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John Singleton criticized the major studios March 19 for refusing to let African-Americans direct black-themed films. “They ain’t letting the black people tell the stories,” the Oscar-nominated director-writer told students at Loyola Marymount University, expanding on a theme he addressed in a Dec. 18 Hollywood Reporter op-ed piece. “[Studio executives say] ‘We’re going to take your stories but, you know what? You’re going to go starve over here and we’re not going to let you get a job.’ The so-called liberals that are in Hollywood now are not as good as their parents or ancestors. They feel that they’re not racist. They grew up with hip-hop, so [they] can’t be racist. ‘I like Jay Z, but that don’t mean I got to give you a job.’ ”
He added: “They want black people [to be] what they want them to be. And nobody is man enough to go and say that. They want black people to be who they want them to be, as opposed to what they are. The black films now — so-called black films now — they’re great. They’re great films. But they’re just product. They’re not moving the bar forward creatively. … When you try to make it homogenized, when you try to make it appeal to everybody, then you don’t have anything that’s special.”
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Singleton addressed students at LMU School of Film and Television in Los Angeles, where he was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stephen Galloway as part of The Hollywood Masters interview series. Other interviewees have included Alfonso Cuaron, David O. Russell, Judd Apatow and Sherry Lansing.
“You’ve got a lot of black executives at the studio who are afraid to give their opinion about what black culture is,” Singleton maintained. “There’s a whole lot of black people who work in studios that don’t need to be there, because they won’t — if I give them the best thing possible, they’re scared to give it to somebody [higher up], because they’d be like, ‘Woah!’ “
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“There’s no Stephanie Allains,” he said, referring to the producer and former Columbia exec who backed his debut. “Stephanie Allain kicked and screamed to get Boyz N the Hood made. Those people don’t exist anymore, whether they’re black, white or whatever.”
Singleton, whose pictures include the landmark 1991 release Boyz N the Hood, 2001’s Baby Boy and 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, said he was getting close to making his long-anticipated biography of musician Tupac Shakur, who starred in the filmmaker’s 1993 drama Poetic Justice. Singleton is working on the screenplay, but said, “I have no idea” how to cast the part.
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“I’m germinating over that time, and talking to old friends, and having these emotional moments,” he said, recalling how he met the 20-year-old Shakur: “I met Tupac through Queen Latifah in New York at this party that we were at, at a place downtown called Big City Diner. We were just partying, having a good time, just casually. Then I saw him again at the Beverly Center — he was there in L.A. He was walking around, talking to girls at the mall. This was before [the 1992 crime drama] Juice came out. Then I saw him do his first interview on B.E.T. He declared war on black Hollywood — not Hollywood itself, but black Hollywood. He was like, ‘F— Spike Lee, f— Eddie Murphy, f— Quincy Jones, f— all these fake-ass people. They’re going to see a new dude out here. I’m going to come hard.’ And I was like, ‘I want to work with him!’ “
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Singleton, who said he had wanted Tupac to star in Baby Boy, was at home in 1996 when he heard Shakur had been killed at age 25. “I was in my home office,” he said. “The lady I was dating at the time told me that he had passed — he had been shot days before, but he [had] just passed. It set my life on a whole other trajectory. I went and left the country for about a month. I just couldn’t cope. … I felt, the danger ain’t sexy anymore. I got to change it up, not necessarily just as a filmmaker, but just as a person, and kind of grow up.”
He also recalled the late Paul Walker, whom he directed in 2 Fast 2 Furious. “He would go on these exotic trips to Tahiti and different places on a moment’s whim, just to relax. He would hang out doing adventure trips, going to the Channel Islands. Somehow, people thought I started surfing after doing that movie [and that] I bought a $10,000 surfboard. I said, ‘No, I never bought a $10,000 surfboard!’ He probably bought that. But I didn’t.”
Watch the video above. A full transcript follows on the next page (click here to read).
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hi everyone. I’m Stephen Galloway and welcome to The Hollywood Masters, filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. My guest today is really a pioneering American filmmaker, John Singleton. When he made Boyz N the Hood, it was an absolute watershed in American film, a film that came out of nowhere by a young man nobody had heard of, brand-new out of USC film school, who dared to take on a subject that the studios had not tackled. Since Boyz N the Hood, he’s made films including Poetic Justice, Baby Boy, Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Abduction. And he’s also produced some very important films, especially one of my favorite films, Hustle & Flow. I’m really delighted to welcome John Singleton.
JOHN SINGLETON: Thank you very much.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well thank you for being here.
JOHN SINGLETON: It’s good to be here.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Nice to see you again. I want to go to your upbringing. You grew up in L.A. Where did you grow up, in what kind of environment? And how did that influence your later filmmaking?
JOHN SINGLETON: Born and bred. Reveries. Well I always say I never grew up more than half a mile away from Century Boulevard, starting in Inglewood and then going over to Vermont/101st [Street]. For the first fifteen, sixteen years of my life, that’s where I was. So my formative years would be in South Central Los Angeles. It was a really volatile environment but, I always say, when you’re living in the hood, you don’t live this life where you’re crying every day, downtrodden every day. At the worst of times there’s a bit of what’s known as “Ghetto Heaven” — you’re basically playing in the street, you play stick ball in the street; you chase the ice-cream truck and ride on the back of the ice-cream truck; you jump on the roof. [Laughter.] See, people [here] laugh because people know what I’m talking about! You jump on the back of garages from roof to roof to roof. There’s always some type of adventure. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. There’s always this undercurrent that something could happen that would basically end your whole thing. But you don’t really think about that day-to-day. You could get chased by twenty people from one neighborhood to the next, but then you’re like, “Wow, that was something.” That was an adventure on your bike. Or you could get your bike taken and you could be going around the neighborhood going, “I’m going to find out who took my bike.” And go from garage to garage to garage and find out, you see your bike all in pieces and your Happy Days stickers scraped off. And you’d be like, “That’s my bike and it’s all over the place.” “What, which one’s your bike?” “All of that, that’s my bike” “Then take all your bike.” As I say that stuff, I’m telling you stuff that just like is from my life. So I look at those times, especially before I actually went off to college, as kind of an adventurous time for me. I’m happy that I grew up that way because it made me more of a fighter, more of a hustler, and it made me really appreciate life in a different way as a storyteller. I could identify with people of other various communities around the world because of that experience.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When you’re growing up, what do your parents do? What did they think you’d do?
JOHN SINGLETON: Most of my formative years, my mother was struggling through school to get herself through [California State University] Dominguez. First she was going to junior college at Southwest and then other places and then she went to Dominguez. My father was a manager at Thrifty’s. I initially wanted to be a veterinarian, interestingly enough, or a computer science engineer. The thing about me was, I liked movies, I liked movies so much. We grew up next to the Century Drive-In, which was a drive-in that was near the airport outside of my apartment. I would always watch these films outside the apartment window that were basically B-movies, the AIP films, the throw-away films, the slasher movies, the blacksploitation movies, the kung-fu movies. I would see them with no sound. That was my initial entré into film and filmmaking. Between about, I’d say even five, six years old, maybe it was seven, me and my friends from the neighborhood would go and get on the bus down Crenshaw to Torrance, and those that are old enough to remember that – there’s not a lot of older people here, but if you’re from the States you’ll understand this —
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’m not —
JOHN SINGLETON: — they used to go to a theater, they used to have a double feature, I can remember this, and in between the feature, you take your ticket stub and the number, they would have a raffle. They would give you a prize. All the kids on a Saturday, there was a thing there. So the theater was kind of an escape for me. I could go see different types of pictures and then go home. That all went through elementary school, junior high school into high school.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Which picture was the turning point for you, if any one was?
JOHN SINGLETON: For me it was Star Wars, because Star Wars was the first movie I had seen more than three times in the theater. As I started watching the film I started breaking down how the movie is made and understanding that films are constructed. They’re just not, a lot of people… before the advent of so many types of media, they really had no idea of how films were made or how media was made. So you would watch it, you would be transported to another world and you’d just go with it. That was the first time I actually watched a movie and said, wow so they’re doing this and this is what’s happening here, and there’s a repetitiveness to it and it’s something that is made. That made me try to figure out, who does this? I think I saw 20/20 and the first person I saw actually direct a film was Steven Spielberg. There was a profile on 20/20 on the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And I was like, wow, OK, I want to be like that guy. I want to learn how to do that kind of stuff.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you met him since then?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yes, of course. I’ve met him many times. I can learn, talking in a casual conversation with Spielberg, more than four years of film school about cinema.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you learn from him?
JOHN SINGLETON: I learned basically to direct on theme. To really know the theme of the story that you’re telling, and to try to find a way in which to tell the story in the most cinematic way possible. To make the audience an active participant in viewing the film, instead of just doing it in what I say is the “cut-cut-cut” manner. You have the audience actually follow the character within the frame, and just really try to find ways to evoke some emotion out of an audience. That’s what I learned from talking to Steven.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When you were growing up — you’re a writer — were you writing at that point?
JOHN SINGLETON: I was not writing. I was making animated films in notepads, in the sides of books. My friends and I in elementary school, the guys that were really good artists, I would go and say I want this, and they would draw for me. My friend Armand, he was the skinniest kid in the school, he weighed like 80 pounds, he was rail thin. We used to joke and call him, ‘Armand Hammer Baking Soda Sears and Roebuck’s Store, draw this for me.’ But he was a great artist and he would draw these Marvel Comics characters in action, Daredevil, or Luke Cage or the X-Men. We’d do them on little flip thing, we called them flip-books and we’d make little Star Wars movies on that. That was the thing. It wasn’t about cameras, it was just about being in love with the moving image, you know?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You know it’s interesting because I was growing up in England and Hollywood would seem a million miles away.
JOHN SINGLETON: It seemed a million miles away from South Central Los Angeles.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That’s what I was wondering, yeah.
JOHN SINGLETON: I didn’t even know it existed.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What kind of place did you think it was? And did you think, I’m never going to be able to get into this? That you’d have to do something else. Or did you start thinking, this could be my career?
JOHN SINGLETON: I think it wasn’t until high school where I thought, wow I could really do this. I started writing film reviews for the school newspaper. I found I got a new hustle with that. If I was writing film reviews, I could go see the movies three weeks to a month before they came out. So when I’m fifteen, sixteen years old, I’m seeing movies like The Breakfast Club and Ladyhawke and Sixteen Candles, and Mask, and I got a little press pass. I feel like I was golden, you know what I mean? And I started thinking, wow, I really want to go to film school, so how do I do it? One day I visited USC film school and I ran into the interim dean there and I started talking to him. I was in maybe tenth or eleventh grade. And I started hanging around the film school while I was in high school. I didn’t have the best grades but it really got me going to really try to elevate my GPA, elevate my profile to go to college. If I hadn’t gone to film school I don’t know where I would have went to college for, outside of something more technological.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So you did go to USC?
JOHN SINGLETON: I did go to USC as a writing major.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Right in the Margaret Mehring Film Writing Program.
JOHN SINGLETON: Filmic Writing Program.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you learn?
JOHN SINGLETON: I learned that no one was going to write the films I wanted to do except for me. No one was going to have the vision to tell the stories that I wanted to tell except for me. And I had to buckle down and learn how to tell a story and make the blueprint to whatever I wanted to do, whatever it’s going to be. And it’s going to be the best, best, most valuable information possible. I still follow it now in developing my own things. A writer has to top my ideas. If you could top me, wow, I’ll hire you. If not, I’m not hiring you. I’m going to do it myself.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s a very structured approach to writing, the USC approach: protagonist, antagonist, three-act structure.
JOHN SINGLETON: You have to learn the rules before you can break the rules. You have to learn the rules, all the fundamentals, so that you can be innovative. And that’s what I learned, I learned the fundamentals, and read Syd Field’s Screenplay andThe Screenwriters Workbook, before I went to college. I went to film school, the cocky black kid, thinking that he knows everything about movies, walked in and said, I don’t know nothing about movies. I have so much to learn. I’m on the floor in my first introduction to cinema class, when you have the class in a theater, and you see Citizen Kane on the wide screen, not on channel 9 edited. You see movies like Singin’ in the Rain, American in Paris and stuff, and you’re like, wow. Or the first time you actually see [Vittorio] De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. And the juxtaposition of the lead actor to the non-actor of the kid and how De Sica puts these actors and non-actors together. All that stuff suddenly started having an effect on me and how I was going to make myself as a filmmaker. It culminated in me doing my first film.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was Boyz N the Hood the first screenplay you wrote or did you write things before that?
JOHN SINGLETON: It wasn’t. It was the third screenplay I wrote but it was the first one that actually got some attention.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And how did it begin? What was the genesis of it? How autobiographical was it?
JOHN SINGLETON: It was only autobiographical in the sense that I went from living with my mother when I was wild and unruly at eleven or twelve years old to living with my father. And my two friends: one was kind of really heavy set–in real life we call him Fat Back, in the movie I call him Dough Boy — and then my other buddy who was named Jimmy was based on Ricky. So it was three of us, we went everywhere together, and we experienced a whole lot of shit–excuse me–from where we went up. The stuff we saw was just…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Like what?
JOHN SINGLETON: We saw the environment and the neighborhood change from the proliferation of cheap cocaine, crack cocaine, we saw the escalation of violence within other gangs and inter-gang stuff, and we were all intimately around people who were experiencing that. At the time it was like the wild-wild-west; danger is sexy when you’re young. But when you can reflect on it — and I started to reflect on it only when I went to USC — which is a few blocks away from where I grew up, just off the 204 RTD Bus, where I started having these PTSD moments where like I’m still living in my neighborhood, but I am living in my neighborhood. The galvanizing moment for me was when I saw Do the Right Thing. I saw what Spike [Lee] did with that picture. I said, I got to do it for LA., I got to come hard with an L.A. movie. So it was just like I’m going to pull this idea that I had, I got to put on my application for USC that was called Summer of ’84. That’s Boyz N the Hood.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let’s talk about that. I want to show everyone a clip of Boyz N the Hood.
[CLIP Boyz n the Hood]
JOHN SINGLETON: They actually did that stunt. This is a lesson in what they call simultaneous action. Two or more important things going on at once and they juxtapose. That’s what really makes this work. Breaks the tension. You notice the sound drops out? You can hear the kids laughing and then the sound comes back up and you hear the kids crying.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I love the way you did that.
JOHN SINGLETON: Sound design. Now you can hear the kids crying.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s amazing. You look at that again, it still has the same power it had when that film came out. For people who don’t see this clip as we did, you were talking about the intercutting between two elements of the story. But what makes it very powerful to me is the sheer authenticity of it, right down to one of the guys doing his lotto card.
JOHN SINGLETON: You’re seeing dreams die right before you. It adds to the pathos of the scene, you’re seeing dreams die right before you. The authenticity of it comes from, I’m directing this and I’m doing it from the heart. These are stories that I’ve seen and that I’ve heard of in my environment. I’m following the axiom of: dramatize what you know. That’s what it is.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Although that shifted later, but we’ll come to that. When you did this, you start with this idea for a film called Summer of ’84. How did the script change from that point to when the film was made?
JOHN SINGLETON: It was always Boyz N the Hood. Summer of ‘84 was just a two or three sentence pitch thing on my application to USC. You used to have to say name three type of films you would make, and one of them was called Summer of ’84. It was about how three friends grew up in South Central Los Angeles, amidst the violence and turmoil of their neighborhood. That was one the ideas that got me into film school was the idea for Boyz N the Hood, ironically.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Then how many drafts did you go through, how did that shift?
JOHN SINGLETON: One draft. I wrote that script in like three weeks. I was in this computer room acting over it, doing the dialogue…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You’re going to give them the wrong idea here, you know?
JOHN SINGLETON: Cursing at the screen and moaning and stuff. People are doing their dissertations. They said, can you keep it down? I said, you keep it down, I’m writing a classic here. Be quiet. Shut your mouth. I’m just doing it. It was just pure on passion, really like, it was one of those things. I look back and I think, what did I do? I didn’t even outline the screenplay, I just wrote it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you have doubts, or did you believe it was that good?
JOHN SINGLETON: I willed myself into believing it was that good. I had so many people tell me, this will never get made, you’re never going to make this movie. And I was like, watch, I’m going to get this movie made. Less than a month after graduating from film school, I was in pre-production for this film.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Wow. So, how come, because the only job I think you had was working on The Arsenio Hall Show.
JOHN SINGLETON: No that wasn’t a job — I didn’t get paid for that. The only job I had was working for a Sonic Messenger and then driving a Super Shuttle around LAX. Then I became a director. Then when I was working for Super Shuttle, this is true, I would tell everybody about the movies I was going to direct. And they’d be like, yeah, ok, right.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So how did it happen that quickly? You write the script and then what?
JOHN SINGLETON: I got signed by CAA while I was still in film school. I was in senior year in film school and they would just send me around to different meetings and stuff. Russell Simmons got a hold of it, he read it, he was negotiating to have a deal as a producer at Columbia. That didn’t work out so they ended up giving me a deal. That’s what happened.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But having a deal and getting it made are two different things.
JOHN SINGLETON: They went right into production. They wanted to make the picture.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Were you scared about directing?
JOHN SINGLETON: I was making fudge packs in my pants. I was like, OK I talked all this smack, now I’ve got to direct a movie. So what I did was, I went and I just shuttered myself up in my apartment. I got all these different films that I wanted to watch. I would sit with my script and I’d watch The Godfather part one and two, I watched Taxi Driver, I watched Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. All these pictures that I really, really admired, I watched them. Back in the day, the films that weren’t on VHS, you had to go to the studio to get a projectionist to project them. I would just project films and get all my friends from the neighborhood to come and hang out to watch these movies, and I was just studying what made a good movie and what was a bad movie and the through line I found was, you don’t have to say everything through verbiage. There’s a lot of nonverbal communication in great films. So I said, okay, I have to do this in a way in which is not the traditional Americanized version of doing a film where you just have these people are standing there, there’s an over-the-shoulder shot, the over-shoulder shot. You have to have characters flow within their own environment. The environment is dictating the characters and the way they move. So that’s the way I started reformulating the script to how I was going to direct the film.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was there a producer who gave you advice, who helped you?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yes, Steve Nicolaides. Steve Nicolaideswas my first producer on Boyz N the Hood and he was very valuable on that picture because what Steve did very, very ingeniously was — God bless Steve — he scheduled the movie in continuity. Now, those of you who don’t know much about filmmaking know that most films, they’re not done as they’re happening. They’re done in different bits and parts. You may shoot the end of the film the first day. Steve scheduled the film in continuity and if you watch Boyz N the Hood, you can see me becoming better as a filmmaker. And that was great because it got more and more intense as the film goes along, so I’m just really… my instincts got better and better as a filmmaker within that seven-week schedule.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Wow, you plunge into something you’ve never done things before like, you haven’t worked with DP before, you haven’t cast major actors before.
JOHN SINGLETON: I did that L.A. do it mentality where you puff your chest and you act like you know everything and if it works out, maybe you do know something.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was there resistance from the studio about casting Ice Cube?
JOHN SINGLETON: No not at all. [Ice] Cube was a rap star, but he wasn’t a proven movie star yet. We didn’t do any screen tests or anything. I was just like, he’s the dude. He had to audition and stuff. His first audition wasn’t good and I said, hey you got to go back and read this. He hadn’t read the script. He had been on tour with his first album, America’s Most Wanted. I said, you got to read my script. I wrote this for you. He said okay. He went and read the script. He came back. He said, I got this. And he nailed the audition. He tells that story all the time too, but it’s just like, it’s phenomenal.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you do wrong during that shoot?
JOHN SINGLETON: What did I do wrong? I don’t know. I don’t know if I did anything wrong. I think I did everything right because I didn’t know any better. I had no idea how to direct a film. So I was just, I want a shot of him walking up the street like this, and he’s in the background and he’s going to come into the foreground as these guys are playing dice and as he just passes the guys playing dice there’s going to be a fight. And that’s going to be just like when Travis Bickle [Robert De Niro] walked up the street in Taxi Driver past the nudie theaters on 42nd Street. There’s going to be—I had no idea what a long lens was — but it’s going to have that perspective of that. So after while I’d be like, this is going to be a Martin Scorsese shot, this is going to be a Spielberg shot. And then, half way in the shoot, the guy said, I don’t want to hear you say that anymore. I said, what do you mean? He says, this is a John Singleton shot. OK, this is a John Singleton shot.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That’s what every director wants to hear from the crew you know.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, I’m just going off of the references of seeing what my cinematic heroes would do; how Akira Kurosawa would find ways in which to put different action within the frame, and I hadn’t… this is my exercise. At film school I only shot Super-8 films. I went from shooting Super 8 movies to shooting a 35mm in Boyz N the Hood. And it’s a good thing because with Super 8 you have no synchronous sound. You have to tell the best story you can nonverbally. There’s moments in all my films that I really enjoy that convey different emotions and different themes and different story points nonverbally. Some of the most powerful things I’ve ever done are all with no dialogue.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We’re going to see some of those. What’s interesting is you start with nobody guiding you. Just before we came into the theater here, John was telling me that, I said, you have a credit on Dumb and Dumber. How come? Well, the Farrelly Brothers went to him for…
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, Peter [Farrelly] and Bobby [Farrelly], we had the same agent and they were about to do Dumb and Dumber. They came onto the set of Higher Learning. I said, OK stay with me, this is how you do it, this is how you shot the shot. They gave me a credit on Dumb and Dumber. I’m very proud of that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did they follow your advice?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah they did.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Two things happened when that film opened. One, it was a huge success for you personally, but also there was some gang violence.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, but that happens every weekend.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Okay.
JOHN SINGLETON: That always pisses me off.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I wondered if that, how that affected you when it happened, when the movie was released?
JOHN SINGLETON: That to me, at the same time it created a soundboard to say, listen, this stuff happens every weekend. You guys are talking about it right now because there’s a movie that thematically has this on the periphery. The film isn’t about that. But this is a media culture environment and they did that. The great thing is that it got the film a lot of attention. People would go to the film and say, this isn’t about what that is. That happens every weekend.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And then you got your two Oscar nominations. Were you nervous?
JOHN SINGLETON: I was really proud in the sense that I wanted to make a film that was very authentic to what I say ‘The Folks’ first. I’m trying to make a movie that is as good as a rap album. That was my thing to shoot for at the time. OK, the folks like it, cool. Then it was like I got two Oscar nominations, that’s great. The only thing I was nervous about was, I didn’t want to be like, all I ever did was Boyz N the Hood. I won’t be able to do it. So I bear up myself in my next one Poetic Justice, thinking ahead, I wanted to have a career. I didn’t want to be just dwelling on it and being the dude going to the parties just talking about it and being like, hey I did this shot in this movie, this one movie I ever did. I wasn’t going to be that dude.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What’s interesting to me was that you went for me from the point where you could have gone into the studio system to make the studio film, you made a very personal film, again about an environment you knew very well. Let’s take a look at a clip from Poetic Justice.
[CLIP Poetic Justice]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s so fascinating because I watched you watching the clip from Boyz N the Hood and then watching Poetic Justice and there’s a different level of joy when you watch Poetic Justice.
JOHN SINGLETON: Well it’s a fun moment. At Boyz [Nthe Hood] I was scared to death. In Poetic [Justice] I just had fun. I hung out with my friends, Janet [Jackson] and Pac [Tupac Shakur] and all the folks up there, the movie was just… I wasn’t trying to say nothing. I was just trying to have a good time with some folks that I really loved being around. The irony is that I’m looking at being reflective of that time right now because my next movie is Tupac’s biopic. I’m germinating over that time and talking to old friends and having these emotional moments. I haven’t put the movie forward to look at it myself after all these years.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Will you?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, I will.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How did you meet him?
JOHN SINGLETON: I met Tupac through Queen Latifah in New York at this party that we were at, at a place downtown called Big City Diner. It was Latifah, Stretch, Shakim, Campari, and we were just partying, having a good time just casually. Then I saw him again at the Beverly Center, he was there in L.A. He was walking around talking to girls at the mall. This was before Juice came out. Then I saw him do his first interview on B.E.T. where he just got on TV, he was just so charismatic and so excited to be on TV. He declared war on black Hollywood—not Hollywood itself, but black Hollywood. He was like, f— Spike Lee, f— Eddie Murphy, f— Quincy Jones, f— all these fake ass people. They’re going to see a new dude out here. I’m going to come hard. And I was like, I want to work with him. So I had his number and called him and that’s how we ended up doing Poetic Justice. I was like, that’s going to be my dude. This is the guy I’m going to work with.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: He didn’t include you in the Black Hollywood list?
JOHN SINGLETON: Nah, nah, he didn’t include me. I wasn’t even really established then. He was twenty years old when he did that. Janet was like 27, and a superstar. And Pac had one album out and Juice and he’s thrust into stardom playing opposite Janet. And he holds his own the whole time. At the time I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I could in retrospect because that’s the only movie we got the chance to do. We had plans to do three or four other movies including Baby Boy, which I ended up doing later. I was just laughing at somebody saying, could you imagine if Tupac was in Baby Boy. I was writing that movie for him. The last conversation we had was about that movie.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: About what in particular? What did you talk about in that?
JOHN SINGLETON: About Baby Boy… I said I got a movie that’s going to get you an Oscar nomination. This is the one. This is the one.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you remember where you were when you heard he died?
JOHN SINGLETON: I was in my home office. The lady I was dating at the time told me that he had passed, he had been shot days before but he just passed. It set my life on a whole other trajectory. There are things that I did, I went and left the country for about a month. I just couldn’t cope. It was something.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Your life at that moment, did it change other things in you?
JOHN SINGLETON: It made me even more thankful for life itself. I think was 28 years old at the time. I just wanted to really explore and expand, do things. I had just finished directing Rosewood, which was a different film in my oeuvre. I didn’t really want to be in the same kind of urban environments that I was. Yes, I’m a filmmaker but I was still a young guy hanging out with these guys that were in the music business or two steps away from the environments where I grew up. So I felt the danger ain’t sexy anymore. I got to change it up, not necessarily just as a filmmaker, but just as a person and kind of grow up.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When did you start thinking about making a film about him?
JOHN SINGLETON: Only recently because it was always there and I had been approached different times. I wasn’t emotionally ready to do that. I couldn’t even think about it. Several people were involved to do it. I was privately disappointed when I heard other people were doing it but I wouldn’t express that. And then it came up three years ago on and off, on and off, and then something clicked in me, which I feel is possibly his spirit, like don’t do this. You bet me do this, they’re going to f— my movie up. Literally. I pursued it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you have a conversation with him in your mind?
JOHN SINGLETON: I’m having a conversation with him in my mind right now. It’s driving me mad. ‘Cause I’m writing the script right now. It’s just one of those things where, when Tupac was alive I don’t think he felt he was valuable even to himself, and I don’t think that people really understood what this kid in his early twenties meant to his community and his people and the artistic community in terms of, no matter how flawed he was and no matter what his passion was, it was all coming from a very pure place. His loss was such a huge loss to a lot of different people. To some people, they would be flippant about it. But to a lot of people Pac’s loss was almost like a 10 point earthquake here in Southern California. It ripped apart a lot of people. Some people only know one part of him, they don’t know the whole journey. So that’s what this film is about. It’s probably going to be the most personal film I’ve ever done.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How do you cast that role?
JOHN SINGLETON: I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m not even worried about that right now. I’m trying to get the purest vision possible of who he was, good, bad, whatever, on paper, visual. I’m crying over writing it. Some of it’s fun to watch too because it was fun for Pac to be Pac. But he could turn it off in two seconds too.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Is there anything in writing about him that you see differently about him?
JOHN SINGLETON: I just see more and more in depth of who he was and remembering different things. I feel I benefitted from the experience of actually knowing him as opposed to having read about him. ‘Cause everyone who was working on different iterations of the film, they’d have to read something about him. We had our ups and our downs and we battled and made up. He was like a baby brother. Everyone who truly loved him fought him verbally. All I have to do is talk to all our mutual friends and write the script. Like, remember that thing happened? How about this? What about this? There were so many different things that he did that are so crisper for the big screen.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What’s interesting is that you went from that film with him to make Higher Learning, you made these very personal films, and then you addressed a historic event on a larger scale, Rosewood. Let’s take a look at Rosewood.
JOHN SINGLETON: I love this moment.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yeah I love it.
JOHN SINGLETON: This is seventeen years before Django [Unchained].
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: This scene with the shot from the forest is great. So why did you go from making these personal films to making a film that really looks at this event in American history that I don’t think had been known until the 1980s, right?
JOHN SINGLETON: Well what happened was that I had read the article in Esquire, and didn’t think too much about it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We should perhaps tell everybody what happened, which was Rosewood, this small town…
JOHN SINGLETON: Small town in Rosewood, Florida in the early 20s, was a black town, a predominantly black town. There was only one white family that lived in the town. John Wright, he had a house there and he had a store there. It was a black self-sufficient town living under segregation. It was right next to another town called Sumner, which was basically a company town. There was an industry there and the industry was cedar, to cut down the cedar trees and also to tap trees of turpentine. So you’d have black workers and you’d have white workers working for the company but the black town, they owned their own land, they owned their homes and stuff. The white town, the people were basically owned by the company. What it did was—and what intrigued me about it was—yes there was segregation and staunch racism but they would credit this small economic disparity, which exacerbates the tribalism of racism. So there’s a conundrum right here for this event that happens: the powder keg of, supposedly, this white woman was assaulted by a black man. She wasn’t. Everyone knew that it was one of her lovers. But they used it as an excuse because of their insecurities and their anger at being economically displaced. So they used the excuse to burn the whole town down and murder all these people.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: By the way, I showed you a tiny clip there, but the second half of the film is really extraordinary when you see this outbreak of violence and you just sense the danger and vulnerability. One thing I like very much is the way that you humanize even some of the villains.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah ‘cause I felt that people who are villainous don’t realize they’re villainous. They don’t realize that there’s degradations and levels of evil and everyone thinks that they’re doing the right thing. They have a profound sense of righteousness of why they’re doing something very wrong. That’s a universal human flaw. I tapped into that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You did fictionalize one element, which is the Ving Rhames character [Mann]. Why?
JOHN SINGLETON: I did that because the accounts of the soldiers coming back from World War I that were coming back to the South being lynched. Not all of them — this is what I love about written history as opposed to oral history: The written history is black people, no matter what their persecution was, no matter what was heaped upon them by institutionalized racism, and American terrorism, they always got their ass kicked, and they kowtowed and they left. That ain’t true. Not my grandmother and my great grandmother stuff. We got our ass kicked but we kicked ass. People lynched our women, killed our kids, we went back and shot them. It’s the people that are writing the history, that are re-writing history that they’re trying to lead certain people to act a certain way. They’re trying to lead people to celebrate and for people of color not to fight back against their persecution. It ain’t true. We fought back. You just have to leave and go to Chicago, New York afterwards. The whole family would leave. There was a massive migration after the 20s.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: The first great migration.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, all the way to the north because of all of these violent happenings in the South. A lot of the violent happenings, yes it was racism, but it’s also, they don’t really get into the whole thing of the South being an agrarian based economy. So black and white, they’re really, really poor, they’re all living on the fringe together. So it’s one of the things, if you’re white you have nothing. You look at someone here that’s black that has nothing, you try to find an excuse through tribalism, you think, this (the N word) shouldn’t be doing better than me. So I’m going to do this. People, they don’t really understand. They say it’s just that one thing. They don’t understand how universal the one-upsmanship of one human tribe over another one is always based on economics. Whether or not it’s the Hutuor the Tutsis, whether it’s different ethnic cleansings in different countries, it’s always that. It’s not that whole thing about, they look different. It’s always these varying levels of persecution. What happened in Nazi Germany? It’s like no one really deals with that in a way that I feel is profound because they try to simplify things as much as possible. I think the profundity is more interesting to me.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you think we could ever see an instant like that happen again in America?
JOHN SINGLETON: What?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That kind of racial attack?
JOHN SINGLETON: No because we’re much more of a pluralistic, multi-ethnic society. Even though you’ve got white dudes that are scared of black dudes playing the music trying to shoot them. You have those kind of incidents and you have the Treyvon Martin situation where the guy is not even fully white, he’s ethnic but…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you think of the whole Treyvon Martin thing?
JOHN SINGLETON: We could have a whole damn seminar on that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yeah, but it’s interesting.
JOHN SINGLETON: I think that the interesting thing for me is that we live in a more multi-ethnic, pluralistic society right now where this generation doesn’t necessarily think the way that one or two or three generations back think. That keeps people from coming together holistically. The thing is still is a constant is this whole classist thing in our country where people who have wildly untold riches to people who have nothing. Most of us are living on the fringe. How many people could barely survive their credit debts? So it’s the same thing, but it’s a different thing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I wish I could agree with you but when you look at what happens in Yugoslavia where nobody expected these sort of ethnic so-called cleansing that it scares me that things like that could still happen.
JOHN SINGLETON: Human beings are only a step above the red ants and the black ants. You better think about it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So you went from Rosewood to two incredibly different films, which is..
JOHN SINGLETON: I wanted to have some fun.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yeah, which was Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Let’s take a look a clip from 2 Fast 2 Furious.
[CLIP2 Fast 2 Furious]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to talk a bit about both of those. What made you want to do that? It’s so much fun. It’s so different from those other films.
JOHN SINGLETON: It was fun, it was different, it was fun. I had a professional jealousy of all my other fellow directors who were young, and they were making money doing these fun movies. And I was doing these films that were so meaningful and so heartfelt but people were like, you’re too damn serious. I went to USC film school. I grew up on popcorn films. I know how to suss an audience in and get people to have audience moments and get up and cheer and ride the audience. I know how to do that very, very well. And that was a movie that got a chance — that and the movie Shaft— were the movies where I really got a chance to play with that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: With 2 Fast 2 Furious you’re going into a franchise. They hadn’t made as many as they’ve made since. How different was it working in that kind of studio environment?
JOHN SINGLETON: It was awesome. The heads of the studio at the time were just like, just make it fun, make it cool, make it this gen. I didn’t do all that techno music that they did in the first movie. I used nothing but Southern Hip Hop which was like the rage at the time. I just funked it up, I made it more multi-ethnic. They kind of followed the paradigm that I set up. What we’re going to do here is Paul [Walker]’s character—God bless his soul — Paul Walker is going to be edgy. He’s going to be more like a bad boy. That was the film where he was the star. That was the movie where he was the star of the picture because we didn’t have Vin [Diesel]. It was a real fun experience. I got a chance to spend a year in Miami working on a multi-million dollar movie.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That’s why you like Miami so much?
JOHN SINGLETON: We had a ball.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What was Paul Walker like?
JOHN SINGLETON: He was awesome. He was a real funny, cool, charismatic, laid-back guy. I learned so much from him about, use the industry as a job. Don’t make it your all-encompassing life. Fish. I sail now. He was a surfer. He would go on these exotic trips to Tahiti and different places on a moment’s whim just to relax. I learned a lot from that experience and working with him.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you hang out with him after the movie?
JOHN SINGLETON: Just a little bit. Paul wasn’t a really a hang out kind of guy. He would hang out doing adventure trips. Going to Channel Islands. I don’t surf. Somehow some ways people thought I started surfing after doing that movie. I bought a $10,000 surfboard. I said, no I never bought a $10,000 surfboard. He probably bought that. But I didn’t buy it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why did you not do any more of the Fast and Furious?
JOHN SINGLETON: Because this third movie they were going to do, they didn’t want Paul Walker or Tyrese [Gibson] back. Then I was going into Four Brothers, which you don’t have a clip for.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yes.
JOHN SINGLETON: I was going into Four Brothers. So it was either doing the third one or going into Four Brothers. Mark Wahlberg and I were friends for a long time, we wanted to do a movie.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: He’s terrific.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, he’s cool.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Shaft. You did Shaft. I know that you did not have such a happy relationship with the producer of that, Scott Rudin, who is sort of the 800-pound gorilla of our business. Brilliant producer.
JOHN SINGLETON: Brilliant. Intelligent.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What went wrong? What was that conflict about?
JOHN SINGLETON: My movie is my movie. I don’t care who else is on the movie, the staff, whatever. My name is on the movie. When the movie comes out, either the movie is good I get some credit, if the movie is bad it’s on my shoulders. So, whenever I’m making a pop culture statement picture, I got to go for what I think is cool and hip. I can’t have these cooks in the kitchen telling me, you should put this reference in—some forty year old pop culture reference that ain’t what people are going to respond to. I’m going to do what I’m going to do, what’s best for the movie. We made up ‘cause it was just a movie. I did exactly what I was going to do. The stuff that I did was what made the picture sellable and marketable. I’ll kill to make a good movie. That’s what I’m about.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’m assuming for a film like that, you don’t’ have final cut?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah I do in the way that I shoot it. You can’t really…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I think John Ford said the same thing, where he knew the studio would take a sudden close-up because he knew the studio would want to put it in.
JOHN SINGLETON: They can try to mess with the picture, but if it’s working and testing really well, why mess with it?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was Sam Jackson your choice? Because I know there was a lot of talk that Don Cheadle might have done the part.
JOHN SINGLETON: The film was originally supposed to be the son of Shaft. It was supposed to be Richard Roundtree and a new guy, whoever that new guy would be. Ironically enough, I wanted Chris Tucker and Richard Roundtree and Lauryn Hill to play his little sister. But Scott didn’t want Chris Tucker. I said he’s like this generation’s Eddie Murphy. No, he’s not this generation’s Eddie Murphy. He’s this generation’s Daffy Duck. Then Rush Hour comes out and it’s a huge hit. And we could have had him do a Shaft. And we would have made five movies. Lauryn [Hill] ended up having five babies, so…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How do you deal with studios because studios are so different from the type of movies you’re talking about that you grew up watching. There are whole flotillas of executives telling you what to do.
JOHN SINGLETON: I stick to my guns. Everyone who’s an executive, they live from quarter to quarter to make a successful slate of pictures. It’s my job to be as hip and cool as possible and tell the best stories possible. So I’m not going to cave because I’m trying to make somebody’s feelings work. I’ve got so many hits under my belt, I must be doing something right. I’m trying to get what’s in the zeitgeist on film before anyone else. So I got to stick to my guns on what I feel is right for the picture, no matter what. I don’t care if somebody going home crying because I made them feel bad about not being hip. This is what I’ve got to do.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What’s the worst conflict you’ve had like that? Over what?
JOHN SINGLETON: That was Rudin, but he’s cool. He said, “Thank you for being such a mensch.”
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you ever walked away from a project because the studio wanted to do it a different way than you?
JOHN SINGLETON: No, I haven’t. It hasn’t been like that. Most of the stuff I do, I’m writing on it, it’s my thing. No matter what I’m writing on it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you rewrite each script that you shoot?
JOHN SINGLETON: I do. I write a lot of it. I don’t take credit on everything but I write pretty much everything I do. A lot of people don’t realize that in the business. I started out that way.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I was reading Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies, which is really a fantastic book about film, and he said there are writers and directors, but most people who are so-called “hyphenates” are really one or the other. Agree?
JOHN SINGLETON: I don’t really think so. I feel like at a certain point, I have to have my “stank” on the movie. By doing that it’s making sure the dialogue flows, so it’s not laborious for anactor to do the dialogue; it has to flow organically on the actors tongue. That takes work. Some of it is improvisation weeks before we start it. You take the script, you do improvisations that have nothing to do with the script and you find different ways to change things thematically throughout the body of the work. It’s just a matter of trying to make it as organic as possible so that when you’re on the day, you shoot, do no more than two takes, move on. It just goes. I hate watching movies and they’re only talking dialogue that can only happen in a movie. I abhor that. I like to look at a film and say, wow, I like that line. I have a saying where the audience has to come out and have “isms”, they have to come out and say things characters said in the movie. That’s when you have a hit because you’ve captured them.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What do you find the easiest and what’s the hardest part about filmmaking?
JOHN SINGLETON: The hardest part about filmmaking is getting a movie made. Is getting to the point, the starting line. Once you get that it’s there. The other thing is casting, finding the right combination of elements. It’s the scariest thing because you always want to get the best combination of people together. I feel like I’m a master at that. Four Brothers, you feel that those guys are really brothers. I put together a good collection of guys, hung out all the time, played hockey, partied together. And we just had a bond. And then it shows on the film. People really feel the heart and soul of who those guys are as the characters because of all the time we spent off screen together.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: If you could give anybody a piece of advice about making films, these are all students, what would you tell them?
JOHN SINGLETON: I’d say learn to write your own material and don’t be afraid. There’s so many people that are doing this, it ain’t rocket science.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: One famous piece of advice is: don’t put your own money into films. We discussed this earlier, you have done. And I really admire that.
JOHN SINGLETON: Oh OK.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Where you’ve turned to producing. I guess a lot of people have told you don’t do this. In particular, you’ve turned to producing more. You’ve helped other young filmmakers. I want to show a clip from Hustle & Flow, where this film would never have been made if John hadn’t put a pretty substantial amount of money to it. Let’s watch a clip from Hustle & Flow.
[CLIP Hustle &Flow]
JOHN SINGLETON: On her face. You cut it off. When it cuts you see her face and then when he closes the door, they close on the babies and they made them cry.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I love that.
JOHN SINGLETON: Craig [Brewer], that’s Craig [Brewer].
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well let’s come to your role in it. Here’s a film [that] a guy that no one had ever heard of was trying to make. The producer on it had been your executive, I think?
JOHN SINGLETON: Stephanie Allain, yeah. She kicked and screamed to get Boyz N the Hood done. And she kicked and screamed to get Hustle & Flow made. So I had to…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And at some point it wasn’t happening so they came to you and you put your money to it.
JOHN SINGLETON: What it is, is this movie was made because I hate for somebody to tell me no and I don’t know what I’m talking about in this business. They always think they know what should be made and what shouldn’t be made and what’s cool. And I was like, now this guy, you look at his short films and the movie that he did called The Poor & Hungry that he shot himself, wrote, edited, directed himself, and he could do a feature. I’d just made 2 Fast 2 Furious, it made like $200 million all around the world. It was making money. You guys can’t give us $3 million to do this movie? No, all these excuses, this is what the home video component is. I was like, you know what, fine, forget it, I’ll do it. It was the best thing ever because my philosophy was, if I had the money to do Boyz n the Hood on my own, would I do it? Why not? At that level I can be like Michael Jordan at half court and just keep on hitting the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. Now there are whole studios that have been held up by their micro-budgeted divisions. I really, that was a great experience doing that film. It was empowering to actually go and practice and make a film on that budget, that quality.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What was the budget? $3 million?
JOHN SINGLETON: It was about $4 million.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And did you finance that entirely?
JOHN SINGLETON: Totally.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Wow. That’s incredible because here’s this film — if you look at it on paper — has no stars, it’s about a pimp, two prostitutes. It is as un-commercial as…
JOHN SINGLETON: No, it is very, very commercial because you are telling a story about people that basically no one is going to tell a story about. If you have to tell a story about, regardless of what his profession is, it is aspirant, he has aspirations. Everyone has dreams. You want to see whatever character go on that journey to follow their dream. You’re sitting in trepidation and attention of whether or not that person is going to realize that dream or not. And I think that’s kind of a universal tenet of storytelling. That’s why the picture works. Craig Brewer is a genius. He had a vision for this film years in advance before anyone came along.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you suggest to him or give to him as advice on making the film?
JOHN SINGLETON: My main advice to Craig was to follow his heart and, I always tell him, shoot the meat first. Shoot the big portions first. Then you could do the minutiae. Especially on a low-budget…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What do you mean by that?
JOHN SINGLETON: You try to find ways to not do a lot of coverage. When you shoot on a low budget you have to do a lot with one master shot. You can’t just do it from all these different angles.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When you’re shooting, do you do that?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, I do that anyway.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Multiple cameras? One camera?
JOHN SINGLETON: I use usually one camera. I like to use single camera. I think that true directing is becoming really a lost art because people are, the technology is so advanced that you can have various cameras at different sizes and put them in various places. There’s a reason why you can watch older films—whether or not they’re American films or foreign films—why you can watch a film by Akira Kurosawa or François Truffaut or Orson Welles. Filmmakers who had true command of the craft, even when they’re working with big bulky equipment, and trying to find ways to creatively find choreography with the subjects, with the characters, and the environment. And it’s seamless. You’re not aware of directing. You’re not aware that you’re being manipulated. Now people are like, I’ll put three cameras on it in this way. That’s–anybody can do that. To really be a painter, to actually have a thing where you know you want the actor to go at this point and then either have their back to the camera and do most of their dialogue that way, where you don’t see their faces, is a conscious choice. It’s a conscious choice to know that that person is going to hit that mark. Where you’re actually going to do some blocking, which a lot of people don’t understand because they don’t take theater anymore, right? They’re going to hit a mark and at a certain point the light is going to change, or that the camera is going to move some way like this, or something thematically else is going to happen. No one thinks like that anymore. They just think, I’m going to shoot it [with] three different cameras and it’s going to look good.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you think the studios are encroaching more on your freedom as a director?
JOHN SINGLETON: They’re trying to. They’re always trying to. I feel that the more and more I’m successful at doing what I do, how I do it in my way, the more power it gives me as an artist. And yeah, I’m an artist, but I’m also a business man. I have to make pictures that actually make revenue in order to continue to do pictures. But you have to do it in a way in which is interesting and keeps the audience actively participating.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You’ve objected recently to the way the studios have made films primarily about the African American experience.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yes, my article…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Terrific article in The Hollywood Reporter. By the way, if any of you want to read it, it’s a fantastic piece of writing where you say very bluntly, there’s a sort of latent racism.
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah, because they want black people what they want them to be. And nobody is man enough to go and say that. They want black people to be who they want to be as opposed to what they are. The black films now—so-called black films now—they’re great. They’re great films. But they’re just product. They’re not moving the bar forward creatively or anything you want. It’s not that you have to say something or you have to make an important movie. We’re in the entertainment business. We’re in the business where you’ve got to get as many butts in the seats and get people excited on Friday, Saturday, and even come out Sunday to see the picture. And even after that, they got to want to buy it, they got to want to order it, push a button and get it. But you don’t do that unless you can pull someone’s emotions in. Unless you get really specifically, unless you’re specific culturally to the point that it becomes universal. When you try to make it homogenized, when you try to make it appeal to everybody, then you don’t have anything that’s special. Boyz N the Hood wasn’t made for everybody. It was made for like a young black audience that buys Hip Hop records. But I knew that if I got as universal as possible it would cross over. And I still hold to that kind of thing. Francis Ford Coppola was the right person to do The Godfather because he had an Italian-American background. Woody Allen, his early pictures that were basically his Upper East-side, nebbish Jewish guy—unless you’re from that environment, you couldn’t really totally appreciate those films. But, even if you aren’t from those environment and you don’t get all the jokes, you love it. Because it’s taking you somewhere… This is my point. They have these pictures where everybody’s so interested in black culture, which they have been since the minstrelage, since the Jazz Age, since the early days of blues, which begot rock and roll. But they ain’t letting the black people tell the stories. And you’re like, oh ok, we’re going to take your stories but you know what, you’re going to go starve over here and we’re not going to let you get a job.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So why not? Why are they not letting? You say ‘they’ meaning the studios?
JOHN SINGLETON: Because the so-called liberals that are in Hollywood now are not as good as their parents or ancestors. They feel that they–
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I like the audience reaction.
JOHN SINGLETON: They feel they’re not racist. They’re not racist, they grew up with Hip Hop so you can’t be racist. I like Jay-Z, but that don’t mean I got to give you a job. You see what I’m saying? I don’t want to say that to be mean, because I’m working. I’m not being mean but I’m just making a point, there’s a thing about, there’s people that do it very well. Taylor Hackford did a great job on Ray. Whatever anybody wants to say about Steven Spielberg and The Color Purple, he rocked it. That movie, you can watch it. You can watch what Brian Helgeland did on 42. But those people also had a respect and they also had people who were African-American behind the scenes who were allowed to give opinions to make it special.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But you’ve just defined the people who, isn’t this a contradiction to your point for saying, these guys did a good job?
JOHN SINGLETON: No. They did a good job because they had respect for the thing. They didn’t say I’m going to tell the story and I’m not going to give nobody black a job. That’s a difference. There’s a lot of films that are doing that and are doing it in a bubble and they’re not holding to what the American tenet is about what this is about a multi-ethnic culture and opportunity for all. It’s not that I’m saying, you’re of a different background, you can’t do this thing. I’m saying that, if you’re going to do it, have enough respect like the people who have done it successfully to bring other people in that could help you tell your story in a good way. There’s stories I want to do—not all the stories I want to do have African-Americans in them, which I’ve proven. But if I’m going to do something that is different—say I want to make a movie about the first Australian immigrants when they took all the convicts and they threw them off to the barren lands. I’m not just going to go over there and say, I know your story and I’m going to tell it my way. And that’s what a lot of these people are doing. So that’s why when I wrote that article, it was just like calling them on the carpet.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When wrote that article, did they call you? Did people respond to you?
JOHN SINGLETON: My friends called me. Other people said, he has a mouth, how did he say this stuff? That’s when I was like… Some people say that way. Other people who, they’re not all, they don’t have to be black, there were people who said, yeah I get your point. What do we got to do?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So the answer is what should they—how do you change that? So here’s the problem, how do you change it?
JOHN SINGLETON: If you’re doing a story that has, that is African-American themed, you have to have black people on that could give you advice that are not insecure, that are not just there to show their damn face. That actually can challenge and say, listen maybe you should thing about this, in the development process. That kind of thing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I don’t think you’re addressing the real problem, which is that if you look at the ranks of studio executives, you qualify–
JOHN SINGLETON: That doesn’t matter any more. I doesn’t matter who runs the studios anymore.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well let me make my point so they can hear it. You can’t find black executives in the studio ranks.
JOHN SINGLETON: That doesn’t matter anymore because you’ve got a lot of black executives at the studio who are afraid to give their opinion about what black culture is. And they don’t know there’s a whole lot of black people who work in studios that don’t need to be there because they won’t—if I give them the best thing possible, they’re scared to give it to somebody because they’d be like, woah. There’s no Stephanie Allains. Stephanie Allain who kicked and screamed to get Boyz n the Hood made. Those people don’t exist anymore, whether or not they’re black, white, or whatever. So we’re not going there. What doesn’t exist is financial infrastructure for people, and not necessarily black, but just people of different visions, to be able to do different types of work. I think that because films are being made in a different vein now, there’s not just a committee of people making them at the studios. Films are being made outside of the certain norm, people are putting in and financing. That’s a liberating thing. You’re going to get different types of stories made. A good example of a person who happens not to be black, Benh Zeitlin who did Beasts of the Southern Wild, that would never have been made if it hadn’t been made in that model. That could never have been made in the studio. 12 Years a Slave could never have been made in the studio model.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Except that those financing companies are closing, they’re not around anymore.
JOHN SINGLETON: They’re making conscious decisions to make different types of films. Both of those films were very profitable.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But the companies – the Focus Features, the Paramount Vantage, they’re not around anymore.
JOHN SINGLETON: No. But they don’t have to be around anymore. There are people who can look at the success of these pictures that looked at one point on paper that they were obscure films that should have never been made that are art films, like a Hustle & Flow that turned in damn near $80 million in revenue for a $5 million investment. Or Beasts of the Southern Wild, which sold all around the world. Or 12 Years a Slave which didn’t make a lot of money here, but it’s made $140/$150 million around the world. Anything can be made. You can’t tell them you can’t go make that movie. So that’s my attitude.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I agree. Let’s have the first question.
STUDENT [Tasha Henderson]: What do you know now that you wish you knew at the start of your career?
JOHN SINGLETON: I know now that it takes a lot of money to make a movie. So I would have made some more contacts in the business field. Make sure I have some friends who are going in the hedge fund business. ‘Cause I’ve got the creative thing down pat.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Next question. Money is so hard now for interesting films.
STUDENT [Terrence Grant]: Hollywood seems to put you into this bubble of a screenwriter-director-producer. In your opinion what advice would you give to those that are aspiring to navigate out of that bubble that they have been placed in?
JOHN SINGLETON: That’s not a bad bubble. That’s three different jobs. If I do one of those jobs I’m going to eat for a year. You’ve got to be the best storyteller possible. You learn all different tenets of storytelling. First of all, the ability to tell a story orally is the most important thing. If you can tell a story orally you can work a room. You can sell people on something without even them knowing that they’ve been sold on something. That means that you’re making them excited about your vision and your creativity. And that’s what it’s really about.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Next question.
STUDENT [Emmanual Saint-Ange]: After you pass away, what do you think is going to be the work that represents you best as a filmmaker? Why? And what do you want it to say about you as a filmmaker?
JOHN SINGLETON: Oh man. You’re scaring me man. I haven’t made my best work yet. I have my best work lying ahead of me. I have my best and my worst probably. I want to be remembered for my passion. And for the fact that my films, each one of them is a different soulful statement.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I know you love Baby Boy.
JOHN SINGLETON: Good thing you didn’t have a Baby Boy clip. So much for that. How many people have seen Baby Boy? If you haven’t seen Baby Boy, you’ve got to see Baby Boy because it’s a good counterpoint to Boyz n the Hood.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why is that the film that you’re particularly proud of? Because there are a lot of really good films there.
JOHN SINGLETON: Because I came out of Shaft with all this turmoil. On Baby Boy I had final cut contractually. I did all the stuff in it that could never have been done. It was just soulful, I made a movie that I wanted to be as soulful as a Marvin Gaye record. That was my goal for better or worse. Not necessarily a perfect film, but just something that you watch, it’s memorable. That’s what I love about that movie.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you still watch films as much as you used to?
JOHN SINGLETON: Oh yeah, I watch films all the time.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Who today really interests you as a filmmaker?
SINGLETON: Same people. I love what Scorsese did with [The] Wolf of Wall Street.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I did too.
JOHN SINGLETON: He pushed the envelope so far. He and Leo [DiCaprio], they’ve inspired me so much because what they did with [The] Wolf of Wall Street, they reinvigorated the cinema in terms of there’s nothing that can’t be done. Even if you’re going to offend people. You do it in such a charismatic, beautiful, cinematic way that you can’t take your eyes off of it. There’s the voyeuristic pleasure of watching something and going in an environment cinematically that you don’t want to be in reality. And that’s what they did with that picture. There’s just as many people that love the movie that hate the movie. And I love movies like that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When you see something like that do you call them up or write to them?
JOHN SINGLETON: No I saw Leo but I haven’t seen Marty [Scorsese] and told him how much I love the movie. Sometimes I do that. I really love that picture.
STUDENT [Connor Chang]: I’d just like to say, thanks so much for coming here. It’s an honor to have you. To go off the last question, there’s always a certain stigma about a filmmaker or an artist in general that work is never finished. There’s always something better lying ahead. What would you say your dream project would be, if you haven’t already made your dream project, what would you say it would be?
JOHN SINGLETON: If I knew, which I do know, I wouldn’t just tell everybody for [fear of] the Internet. This is going everywhere. If I say that, somebody is going to want to do a derivation of what I do. So I kind of keep some of my best ideas close to the vest until it is actually time for them to come to fruition. The movie that I’m working on right now, to God’s ears, I hope it gets made. I think it’s going to get made. But it’s going to be the most intimidating project I’ve ever done before, if I’m doing my friends biopic. There’s a lot of responsibility about that. And there’s a lot of stuff I may do that may piss a lot of people off. The same thing that [will] piss some people off about the picture, other people will be celebrating because they’ve never been dramatized before.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Like what?
JOHN SINGLETON: Why would I say that?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I knew you wouldn’t answer that question.
JOHN SINGLETON: It’s too soon. I’m still writing the script.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you have scripts that you haven’t made that are just waiting there to be…
JOHN SINGLETON: I have lots of scripts.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you write all the time?
JOHN SINGLETON: I try to write as much as possible. I try to write longhand as much as possible because I feel it’s the best way to get things down organically.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So you write a whole draft long hand?
JOHN SINGLETON: No, I try bits of scenes and dialogue and characters scenarios and after a while I start to commit it to a word processor when the time comes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Like Woody Allen, he writes everything.
JOHN SINGLETON: He does everything on a typewriter. I don’t know how he does it. I’d be there with White-Out all the time if I had to go back to a typewriter.
STUDENT [Nicholas Pangilinan]: In regards to your future Tupac biopic — don’t worry I won’t ask details — how do you try to use the balance between bringing the legend to life while creating an accurate and relatable story?
JOHN SINGLETON: I don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about what people’s perceived notion of him was. Everybody has a perceived notion of him. I just try to concentrate on what he was and the essence of him as a person and the journey that he had in his twenty-five years, which was a short period of time, but he went through a lot of things emotionally on that journey. The film should be revelatory and things that you see in the picture that you never would have thought, that’s what I want.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Any other questions.
STUDENT [Unknown]: How do you cast and then direct your actors when on set?
JOHN SINGLETON: When I cast them, you know. It’s like lightning in a bottle. This person is right for this character. This is an indelible person that you can’t– I have this thing where if I can’t look through the actor as they’re emoting, if they’re so solid that I can’t take my eyes off of he or she, then that’s the right person for the part. When the words don’t become words, they become organic.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you made a mistake at all in casting?
JOHN SINGLETON: Yeah of course everybody makes mistakes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And then how do you handle that?
JOHN SINGLETON: You try to make sure nobody else knows you made the mistake. Let’s hope nobody knows this.
STUDENT [Unknown]: I would like to ask if you have any job opportunities.
JOHN SINGLETON: I’m still trying to keep my job right now. I don’t have anything solid right now. I’ve been writing about Tupac so I haven’t staffed up or anything.
STUDENT [Unknown]: You mentioned Kurosawa several times. Other than The Seven Samurai, which most guys like, what’s your favorite obscure Kurosawa film?
JOHN SINGLETON: Well it’s not obscure but it was the [sequel] that he made to Yojimbo, which was Sanjuro. Sanjuro was the first film I saw of Kurosawa’s. The reason that I keep going back to Kurosawa is not out of some didactic, let me show you how bad I am cinematically. Let me tell you the roots of that. My father, Danny Singleton, he grew up in Los Angeles. When he was a kid in the 60s, he used to go see movies in downtown in the cinema, they had the movie palaces and they used to show the Japanese jidaigeki films. He knew nothing about, Kurosawa, he knew nothing about cineaste things. All he knew was there was this bad ass actor named Toshiro Mifune. When I started getting into B-movies, I used to always talk about Bruce Lee. We used to sit in the car, driving and stuff and he says, you think Bruce Lee is so bad. If he met Toshiro Mifune, he would jump up and Toshiro Mifune would cut him in half with his sword. And I had no idea who this guy was, so I said you don’t know — Bruce Lee would have whooped his ass. So when I started getting into films and I went up to the USC library when I was in high school, then you didn’t have to be a student to go in the library. And you’d get the VHS copy and put it in a small TV set. I didn’t even know much about Kurosawa. I hadn’t even seen Ran yet. I was watching Sanjuro and at the end of the movie there’s this moment where Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai they saw, and there’s this long moment where they’re about to face off and there this sword movement that Mifune does and this blood spurts out. That’s the moment where I’m like, this is the dude my daddy was talking about. He’s bad! So was a galvanizing moment for me. I went from that to watching The Seven Samurai. I went to see Ran that was ’84 to ’85 when Ran came out. I started really understanding how this man, his mise en scène was more painterly. He had different elements within one frame. He knew how to do a master shot that had a close up, a long shot, a tracking shot within one thing. He could do that. It was phenomenal. I started realizing that, wow that’s a whole lot of stuff that Steven Spielberg does in his movie that is right from Kurosawa. And then I realized, I started looking at Fellini and I was like, wow. Scorsese is aping Fellini. So I thought I was like bad when I started realizing that these people that I looked up to were looking up to other masters. People say this person is so bad. Francis Coppola used to tell me all the time you’re going to steal stuff from the best. That’s what people do. But you don’t make it look like you stole it. You’re inspired artistically by different things. I told you up here that there’s parts of Baby Boy that have the ironic comic humor that Woody Allen does that [Pedro] Almodovar does. But if you didn’t know, if I didn’t tell you those different moments in Baby Boy that were influenced by Almodovar you wouldn’t know.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I was shocked.
JOHN SINGLETON: There’s stuff that’s in All About My Mother with the different murals. I forget the actress [Marisa Paredes], with her face all over Madrid. You have Tupac’s face. You find different ways to watch the masters. You don’t copy them. You’re influenced by them if only thematically.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I love when you see in the film when it’s done brilliantly. You were talking about Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Which is the root of Star Wars.
JOHN SINGLETON: Only in that sense of the journey to the princess. And then the two guys.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Then the two peasants who become R2D2…
STUDENT [Unknown]: What is your defining cinematic style? I think you have these wonderful master shots, especially Rosewood. What is your cinematic stamp? You have a ton of passion – that really comes through.
JOHN SINGLETON: My thing is I don’t have a certain stamp. I like to have moments in my film where things are dramatized nonverbally. The swatches of the movie where there’s no dialogue but things are happening. And not arbitrarily. They’re happening because of the set up and pay off of it. And I’m having something very soulful happen at a certain moment. They can be big moments, or they can be small moments. That’s what I love doing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I really want to thank you so much. John Singleton thank you for taking part in The Hollywood Masters. Thank you.
JOHN SINGLETON: This was fun.
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