August 99 Interview: Tony Puryear (Part 2)
Thoughts on Making it in Hollywood

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Interview with Tony Puryear (SL) conducted by Carl David (CARL)
Tony Puryear
CARL
What barriers have you faced as an African American in Hollywood?
TONY
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 white.
CARL
Many power brokers in Hollywood feel that black-centered films don't translate into big dollars.
TONY
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 character.
CARL
One question that we have at Black Filmmaker Foundation is how can I get an education in filmmaking?
TONY
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.
CARL
There are a lot of prestigious graduates from that school.
TONY
Yeah, and I'm one, and Orson Wells. Did Charlie Chaplin go to film school?
CARL
Hell no.
TONY
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.
CARL
I remember one of the first films I saw in school was Young Lincoln by John Ford.
TONY
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.
CARL
We tell a lot of people the fundamentals of filmmaking can be learned from just watching movies.
TONY
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.
CARL
What's next for Tony Puryear?
TONY
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.
CARL
Congratulations.
TONY
Thank you.
CARL
Would you eventually like to get into producing?
TONY
I think I'll eventually direct some pictures and I would assume I'd be producing some of these things.
CARL
Tell us about Black Rebel Digits. What is that?
TONY
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."
CARL
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?
TONY
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.
CARL
It's the core of Hip-Hop.
TONY
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.
CARL
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?
TONY
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?
CARL
I hope so. A lot of black filmmakers think they have to automatically make hood movies.
TONY
That's stupid.
CARL
To tell certain tales.
TONY
And they know that's stupid too, in their hearts. Just make some pictures man. It's a great medium.
[Click here to see part 1]

 

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