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Singled Out: A Chat with Director John Singleton

by Dan Heaton

John Singleton burst onto the scene in 1991 with the release of Boyz 'N the Hood, a powerful, touching tale of young life in South Central Los Angeles. Only 24 at the time, John became the youngest individual and first African-American ever nominated for the Best Director Academy Award®. He followed this success with a more lowkey approach in Poetic Justice, then broadened his scope to a diverse college campus in Higher Learning. Rosewood's historical tale of a real-life 1923 massacre represented his most impressive work to that point. In 2000, he undertook his first big budget project with an energetic remake of Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson.

John's most recent film is Baby Boy, the story of a young man struggling to face his responsibilities and become a man. This setting returns to South Central, the site of John's first two pictures, and represents his most accomplished work in terms of visual and emotional complexity. Released this past summer, Baby Boy stars Tyrese Gibson, A.J. Johnson, Ving Rhames, Snoop Dogg, Taraji P. Henson, and Omar Gooding. recently talked with John about his latest film, the DVD format, and his directing style.

doc: How did the story for Baby Boy originate, specifically in regards to the mother-son relationship?

John: It's just the converse of what went on in Boyz 'N the Hood. There's a lot more single-parent females trying to raise boys then there are men. So I felt 'why not do a story about that?'

doc: How did the opening womb image with the abortion arise?

John: It supports the theme of the whole film, with the young boy. I'm basically interested in the development, with trying to be a man. I felt that somehow I had to come up with some kind of defining opening image.

doc: You seem to do that pretty often, like with the stop sign in Boyz 'N the Hood. Do you think that's important to always have a really strong opening image?

John: Yeah, I think it's important to have strong images throughout the film. But with the opening image, if you can get the whole theme of the film, then you've got something. Like in the opening of Jaws, with the appearance of the shark. It's always affected me to see that.

doc: The characters in Baby Boy are very realistic, even more than in Boyz 'N the Hood. How have you matured as a writer over the years?

John: I think I've gotten more specific and more profound in the way in which I tell a story when I'm writing or directing. I'm more interested in showing the story than saying the story. I'm less interested in dialogue than I am in imagery.

doc: I noticed that in the way that the characters are placed within the frame. Can you discuss that, especially with the three: Melvin, Juanita, and Jody.

John: Yes, I use creative blocking to discuss thematically what's going on between the three of them. It's a love triangle.

doc: Can you discuss your writing process?

John: I just keep a journal and throw stuff in the journal and make notes for several years until I'm ready to write the script. Then I just throw the script out within a certain amount of time. I have so much material and so many notes.

doc: film Baby Boy contains really strong female characters, which I think are actually the toughest in the film. Can you describe, especially in regards to Juanita, what your thoughts were as far as those characters?

John: Yes, I wanted to make these women that basically are holding up the whole community. They go through the burden of trying to take care of children and being moral supports for the men because the men have no power. They have no economic power; they have no power in the home. You see every guy moving into a woman's place and saying 'this is my house.'

doc: You're constantly using new actors like Tyrese, Morris Chestnut, and Cuba Gooding Jr. Are you just looking for a fresh perspective?

John: I'm always looking for new faces. Always.

doc: You also use high profile music stars like Janet Jackson, Tupac, and Ice Cube. Is this a specific reason for this?

John: No, it just ends up that way. I like to use artists and performers, people who have some soul.

doc: The Tupac mural in Jody's bedroom is striking, almost like an angel watching over him.

John: Yes. His journey could possibly be Jody's journey.

doc: Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson have a great chemistry, especially in arguments where it doesn't feel like they're acting. What made you choose them for the roles?

John: They just did so well together in the audition process. It was inevitable.

doc: This was Tyrese's first film. You originally chose Tupac. What made Tyrese stand out with the qualities that Tupac had?

John: He was good looking, he had a lot of soul, and he had a lot of heart. I wanted a guy who girls would like, and he would do a lot of bad things, and they would still like him.

doc: How was it working with Snoop Dogg?

John: Oh, it was cool working with Snoop.

doc: He seems to be all over the place right now.

John: Yeah, he's a superstar.

doc: Let's talk about the music in your films. There's both older soul and hardcore rap songs. Being the music supervisor, how did you go about choosing them?

John: I just basically use music that I like, music that I wrote in the script and that was appropriate for the various scenes.

doc: How involved are you in the DVD releases of your films?

John: Very involved. I pick the artwork, I choose how the animation goes in it, and I choose what goes on the DVD. I'm very involved.

doc: Do you have approval over the image and the audio transfers?

John: Yes.

doc: How do you enjoy recording the audio commentaries?

John: I love it. I'm a fan of the whole format. I love taking part in it. I think it's great; it's for the people that really want to study the behind-the-scenes of the film.

doc: Do you have much of a DVD collection?

John: I have a huge DVD collection. I have thousands of DVDs.

doc: What are some of your favorites that you seem to watch all the time?

John: Seven. I'm trying to think about which ones I really watch all the time because I have so many of them. The Se7en collection is really a good one, and the Lawrence of Arabia disc is very good.

doc: Boyz 'N the Hood was originally released without a commentary. Have you thought about going back and re-releasing it?

John: Yeah, we're doing a special edition of Boyz 'N the Hood coming out next year.

doc: In what way does DVD change your approach to filmmaking? Has it changed?

John: It hasn't, it's still the same. It's just that I know if I don't put everything in the movie, people will see it on the DVD.

doc: How much of Baby Boy reflects your own experiences growing up?

John: The characters reflect people I knew growing up in the neighborhood and people I know now.

doc: It seems that your films have a lot to do with parents and their roles.

John: I get into the non-traditional family mode with the characters in my films because I didn't grow up in a traditional family.

doc: The image of the garden appears to have a connection with where Juanita is going.

John: Yes. She's growing and she's healing. It's a whole new season for her in her life. Because she was a baby girl. She was a young mother.

doc: What originally made you decide to pursue a career in film?

John: The only thing I was very interested in growing up was movies.

doc: What movies really got you excited about film when you were a kid?

John: Star Wars, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, basically those types of films when I was kid. And when I was in high school, I started going to revival theaters and seeing the work of Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, and Stanley Kubrick.

doc: Can you talk about the origins of the buyer-seller discussion in Baby Boy?

John: That comes from just looking on the street and seeing how people are, and they can't get a job so they find something to sell.

doc: Who do you consider the major influences on your current directing style?

John: Kurosawa and Welles, very much Welles.

doc: Are there any current filmmakers that really catch your eye?

John: I like Soderbergh's work. I think he always does something interesting.

doc: You earned several Oscar® nods for Boyz 'N the Hood, and they've pretty much avoided you since. What are your opinions on the role of that show?

John: I don't really think about it that much, until it comes along.

doc: Spike Lee has said that he feels compelled to present a voice for the African-American community similar to the Civil Rights movement. Do you feel compelled in the same way?

John: No, I'm just speaking from the perspective of John Singleton. That's all you can do.

doc: How was your experience making Shaft?

John: It was great. I had every toy that I needed to do the film.

doc: That's pretty different from your other work. Would you do it again?

John: Yes, of course. My next film will be like that. I might do a big adventure movie.

doc: Are you going to write that one too?

John: No, I'm going to hire someone else and just do the direction.

doc: What you have learned over the last 10 years as a director?

John: I think I've learned to be more visual, to show the story instead of telling the story. That's what makes a film.