Three years ago, screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism came to producer Stephanie Allain with a script. She was fresh off a vacation spent in Sag Harbor.
While touring the village, Ms. Chism had stumbled across Ninevah Beach, a predominantly black enclave that, unexpectedly, unearthed the idea behind her most recent project—Tyler Perry’s “Peeples,” a comedy about a well-off East Coast family starring a slate of African-American actors.
The trick of the film is that it disregards race, Ms. Allain said.
“This is not about stereotypes,” the Los Angeles-based producer said last week during a telephone interview. “This is about people we know and it was fun to actually show that side of black culture because, oftentimes, people do just run to the stereotype because it’s familiar and there’s always some truth to stereotype. But it’s blown way over the top. It’s good for an easy laugh, but Tina wasn’t going for the easy laugh.”
Inspired by the village’s whaling history and connection to the Herman Melville classic novel, the feature film’s action revolves around the Peeples family’s annual family reunion for Moby Dick Day. But then Wade Walker—portrayed by comedian Craig Robinson, most recognized as Darryl Philbin on NBC’s “The Office”—crashes the preppy party to ask Grace Peeples, acted by Kerry Washington—who recently starred in the film “Django Unchained”—for her hand in marriage.
After countless misunderstandings, shenanigans and pratfalls, Wade finds himself increasingly desperate to win the approval of his prospective father-in-law, Virgil Peeples, portrayed by comedian David Alan Grier, who is best known for his work on “In Living Color.”
“I’ve been a fan of David Alan Grier forever,” Ms. Allain said. “I had been wanting to see him bring the funny, bring the funny back, and he totally did. He kept us in stitches. He really did.”
Due to budgetary constraints, the 150-man cast and crew set up shop for three months in Greenwich, Connecticut, in August, wrapping just a week before Hurricane Sandy. For those who have never spent a significant time in Sag Harbor, it is nearly impossible to tell—between the shingle-style Peeples estate and quaint seaside downtown—that not one scene of the $12 million comedy was shot on the East End.
“Movie magic,” Ms. Allain laughed. “Only the people in Sag Harbor will know for sure. I can tell you, we talked extensively about casual wealth. That this family was wealthy, but they were nouveau riche. Comfortable in their surroundings, although it might appear—as it does to Wade—a big, big deal. We were looking for elegance, the nod to black history and art, and the set design really spoke to that, but it wasn’t ostentatious. It was all in good taste, just to really reflect a highly educated group of quirky individuals.”
The Peeples clan is ruled by Virgil, a local judge, and his wife, Daphne, a retired one-hit-wonder diva portrayed by S. Epatha Merkerson. The film role was a far cry from her role as the commanding Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the television series “Law & Order.”
“I had known her from my work on ‘Black Snake Moan,’” Ms. Allain said of Ms. Merkerson. “I knew that inside, she’s a wild woman that had been playing very buttoned-up characters. This is very loose.”
Alongside Ms. Washington, actors Kali Hawk and Tyler James Williams play Peeples siblings. Ms Hawk plays Grace, who is struggling with her sexuality, and Mr. Williams plays Simon, a tech wizard with a streak of kleptomania who loves to rap.
“These are people we know,” Ms. Allain said. “Tina lives in Virginia on a dairy farm. She chucks in all different companies, from high political types and the wealthy to artists. She’s a very eclectic artist herself in terms of her tastes and her interests. She will tell you that Simon Peeples is her cousin who goes to Harvard Prep, but at the same time, tried to be hard as a rapper.”
One after another, the actors signed onto the project, as did producer Tyler Perry, who yielded creative control to first-time director Ms. Chism, the writer behind the feature films “Drumline” and “ATL.” They all saw what Ms. Allain did three years ago, when she read the script for the first time: A mainstream, family-oriented romantic comedy with black characters that doesn’t mention race, she said.
The story felt right, she said. It felt authentic. And it felt true to the people she knew.
“I love the message behind it, which is to reveal yourself to those you love, trust they will love you,” she said. “And to be yourself, to love your family and the people around you for who they are and to accept them. To me, that’s a very powerful message cloaked in fun and music. I thought it was about something, yet very accessible, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
“Peeples” is now playing in theaters nationwide. For more information, visit peeplesmovie.com.