John Singleton: Working with Soul

At the age of 22, John Singleton hit the independent film scene and ultimately the mainstream movie scene with a big blow to the chest — with his harrowing coming-of-age in the South Central tale Boyz N the Hood. From Boyz, Singleton launched a movement of young, brave filmmakers of all colors, and gave a lot of unheard voices a pulpit. His latest film, Baby Boy, revisits that journey from a different angle and new challenges.

filmcritic.com recently talked to Singleton about the release of Baby Boy on DVD, why he thinks DVDs are a filmmaker’s dream come true, the state of filmmaking today, and why he thinks Snoop Dogg is a superstar.

filmcritic.com: How much of a role did you have in deciding what appears on the DVD, and what can we expect to see?

John Singleton: I had a huge part in putting together the DVD, and I go over everything – the artwork, animatics, the whole presentation, and extras. On this DVD, we put an hour of extra footage and all the outtake scenes, a gag reel, and all the videos that we used throughout the film. One was a trailer for one of my other films, and there’s a special TV show that I directed and produced that was in the background of one scenes that’s a cable access show with two women on it – it’s hilarious.

Obviously, you and the crew had fun putting this together.

I always do the DVD with the fanatic in mind – the person who wants to get further into what the film is about. Because that’s what I am. I want see what they didn’t put in the film. Like the bit with the two women, it’s so funny, I want make a movie with just these two girls.

I thought Baby Boy was one of your best films, but it sort of dropped off the radar screen so quickly after it came out. Do you think it was fairly promoted?

I think we did a fair job of promoting, but I think the media is so into the big blockbusters that they kind of missed this special film. The critics got it. But the media is usually just with the sensational, of-the-moment thing. They kind of missed it.

But it had some fairly big names involvedÂ…

But there are also a lot of people who are pretty much unknown. It was a discovery. But that’s not to say I’m unhappy with the release of the film. It was profitable, and it’s allowed me to make more movies.

A lot of critics have said Baby Boy is the best film you’ve made since Boyz N the Hood. Do you agree with that criticism?

No, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s the best film since I made since my last film. I think I’m growing as a filmmaker. You’ve got to remember – I practically had to grow up making movies. I’ve been doing this since I was 22, and I’m 33 now.

It’s been 10 years since that first film. It seemed like Baby Boy was almost like a bookend. Do you think this is a ‘state of the young black nation’ kind of movie, the way Boyz was perceived back in its day?

It’s just a statement of where certain young men are now. I did it from that perspective. It’s more just an observational film, a collection of observations. It’s really kind of universal. In Italy where it played, they call the men who never leave home the ‘mamones’ – they never leave their mothers. It happens in Latin American families, Jewish families, everywhere around the world. This is just an observation of what I see around me.

You are widely thought of as a pioneer for young, outspoken black filmmakers. What do you think of the work by young black filmmakers coming up today?

I think it’s cool, but I don’t think black filmmakers or filmmakers in general are challenging the medium enough – in terms of subject matter, in terms of presentation. Everything is basically slapstick comedy. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to entertain people, but make them think, too. I want them to have a good time, but make them think about something, too.

What about the direction filmmakers like the Hughes Brothers have taken recently in From Hell?

That’s what I mean. I think that’s great. From Hell, I liked it. I thought it was really cool.

I’m really impressed with how Snoop Dogg has started to really emerge as a screen actor. One of the first times I saw him in movies was in Baby Boy, and now he’s everywhere. Did you always think of him as an actor?

Yeah, I’ve always thought Snoop had a strong personality. I mean, basically, he’s a superstar. I definitely think he’s got a big future. He’s got a great sense of humor. And, he just laid bare everything with me working on the movie, like the scene where he’s just so despicable – despicable to the kid, he’s gargling. He really got into playing that role. You hate him, but that’s what we wanted.

It’s interesting that you usually choose to work with musicians as actors: Ice Cube, Snoop, Tyrese. Are you going to keep doing that?

I like to work with people who have soul, whether or not they’re musicians or actors.

What are you working on these days?

Just daydreaming and reading books. Trying to figure out what I want to write. Right now, I’m reading Ghost of Manila about Ali and Frazier. And Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, because I never got to read it.

You should make a movie out of that.

(Laughs) Yeah.

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