Rick Famuyiwa Interview
Writer-director Famuyiwa debuts with a fond urban flashback flick from MTV Films
Rick Famuyiwa is a first-time filmmaker who wants to let all his friends in on the fun of a big-time studio press tour.
The writer-director of "The Wood" -- a surprisingly sincere and funny, urban, "Wonder Years"-style flashback movie from MTV Films -- is visiting Northern California to promote the film, bringing a small entourage with him on his interviews, including USC film professor Todd Boyd, who helped write and produce the film.
Since he's staying in San Francisco, he's also invited Oakland firefighter Geoffrey Blackshears to tag along. The impending nuptials of a cold-footed character based on Blackshears (and played by Taye Diggs from "How Stella Got Her Groove Back") are at the heart of the movie.
"The Wood" revolves around getting Diggs to the church on time while the groomsmen (Omar Epps and Richard T. Jones) reminisce about the trio growing up together in semi-urban Inglewood, California, in the 1980s.
The son of Nigerian immigrants, 25-year-old Famuyiwa looks a bit older and wiser than his years -- or maybe it's just his deeply reverberating voice that almost demands one take him seriously until he lets loose with one of his hardy laughs that shakes the room like a subwoofer.
The young auteur was selling shoes at the Niketown in Beverly Hills when he wrote the script. He later polished it in a workshop at the Sundance Filmmaker's Institute, where he was invited on the merits of a 12-minute short called "Blacktop Lingo," made while studying film under Todd at USC.
Just like the character played by Epps (as an adult) and Sean Nelson (as a kid), Famuyiwa moved to Inglewood during junior high, and while the movie is peppered with puberty cliches, much of it rings so true you can't help but laugh.
So my first question for Famuyiwa was...
Contactmusic.com: How autobiographical is this movie?
Rick Famuyiwa: It's not a complete autobiography of me. I mean, kind of a small portion of it is real and I just made that up bigger. It's definitely based on me and my best friend -- that's who this tag-along is. (Laughs deeply and swings a thumb toward Blackshears, sitting in a corner.)
Contactmusic.com: Which character are you?
Geoffrey Blackshears: I'm, uh, Roland (the groom).(Heavy laughter from Famuyiwa's whole group.)
Contactmusic.com: So was there an actual wedding that was the catalyst of this story?
Famuyiwa: There was a wedding...
Blackshears: There was a wedding, but I didn't have cold feet.
Contactmusic.com: So what does your wife think of the movie?
Blackshears: Oh, she liked it. The wedding was real close to our actual wedding, with changes in minor details.
Contactmusic.com: So the characters in the film were based on you guys, and you took your memories and wrote the script by saying "wouldn't it have been funny if..."
Famuyiwa: Yeah. That's really how it was -- if this had happened, if that had happened. Like, you know, what if he didn't show up at the wedding? What would have happened? But, oh, how fabricated (it became).
Contactmusic.com: But it never became exaggerated. You didn't overplay the '80s angle. Take the '80s stuff out of "The Wedding Singer" and it would have collapsed. But in this movie, you saw the same stuff, but it was all understated.
Famuyiwa: I didn't want to focus on that. I thought I had a strong story and I actually didn't want that stuff distracting from the characters and the story. If you're paying attention to someone's loud shirt, (you're) not listening to what they're saying. So I wanted to keep it basic with T-shirts, jeans, using accents here and there that people can recognize.
Contactmusic.com: Did setting it in Inglewood help with that recognition, too? I liked the way it straddled the ghetto and suburbia in terms of location and in terms of personalities in the film. Is that what Inglewood is like?
Famuyiwa: The thing you gotta understand about L.A. is that everything is suburbia. Los Angeles isn't set up like San Francisco or New York. People come to L.A. and they expect to see a ghetto like the projects, but that's not the way it's set up. Inglewood, in particular, is the furthest thing from a ghetto. It's a middle-class community, but it's gotten a bad rap over the years...because of "Grand Canyon" and "Pulp Fiction" and other films.
I would be lying if I said there isn't a negative element in the city, but I would say it's no different than any other city. You come across gangs and you come across negative things -- but it's like everywhere else, if that's what you gravitate toward and that's what you want to do, you're gonna find trouble no matter what you do. But we were never into that. My group of friends were never into that.
Hopefully, (anyone) can look at these guys and relate to them. You can say, "I was just as nervous at the dance as this guy was." Then you can kind of break down some of those misconceptions and realize our experiences are universal no matter where you grow up.
Contactmusic.com: I think you definitely did that. And you also displayed a male bonding aspect you rarely ever see in African-American films, or at least recent ones.
Famuyiwa: Well, it happens! (Laughs). I think just in general in our society you don't see that. I mean, I remember how revolutionary people thought "thirtysomething" was for that same thing, and this was a group of white guys bonding. So just in general, if it's a man in the film, he's gotta be tough, he's gotta be carrying a gun, he's gotta be saving the world, and you rarely get to see that. But especially if you're talking about African-American films. You never see that. I mean, you see the opposite, with Black women bonding, but you've never seen that for men.
Contactmusic.com: So how did you get it greenlighted?
Famuyiwa: The thing that got the film going was Sundance. We'd been involved with Sundance, and I made a short film when I was in film school that was shown in the festival in '96 and I went through the writers and directors workshop in '97. That's when I was working "The Wood" and that's the project I took up there, and they really championed the script around town. I think that's what got the original quote-unquote buzz going on the story. There were a couple places interested in it, (but MTV Films) had the best concept and could deal with it better because it was young, (it had) the music and they wanted to make a film with predominantly African-American characters, but I don't think they wanted to do what has been the normal fare...
Contactmusic.com: The low-brow stuff....
Famuyiwa: Exactly. They don't like low-brow at MTV. (Huge, reVeberating laugh.)
Famuyiwa: They are trying to do different things. Because they have a network and a name brand already there they can push through some of these films. So you can get films like "Election," "200 Cigarettes" and "The Wood," in addition to "Beavis and Butthead" and "Joe's Apartment."
Contactmusic.com: Have they given you a big push?
Famuyiwa: Yeah. Actually, we just shot it down in Inglewood with the three actors -- Omar, Richard and Taye -- down at Randy's Donuts, the big donut in Inglewood. And there's a little game show/movie special they're doing. And they shot a bunch of commercials that are airing on the network now, and they're going to shoot more in the next week or so. That, plus the music videos, plus the PA tour we're doing -- it's been impressive.
Contactmusic.com: That's gotta feel pretty good for the first time out of the gate.
Famuyiwa: Oh, yeah.
Contactmusic.com: So with MTV getting behind it, that's probably how you got such a great cast.
Famuyiwa: Actually, Omar was involved early on. Almost half the film was cast at Sundance. Even though Omar and Taye have now become names in some way, two years ago or a year and a half ago when we were casting the film, it was still like, "Omar who?"
Contactmusic.com: And Taye Diggs was on Broadway.
Famuyiwa: In Los Angeles he might as well be pushing a broom. Broadway doesn't mean anything in Los Angeles. I always say it's hard to cast an African-American film sometimes because those kinds of actors just aren't out there. You talk about mid-20s, African-American men out here that have a name enough for a studio to feel like...
Contactmusic.com: They can put the above the title...
Famuyiwa: Yeah. That's not out there. You pretty much go with unknowns. The studio doesn't like to deal with unknowns, but you almost have to create stars in order to have that going. So they want to use rappers or singers or basketball players or someone who has a name. So that became a challenge -- to make it clear we wanted actors in our film. But outside of Cuba Gooding or Will Smith -- who we had no shot of getting anyway -- there's not a lot you can chose from. But we did end up with a great cast of up and coming actors that have now started to come into their own.
Contactmusic.com: So, it says in the production notes that Sundance was interested, but couldn't find you for a few months?
Famuyiwa: All the info they had on me was from when I was in film school, when I did the short film, and I'd moved a couple times since. A guy I worked with, who was on my crew, submitted a script for the lab and they recognized his name from the credits and asked if he still kept in contact with me. And he was like, "yeah, we work in the same place!"
Contactmusic.com: Is this when you were working at Niketown?
Contactmusic.com: Retail sucks, don't it?
Famuyiwa: It really does, man!
Contactmusic.com: But now you have a two picture deal.
Famuyiwa: One more picture with MTV and Paramount, and I'm writing a script for that now. And we're working on a (television) pilot for "The Wood"...
Contactmusic.com: Really? That's a great idea. One of the things I noticed about the film was the way the flashbacks are used. When you're in the '80s, watching the junior high kids, it has sort of an urban "Wonder Years" flavor to it.
Famuyiwa: Mmm hmm. Yeah. Yeah. (Our show) would be set up like the film with a back and forth between the older and younger.
Contactmusic.com: I hope that takes off. That could go. I think that could go.