Downtown visits ToniK Productions’ Tonya Lewis Lee & Nikki Silver on the set of “Monster”

Nikki Silver & Tonya Lewis Lee

Nikki Silver & Tonya Lewis Lee

Formed by award-winning producers Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver, the New York City-based ToniK Productions creates, develops and produces films and television programming. ToniK’s 2013 production The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 was adapted from the novel in partnership with Walden Media, Hallmark, Walmart, and Proctor & Gamble. 2014’s The Giver, as adapted from the Lois Lowry novel, starred Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift. Tonya and Nikki have well over two decades of combined experience as producers and five Emmy Awards among them.

Currently on the slate for ToniK is the film Monster, as adapted from the Walter Dean Myers novel. The cast of Monster — as co-produced with Bron Studios and Mike Jackson of John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Company — includes A$AP Rocky, Nas, Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright and John David Washington. The film, with a script written by Colen C. Wiley and Janece Shaffer, will be the feature directorial debut of Rihanna collaborator Anthony MandlerMonster, now in post-production, is set for a 2017 release.

Downtown visited Tonya and Nikki on-set while filming at Brooklyn’s Cinema World Studios. More on Monster can be found at www.tonikproductions.com, while both Tonya and Nikki can both be followed on Twitter. More on Tonya can also be found on Healthy You Now, a site about women’s health and wellness which she founded in 2007.

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How did you two become involved with this production?

Nikki Silver: Monster is a book that we optioned over 12 years ago. It was given to us by a development executive and really once I read it, it was just sort of amazing. It told such a universal tale but a very poignant tale, an important tale. It is a social justice piece, it is a piece about our criminal justice system. It’s also a piece about a 17-year old boy, both of which Tonya and I have experienced is probably the better way to say it, and the choices teenagers make and how that can change your life especially if you’re urban black child from Harlem. And that’s the story of Steve Harmon. Tonya and I became partners at about the same time that book was auctioned, and we have been steadily moving this ball up the hill putting all the pieces together to get the film done.

You said 12 years. So does that mean that there were a few runs where it looked like it was going to happen and it didn’t happen.

Tonya Lewis Lee: Well, I would say it took us a while to find the right partners in every which way. So I think initially we thought about finding a financial partner to come onboard to actually make the movie, but then we took a step back and realized we needed to develop it. So we needed the script. So we took some time to find a partner to help us develop a script and it took us some time to find the right writer. I think we probably spent a good five years trying to get a really great script, which ultimately we did, but you know it does take time. Once we had the script, we had to take it around and try to find the financing for the film, and that took another couple of years to do so. It takes time, and it takes time to do it right. We did have a couple of times when we were really close but whatever it was it wasn’t right for us.

NS: Walter Dean Myers wrote the book, one of the most prolific and adult authors of our generation. Walter passed away sadly two years ago, but he knew that we had the rights, and this is sort of his most beloved novel. I think that Tonya and I have always felt that it’s incumbent upon us to bring his vision to life properly and with respect. And so we have been very cautious about the choices that we’ve made and really feel like we’ve finally got all the pieces together…It is still extremely relevant, and in some ways at the consciousness of more so even now than it would have been 12 years ago, so all things come at the time they’re supposed to.

Nikki & Tonya on-set

Nikki & Tonya on-set

Another one of the amazing things about the movie, besides the buzz on it, is the cast that’s attached to it. It’s almost like it’s an all-star film.

NS: It is. We have an incredible ensemble on our cast, from A$AP Rocky to Nas, Jennifer Ehle, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Hudson, John David Washington…

John David Washington is one of my favorite actors…

NS: And he is phenomenal, and they all are, every single one of them. Our lead, our star, Kelvin Harrison Jr., this is like really his first breakout role. He too is an amazing actor who often says he’s like in a master class working with this cast, just watching and learning from all of them. So we are so fortunate to have such a great cast, and I think that Tonya and I, we always say and we have proven time and again that with the right material you can bring the right cast. Whether it’s a smaller movie or a bigger movie, if you’re doing good material, you will find people that understand that and want to be a part of that, and that’s really what this is. We’re creating a movement with Monster and every one of the cast wants to be part of it and they’re all completely committed to their role and to the film. It’s really remarkable.

Who was the first cast member to come onboard for this film? Do you remember?

TLL: A$AP Rocky…You know I remember earlier on, I went to see Rihanna and he opened for her and he came onstage and I was like, “Who is this person?” My family was like, “He’s amazing.” And then I started paying attention and then as we got more into the development of Monster, it was just he had to be in this film. He’s from Harlem, he is of the right age and just even his music. He had to be a part of this even before we had our director on…Then Anthony [Mandler] came on, and Anthony has a relationship with him and it worked the way it was supposed to. And Rocky says he read this book in high school…so it was meant to be.

How did you two first meet?

TLL: Actually, Viacom put us together, we were at Nickelodeon. I was there, i just finished a project and I was looking for something else to do with them and Nicky came and I pitched in Miracle’s Boys. They said, “Hey, why don’t you guys work together?” I don’t know that they thought we’d still be here.

You worked in 1515 [Broadway]?

NS: Yeah…It works because we challenge each other and it works because we don’t always have the same ideas. It works because we fight and make up and learn from that, it’s a partnership in the truer sense of the word. I do think I speak for both of us in this case I think we make each other better.

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Do you have an accomplishment that you’re proud of so far most proud of rather with ToniK?

TLL: For me, I would say it’s the fact that we’re doing it and we’re making Monster.

NS: Right for me, in this moment right now, if you were to ask me what I’m proudest of it’s the fact that we’re here at this stage and we’re making this film that we’ve been able to get here. It was a dogfight. I just think my answer is almost the same as the last answer, I’m proud of the fact that we may remain true to our vision and that there’s just honesty about everything that we do.

So when you’re not busy with tonic what does each of you like to do with your free time as New Yorkers and all?

NS: I’m a born and bred New Yorker, I grew up in Washington Heights. I have three children and a husband. That certainly keeps me busy. A 19-year old, a 17-year old and a 13 year old. You know New York has been a character in my life my whole life and I love shooting here and doing stories about New York. It’s so much a part of who I am.

Family aside, how do you like to spend your free time?

NS: I love music, I love films I love going…There’s nothing to me better than a Saturday night with my husband and my children — if they decide not to go out and come with us — going to the movie theater, getting a big thing of popcorn and then having dinner afterwards at some local neighborhood restaurant on the Upper West Side.

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What about you, Tonya? You live in Brooklyn?

TLL: No, we live in Manhattan; we’ve lived in Manhattan for many years now. Yeah, I’ve just been visiting Brooklyn again and I’m amazed how the neighborhood is, it’s amazing. But for me, I would say I wear lots of different hats and I like to, I advocate for women’s health when I’m not doing film and I take it very seriously and traveling the country. I love going to different parts of the country and meeting all kinds of folks and talking about ways to make them and other families and our communities healthier. And then on the free time I get, I love to read, I like to read a lot of novels and I also like to watch a lot of television amount of movies, I watch a lot of TV, Netflix, Amazon…I love Amazon because everything that I can’t catch on a regular basis,I’m not good at DVR so I end up paying for it. (laughs)

How are you “not good at DVR?”

TLL: I should just be doing it, but the thing is, I don’t think about it, then I’m like, “Oh shoot, I didn’t do it,” and I end up buying it on Amazon. But I gotta get better, because when the bill comes… (laughs) Yeah I try to watch as much as I possibly can because I really look forward to getting into the episodic space again, I mean, we did Miracle’s Boys, which is a six-part series for Nickelodeon. I just love that medium and look forward to getting the opportunity to do more with it.

So finally, any last words for the kids?

TLL: Dream big, and they do happen. Dream big and make it happen, I would say. I’m going to say persistence. You know it’s very easy to get a lot of no’s in your life and that’s okay, because the yes’s do come and if you’re persistent, you can turn those into yeses. And be present in whatever opportunities you’re presented with, whatever it is, even if it’s something that you think doesn’t go into…

NS: I love that. Be present, and it all goes by really fast and it’s really really easy to get caught up in all of it. And we do that for ourselves, we step back every now and then because you get so caught up…and then you step back and you say, “Look where we are.” It’s amazing what we’ve created and I will say this. We love hiring young people and we’ve hired lots of young people. Sometimes they understand the gift that they’re given and sometimes they don’t. That’s why I say that, because if you’re busy trying to leapfrog over to the next, you don’t get what you’re supposed to get from the moment that you’re in and that’s one of the things I’ve seen often with young people.