‘Straight Outta Compton’ Interview: F. Gary Gray, Ice Cube On Bringing NWA’s Legacy To The Big Screen
Monday, August 10th, 2015 at 2:30 pm
Straight Outta Compton chronicles the history of the iconic rap group NWA, and how its members helped revolutionize the music industry and influence a nation with their controversial music that was a reflection of their life in south Los Angeles. From their meteoric rise to their disbanding, the biographical film exposes the honest truth about each of the members’ dreams, ambitions, and hopes, and goes far beyond the conventional “Behind The Music”-style documentary storytelling.
We were recently invited to the film’s press day where we had an opportunity to talk to Straight Outta Compton director, F. Gary Gray, as well as two of its producers and NWA members, Ice Cube and DJ Yella, where we talked about how the project came into fruition, the auditioning process, how the cast exceeded expectations, and addressing the critics who condemned NWA’s music but are receiving praise for the film. Check out the full interview here below.
Geeks of Doom: Could you tell us how you came into the project?
F. Gary Gray: I’ve been involved with this project for four years, got the script from [Ice] Cube. At first I was a little nervous, there is so much story there, to cover ten years and five guys, I was a little nervous. But when I read the first draft that Andrew Berloff wrote, I was kinda like “Okay, there is something there, something good there.” And then when I talked to Cube, and explored what we could really do with this story, I joined the project.
Ice Cube: Oh yeah, you know, this has been a dream project forever, ever since I started producing. 1995, this has kinda been in the back of my mind. When it was looking to become a reality, there was only a few people I would even ask to do a movie like this, and one of them is sitting right next to me. By Gary choosing to direct the project, the movie really started to take shape and we really started to hone in on what we needed to produce this movie and get it on the big screen.
DJ Yella: It was a great thing, a great idea, because we didn’t really realize, 26 years ago as we were doing Straight Outta Compton, that it was such a good story, and a lot to it, you know: happiness, sad, all kind of business, showing all what we went through but we kept focus on what we did. Our passion was music, the lyrics, and we didn’t let anything stop us. It was a great time, and right now it happens to be perfect time for the movie, and 26 years later, the music still sounds fresh. It’s not outdated or anything, it’s keeping up right with the times.
F. Gary Gray: It was an honor to tell the story. I know you guys hear that. It’s really cliche. The story is really personal to me in a lot of ways, but I don’t want to minimize what these guys did because it was really, really hard. You hear about great actors doing a lot to take on a role, and I had these guys go in the gym, some had to lose weight, some had to gain weight, we went through DJ school, these guys Straight Outta Compton, I had these guys record the entire album. I had these guys do so much, I believe it was eight weeks, a two month period where they worked around the clock with wardrobe, their trainers, and Dub C who was William Calhoun, where I got my start, to work with them on stage and how to walk, talk, and absorb the LA culture, the west coast culture, and they did it in such a short amount of time, its a great feet what these guys did, and deliver such a natural performance. These guys didn’t come up and mimic, they didn’t pretend to be Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, MC Ren, or Eazy-E. These guys gave a world class performance, I don’t want to minimize their effort at all.
Geeks of Doom: Ice Cube, did you give any tips to your son as to how he should portray you?
Ice Cube: What I did with him, I just wanted to give him all the ammunition he needed. I wanted to let him know what I was thinking at the time. My preception of everybody. What I thought of Jerry Heller, Eazy, Dre, Ren, Yella, just so that if he did ad lib or off script, he would have the ammunition to know how to address this one or that one, and just how to be in the screen, because I knew Gary wouldn’t go for anybody being a mimic. All I knew is that I could fill him up with information, and then let him do this thing. He developed into a great actor during this process, so I had total confidence in him, and in Gary to deliver this role.
F. Gary Gray: Imagine what he had to go through. It is funny in a room after we delivered the movie, and we really feel good about it, but the 20 years that he mentions only counts if you know you are going to play your dad in the movie. That only counts if you know you are going to play that role. But it wasn’t that way at first, you didn’t know we’re going to play this role.
Geeks of Doom: What would you say to the critics who blasted you when NWA first came out, who are now praising you for it being good movie?
F. Gary Gray: SEE!
Ice Cube: It’s a little apples and oranges. The record is about life moving at the speed of real life. This is a movie that looks back and is a piece of art, just as much speaking on things we were speaking on. I could imagine you appreciating this movie and still having a problem with the group. For those that came around, welcome to 2015, we’ve been looking for you since 89, so you know its great to have. We’ve been doing films for 20 years, we’ve been in the business. Just to be at this level, and deliver a movie like this, we don’t stumble, fall on our face, to me shows the different talent level and different creative energy. I can expect that people will love the film but hate the group still. That’s fine because it is all about being real, and we want people to be real even when criticizing the group. If you don’t like the movie, you can kill yourself.
DJ Yella: It’s amazing how it’s getting changed around. I mean, they hated us. They literally hated us. Now the movie is showing our life, and opened some eyes up. They just like, “this group is kinda strong here. They did somethings here. They done started the sticker one the record. The first ones to be sued by sampling a record.” We did a lot of things. It opened up their eyes. They might still hate us a little bit.
Geeks of Doom: How do you feel about how the group still has an impact to a point where there needs to be a whole movie dedicated to their legacy?
Ice Cube: It is amazing after all this time the group still provokes thought, controversy, and the same energy back then. That’s kind of remarkable. If you think how entertainment was before NWA, and compare it to how we are after NWA, I think we just opened it up to be themselves, and not put on a mask of “I got to be a good guy in front of the camera.” I think we just opened entertainment up, and opened artists up to be truly be themselves, and not worry about having to portray a squeaky clean image. They saw NWA just as famous as Fresh Prince, they saw that you can just be yourself, and still make an impact on the world. I feel good that it is a part of history, and we can look back on this time. The movie showed the why, not just the where and when, but why we did this kind of music. People got to understand, where we come from that forged NWA, the streets of Compton, Watts, South Central, Long Beach, that’s what forged NWA. We wanted to show that in the movie.
Geeks of Doom: How has the relationship with police changed with you given the group’s encounters with them in the past?
Ice Cube: What we wanted to show is the humiliation. That is the real issue. We understand that cops have to be heavy handed with criminals, but we don’t understand why they got to be that way with citizens. What we wanted to show is the humiliation that we faced, and we wanted the audience to feel the same kind of “what if this was happening to you?” Ultimately, the incidents were things that could happen to anybody at anytime, and when the audience knows that, that we aren’t criminals, and they see what’s happening to us, it feels like it could happen to them or their neighbors, and that’s why we did these songs, it’s not because we didn’t like the police. If some guy is breaking into my house, I am calling the goddamn police, you know what I am sayin’? I’m not calling the homies, Yella, Ren, or Dre. So we understand that. Don’t do the citizens that way. We were both anal about we were going to deal with these issues that forged our protest and reasons for doing this music.
F. Gary Gray: The experiences were important. I grew up roughly around the same time and same area, and it was important to understand why a 16-year-old would write these lyrics, to give you a sense of the backdrop, socially and otherwise. NWA stepped out and shined a light on that pre-internet, pre-camera phone. We are actually a lot of questions about that, and I am actually optimistic because of the headlines. Just like they shine a light on excessive force with law enforcement there is no way that you can watch these videos and understand that change is coming. Pressure is being put on our leaders, pressure is being put on our law enforcement to change, and now they are in the spotlight. People said that crime started to go down when they started to show those shows like Cops. Criminals would look and say “You can’t get away with that kind of stuff,” now the camera is kinda pointed in the other direction, and for all the good cops out, there salute, you have nothing to worry about if you are doing nothing wrong. Now they are considering body cams on police officers. They did a study in Rilato, CA, where they tested it with body cams, and the complaints went down 80%, and the incidents went down 60%. It’s not just about protest now, it’s about solutions, and I think that is a great direction to go in, and I like that the headlines are showing this because it puts a lot of pressure on law enforcement. It kinda started with these guys, actually, I won’t say it started but I think they continued in their own way to protest to be who we are today.
Geeks of Doom: Were there any scenes that were difficult for you to watch?
DJ Yella: I would say, the hospital scene was the worst. On the day of filming you couldn’t even talk to the actors because they were so focused. They act like they lost a friend, for real. The way they acted, and the way the scene came off, I know I had to shed a couple tears.
Ice Cube: I would find myself putting this movie together, tearing up, welling up, a lot of different emotions. Dre’s brother dying, and watching the reaction to the group. Seeing Eazy get kinda cornered in the studio was tough. The hospital was real rough, even shooting it we had to walk out a few times.
F. Gary Gray: That was an amazing moment for the cast. We really set out to make sure there was an organic bond. I really wanted them to build a friendship. I remember when Neil Brown Jr., who plays Yella, literally could not shoot part of the scene, because he had to go in the other room and couldn’t see Jason there laying like that because the performance was so realistic it had affected him emotionally, and part of the reason why we picked Jason was because of his background. He had heart and street credibility, and I knew when he performed that scene, he tapped into his experiences on the street, for real. It wasn’t a thespian moment. He tapped into something some the experience he had in real life. That was the reason why it was so emotional. I cried when he did it, because I couldn’t see my friend in that much pain, and that’s again is why I think the performances are outstanding because they tapped into what’s real, and we created something very real for them to access when they performed.
Geeks of Doom: How did the chemistry tests go during the audition process?
F. Gary Gray: They cheated! They decided they liked O’Shea Jackson Jr. (who was going for Ice Cube at the time) more than the other guys. Their performances started to sync when they were together. So I knew what was going on. But these are techniques that I would use in Set It Off with Jada [Pinkett Smith], Queen Latifah, and the same with The Italian Job where I have a group of people come together and have an organic relationship. They sunk right into this process and it worked out well.
Straight Outta Compton opens in theaters on August 14, 2015.