Five minutes after 7 p.m. The students squirm anxiously in their seats. Some have been waiting an hour. Others longer. Idle chatter rises and falls and everyone’s eyes are trained on the door. Finally, his name is called and he enters the room. Everyone applauds.
Clean-cut, wearing a gray sweater over a white button down shirts, a pair of blue jeans and white low-tops, John Singleton smiled and waved at the audience, professional but laid back. Here for SCA’s Alumni Screening Series and the showing of his most recent film Abduction, he was eager to be back on campus, comfortable in the familiar Norris Theater. He sat in the chair across from interviewer Jack Epps, chair of the SCA Writing Division. The questions began.
Singleton graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1990 as a filmic writing major. During his time at USC, he won several writing awards, drafted several screenplays and spent hours in the Cinema Library watching films and learning how to craft them. He would later go on to direct his film — Boys N The Hood — just a month after graduating and become the youngest person, at age 24, to be nominated for Best Director.
With perhaps some of the most stellar film credentials SCA can publicize, Singleton’s background is intimidating. Yet here, in a theater crammed with SCA students and their guests, he got personal. He described the audience of his first journey to USC, forcing them to recall their own anxiety about getting into college, into the film school. Only a high school junior, he was stunned by the then-new cinema school and wandered around the building following the first person he saw. That person turned out to be the Dean of Admissions for SCA.
“I thought I was going to piss my pants,” said Singleton, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Singleton described how he built relations with the dean and was admitted to the cinema school after his senior year. Before applying for a major, however, he heard the singular piece of advice that would change how he viewed films.
“If you really want to do this, then learn to write your own movies,” said Singleton, a grin crossing his face as he remembers the guidance he was given. “No one’s going to pass you a script. Also, the cheapest way to make a film is to write it yourself.”
For Singleton, focusing on writing was not a difficult decision. Knowing he wanted to direct, he already viewed films in terms of ideas and had crafted some stories of his own. His application pitch for the film school’s writing program? The story of three friends growing up and surviving the hardships of living in the more dangerous neighborhoods of LA. From Los Angeles himself, Singleton wanted to use his knowledge of the streets to create the accurate, touching film Boys N The Hood that would win him an Oscar nomination.
“I always feel that cinema is a reflection of life,” said Singleton. “We have this medium that’s been around for one hundred years, and it’s just a matter of whether or not what you’re watching is giving you an emotional response.”
After Boys N the Hood, Singleton would go on to craft nine well-known films, five of which he wrote, among them Baby Boy, Poetic Justice, Shaft, and Higher Learning. His latest project, Abduction, staring Taylor Lautner, hit theaters September 23. Yet this particular venture was out of the ordinary for Singleton.
“I did this movie because of my kids,” said Singleton. “They were like ‘You have to write something for us. I mean you make movies that you don’t let us see.’” He made a concerned-parent face and the audience laughed. “There’s so much cursing, you know?”
Though Singleton typically crafts his own stories, the script for Abduction, written by Doug Davidson, made rounds in Hollywood before Singleton decided to sign on. Singleton met with Lautner, by then already casted, who decided that he wanted Singleton to direct the film. He wanted something outside of the teen-girl Twilight series, and he felt Singleton was the perfect director to work with.
“He was great,” said Singleton, smiling mischievously as he relates how much of a relief it was to work with an actor who actually took direction. “I told the kid ‘You’ve got to get kicked around in this movie because that’s what heroes do. You have to do things people don’t expect you to do.’”
Singleton went on to describe how he particularly enjoyed shooting the brutal fight scene Lautner has with his dad. The SCA alum filmed Lautner’s action sequences in a realistic manner, allowing his character to be hurt when he should have been hurt.
“I always try to make it as real as possible,” said Singleton. He settles back into his seat after pantomiming an action sequence. “It’s more disconcerting that way.”
Singleton laughed with his audience, swore and boasted no “holier-than-thou” attitude. He probed the audience for what films they’ve seen, jokingly chides them for good ones they have not, and intimately talks with them about the film industry, its ups and downs, how important it is to stick to your vision. Before leaving, he gave the aspiring filmmakers in the audience a piece of advice.
“You should know how to be your own studio,” said Singleton. He stiffened and as he for the first time as he went into lecture mode. “Know how to write, direct, produce. You should be forming social allies, watching movies, reading material, and supporting each others as artists. It’s really about new blood, not what’s been done before. It’s about thinking new, not about how things used to be.”
Just before the curtain opened, the projector flickered to life, lighting up every eye that followed Singleton as he walked out of the theater.