Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman have received a Writer’s Guild nomination for Straight Outta Compton, the surprise hit of Summer 2015 that spans the rise and fall of N.W.A.
I had a catch up with the two to find out more about the appeal of the movie and how they had to rush a draft script in order to film in Los Angeles.
Awards Daily: Let’s start by talking about the genesis of the film and how it all began.
Andrew Berloff: I guess in 2009 or so New Line acquired the rights to the songs and they acquired a script as part of that. That was something of an Eazy-E story, and then when I was hired in 2010 the thought was trying to figure out how to tell the story of the whole band, N.W.A.
I think at the beginning nobody was totally sure what the movie or the story should be about. So, with Ice Cube’s help and blessing I spent ten months talking to as many people as possible, interviewing as many people as possible, listening to a ton of stories and figuring out what was important to tell and what wasn’t important to tell.
Out of that, the first draft arose. So, that was the beginning. Cube and Eazy’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright were extremely involved from the beginning, and the two of them were really my guideposts. I spent countless hours with both of them just downloading and listening to all their stories.
Awards Daily: Were you a fan of the music before starting this? And what were your earliest memories of Straight Outta Compton?
AB: I certainly was a fan of the big songs and knew of them, but I was a kid so I didn’t go deep into understanding the political message when I was a kid.
It wasn’t until this project came around that I dug deeper. I was really clear that this wasn’t just going to be a biopic about a band. For me, I kept pitching that this was an event movie about America, and that we were going to tackle racism and police abuse, First Amendment rights and all these big topics, and the music would be there to support all those stories.
AD: With the research and 1000 pages, how did you decide what to leave out?
AB: This is a tremendous journey and I certainly had help in it. The first draft was really long, we were doing kitchen sink drafts and including everything. That was a big piece of what Jonathan dealt with, trying to figure out what was in and what was out.
Jonathan Herman: A lot of it was the budgetary concerns as well. Once the movie had a blinking green light. They were like, “There’s no way we’re making this movie unless you cut it down to a reasonable size and do it on budget.” So, you can’t put in everything. The more script you have, the more days are required to shoot, and they were, “You only have this amount of days.” So you have to make it work and balance it. It’s tougher when the people are present and very much part of the process like Cube and Dre. They want to make sure they’re fairly represented and the story is fairly balanced toward each of them.
We weren’t making a documentary or a Behind the Music, we were making a feature film with characters and story arcs. Sometimes you have to massage things into place and augment things that happened into the order that works best for a movie. That was the approach that worked best, to try to see it as a superhero movie or a fictional film. If it works in that way, it’ll be entertaining. If you stick too close to biography or documentary, if you’re too precious with all of your facts, you might not capture the audience as much. You really wanted it to feel like a movie experience. It has to hit the same emotional beats of highs and lows and feel like a real movie.
AD: It was good to see a real movie.
AB: [laughs] It was good to write a real movie too.
AD: So, Jonathan, at what stage did you get involved?
JH: Eventually the movie conked out at New Line because it sucks for them, they just didn’t believe in it enough even though it was such a good movie and Andrea did such a good script. It’s the way the business goes.
Lucky for the project, Donna Langley at Universal believed in it, and it ended up over there. Scott Bernstein was the executive in charge of it and I had known him from some past projects.
I’m a pretty big music fan, I’ve seen Scott at a lot of shows and we’d talk about music so he called me. He said, “This should be your next project, but you have to start in two weeks.” So, it was crazy, stressful and whirlwind. I went in and got to work. They wanted a deadline and had to get this tax credit to shoot in LA to get the rebate.
If you don’t get that rebate, they couldn’t have afforded to shoot in LA. To shoot this movie in New Orleans would have been blasphemous, but that’s what could have happened. To qualify for this rebate, we had to get a draft done really quickly. We continued to work on it because a draft you bang out in 2 to 3 weeks isn’t going to cut the mustard.
AD: What was it like when you saw the film for the first time?
AB: Sweet relief. We’re not the directors we don’t control everything. I was really pleased that I thought it was a really good film and not so hard to watch.
JH: I saw it in a private screening with Gary and it wasn’t done. I thought it was good. Being the neurotic Jew that I am, I have no objectivity. How could I possibly know whether this is good. I think it’s good. Later I saw it at a public screening with a crowd and it clearly played so wonderfully.
It played so amazingly and I knew at that point that it was something special.
AD: On that point, what do you think is the attraction?
AB: I think there’s a lot of things. First of all, it couldn’t have been more timely in terms of what conversations the country was having in the month it was released. It was the month of the Ferguson anniversary, and I think the country wanted to talk about race in a way that maybe we haven’t in a very long time.
In terms of timing who could have predicted that. That led to the success. But, you can’t underestimate the popularity of Cube and Dre. They are superstars, and the idea of them coming back together and hearing their origin tales really lit a fire in a large part of the audience.
JH: I think it crossed over to people who maybe knew nothing about hip-hop or these guys. It’s a story that a lot of people can relate to as far as being outsiders or being not represented in society.
It’s wish fulfillment — this could happen to me. it applies to everybody in all kinds of walks of life. If this movie was only playing to an urban audience, it wouldn’t have made $200 million dollars around the world. It was that successful because it struck a chord.
Maybe a lot of folks over 70 who didn’t know anything about N.W.A or heard about it in the news once were able to appreciate a good story when it’s being told.
AD: When you were doing the research, did you get any conflicting memories, because it’s one person’s story, and then you get another person’s perspective of that same event?
AB: We absolutely did. There were many moments and more than one time I said to Cube and Dre, “You’re saying it like this, and you’re saying it like this — can we work this out?” Sometimes you have to tell a good story. It was never malicious, it was simply with the passage of twenty years people remember things differently.
The good thing about having all the people collaborating with us was that we could work it out and come to a place where it was close enough to the truth.
JH: And still try to protect people from certain things. Some were more hot-button than others, and we wanted to be respectful particularly of Eazy. He’s not around anymore and Tomica watches over his legacy. We wanted to get as close to the truth as possible, but we didn’t want to hurt anyone or disrespect anybody.
AD: Were you surprised by anything in the process?
JH: There’s a lot of things in the story like, “Whoa, did it really happen that way?” Once you have the outline down and you’re getting to work, the surprises happen. Did you have any Holy Shit moments?’
AB: No. You have to take everything with a grain of salt of who’s telling you the story and is it actually true.
JH: It’s the nature of hip-hop to be boastful. [laughs]
AB: You never know. You don’t enter into this job without thinking you’re going to hear some pretty spectacular stories.
JH: There’s one thing that comes up in the movie. What they rap about, if you take it literally it meant that they were criminals, they carry guns and do drugs, but it was a performance. They were playing characters based on what they knew in their neighborhood. Or what Eazy used to be before he became a rapper.
A lot of people got it confused, if you’re rapping about it, then you must be a criminal. They’re like, “No, how are we any different than journalists or actors in the movie business playing characters.” There’s a difference between those two things.