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An Interview with Director John Singleton

On November 9 2001, I was pleased to have the chance to speak to director John Singleton. The conversation covered aspects of his career to date, including his most recent film, Baby Boy. Thanks to Mr. Singleton for being available for this chat, and also thanks to Joe Venegas of Jane Ayer PR for making all of this happen.

CJ: Thanks for taking the time to sit with me for this interview. I know youíre on a tight schedule, so Iíll try to make this fairly quick and efficient. When I first was offered this interview, I pondered some questions and one odd memory came to mind: during the press conference for the 1988 Superbowl when Doug Williams was asked how long heíd been a black quarterback.

No, I wonít ask you how long youíve been a black director, but I am curious about the ways you think that concept and the compartmentalization that comes with it has affected your career.

JS: I donít know, I meanÖ I am who I am, and Iím very proud to be a black man. As a director, it means that I have soul.

CJ: Do you think itís affected the options youíve had, and the various possibilities that have been available to you, or have you pretty much been able to do whatever you wanted to do?

JS: Iíve pretty much been able to do what I wanted to do. That had nothing to do with being a black director- that had more to do with my success overall as a director. Itís hard across the board in this business, let alone being a black man.

Your career has been kind of unusual because you did hit so fast with Boyz N the Hood - you did so well right off of the bat. Do you think that really helped grease the wheels for you as far as future endeavors?

JS: Yeah, I think so.

CJ: How did you react to such early acclaim?

JS: I tried to act like it wasnít anything to me and be nonchalant about it, like I wasnít impressed by all the pomp and circumstance, but inside I was really quite giddy.

CJ: Did you think they were all going to be like that?

JS: No. I was happy at the time, but I had to have a career, like let me get another movie made. With every movie I was like okay, whatís the next movie? I didnít want to just come out with one film or two films, like some filmmakers come out - theyíre the next best thing since sliced bread and you donít hear from them for three or four or five years.

CJ: Starting back with Boyz N the Hood and Ice Cube, youíve worked with rappers in almost all of your movies. Whatís it like to have them as actors?

JS: It depends on the musician. I like to work with people who have soul.

CJ: In general, from your experiences, what kind of positives and negatives do they - or other inexperienced actors - bring to the process?

JS: I put them through so series of tests that by the time they do the movie I know if the people are ready to accept things in place and be an actor. I test them on videotape and on film and do various scenes - put them through comedic tests, dramatic tests, everything.

CJ: Is there anybody from that surprised you with how good they were?

JS: Tyrese! Look at him! This kid, he just came out of nowhere and I was nervous about it at first, when I first started to test him, but he just got better and better. He basically grew into an actor under me.

CJ: I was also really impressed with Snoop in Baby Boy. Heís always seemed so mellow in the past, but he was just nasty in the film.

JS: He was nasty!

CJSpeaking of other people youíve worked with, youíve also worked with both the worldís most famous Jacksons: Janet and Michael. What can you tell me about your experiences with them?

JS: Those were both fun experiences. Iíve admired Michael ever since I was a little kid. It was like a life-long dream come true to work with him. He gave me carte blanche on that project, and I put it all together. He let me just run with the ball. There was nothing I asked for that couldnít be done. We got Eddie Murphy, and all those people - he said we can do anything, man.

CJ: Did you ever have to slap yourself to believe this was real?

JS: It was a dream come true. And then Janet, who I admired from afar for some time, for us to do a film together and become friends was great.

CJ: Is she someone you might work with again in the future?

JS: Yeah, I definitely want to do something again with Janet, and hopefully Michael will check me out and do the video for one of his songs off his new album.

CJ: Higher Learning featured the broadest scope of any of your films, at least in regard to subject matter. How did you decide the issues to address?

JS: I just really wanted to get a reflection of what I saw in college, going to USC.

CJ: What was the main goal for the project?

JS: To really work with a diverse cast and do something really combustible and funky from my generation, cross-culturally.

CJ: Rosewood is the only film youíve done that was based on factual events - howíd you become interested in that project?

JS: Jon Peters called me up and said ďI have something we can do togetherĒ, and I just went and met with him and developed the project and we did it.

CJ: Shaft, on the other hand, stands out most among your films because its your only entry into the big-time action genre. Itís also the only one that was touted as a summer blockbuster. What was it like to work on that kind of project?

JS: It was fun - that was a lot of fun. I love movies - Iím a film student, so I can virtually shoot any kind of film. I study films incessantly.

CJ: What kind of extra pressures were there because of the projectís high status?

JS: The extra pressure was to make as cool a movie as I could. I felt I had to make a really cool movie. That movie, out of anything, had to be supercool because of the history of the film.

CJ: Howíd you react to its reception, critically and commercially?

JS: I felt it was good. It did very well - it made a lot of money, here and overseas.

CJ: Youíve worked with an awful lot of good actors over the years, especially during the last couple of films, where youíve had both Ving Rhames and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the best - and the coolest - actors around. What were your experiences with them like?

JS: Theyíre great. I love working with really good theater-trained actors. The last few years have taught me theaterís the best training ground for actors. I love working with actors who have theater training.

CJ: Is there anyone you havenít worked with yet youíd like to get with in the future?

JS: Yeah, I want to work with Morgan Freeman, Robert De NiroÖ basically Morgan and Robert - thatís my dream list.

CJ: Whoíd win in a fight: Melvin from Baby Boy or Shaft?

JS: (laughs) I donít knowÖ (laughs)

CJ: What about Marsellus Wallace or Mace Windu?

JS: Without light sabers or what?

CJ: Weíll go without light sabers.

JS: Iíd take Marsellus - heís more street. Mace does have the force on his hands, though.

CJ: Moving onto your most recent project, what was your ultimate goal for Baby Boy? What did you hope for it to achieve?

JS: I wanted to make a film that would surpass Boyz In the Hood as the ultimate street movie. I wanted it to be very street and very hip-hop and poetic at the same time.

CJ: Howíd it feel to get back to your own area after the New York setting of Shaft?

JS: It felt great! It was great to be in my own neighborhood - it felt like a homecoming. Less than a five minute commute!

CJ: The opening quote in Baby Boy - why did you use that? What was the impetus for that?

JS: It was from this book that I read in college called ďThe Isis PapersĒ by Dr. Francis Crest Wellsing. The whole movie is based on Dr. Wellsingís theory that the black man in America is basically a baby, and everything in society tries to keep him in an infantile state, not thinking, thinking small.

CJ: The thing that intrigued me about it was that it set out that the film would be about racism, but at least on the surface, it didnít seem to be about that.

JS: Itís about the effects, how they treat each other. Itís not blaming our problems all on someone else - itís an inside job.

CJ: It really seemed in a lot of ways that the behavior Jody and the other males did was largely because the women enabled it. Where do you think these responsibilities lie?

JS: I think itís all encompassing. Jody was raised to be the way he is.

CJ: Do you think thatís happening with a lot of guys?

JS: Itís a whole generation, and itís not exclusively black men either.

CJ: How do you feel that could be improved?

JS: I think itís on an individual basis. Everyone finds their own path in the end - society doesnít have the rituals they had in the past in different cultures as far as the rites of passage to be a young man - they need their own passage.

CJ: Late June seems like an odd time for a film such as Baby Boy to hit multiplexes. How did you feel about the release timing?

JS: I thought it was great - no matter what, it was going to find an audience. It didnít matter - no matter what time it came out, it was going to find an audience.

CJ: Howíd you feel about the general reception accorded BB?

JS: I thought it was good. It was more controversial within the black community than anywhere else.

CJ: In a different vein, I was very pleasantly surprised by the top-notch sound mix of Baby Boy. It was much more active and involving than I expected, and it offered a strong sense of environment. How involved are you with that side of the production?

JS: Iím very involved. I studied sound extensively and how sound accentuates a film.

CJ: How has the growth of DVD affected you as a filmmaker?

JS: I like to put all of the extra stuff on there. Iím a real big film aficionado, so I love the stories behind the making of films. I love to tell the stories behind making films too.

CJ: Youíve recorded audio commentaries for all of your films except Shaft - what happened there?

JS: I didnít feel like going and doing it for that. The film was a fun movie to do, a fun movie to shoot, but it was a hell of a shoot. There was so much to go through with the politics of making the film. Although it made over $100 million, and itís my most successful film financially, Iím still not as proud of it as I would have been.

CJ: How come?

JS: It was the politics of making a big-budget blockbuster film. It was great, but it still wasnít what I wanted it to be. I wanted more sex in it - the guy was cool but he wasnít as cool as I thought I could make him. My whole thing was to try to make it as cool as I could make it. It was a fight to do that.

CJ: Yeah, it says in the song heís the private dick who gets all the chicks, but he didnít really get any chicks.

JS: He didnít get no chicks!

CJ: I always thought you should have had Richard Roundtree still play the role - he still looked good!

JS: That was my original intention to have Roundtree play the role, but they didnít want to do that - not in a big-budget movie.

CJ: So whatís next from here?

JS: I might do another movie with Tyrese. Heís my guy right now, my actor of choice.

CJ: You donít have anything actively planned?

JS: Weíre working on something right now - Iím writing a script.

CJ: Whatís that going to be about?

JS: I canít tell! I think itís going to be a comedy.

CJ: Thank you very much for your time, and I wish you luck in the future!