Among the films nominated for best original screenplay this year, only one tells an unmistakably Los Angeles story: "Straight Outta Compton," the story of the rise (and decline) of the pioneering rap group N.WA.
To make the story both compelling and accurate took dozens of rewrites, years of research, hours of interviews and four writers. Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff co-wrote the screenplay and joined John Rabe in the corner booth at Musso and Frank to talk about the film.
Andrea Berloff on researching the story:
I was hired in 2010 by New Line in Warner Brothers to put together a movie about N.W.A. I started off interviewing Ice Cube. He was really the driving force behind the project in the early days. I mean, we spent countless hours and countless days together where I was just sort of extracting his tales from him, and then he introduced me to the world around him, so the rest of the guys in the group and DJ’s from that era. I spoke to a professor down at USC, Todd Boyd; he is a professor of hip hop. I talked to them over the course of ten months.
Berloff on the challenges found in putting recent history into a screenplay:
That’s part of the task of the job, is that you have to be able to work with the people who are still alive and still very able to tell their story and make them comfortable. I’ve done a lot of these where you work with people who are alive, and I always say I’m like a doctor — it’s first do no harm. You know, if someone is still alive, I’m not trying to make their life any harder than it already is. So you have to work with them and collaborate with them and figure out how you can both be authentic and true to the story but also present a version that they are comfortable with.
Co-writer Jonathan Herman on being nominated and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign:
I mean, that morning when the Oscars were announced at the crack of dawn, and obviously the first reaction is total joy — but then we started talking to our publicist. Because then all the calls started rolling in and it was pretty apparent almost immediately that that was the first question that people were asking. What do you think about the fact that all the actors are white and that they are saying that "Oscars so white" is being repeated? And it was sort of tough because in that moment to sort of have to recalibrate your thoughts, and how do we respond to this, like "Wait, we want to say the right thing. We want to be able to continue this conversation in a positive way and not make it worse."
I don't think that at any point we have said "this is not a valid conversation to be having." I think we believe, really strongly, in the conversation and the fact that Hollywood needs to take a strong look at itself. And this is a big issue we're facing as an industry. #OscarsSoWhite is a symptom of the fact that not enough people are getting hired, and not enough diverse stories are getting told, and the studios aren't making those movies. It's a whole ecosystem of issues.
We really are happy to have that conversation and have the movie serve as a conduit for that, for us to all be talking about it. Beyond Hollywood.
And also, it was weird for us individually. Andrea is a screenwriter who writes in a world where most movies being written are made about men, and are boy movies. And I'm gay, and there certainly aren't a lot of gay movies, so I find myself writing for straight guys, these strong, male tough characters. We're still participating in it, we want to work in this system.
Berloff on what didn't make it into the movie:
I loved the world of the Compton swap meet, which is this great place where people go and sell anything that you can humanly think of. That was really the place where Eric ["Eazy-E" Wright] discovered [Dr.] Dre’s music. They had known each other as kids in school, but later on Eric wanted to get out of the drug racket and had some cash in his pocket and was sort of wandering around the swap meet and wandered past this music booth, this booth that was selling mixtapes. He saw how people were going crazy over Dre’s mixtapes. And to me, that moment of hearing the music and how amazing and fresh and interesting it was, seeing the crowd’s reaction to that but also how much money was changing hands, and they kept talking about money, money, money. And him realizing that there is commerce around this incredible music and this incredible sound. I loved that world and I loved that moment.