Interview with Tony Puryear (SL) conducted by Carl David (CARL)
- What barriers have you faced as an African American in Hollywood?
- People just not getting it. That's the main thing, white producers and studio executives not getting
that though my experience is still genuinely an American experience. If you were to ask the average,
white American studio executive to picture an all-American girlfriend, she's not necessarily going to look
like Margaret Cho, The All-American Girl. She is an all-American girl. I'm an American as well.
My experience is an American experience. In fact, in other areas of show biz and other areas of our
culture, black people call the tune for what's popular in American culture. When it comes to movies,
I've often had people act as if my point of view wasn't valid or questionable simply because I'm not
- Many power brokers in Hollywood feel that black-centered films don't translate into big dollars.
- I'm of two minds. The kind of black pictures they've been putting out tend to fit very easily in to
a niche, like Boys 'N the Hood or something. Those definitely are small pictures targeted toward a very
narrow audience. Its called "narrow casting." It's just like this UPN network with all of these black
shows. They know that not a lot of networks are programming to that audience, so they're like: 'let's
program to that audience. Let's go narrowly after that.' A movie like Boys 'N the Hood is definitely a
black movie with appeal to it and it's going to make a certain amount of money. But then there are
more universal stories that are black stories. Who knows what the upper limit to that is? Look at
Waiting To Exhale. It wasn't only black women who made that a popular movie. It became a date movie.
It became a movie for women all over the country from whatever background. Are you going to call that a
little black movie? It's hard to say. Now if you come with a black-oriented script, it does have
that prejudice working against it, that if it's not a gangster movie, what animal is it? If it doesn't
have guns in it, how do we market it to black folks? Was Crimson Tide a black movie, or a "movie" movie?
I don't know. Because its black leading man is one of the most popular leading men. I was actually
surprised to see in surveys when Americans were asked to name their most popular leading man, number
one is always John Wayne, and John Wayne is dead. I find that hysterical. But number three this year
was Denzel Washington. It was like John Wayne, Harrison Ford and Denzel Washington. I think he makes
whatever movie he's in, a black movie. He's also universal. He's also an American leading male
- One question that we have at Black Filmmaker Foundation is how can I get an education in filmmaking?
- Obviously go to an undergraduate school that teaches filmmaking. Go to a graduate school that teaches
filmmaking. There are the big schools like USC and UCLA out here and NYU in New York, and to a lesser
extent, Columbia University. But there are also jobs to be had on music video crews. I did a lot of
apprenticing on video crews before I got an opportunity to direct. Eventually, I got the opportunity to
direct music videos by being in people's faces. I made several opportunities for myself that way.
I consciously, in the early 80's, went after a (position in) advertising big time. So school is not the
only option, but it's a good one. There is a grammar to film that you have to learn, both on the
writing and visual side. You know what? There is a great university out there called Blockbuster Video,
and I think you can also learn a lot about film from renting a ton of movies and watching to see why the
ones you like work.
- There are a lot of prestigious graduates from that school.
- Yeah, and I'm one, and Orson Wells. Did Charlie Chaplin go to film school?
- Hell no.
- Charlie Chaplin invented some of the film grammar and he did it out of his head. But he also served
an apprenticeship working under Max Senate. Making all of those silent comedies. So the apprenticeship
thing, I think, is valuable. Sure film school can be valuable, but I'm telling you something. They asked
Orson Wells, when he got to Hollywood, how he learned to direct pictures. He said "I studied old masters,
John Ford, John Ford and John Ford" and that is still good to this day. You can go see all of John Ford's
films if you want to see how to direct a movie cleanly, simply, telling a really powerful, emotional story.
Just go rent any movie by John Ford.
- I remember one of the first films I saw in school was Young Lincoln by John Ford.
- Yes, and there is a university out there at Blockbuster of all the old classics. If you have cable TV,
watch Turner Classic Pictures. You can get these things. Watch MTV, for that matter, for the grammar of
how to shoot film.
- We tell a lot of people the fundamentals of filmmaking can be learned from just watching movies.
- Pick the best ones you can find, even the lousy ones. Watch them. It's very empowering when you start to
see how certain tricks work. You might not have caught it the first time, but I remember when Blade Runner
came out in 1983. It made me want to make movies. We went out and saw Blade Runner forty three times until
we figured out why some of those things did what we liked. Sure film school is a good idea, but it's
only one of many. There are plenty of books out there. Just go to one of those big-ass bookstores. They've
got a whole film section with tons of great books, and they're relatively cheap.
- What's next for Tony Puryear?
- I've written a bunch of pictures since Eraser and I hope some of them get made. I wrote a remake
of Fahrenheit 451 for Mel Gibson. We try to do an information age update of Fahrenheit 451. You know
Ray Bradbury never anticipated the Internet. Like today, if you burned every book, there would still be
learning and books in the world because the Genie is out of the bottle now. It's digital. You can't
just burn books and eliminate all that stuff. So we tried to make an information age remake of Fahrenheit
451. They're rewriting it now, of course, but I hope they make it. Mel Gibson's really into that
project. I wrote a thriller for 20th Century Fox and they're looking at it as a Fall/Winter '97 movie.
I hope they make it. That's what's next for me. I'm writing another spec script and I'm looking forward
to getting married.
- Thank you.
- Would you eventually like to get into producing?
- I think I'll eventually direct some pictures and I would assume I'd be producing some of these
- Tell us about Black Rebel Digits. What is that?
- I have a bunch of friends now who sold some pictures and took their money and bought cars or something.
But I took my money and invested it into a bunch of MacIntosh computers and set myself up a web magazine
called Rebel Communications, it comes out maybe four times a year on the web, and it's updated weekly.
It totally changes over four times a year. We have a film section called Rebel Films. And we have a
section called "The Black" that just features news for the African-American community. We have single
sex advice and dating advice. We have an on-line graphic drama called "Black Watch." It is like a
serialized novel with pictures and sounds and illustrations. It's partly like a comic book and a soap
opera. I want to do something like Charles Dickens where you have these deep, big-ass narratives that
keep people coming back chapter after chapter. Our thing's called "BlackCity." It's very nouveau-ish
and it takes place in the 1950's in Mexico City. We're developing a little cult following. I'd love to
turn that into a TV show. Now we have a lot of web sites based on TV shows, but soon I think it's going
to go the other way, where we're going to end up having TV shows based on web sites."
- You think being able to master or at least take part in a lot of the technology, like MSNBC for
example, is important for African-Americans?
- Absolutely. It's amazingly democratizing for our society. I'm on the web right next to Disney.
Let's say Disney's got all the money in the world, and I got the money I have. We can compete as
relative equals on the Internet. They put out their content, I put out my content. It's like I have a
24 hour radio station broadcasting my songs. I hope some of them become hits. I'm competing with the big
boys on a real kind of equal footing because of the Internet. The net is great for commerce-- it's got
that democratizing influence. But it's also great for the exchange of ideas. We keep in touch with all
of these rebel groups all over the world like human rights groups in Burma. Just last week there was
another government crack down and the thing was all over the web. Faster than even CNN had it. I
think with the same kind of do-it-yourself aesthetic that we brought to rap music, there are more and more
of us getting on the web and dealing with this interactive technology/do-it-yourself approach. Like
turntables in your garage or basement. It's relatively cheap to get into. And now it seems like the big
manufacturers are making internet boxes that sit on top of the TV. They'll be $500.00. That's the cost
of a ghetto blaster. They won't be full service computers, but they will be net accessible, made really
cheap and democratic on your television, so that's great. It's very empowering. So I want to encourage
trying and getting that stuff. Take computer classes. I got work out here as a screenwriter because I'm
partly supposed to know about this high tech stuff. I wrote this thing for Mel Gibson because Warner Brothers
had seen my web site. I'm trying to write this picture now for James Cameron. He's our neighbor here in
Venice. James Cameron's people saw our web site and he's into writing all of these high tech movies. I
think there's a big future in that for African-Americans. With all of the other stuff we've been able to
do with music and impacting the society, despite this, society's efforts not to hear us, we rise.
Especially in a thing like music or a thing like sports. You couldn't think of getting into basketball now
and not play basketball the way brothers play basketball. You know what I'm sayin'?. We've only changed
the way that music is made. We had a big argument on James Brown. We still live in the rhythmic universe
that James Brown invented in 1955 with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag". It put music on the good foot, that
funky down beat, the way it is for the last 30 years. It's like we're living in James Brown's world.
- It's the core of Hip-Hop.
- Yes, nobody allowed James Brown to do that either. It was not a matter of being allowed. It was a
matter of James Brown coming out and being fierce, and he had something new that was compelling. So I think
the Internet and other kinds of interactive media like this are a great opportunity for black folks. I
hope we all jump in with both feet and rule it.
- One more question. We're very grateful. Do you think that if blacks start to make "non-black" films,
it will catapult black-centered films or limit them?
- I don't know if it will make any difference one way or the other. What did Chairman Mao say? "Let a
hundred flowers bloom and let a thousand flowers bloom," I think there's room for all kinds of film. My
only message is that as a black filmmaker, through applying myself and being ready to take advantage of
whatever lucky breaks came my way, I was able to make some interesting films. I hope down the line people
say "he made interesting films." Will they be black films? Are all of Francis Coppola's films Italian
films? No, but he's certainly an Italian filmmaker. An Italian-American filmmaker brings that to the party
with him. So I would hope after reading this interview other young black filmmakers go "yeah I can do it
too, and tell my stories." Not every young black filmmaker's going to want to write ghetto movies or big
shoot-em up action movies. There's room for all different kinds of pictures. Remember that film I Like
It Like That. My friend Darnel Martin did that picture. I want to see a hundred more Darnel Martins.
I want to see a hundred more Tony Puryears. There are so many stories to be told. African-American
filmmakers definitely may be reading this?
- I hope so. A lot of black filmmakers think they have to automatically make hood movies.
- That's stupid.
- To tell certain tales.
[Click here to see part 1]
- And they know that's stupid too, in their hearts. Just make some pictures man. It's a great