Breaking the Ice (Cube): How Fist Fight Director Richie Keen Survived the Most Nerve-Wracking Pitch of His Life
At 3:15 p.m. on July 1, 2015, my agent called to tell me that Ice Cube wanted to meet me in person.
I was up for the directing job on the feature Fist Fight for New Line Cinema, and the studio and producers had agreed that I was the choice. All I needed to do was sit with Ice Cube and get his approval.
Which was certainly not a slam dunk. While I had directed television shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Shameless, I was a hopeful first-time feature director, and this was Ice Cube, after all. He had several franchises under his belt, including the Ride Alongs, Fridays and Barbershops.
But I had honed my pitch on the movie and I was ready. “Of course I’ll meet him! Just tell me where and when.”
“Tomorrow,” my agent said. “In Atlanta.”
Before I dive into my Atlanta trip, let’s Tarantino back in time to February of 2015, when I read Van Robichaux’s and Evan Susser’s fantastic script for Fist. My first reaction was that this story was an rated-R John Hughes film. And as a suburban Chicago boy who grew up sneaking on the set of Ferris Bueller and watching Sixteen Candles until I was off book, the idea of doing something Hughes-esque was very, very appealing. It had all the John Hughes tropes: It took place in one day, was set in a high school, was the day that changed someone’s life. It just happened to focus on the teachers instead of the students, and it substituted the profound heart of Hughes movies with absolute craziness. Fine by me.
A story about a fight had to build the tension: Only through the craziest day this high school had ever experienced would the climactic titular fight feel earned. I had pitched several ideas to build this tension, including insane senior pranks, casting against type, and lighting and lensing that built tension subliminally. What was an ungettable job had become gettable by shear passion and tenacity. And I had a presentation that was pretty rad, if I do say so myself, complete with an edited trailer of Charlie Day (who’d play one of the teachers) and Ice Cube in scenes together—my editor and I stitched together clips of their past work. I had Photoshopped images of Cube in a sequence entitled “Who was Ice Cube before he was a teacher? The urban myths”—a sequence that ended up in the movie. And I had storyboards of the way I would shoot the actual fight.
I had slowly met with every junior exec, their boss, and then their boss’s boss. I had met with the producers and the guys below the producers. I had met with Ice Cube’s manager. I felt like Willy Loman going door to door with my wares, trying to sell anyone I could that I was the right person for the job. And darn if it wasn’t working. But I digress—Atlanta.
“I’m happy to go to Atlanta! How does this work?”
My agent explained the studio was paying and I would take the first flight to Atlanta in the morning, be driven to a hotel, and wait in my room until I got the call that Ice Cube was there and ready to meet.
“At a hotel? How do I pitch Ice Cube in a hotel room?”
He didn’t know.
I got on the plane the next morning and went over the bulk of my pitch: namely, how I wanted to focus Ice Cube’s character more and give him a specific point of view. It was very important to me that these two teachers would both be good at their jobs. And it was important to me that both of these teachers had directly contrasting views of how to be good at their job. The idea was that Charlie Day’s character was a teacher who tried to teach by inspiring. He wanted to be friends with the students. If he caught you on your phone, he’d probably take a selfie with you so he looked cool. Whereas Ice Cube was old-school. He says in the movie, “I don’t need to be liked. I need to educate.” If he caught you on your phone, you weren’t getting it back. So I had that idea, the makeshift trailer, the storyboards, the Photoshopped images and a shit ton of enthusiasm. By the time I landed in Atlanta, I was pumped.
I got to the hotel, went up to my room to wait for the phone to ring, and began drinking coffee. For hours. I mean, I just sat and sipped cup after cup as I waited for the big man to arrive.
After a long afternoon, at my most jittery, the room phone rang. I was told that Ice Cube and his friend were waiting in the lobby for me. I grabbed my computer, the headphones and my note pad, and headed down to the lobby.
Let me tell you something: I have been fortunate to meet and work with a lot of celebrities at this point. I’m kind of used to it. I’m not star-struck (if anything, I’m jaded). When you meet Ice Cube, though, there’s just a presence. The dude is a star. Which sounds obvious, but you try sitting there and making a case to direct his next movie! That presence is borderline distracting. (A friend texted me later and asked, “Were you intimidated?” I wrote back, “The guy wrote ‘No Vaseline!’ Yes, I was intimidated!”)
“Hello, I’m Richie,” I said. “Should I call you Ice? Mr. Cube?”
He smiled the friendliest smile and said, “Call me Cube.”
He sat down facing out and my back was to the room. I only mention this because any time someone noticed him behind me and waved to Cube, he would kindly wave back. Or if they came over and wanted to take a picture, he happily would do it. Which is great and speaks volumes about Cube. But I couldn’t get any momentum going! Just when I was about to finish pitching him a great idea—boom! “Can I get your autograph?”
So I got laser-focused and went through my hopes on the rewrite. I talked to him about the sequences that would build the mythology around his character. I pitched him casting ideas. I told him I wanted to shoot it like a prison riot movie. I wanted it to feel rough and gritty and gray. I told him how I wanted Charlie’s lighting at the beginning of the movie to be bright and sunny and I wanted his to be dark and shadowy. But as the movie went on, and Charlie’s character started being sketchier in his methodology, Charlie’s light would get dimmer and dimmer. And that Cube’s light would start dark and get lighter as he made more and more sense on why the fight was important. I told him that when we got to the fight, if I had done my job, everyone who came in rooting for him might root for Charlie, and vice versa. That it had to be a battle of philosophies. That every kid gets a trophy these days and dammit, Cube should hate that!
And then I showed him the trailer. He was an amazing audience. He really was. Through all of it. He was seeing the movie in his head the way I was. And at the end, he just looked psyched.
I had been pursuing the directing job on Fist Fight for months. In that time, I had gone room to room to convince everyone that I possibly could that I was the right director. It all came down to this moment: me and Cube sitting across from each other in a hotel lobby.
I looked at him and said, “Cube, we doing this?”
I gotta say—time stopped for a long while as he stared at me, contemplating that question.
Then he said:
“You flew out here.
I liked your presentation.
Yeah, let’s go make a movie, muthafucka.”
I grabbed my phone, took the below selfie, texted it to everyone I had met with at New Line Cinema, as well as to the producers and the manager. And with the picture I wrote, “He said yes, so you can’t say no. We’re making a movie!”
And we did. A movie that isn’t just funny—it’s fucking funny. Go see it February 17. I promise, you will not be disappointed. MM
Fist Fight opens in theaters February 17, 2017, courtesy of Warner Bros. Photographs from the film by Bob Mahoney.