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Interview with Director John Singleton

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The Webmastah!

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 18, 2005 7:12 am    Post subject: Interview with Director John Singleton Reply with quote

The summer of Singleton
With 'Hustle & Flow' out Friday and 'Four Brothers' on the way, the filmmaker has a one-two punch.

By Chris Garcia


Sunday, July 17, 2005

John Singleton wears the relaxed, contented glow of someone whose life is taking smooth turns down uncluttered roads. The top is down, the sun is shining. That breeze feels good.

Singleton, who erupted in Hollywood at 24 with the 1991 inner-city drama "Boyz N the Hood," has another hit movie on his hands and a generous producing deal to go with it. The now-seasoned director dropped his own money "a few million," he mumbles to produce the buzzed-about hip-hop drama "Hustle & Flow," and it has paid off nicely.

Gritty, mesmerizing and groovy, "Hustle & Flow" tells the outta-the-ghetto tale of a low-budget pimp (Terrence Howard) in Memphis, whose dreams of hip-hop stardom begin to be realized with the beat-making help of two pals and the vocals of his female employees. The classic bootstrap story, written and directed by newcomer Craig Brewer, relates the hero's journey with enough catchy crunk beats, performer charisma and old-fangled inspiration to hook mainstream audiences while keeping it real.

A little bit of "Rocky" and a lot of "8 Mile," the film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year and landed Singleton a $16 million, three-movie deal from Paramount and MTV Films. This means he can produce movies that he wants to produce with someone else's money. Singleton looks forward to the movie's release this Friday. He knows he's holding gold.

"It turned out pretty good, man," he says.

In town last month for a sneak screening of "Hustle & Flow," the filmmaker is at the Driskill Hotel, practically stretched out on a cowskin couch, the hair of which is all bristle, like flattened cactus spines.

Boy, he seems relaxed. He's sort of plopped diagonally on the cow furniture, feet on the floor pointing south, head pointing north. (Go ahead, lie down, you want to say.) He has on loose blue jeans, white running shoes and an oversized polo shirt by Sean John (rap producer Sean Combs' clothing line). His sleepy grin takes little coaxing.

Singleton, 37, is rounder than expected. His bald head is like a smaller ball atop a bigger ball. He's thick, not fat, and stands 5 feet 6 inches tall. He has slender wrists and small hands. With open palm, he habitually rubs his naked scalp as we talk.

So calm, content, cool. Yeah, success rules. "Hustle & Flow" isn't all there is, either. His old friend Michael Jackson Singleton directed the singer's "Remember the Time" video was acquitted of child molestation and a battery of other unsavory charges. ("I'm really glad it worked out fine for him," he says.) And Singleton has deep faith in his latest directorial effort, "Four Brothers," a tough drama-comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and OutKast's Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin. It opens Aug. 12.

"I'm really excited about the summer," Singleton says. "With 'Hustle & Flow' and 'Four Brothers,' I have a one-two punch going."

Which brings us to ask, is John Singleton hot again? (Which brings us to the meek, gulping regret of asking.)

"Hot again?" Singleton sniffs. "My last movie made $240 million!"

He's referring to "2 Fast 2 Furious," the critically deplored sequel to "The Fast and the Furious," both of which were raucous, pedal-to-the-metal action pictures. Blockbusters for blockheads.

And yet, "2 Fast" boasted the biggest opening ever for an African American director at the time, making all sorts of noise with $50.5 million in its first weekend. (It was surpassed last weekend by Tim Story's "Fantastic Four," which pulled in $56.1 million.)

What we mean by "hot again" is the universal adulation Singleton enjoyed 14 years ago with "Boyz N the Hood," when he became the youngest person ever nominated for the best director Oscar. He followed this influential film about growing up in the epicenter of drive-by shootings with the ill-received "Poetic Justice," starring Janet Jackson. Then came "Higher Learning" and the box office bomb "Rosewood," which depicted roiling racism in 1920s Florida.

It's here where we jump into our conversation with Singleton, whose next projects are producing "Black Snake Moon," written and directed by Brewer and starring Samuel L. Jackson, and writing and directing "Luke Cage," based on the 1970s Marvel comic books.

American-Statesman: How then would you sum up your career to date?

John Singleton: I've been able to do what I wanted to do. My first three movies made more money in the first weekend than they cost. The only movie I've done that hasn't been financially successful was "Rosewood." Talk about a risk. With that film I went to a place nobody had gone before. So I think I've done pretty well. I like the fact that I've done different kinds of films in different kinds of milieus, you know what I mean?

What drew you to big action pictures like "Shaft" and "2 Fast 2 Furious"?

At the beginning of my career I was really interested in being taken seriously as a director, to come on the scene and show these pretentious Hollywood people how to make really good movies that are topical but commercial. And I did that. But I got sick of having to watch these guys who direct music videos making all this money (on blockbusters). I was struggling to get these little movies made that really say something when it would be so easy to go off and do a movie that makes a whole lot of money. I know many ways to entertain an audience and tell a story. So I was like, "Let me try this." I decided to just have fun at it. It puts money in the bank so I can finance movies like "Hustle & Flow." If people like John Sayles can do it on his own, I can do it. He's another idol of mine. He goes and gets the money. He and Robert Altman are filmmakers who are holding it down for the true American independent cinema, because the films they make are far more interesting than stuff made by studios.

Crunk or Southern-fried hip-hop is busting out as a serious new pop force, with exploding scenes in Houston and, as "Hustle & Flow" shows, Memphis. How versed are you in this movement?

Why do you think the music is in the movie? I took Terrence Howard down to Memphis and told him I'm not going to put down money for this movie unless he's believable as a rapper. So I put him in the studio with Three 6 Mafia and we did a track called "Pop It for Some Paper," the track Terrence and DJ Qualls do a capella in the kitchen (in the movie). It was like, "Whoa, he can do it." Craig then hooked him up with the rapper Al Kapone, who took him under his wing and came up with the song "It Ain't Over," the last song in the movie, and "Whoop That Trick."

The music in the movie is so good and solid, it seems to be a sure hit on the charts. Do you think it will help Memphis crunk?

I think it will help Southern hip-hop as a whole. That was a big goal of ours to show how it's probably some of the most exciting music happening in America right now.

Black cinema was showing signs of taking off about a decade ago. What's the state of it today?

I don't think there is a state of black cinema right now, because most of the (African American) guys who are making movies are making big, impersonal Hollywood movies. Nobody's really saying anything. Even Spike Lee is doing different kind of work. He's holding it down but in a different way. There's a whole lot going on that hasn't been explored by filmmakers.

Do you feel like Hollywood still pegs you as an "African American filmmaker"?

Nothing wrong with that. Everything that ends up being cool in this country comes out of black culture first. I'm cool with that.
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2005 6:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Director Puts His Name, and Money, at Stake

Published: July 21, 2005
LOS ANGELES - Dressed in a Puma T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers, John Singleton walked into the lobby of a building on the Paramount Pictures lot here and suddenly stopped in his tracks. Before him were two giant billboards: one for a film he had bankrolled and produced, "Hustle & Flow," which hits theaters on July 22, the other for his latest directorial effort, "Four Brothers," due in August.

"Wow," a smiling Mr. Singleton said, reveling in the double whammy. "That's pretty cool." Mr. Singleton is back in a big way, but to hear him tell it, he never left.

John Singleton during a break in the post-production on "Four Brothers," his latest directing effort.
"My last film made $240 million," he quickly pointed out in a recent interview. He was referring to "2 Fast 2 Furious," the critically lambasted blockbuster he directed in 2003. "Hello, I've been here."

Yes, Mr. Singleton has been here, churning out, on average, one film every two to three years. But none has managed to generate the buzz of his 1991 breakthrough, "Boyz N the Hood" - that is, until now. Written and directed by a newcomer, Craig Brewer, "Hustle & Flow," which Mr. Singleton dropped more than $3 million of his own money to make, was the hit of this year's Sundance Film Festival, winning an audience award, a $9 million price tag and Mr. Singleton a $7 million two-movie deal with Paramount and MTV Films.

Equal parts "Rocky" and "8 Mile," "Hustle & Flow" tells the tale of DJay, a Memphis pimp who has a midlife crisis and decides to become a rapper. The plot was a hard sell at first. Mr. Brewer and the producer Stephanie Allain knocked on doors for two years trying to land a deal in Hollywood, but to no avail. Ms. Allain turned to Mr. Singleton, hoping his pull would open doors. "They shot us down again," Mr. Singleton said. "I was surprised by that."

He was more than surprised, Ms. Allain said: "It was like a slap in the face. It upset him so much. He felt like his name value was on the line."

Studio executives "couldn't see past the stereotypes and see the humanity in these characters," Mr. Singleton said.

It did not help that they had Terrence Howard, a relative unknown, in the lead and Mr. Brewer, a first-time director, at the helm.

So Mr. Singleton, inspired by Mel Gibson and the hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash, decided to finance the film himself, thus violating Hollywood's Rule No. 1: Never ever spend your own money.

"Everybody thought I was crazy," Mr. Singleton said. "Everybody."

Though he has been vindicated, Mr. Singleton is not out of the woods just yet. The road from Sundance to box office glory is littered with the carcasses of small films that were supposed to hit it big.

So, Mr. Singleton has been tirelessly promoting the movie. During filming last August, he flew journalists to Memphis to visit the set. Friends like Spike Lee and Will Smith have held private screenings for tastemakers. And Mr. Singleton has guarded prints of the movie with the ferociousness of rabid pit bull. "If it gets pirated it will be after the movie comes out," he said.

On the day of the interview, Mr. Singleton, a consummate multitasker, had a power breakfast with executives at E! and a lunch with an executive at DreamWorks. He then dashed over to a meeting about the soundtrack for "Four Brothers," which stars Mark Wahlberg, Garrett Hedlund, the R&B singer Tyrese and Andre 3000, one half of the hip-hop duo OutKast. Because the film is set in Detroit, Mr. Singleton wanted a lot of old school soul. The studio was asking for more contemporary urban hits.

"There was a time when executives wanted to only put rock in everything," he said. "Then it was techno and now it's hip-hop."

Mr. Singleton may have inadvertently had something to do with this turn of events.

It was his poignant depiction of life in the gang-ravaged streets of Compton, Calif., "Boyz N the Hood," that established Mr. Singleton as one of Hollywood's most promising talents. While the world of drive-bys and Crips and Bloods had been chronicled in rap lyrics by groups like N.W.A., it had never been captured on celluloid. At only 24, Mr. Singleton became the youngest person ever nominated for a best director Academy Award. He followed two years later with "Poetic Justice," starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. "Higher Learning," his next project, dealt with life on a socially segregated college campus. In each of these films, main characters meet violent deaths. Mr. Singleton was out to do more than tug at heartstrings; he was eager to provoke thought, to advance the conversation whether it be about race relations, gender bias, date rape, single parent homes or, preferably, all of the above.

"I wanted to be taken seriously as a filmmaker and my first film was taken so seriously," Mr. Singleton said, "so I kept feeling like each film had to be more serious than the last one."

It doesn't get more serious than "Rosewood," Mr. Singleton's 1997 film about an African-American town in Florida that was burned to the ground by a white mob in the 1920's. The film received tepid reviews and was a commercial flop. And even worse, Mr. Singleton said, it was trounced by "Booty Call," which was released the same month.

"You've got to understand, before that I was a golden boy," the director said. " 'Rosewood' was a whole different thing. The studio didn't support it. They were afraid of the picture. You're talking about black genocide."

Mr. Singleton took some time off to gather his thoughts, travel, marry and divorce, and have more children (five in total, with four mothers). Unlike other young directors, he was not grappling with how to break into the business, but what exactly he wanted to do in the business. The answer was simple: Have fun.

"Finally I said, you know what, I'm in this business because movies saved me from delinquency, movies saved my life," he said. "I just want to make movies. It doesn't matter if they're serious or not."

Mr. Singleton went on to make films like "Shaft," a remake of the 1971 action movie, and "Baby Boy," a commentary on the infantilizing of the black man.

Mr. Singleton has grown fond of telling interviewers that he greenlighted "Hustle & Flow," and while that makes for a compelling sound bite it is a bit of a stretch. His inability to get the film made within the system speaks to an even bigger issue in Hollywood, the director Spike Lee said.

"Very few studios have people of color deciding what films get made," Mr. Lee said. "There's not one African-American at a studio in a position to greenlight a film. When that happens that will be landmark. That will have far more impact than two black people winning Academy Awards in one year."

Though Mr. Singleton agreed with Mr. Lee's assessment, he does say that blacks have made strides in front of and behind the camera in recent years. "When I came in the game it was more of a novelty to be a young, black male making movies," he said. "Now it's not a novelty, which is good."

Mr. Singleton said he wanted to continue to guide other young filmmakers through the moviemaking process. "There are a lot of talented kids making films on video," he said with the fervor of someone who struck oil once and is eager to drill again. "I'm looking for the next new stars."

Now that he's got the hang of this producing thing, Mr. Singleton, who is teaming with Mr. Brewer again for "Black Snake Moan," about a girl who suffers from a sexual addiction, said he was ready to tackle movie moguldom.

"I just want to be able to make the type of movies that I want to make and I don't ever want anyone to tell me that if I really feel passionate about something I can't make that movie," Mr. Singleton said. "I've got to be able to say, well, I'm making it anyway, bye." He threw his head back in laughter. "Now that's power."
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