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March 10, 2020

Life After Life

A producer-director finds his rightful place in a story of truth and justice.

Mike Flaherty
  • George Tillman Jr. (center) with Tyla Harris and Nicholas Pinnock

    Giovanni Rufino/ABC

It was 1997 when George Tillman Jr. burst onto the scene with Soul Food, which he'd written, directed and shot in his native Chicago.

Made for a modest $7.5 million, the film that revolved around the Sunday dinners of an African-American family grossed $43.7 million. He went on to produce all four films in the wildly popular Barbershop franchise. Recently, he's turned to more hard-hitting fare, executive-producing the 2017 drama Mudbound and producing and directing 2018's critically acclaimed The Hate U Give.

On the TV side, he's directed episodes of Power, This Is Us, and Luke Cage, but now, as executive producer of ABC's new drama For Life, he says he couldn't be happier. "I was ready to do my own show," he states, "and when this came along, I was just blown away."

With good reason. Life is based on the real-life story of Isaac Wright Jr., who, in 1991, was wrongly convicted as a drug kingpin. Sentenced to life, he earned a law degree, which he used to defend other wrongly accused inmates and, ultimately, to get his own conviction overturned.

Tillman, who also directed the show's gut-punch of a pilot, received the script through the show's creator, Hank Steinberg (Without a Trace, The Last Ship). He knew a once-in-a-lifetime, stranger-than-fiction odyssey when he saw one.

"You've got a guy who's in prison. You've got the prison-reform issue. Then there's the analysis of the penal system where, for the prosecutors, it's about the 'wins' and not about who's right and who's wrong and who should be put away." Finally, he alludes to the show's more personal drama, that of a man who's trying to get back to his family, and concludes, "It all really resonated with me."

With so many issues at stake, Tillman knew this was a tale best told on TV. "In a feature film, that kind of complexity can get lost in two hours…. When you do a feature, it's over; but with television it keeps going. The story's still there and you're constantly living it. That's something that I really love."

He also loves having found a force-of-nature leading man in London-born, theater-trained Nicholas Pinnock (Counterpart) to play his central character.

"He goes into the courtroom every day, defends guys who are falsely accused, goes into the bathroom, takes off his suit, puts on his prison uniform and goes back to his cell," Tillman says, noting that Pinnock is "the perfect guy to take on those complexities and maintain the humanity that we need."

The ultimate validation may have come from Wright himself, who is a consultant on the series. Tillman says that after Wright watched the pilot, "He said I was the only guy who ever made him cry."

For more on Nicholas Pinnock, click here.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue #1, 2020

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