DVDTalk Interview - John Singleton
by James W. Powell
Writer/director John Singleton was only 22 years old and fresh out of film school when he made his first feature film, the highly acclaimed Boyz 'N The Hood. Twelve years and many delays later, his debut is finally being revisited on DVD, this time with a number of bonus features improve on the initial lackluster DVD.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Mr. Singleton to discuss the new DVD edition of Boyz 'N The Hood, his thoughts on the film, and how he feels the digital format is affecting Hollywood. Of course, for the comic book fans out there, I also got the inside scoop on the feature film debut of Marvel Comics' Cage.
James W. Powell: Boyz 'N The Hood is finally getting the DVD treatment it deserves, but the special edition was announced two years ago.
John Singleton: Yeah, I know. It took forever to get out. I delayed it another year because not everything was on there that I wanted. Everything is on there now, except for the screen tests.
JWP: Why aren't the screen tests included?
JS: I don't know what happened with the screen tests. Something must've been lost in the translation. I had Ice Cube's and everybody's screen test. I don't know why, but we'll see. Maybe on another pass. (laughs)
JWP: I was looking forward to the Ice Cube screen test. Is that the one that wasn't so good?
JS: No, this was the second test, the one where he was good. Actually, [the second Ice Cube screen test] was on the Criterion release, years ago, when Criterion did laserdiscs. But then a lot of the elements that we did were lost between the translation of Criterion and [the new DVD]. In home video back then, they didn't know what they had, you know? So they let Criterion put out the laserdisc and the laserdisc sold gangbusters. It had all the extra stuff on it, but the new DVD is great because we got a chance to do that documentary. Did you see the documentary?
JWP: I did, and I loved it. It's the way all documentaries should be. None of this fluffy stuff.
JS: Yeah. You know, we were dealing with the cast member that got killed, and one guy became a murderer. Did you hear that one?
JWP: I didn't hear about that.
JS: Oh, it's not on there? The guy who shot Ricky, he was a middle-class kid that became a killer after he made the movie. They probably edited it, who knows? But one friend of mine got killed. I know that's in the documentary. Dedrick [Gobert], you know, he had the pacifier-he was murdered. He was actually a street racer, like in The Fast and the Furious. And he was racing out in Riverside. Some Vietnamese guy shot him.
JWP: That was an interesting portion of the documentary, and it was the first I had heard about the murder. It was a good tribute, I think.
JWP: I watched the film last night for the first time in about eight years. It seems to me that, unlike some of the other movies that came out in the late 80s, early 90s, it's aged really well. What do you think made it so powerful that it could age like that?
JS: I have no idea. I just think that the film has a kind of an emotional resonance with the audience because it's so personal. It was made from a personal standpoint. It's like, it wasn't so much of a manufactured thing. It was something that came straight from the heart.
JWP: I was surprised by how much of what was on screen was based on events from your own life.
JS: Oh yeah, you listened to the commentary?
JWP: Yeah I did. Great commentary by the way.
JS: Oh thanks, man. Oh yeah, this guy breaking into the house, that happened. And things that Furious says come right out of my father's mouth.
JWP: When you sat down to write the film, did you intend for it to be autobiographical?
JS: No, I just sat down and wrote the film over the course of a few weeks sitting in the computer room at USC.
JWP: So you actually wrote Boyz 'N The Hood while you were still in school?
JS: Yeah, I wrote it while I was in film school.
JWP: Okay. So, you're 22, you have a cast of 19-year-olds, you have $6 million, and you've never shot anything besides Super 8. That's got to be pretty exciting and scary at the same time.
JS: (laughing) Yeah, it was scary. It was scary the first time because I was nervous, too, but I was like, you know, it's all about acting like I wasn't nervous at all. I was like, "Yeah, I got this." I remember the first time me and Ice Cube went to dailies. It was like, "Oh shit." But then we looked at the film, we were like, "Oh, okay. This is looking good."
JWP: In either the documentary or the commentary, you mention how confident you were, but then somewhere else, you say you were scared as hell. That's quite a ride for a 22-year-old.
JS: (laughing) Yeah, yeah. My agent told me if you don't do it right, man, they can fire you. And after awhile, after I'm doing it, I was like, "Well shit, who are they going to get to come down to the 'hood to do this? They're not going to get anybody to come down and do this."
JWP: It sounded pretty dangerous down there for awhile.
JS: It's always like that. When I did Boyz or Baby Boy or whatever, after awhile, you know, once people found we're there, they're coming out of the woodwork. When you're not so visible, people don't care. When you're visible, you know, people come out like, you know, "Give me a $100 or I'm standin' here." (laughs)
JWP: That's why all the trucks were in the background to protect the crew?
JS: Oh, that story. (laughs) Yeah, that's right. They beat up that guy on the set, and then they were threatening to do a drive-by. And they put the trucks behind the camera crew. Yeah, true story, man.
JWP: You must've had some balls, because at one point you just said, "Ah, don't worry about it. We'll deal with those guys later."
JS: Yeah, well, we were like, "We're going to do this. You can't tell us where to shoot or not. This is our thing."
JWP: In the infamous uzi scene, you didn't tell anyone you were going to shoot the gun. What kind of reaction did you get from the crew after it all settled down?
JS: Everybody just laughed. People were scared, but they laughed. It was so funny because everybody thought somebody was going to drive by that night. So when we shot the gun, everyone just ran for real. I got the shot I wanted, man. (pause) I forgot what I said on the commentary and everything. It's interesting. One of these nights I'll have to watch it myself and put the commentary on.
JWP: Actually, it sounds like that commentary was recorded eight years after the film. That wasn't from the laserdisc, was it?
JS: No, that's what I did for this DVD. The laserdisc was Criterion, which is a whole other thing. I did that a year after I made the film. So I'm younger on that one. This one is me after I've done several films.
JWP: The commentary is quite revealing. When you sat down, did you plan it out? Did you have any notes beforehand, or did you just wing it?
JS: I just sat down and talked.
JWP: Well, you're well spoken, and it's an entertaining listen. I can't say the same about most commentaries.
JS: Well, that's what I try to do. I try to make sure my commentaries are entertaining.
JWP: A lot of commentaries are pretty dry and -
JWP: (laughs) I have a question about the DVD. The image quality is great, but how come there's no 5.1 audio track? I mean, it sounds fine, but I was hoping for it to kick. You know, the music and such. And for the guns to really boom.
JS: I didn't have any idea that was going to happen. Shit man, and I'm a stickler for that. Okay, I'll call 'em on it.
JWP: So, seven films later, looking back on Boyz 'N The Hood, is there anything you'd do differently? Anything where you say, "Oh, I could've done that better. I could've shot that a little better today."
JS: Naw. There's nothing in there that I would do differently. Because we did it in like 40 days, and I think it looks good for the time that we did it and for how quickly we did it. We shot that movie quick, down, dirty, and easy, which was fun.
JWP: The deleted scene with Furious confronting Doughboy. Can you tell me a little bit about why you deleted that?
JS: It was a powerful scene but it didn't add to the whole thing. (quotes scene) "Who the fuck is they?" It's like, he said, "That's what they want you to do." Who the fuck is they? I remember writing that. I remember that one, man.
JWP: Yeah, I don't know, it seemed like it could've fit. When did you decide to cut it?
JS: During editing. I didn't have to cut it, but it kept the ending more powerful to keep them apart.
JWP: The scene is powerful just as a deleted scene. I was amazed at how 40 seconds could be like, "Whoa."
JS: I know, it's like, "Whoa" when he tries to grab him, and he says, "Let me talk to him." The cool thing about that movie was, here it is, Ice Cube is just now learning how to act, you know what I'm saying? He's just exploring it as a new venture. All those kids, it was their first movie. They just really wanted to prove to themselves, and to me, that they were doing a good job. Morris [Chestnut] would come up to me afterward, and he'd be like, "How am I doing?" It's like "You're doing fine, man." It's like, "Would you get the fuck out of my face, you're doing good." And it was just fun, man, that's what I loved about the process of making that picture. It let me know what I needed to do with making my other films, which is create a kind of cool vibe while you're making the movie, you know what I mean?
JWP: So how do you create that vibe in your direction?
JS: I just keep my energy level up to the degree that everyone just has to follow what my energy level is.
JWP: As far as your most recent films, while you're filming, do you think about the eventual DVD treatment? Do you make a special effort to shoot, for example, behind-the-scenes material?
JS: I just try to make the best film possible and once the movie's done we deal with the DVD. But we do shoot some footage. Three weeks after the Boyz 'N The Hood DVD comes out, the 2 Fast 2 Furious one comes out. And we have a lot of stuff on that, you know. A gag reel, and I think a little featurette on the making of it, and another commentary.
JWP: DVD players are in pretty much everyone's home now. How do you think the rise in home entertainment has affected film in general?
JS: I think it's helped filmmaking, because now you can't say there's any one film that can't be made because there's always an audience. There's a huge, vast audience. I mean, the box office for home video has surpassed the box office for theatrical now. So, it's like phenomenal, man.
JWP: How do you feel about the fact that movies are at the theater for a couple of months, then they're on DVD almost immediately? Do you have any concerns about that?
JS: No, I think a film has a life from just being seen. I mean, the more people who see a film, the more life it has. But I don't like when people watch DVDs and look at two scenes but they don't look at the whole movie. Or they sit and talk to each other. You should always watch a movie all the way through. I can't watch a movie and watch just two minutes and turn it off, then go talk to my girlfriend. I'm like, "Don't say shit to me. I'm trying to concentrate."
JWP: (laughing) Or the worst is when your girlfriend falls asleep halfway through.
JS: Yeah, yeah. (laughs)You know, "Go upstairs and let me watch it by myself if you're going to fall asleep."
JWP: Can you give us any information about what you're working on now? For example, what about "Cage"?
JS: I don't know yet. We'll see. Neal Moritz, who produced Fast, is producing that so it looks like something we may do. I want to direct it. I want somebody to write it, but I may do some writing on it. We're going over that right now.
JWP: Is it true that you're going to get a star on the Walk of Fame? What are your thoughts about that?
JS: I'm honored. For some people it's just like a publicity thing when they do that. But for me it's huge because I grew up catching the bus up Vermont Avenue to get to Hollywood. I could go to the movies, and look down the street and look at all the stars from the 30s and 40s. And that's how I formulated my whole thing of wanting to become a filmmaker.
JWP: When is the star going to be revealed?
JS: Tuesday [August 26] at 11 o'clock in the morning. In front of the Chinese Theater. That's where my star's going to be.
JWP: I read somewhere that you're quite a DVD fan.
JS: I'm a huge DVD fan. I buy DVDs every Tuesday. I just got All That Jazz. I just bought the new one, that Wanda Sykes concert thing that was on Comedy Central [Wanda Sykes: Tongue Untied]. And Casablanca.
JWP: Any chance we'll see a different edition of the Rosewood DVD?
JS: It depends on Warner. They don't know what they have with that movie. That movie is a really special movie. They don't think it'll sell. But maybe with my higher profile, they'll tout it more.
JWP: You were the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. And you were also the youngest person. For the next couple of films you were doing, did you aspire to that goal again, or did you not care so much?
JS: I think what it did for me was that I really took filmmaking very seriously. That culminated in Rosewood, with me being real fucking serious. It was an honor and then a crutch also, because at a young age, I was like, I guess I'm a serious filmmaker. I never set out to be a serious filmmaker. I just set out to make movies. And so if you look at Higher Learning, which I was 25 years old making it, I'm like chock full of everything that would concern young people: lesbianism, and racism, and everything I could put in that movie. It was a great movie. A fun movie to do. But you could never get that movie made now. Never. The guy shoots everybody, know what I mean? Then Rosewood hit with that, and it was too powerful for some people. So then I was like, you know what? I'm just going to go and have some fun, and approach filmmaking from an emotional standpoint. Whatever I feel like doing, whether or not it's a fun movie or a serious movie. I'm just gonna go and do it. That's what I'm doing now.