With his new picture, Baby Boy, writer-director
John Singleton returns to his own backyard in South Central Los
Angeles for an uncompromising look at the life of a handsome young
African-American man, Jody (Tryese), a case study in arrested development.
Jody stands at the edge of adulthood, refusing to commit to the
responsibilities of manhood; content to let others pick up the slack
in his life. Bouncing between two women, one of whom is the mother
of his little girl, Jody still lives at home with mom. As screenwriter,
Singleton hurls his protagonist one curveball after another, as
friends, family and the turbulent and often violent inner city world
around him conspire to bring Jody across the threshold of manhood
– if necessary, by force.
While ostensibly dealing with issues relevant to African-American
families, Baby Boy addresses material that has clear universal
resonance: commitment, family and the fear of growing up. It’s
the coming of age story of a young man who refuses to come of age.
Yet, one of the film’s charms is the obvious affection that
the director has for these characters, warts and all. It completes
what Singleton calls his ‘Hood Trilogy’, which includes Poetic Justice (1993) and Boyz N the Hood (1991). Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997) and Shaft (2000) have kept him busy in between.
Phillip Williams (MM): Can you talk about
the origins of this movie; where the idea started for you?
John Singleton (JS): I came up with this film
around the time I did my first film, Boys N the Hood. I started
thinking about different stories that I could do about South Central
Los Angeles. It was called something else at the time and the characters
were different – I remember I was going to do it originally with
Tupac [Shakur] as the lead. In fact, the last thing I said
to Tupac before he passed was ‘I’ve got the movie we are
going to do together.’ He was really excited and a couple of
weeks later he was gone. So I put it away again. I didn’t think
I was going to be able to find the actor to play this part until
Tyrese came along.
MM: Would you consider Baby Boy a
companion to Boyz N the Hood?
JS: Yes, it’s very much a companion to
that film. Totally different characters, same environment.
MM: How does your writing process generally
JS: I write when I am inspired. If I come up
with an idea, right then and there I’ll write it on a piece
of paper. I may write for hours at a time on a given day. I’ll
do a first draft in the course of three months. I just attack a
story like that and pick at it until I get the first draft. Then
I go back over it and figure out what matters in the story that
I am telling and if I’m telling it in the clearest way; without
a lot of dialogue. I try to tell the story visually.
MM: Do you do an outline of your characters?
JS: Yes, I do. I outline the characters and
the set-up and I basically know where I want to end it.
MM: What sort of research did you do for Baby Boy?
JS: For Baby Boy, it was just talking
to friends, talking to family, and life experience. I don’t
have to do much research for a film like this. It’s casual
MM: Boyz N the Hood felt like a very mature
film for a first-time director. Which other moviemakers were influencing
JS: At that time, probably Francis Coppola,
Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
MM: Were there any films you were watching
when you did Boyz N the Hood?
JS: Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) and Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981). I was looking
at Stand by Me (1986) by Rob Reiner. I was looking at all
this different movies – youth movies – from around the world and
then applying that to South Central Los Angeles.
MM: Were there anything specific you were
picking up that were helpful?
JS: The way the stories were told very simply;
the director wasn’t showing their hand. With Boyz N the
Hood, my whole thing at the time, as a first-time filmmaker,
was not to look like a first time filmmaker. But it was literally
the first time I was behind the camera. I hadn’t done anything
with sync sound; I had only done Super8 films. So I studied Citizen
Kane, everything I could about people who did films for the
first time, and I learned that the successful ones didn’t move
the camera just for the sake of moving the camera. They moved the
camera to serve the story. I tried to be very, very succinct in
a way, and focused in the way I tell the story and not try to show
how fancy I can be. I just move to move the story forward, to further
the dramatic intent or the emotional intent of the story.
MM: When you are writing, do you put less
information and description in the scripts because you know that
you are going to direct them?
JS: I never put camera angles or any of that.
I don’t do that stuff. I was taught at school never to do that.
I try to write the story as visually as possible, so when you are
reading it, it lays itself bare.
MM: Are there any screenwriters in particular
that you like?
JS: I took a lot from different writers: the
early work of Larry Kasdan and Robert Benton – this is all when
I was in school. I was a writing major, for films. Ernest Lehman
and Woody Allen. I read a lot of different screenplays and wondered
why the films were such great films. What makes these films work?
MM: And what did you find out?
JS: I picked up that the great thing about
screenplays is that it’s a film on paper and the less dialogue
you have, nine times out of ten – unless it’s a Woody Allen
movie – the better the film. The more visual the film is, the better.
I practice saying things without any words in my films.
MM: Because of the experience you’ve
gained in the film industry, how was the making of Baby Boy different
than the making of your other films?
JS: I was able to move faster and just cut
to the chase. I have been doing this for 11 years, so I was more
confident and, for some reason – shooting in my neighborhood – unencumbered.
I had final cut and just did what I wanted to do.
MM: Were there any surprise challenges on Baby Boy?
JS: (laughing) Directing my one and a half
year old daughter.
MM: How so?
JS: Just getting her to do the things that
I wanted her to do. It was very fun to have the whole crew around,
holding her, telling her to laugh or smile or whatever. Sometimes
she would do it, sometimes she wouldn’t. There was a time we
decided, ‘Ok, we’re not going to have her do it’
because she was crying between each take – she would start crying
in the middle of the takes. So we decided to get the double baby.
So we had my daughter sit around and watch the double
do it. My daughter got antsy, so we put her back in and she just
did the take (laughs). She didn’t want that double to do it.
MM: Do you find yourself changing the script
JS: Very much so. I love to rewrite during
rehearsals. I love to find out the organic base of a character and
put it in the script.
MM: Do you think the writing changes a bit
when you know who the actors are going to be?
JS: It does to a degree, but I had no idea
who was going to be who in Baby Boy when I was writing
MM: Do you think that being the director
of a film makes you a better writer?
JS: Being a writer makes me a better director.
MM: How so?
JS: If it’s not on the page, it’s
not in the film. You have to be sparse, not longwinded. You learn
not to fall in love with a scene; you have to make it tight. I basically
direct on the page.
MM: Talk about the way you work with sound
to support the story.
JS: I really try to create what I call, instead
of emulating reality, a hyper-reality. To take an ordinary moment
and give it more of a hyper-realistic feel on the big screen in
the way that it sounds, not only the way it looks.
MM: So you might be using sounds that wouldn’t
naturally be there, but that work emotionally?
JS: Let’s say this guy is grabbing another
guy and has him in a chokehold. Instead of just having him grunt,
you put the sound of a little animal under there. You can’t
actually hear it, but you can feel it. Like a lion pouncing or something.
Those are the things that we talk about all the time,
in our spotting sessions: the sounds that are felt and not heard.
They don’t have to be heard to be effective, but they do have
to be felt. The audience hears them but they don’t know what
they are. I learned that a long time ago in film school.
MM: What do you think will surprise people
the most about Baby Boy?
JS: That it’s really funny.
MM: Did the comedy come about when you were
writing the script?
JS: It’s something that was always there,
but once we got the script done and started shooting it we found
that the way the actors were playing these characters was just funnier
than expected. When I say humor, I say humor in the sense that they
are not trying to be funny, it’s just the irony of it; it’s
an ironic humor. It’s like the humor characters in a Woody
Allen movie would have, except that this is an urban film. In a
comedic movie you can tell that they are going for the laugh; with Baby Boy it’s comes more from irony.
Baby Boy (2001)
Higher Learning (1995)
Poetic Justice (1993)
Boyz N the Hood (1991)