December 2003
Honey: An Interview with Director Billie Woodruff

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

HONEY: An Interview with Director Billie Woodruff

Some people have to work a long time at one thing to move on to the next stage in their career and there seems to be a growing trend of music video directors making Hollywood films as of late, with Paul Hunter directing Bulletproof Monk earlier this year as well as McG with Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Well, now it’s Billie’s turn. After directing music videos for talented artists such as Outkast, The Backstreet Boys, Usher, and Britney Spears, to name a few, Billie Woodruff was recruited to direct his first studio motion picture, Honey, which stars Jessica Alba, Mekhi Phifer, and Joy Bryant. In speaking with, Director Billie Woodruff talks about the difference between shooting a video and directing a film.

WM: Were did you come from and how long have you been working as a video director?

BW: Well, my real name is George Ranwood III, and Billie is just a nickname for William. I had my first car when I was 15 and I wanted my name on the license plate and that’s how I could get it spelled and I liked, so I kept it. I’m from Richmond, VA. I live in LA and NY, but I don’t live in NY right now. I’ve been doing videos for a long time. I started working at BET while I was at the University of Maryland- College Park.

WM: Why do you think there’s a growing trend for music video directors in the Hollywood industry?

BW: I think it’s because of the influence of hip-hop culture and it’s undeniable and it’s what’s happening. Hip-hop has now become pop and it’s a result of that. They’re catching people; they’re catching up to what kids are into and what they’re responding to and what’s creating cultural trends.

WM: Is there any reality with the music video director in this film and your background?

BW: There’s a lot of reality in this film, but that character is not me. There are things that he took from me. David Moscow, who plays the video director, Michael Ellis, did things that he copied from me like the 2-way pager scene. When I asked him where he did get that idea from, he said that he would watch me, and I never noticed that I did that. That was weird, but I kept it in the film because it was real.

WM: This is a very surreal film for some people. Is there a big difference watching the videos on the big screen then on the little screen?

BW: Yes, there’s a difference. I don’t know if there a big difference as some people would like to make it. When you’re doing a music video, which is where I come from, you have much more time to prepare, and in a lot of ways, directing music videos is harder than doing a feature because you have to pull some things together so fast and you only have like 2-3 days at the most. If one thing goes wrong, you have to change it right there on the set. You have to deal with it right there, so I think music videos really are a training ground because you are not used to having much time to prepare and with a film, you are prepared and everyone’s there and they are focused with what they need to do so that when the inevitable things happen, and they happen in movies too, with changes and all, it doesn’t freak you out. With the movie, you have to develop the story. You have to work with the characters. You have to keep people’s attention longer over a certain amount of time. You can’t just cut away to someone’s scene. I guess you can depending on the type of film you are doing. There are things in film that you can’t get away with the way you do when you do a video. In a video, if something doesn’t, you can just cut to a close-up.

WM: Had you done a short film before you got to do this film?

BW: I think that most of my music videos were shorts like Toni Braxton’s Unbrake My Heart, and a lot of Chico DeBarge’s videos, but I haven’t done a film short.

WM: How did you get the assignment?

BW: Andre Harrell, who I’ve known for quite some time, bought the script to me and he took me to Universal and had them meet with me and he believed in me and Universal loved my take on the film, and that’s how I got it, due to Andre Harrell pushing me.

WM: What form was the script in because I understand that Universal did some major revisions on it?

BW: There were a lot of changes done to the script. Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson did the original, and Kate Lanier was working on rewrites when I was brought on, but we ended up with Susanna Grant, who did Erin Brockovich, during the final two rewrites. I had a lot of things I wanted to change, and Jessica wanted to do some things, and it happens within movies. This was my first movie and I didn’t have enough power as much as I thought would have. We did a lot of changes to the script to make it seem real and for it to make it sense. Hip-hop and pop music videos are things people are in-tuned with. I wanted the film to be very positive so there were some things that were changed.

WM: With this film being geared towards young kids, you seemed to have walked a fine line between the sex, the dance moves and the messages you wanted to convey.

BW: Yes, I walked a fine line because I wanted the movie to be positive but I also wanted young people to notice because the reality is that the things that they see, and the videos that they like, I wanted it to feel real and true to them. I didn’t want it to be too corny because I feel you would miss out on it and they wouldn’t be that interested in the movie and it wouldn’t really ring true to what it is. I think we managed it. There is a kiss (in the film) and no clothes come off.

WM: What was the appeal of bringing in Mekhi Phifer in the film? He seemed to be too old to play Jessica’s love interest.

BW: I don’t know. It might just be because you are aware how long Mekhi has been around. From what I have seen at test screenings, the young girls in the audience go crazy when he first come on screen. Mekhi is in real life older than Jessica. She’s 22. I think it works on screen and I think he pulls it off. I did specifically have him in sweat suits all the time because I thought about that.

WM: Knowing that you were doing a PG-13 film, did you find yourself cutting back on things you know you can get away with on a music video?

BW: No, I don’t know what meets the rating criteria exactly. I just know from doing videos for a long time, I know those fine lines between when I’m working with artists such as Celion Dion as opposed to when I’m working with Cash Money. I went with my instinct on that. I didn’t need to pull back on anything when I was shooting. I also knew from when we were editing it that there are some things that were risqué that were shot that we didn’t put into the film.

WM: Can you talk about the music and if any of the songs from the soundtrack, if there were to be released, will you direct the video?

BW: I don’t know. I don’t know what songs they plan to release. There are songs from Missy Elliot, and Jadakiss and Sheek. The Yolanda Adams song isn’t necessary contemporary. It’s different from a lot of stuff that’s going on now, but I hope that the movie is so successful that people would be open to playing that song because it is Yolanda Adams and I loved to direct that video but I think it doesn’t fit into everybody’s radio format. I didn’t do the Blaque video. Someone else did that.

WM: How was it filming in Toronto, which is where numerous Hollywood films are done these days?

BW: I had a great time in Toronto. It’s a great city. When I first got there, there was a Carabana Festival going on, and I love Reggae music, and had a great time. This place was off the hook cause it’s a big festival. There’s some good talent there. When I first got there and was shooting under their rules, and things you have to deal with and the amount of people you have to use from Toronto; I was concerned at first because this film is hip-hop and set in New York and these people have to be very real and have to be very specific. I don’t know that I can get the same talent here and one guy in the film, B.B, is from Toronto and you can’t tell that he’s not from New York or wherever. There were some really good talent there and I really enjoyed working in Toronto and I would enjoy working there again.

WM: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t have enough power. Do you think you proved yourself with this film to get it the next time around?

BW: I didn’t write the script. I was brought on board to do this, so it’s not like I wrote my own script and did an independent film. That’s part of what happens with that as well. Some of it is also learning because there are certain areas you don’t know how far you can push and I’ve learned that now so definitely the next time around I’ll have more power in those area.

WM: What’s next for you?

BW: I don’t know what’s next. I have to get everybody to come see my movie. I don’t know what movie is next. I’m just reading scripts and looking for my next project. I just want to tell a good story. I want to do something that has more action, and has sex and violence in it, but in a good way; something different from what I just did.