hook in the people who weren’t New Edition lifers, too, because I’ve had experiences like that, where I’ve watched biopics on artists that I didn’t necessarily [know well]. Like the Johnny Cash movie, for example. I didn’t grow up on Johnny Cash’s music, but that movie, I was completely absorbed, and I cared about him, and I wanted to know more, and I cared about his relationships. I’m also just kind of a music lover of all genres, but some will hook you and grab you, and I felt like we had the chance to do that with this. Thankfully, the audience agreed with us.

You’ve mentioned Brooke Payne. I think he is one of the biggest surprises for fans. I don’t think we really knew who he was, but he really is the unsung hero of their whole story.
He’s very much like an old-school manager, choreographer type, where it’s like, the artist is supposed to shine, not him. He intentionally stayed out of the limelight. One of the things that I found writing it, and then a lot of fans when they saw the movie didn’t realize, is they have seen that “If It Isn’t Love” video so many times — they never knew that the guy at the start of that video was Brooke Payne. But our costume department, our hair department, they were so amazing at having everything match up exactly. I saw somebody on Twitter, they had a side-by-side [comparison] of the “If It Isn’t Love” video, the real thing, and then ours from the movie. Again, this is director Chris Robinson — shot to shot, move for move, frame for frame, it looks the same. Brooke was like, they had to drag him to do that video in real life. “I don’t wanna be in the video,” but the guys were like, “Nah, we want to show what our process is like.”

Not that Brooke’s a shy person; it’s about the artist for him. And their choreography is his art, that’s how he refers to it. Our actors, God bless ’em, they had to go through this boot camp. They had to learn the choreography from the real Brooke, and he put them through it just like he put the real New Edition through it. To the point where it’s so funny, I remember Elijah Kelley [who plays Ricky Bell], at one point, pulled a hamstring. He’s a young dude in perfect athlete kind of shape. But doing all this choreography, the same way New Edition did, it took its toll. And the real New Edition members, in their 40s, they can come in, that muscle memory, they can still do it and somehow put the young guys to shame. It was crazy. We would laugh at that. Wood Harris played Brooke exactly right. He’s careful with his words, doesn’t say a lot, so when he does say something, it carries a huge weight. I remember one of Bobby’s things was, “Brooke cracked a silent whip.” I wish I could have found a way to put that in the movie. But I love that about him, and that’s exactly how he is. He’s also a very loving guy, very spiritual guy, and a surrogate dad to these guys.

Since the movie, there’s been a lot of talk about the group reuniting, touring again. There was a story about a possible residency in Las Vegas. After spending so much time with them, did you have the feeling that they would like to perform together again?
Yes, I did. Not that I can take credit for it, but I remember floating the idea of a Vegas residency to them years ago when we first started the project, like way back in ’06 and ’07. Because this also was a tutorial for me about how the actual nuts and bolts of the music business works, how you get paid, all that kind of stuff. And shows, touring, is how most artists make the bulk of their money. I thought to myself that between their New Edition catalog and all their solo stuff, they could do a Vegas residency — it would make perfect sense. And I got the sense that they wanted to. I think in some ways, believe it or not, they still have some things to work out.

Here’s the other thing about New Edition: If Don Henley says, “OK, we’re gonna do this,” everybody kinda falls in line. With [New Edition], they all have to equally agree. They’ve always had it the exact same way, and then you’ve got six different guys with six different thoughts about how things should go. Sometimes that’s what stalls it. So I don’t know the inner workings of that. But I hope that they do. And they still do shows. Sometimes it’ll be just the five, sometimes it’ll be all six with Bobby. I know that’s what the fans wanna see. There have been times when just Johnny, Ralph, and Bobby go out together. Bell Biv DeVoe, while we were shooting, they were prepping their album, and when the movie came out, they had their album ready to go. It was good, and people bought it.

It’s interesting, I keep going back to that business thing, where you start when you’re 10 years old. You grow and you change a lot. And that’s part of what the New Edition story is. People have wondered if they should do a reality show, let people follow them around, because they’re interested in what their lives are now, what happened after our cameras stopped rolling. But I think the guys themselves are always trying to realize that part of what keeps them cool and keeps fans interested is that you don’t know every single thing about them. And they’d probably rather keep it that way. As New Edition, the group, not individually. Bobby, he’s a different cat. He’ll let you in. He wears everything on his sleeve. But New Edition, even he realizes New Edition is its own entity. Their nickname for it is “the Mother,” meaning, like, it gave birth to all of us. They all say, “You gotta respect the Mother,” and that’s what they mean by that.

Ricky’s experience with addiction was another big thing that almost no fans knew about before the miniseries. But seeing how he dealt with it, how humble he was about it afterwards, was also among the many highlights of The New Edition Story. Was he hesitant to share that at all? Or was he excited to share it, because it’s a success story ultimately?
I wouldn’t say excited. The way Ricky looked at it was, it was part of his sobriety. It wasn’t one of the 12 steps to have a movie made about your addiction, but he felt like he needed to share it with people, to let them in. Across the board, that was the most shocking thing for most people, because he was so quiet about it. No one knew, other than people in his circle. Hardcore New Edition and BBD fans, they had no idea. Industry people, really no idea. And he felt like he needed to share it. Once you’re in recovery, you’re always in recovery, it never stops. And he felt like it was therapeutic for him in a lot of ways. Not necessarily to speak for him, but I just know this from him telling me. He wanted to make sure, though, that there was a circle to that story. So that it wasn’t just the shock value of seeing him do drugs. It was also that scene where he first goes to rehab, and he’s talking it through, and realizing what was at the root of it — it was a void in his life, and there were even more things than that, he had some loss as well, family-wise. I can say this with confidence: Ricky definitely wanted to share that and has been pleased with how it’s touched people, and how it might be helping someone who’s also in the struggle.

You are writing The Bobby Brown Story now, right?
Yes, I am. I’m deep in Bobby’s world right now. I’m in the same process I did for The New Edition Story. Interviewing Bobby extensively for New Edition, I had so much of his story already. But then there was a lot that I didn’t know. We purposely didn’t touch in The New Edition Story his life with Whitney Houston, other things he had gone through. One, Bobby wanted us to hold that back. He’s always kinda known in his mind that he wanted to tell his own story separately. But also, it was a little too soon, and our feeling collectively as a creative team was, if you’re not gonna dive into it like you’re doing everything else, then don’t touch it. Don’t half-a** it just for shock value. You gotta get it right if you’re gonna cast Whitney Houston. Plus, we just didn’t have the real estate. There’s so much of Bobby’s life that we didn’t touch on in the movie. And he’s revealed some of it; he wrote a book, he’s done some interviews. And it’s one thing to do that, but what I realized from the miniseries, even the stories the fans knew about New Edition, like the $1.87 check — it’s one thing to see them say it or read it, and some other thing to see it dramatized. It just makes it all so real. So Bobby’s story will be like that. There’s plenty to tell, and I’m just trying to do it the same justice that we were able to do for this one.

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