Four Brothers: An Interview with John Singleton
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Four Brothers: An Interview with Director John Singleton
By Wilson Morales
In telling a story about family and emotional bonding, you need a director who can create a certain level of realism that the audience will respond to, and John Singleton is one director that comes to mind. Having done films which presented families in different situations such as "Baby Boy", Boyz N The Hood" and "Rosewood", Singleton knows how to blend in some humor with drama. With the recent success of his production of the indie hit, "Hustle and Flow", Singleton is back in the director's chair with his latest film, "Four Brothers", in which four foster brothers come back to town to find out who killed the one lady took them in and made them a family. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Singleton talks about directing this film and the state of black films today.
How much effort do you put into producing, as opposed to directing?
Singleton: It's all half and half. I mean, it's like it's the same side of the brain. I've been working on both of these movies for like the last almost year, you know?
Do you feel the same emotional investment?
Singleton: Yeah, I do. I mean, my name is on both of them, so...
There's a "70s vibe on this film all over the place... in the clothes, the furniture. Was that a tribute for you to those films?
Singleton: It was just like I said in the picture, she didn't change anything in the house, so ..that was what that was. There's definitely a "70s vibe in it, but there's also you know a vibe of an American Western, you know what I mean, and the "70s crime films like Death Wish and stuff, where the hero would go after the bad guys, you know, doing the right thing in the wrong way for the right reason. You know what I'm saying?
Obviously, you didn't write the script, so how did it come to you and how did you get involved?
Singleton: My friend, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, the producer, brought it to me, and he told me that Mark was interested in it and Mark and I have known for each for 12 years. We've partied together and had dinner so many times, just casually, and we'd always say, "Hey, we gotta do a movie together, man" and I'd go "Yeah, we should" so as soon as this came up, we were like "We're going to do this."
This strikes me as unabashed vigilante fare and we don't see a lot of that these days, so what made you think the time is right for that?
Singleton: I didn't think about the time being right. I just thought that this was something that I was interested in. I grew up on films like, you know, like Death Wish and you know, all of the old Westerns used to have a revenge or vigilante tinge to "em and stuff, so you don't really see it now, because everyone's so careful and nervous about what anybody's going to think. And I think that's what... I mean, you guys saw it last night? That's what people watching it. It pulls something out of everyone when they're cheering these guys on to get the bad guys, you know, because it's kind of cathartic and everybody understands the loss of the mother. So I'm like... it's so funny to pull the blood lust out of people. (laughs) You understand? You know what I mean?
Was there ever a decision or debate as far as who will play which brother, besides Mark?
Singleton: No, I mean once I had Mark, I was just like called Tyrese up, and was like "I got a movie for you to do" and he was like "Let me read it" and I said "well, you don't have to read it. You're just going to do it." (laughs) He said "Alright, fine. If you think it's cool, it's cool" so he just signed on, and then Andre, I'd known him for like 10 years. He was on the Higher Learning soundtrack. That was the first soundtrack Outkast was on. He told me over the years "I'm thinking about acting. I'm really interested in acting" and I was blowing him off. I was like "yeah, yeah, right, whatever" and I saw him in a couple of movies and he was kind of good and thought that he's got something here. So I had to call him up and you know, beg him to do the movie. I was like "Man, if you do this movie, your work with me is going to be totally different from anything you do with anybody else" so he signed on, and then Garrett read for the role, just killed it. He killed the audition. And you know I liked Garrett in Troy and really in Friday Night Lights, so I think he's really going to pop from this picture.
Was there any pressure to get a PG-13 rating?
Singleton: Nah. I mean, nah. For like half a second, when they realized how hot the combination of brothers were, they were like.."could you.." and I was like "no". It's gotta be like..we gotta go for it. We gotta just go for it.
Why did the brothers never come back up until that point?
Singleton: Because they wanted to leave. Because they wanted to leave Detroit. They wanted to get out. And forge their own lives. They hadn't not come back at all, I mean, they'd been back periodically, but Bobby's been away the longest, you know.
When you got all the actors together did you just turn "me loose in a room and say "start bonding, dudes!" or how did it work?
Singleton: We didn't have time to rehearse. This is the first movie I've ever done, where I didn't have rehearsals, and so I had to find a way to get them to organically bond together and to do that, I got them skates and hockey equipment and we all played hockey. You know, like not everybody could skate. People had to learn how to skate and they had to learn how to use the sticks and stuff right and everything. Lotta injuries and lotta battered and bruised and then after that, we'd go to dinner and hang out, and just bust each other's chops and talk shit, and that's how the spontaneity came about of how these guys interact, and I think that's what really made the film.
Obviously, you produced Hustle and Flow. Was Terrence at that point a focal point that you decided to cast him in this film?
Singleton: When I did Hustle, I told Terry, I was like "You're going to get such a big bump offa that movie that I gotta reap the benefit first, so I'm putting you in my next movie, and that was it. I didn't care what my next movie was. I knew I was going to get him in it and I was right, you know.
How did you go about getting Chewie (nickname for Chiwetel Ejiofor) to play a bad guy because he hasn't played that kind of role before?
Singleton: Because Chewie read for the part and his instincts were just so different from anybody else that we read for that role, man, and I was like Woah and It was just interesting to me the way that he did it. You know, I love Dirty Pretty Things and I had him come in, and I gave him like all these movies that Yaphet Kotto were in. Brubaker and Alien, and Across 110th Street and I said I just want you to study Yaphet Kotto,you know what I mean. Think about how this gangster would be and it's so refreshing, because the people who know him go "wow! Is that him?" and the people who don't go "Who is this guy?" you know?
He played it pretty ruthlessly. Was there a limit to how far you wanted him to go?
Singleton: No limit.
In the past few movies, you've embraced some heavy genre themes. Can you talk about that? Did you love those movies as a kid?
Singleton: I loved all movies as a kid. I mean, filmmaking saved me from delinquency. That's all I did was watch movies. I remember when I was a kid. The apartment building where I grew up was right next to the Century Drive-In in Los Angeles and I could just look out the window and I could see Kung Fu movies and blaxploitation movies and slasher movies and stuff, right? Some of my fondest memories as a kid is like looking through the curtains and everything and you know, seeing Pam Greer in Coffee and seeing her breasts like that. I'm like... (laughter)... you know what I mean? So staying up late and watching Westerns all night. They used to have this thing called Movies to Dawn in Los Angeles on Channel 5 and they used to show all these old Westerns and old Barbara Stanwyck movies. Barbara Stanwyck used to make these movies with William Wellman and I used to like love these movies, you know, the John Wayne westerns, and so if you really look at my work all the way through back to Boyz n the Hood, all of my films have kind of a Western motif throughout them and it's like, not even something that I do intentionally. It just finds its way in there, so Four Brothers is the culmination of how that mixing of the genres, the Western, the urban vigilante film from the "70s, cause the films that like Charles Bronson was making in the early "70s were urbanized Westerns. You know what I'm saying?
Can you comment on the state of black films now? You sort of started the third wave almost. Obviously, Hustle and Flow is doing okay ,but why do other independent movies like Baadaasss do not fare so well?
Singleton: I love that movie. I mean, I think there's not really too much of a third wave, because there's not that many films that have been really topical. A lot of people are getting work. People are doing blockbuster movies now, which is great. Employment is good for everybody. There's no resonance of doing films that are saying where the condition of where people are; and the interesting thing is I think that movies are becoming more American in the sense that they're becoming more multi-ethnic. The studios are making mandate that you have to have different types of people in even a commercial film and that's trickled down that even to the smaller films and that's great, because movies... America is a big melting plot. There are different stories to be told, but what I really loved about Hustle and Flow is the sense that it's the contemporary South. It's not that South that people in L.A. and New York are going to lose attitude towards as it being what's happening right now? And they're like basically everyone's on an even economic till, you know, and so the stories are just laid bare to what they are.
What about the weather? What was the biggest challenge in that?
Singleton: Oh, yeah. The biggest challenge was being able to think while it was so cold. To just stay focused on what I was trying to accomplish while it was snowing and the wind chill factor and everything. I took on the film because I wanted to something in my resume of filmmaking that looked totally different from my other films, so if you notice, the snow is a character and is a motif throughout the whole picture. I think the movie really made me a man, because I went into it to summon up the challenge of doing a film in the snow, on an ice lake, 20 below weather and everything and stuff. Did it, didn't complain, didn't get sick and came out of it.
The music in the film that we saw said it wasn't finished. What kind of music will you be throwing in? Will the Motown music be in it?
Singleton: The Motown music is staying.
Were there any scenes that were cut out that you wish you could have included?
Singleton: No, everything that's in it is in it.
How about the casting of Sophia Vergara as a Latina?
Singleton: So I know Sophie from Miami, you know, just hanging out with her in Miami. She's great, man. I love her because she's so beautiful but she's funny. She's like funny as heck, and she had to endure hanging out with these guys. She can give it as well as receive it. She holds her own up against them.
And then you have the mother, Fionnula Flanagan, an Irish woman.
Singleton: Fionnula Flanagan, yeah. She's got so much soul, man. I loved the fact of casting Fionnula in it because I really wanted somebody who the audience would fall in love with immediately in a small way, and in the various places in the film, make a presence for herself, and I think she did that very effectively.
What's next for you?
Singleton: Me? I'm producing Craig Brewer's follow-up to Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan, with Sam Jackson and Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake in it and then I'm figuring out what I'm going to do next as a director.
Are you trying to do Luke Cage? What's the story on that?
Singleton: Well, we'll see. The studio has to basically come to grips with what kind of movie they want to make, y'know, because...
Is Ben Ramsay still writing it?
Singleton: Yeah, Ben wrote it... Ben's the reason that the movie is going to be made because it's a good script.
John, you and Sam Jackson have fully made up?
Singleton: We never had... people bent it out of proportion and everything. If me and Sam had any problems, he wouldn't be doing a movie that I asked him to do. (laughs)
When does Black Snake Moan start filming?
Singleton: September... down in Memphis.
FOUR BROTHERS opens on August 12, 2005
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