EXPO Exclusive Interview with Reginald Hudlin
Reginald Hudlin is a prolific fellow. In 1990, his debut feature film House Party was a huge financial success for the fledgling studio New Line Cinema. Hudlin’s second film Boomerang became an instant classic starring mega star Eddie Murphy and an all star cast. Hudlin followed up this success by executive producing and writing the animated feature Bebe’s Kids featuring the late great comedian Robin Harris. Hudlin returned to directing with the features The Great White Hype, The Ladies Man and Serving Sara.
In 2005, Hudlin executive produced the animated series, The Boondocks based on the popular cartoon strip created by Aaron McGruder. Hudlin is currently directing episodes of ABC’s highly rated television sitcom Modern Family.
Hudlin is now making a name for himself in the comic book industry. Following his acclaimed run as writer for Marvel Comic’s classic superhero Black Panther, Hudlin’s current graphic novel project is the mini series, Flags of our Fathers. Flags teams Hudlin with noted comic book illustrator and long time friend Denys Cowan and tells the story of the first meeting between comic icons Captain America and the Black Panther. The first issue of the four part story will be released in stores April 7th.
Expo Founder Jamal Turner flew to Los Angeles to interview Reginald Hudlin.
The two haven’t spoken since Jamal failed to make the cut for the Boomerang soundtrack.
How would you describe growing up in Centreville, Illinois?
RH: The nearest hospital to the house my father built for us was in Centreville, so that’s where I was born. But my childhood was in East St. Louis. East St. Louis is a small town, but Centreville can fairly be called a village. In high school someone from Centreville asked me if I lived in a middle class neighborhood. I asked what he meant by that. He then asked if my street had sidewalks. So to him, I was ballin’ with sidewalks and all.
How did your hometown shape your appreciation of music? What would be your dream cast for a musical?
RH: First of all, we had great radio stations. George Clinton loved one of our local DJs so much he dubbed him “Dr. Jockenstein”. I grew up hearing blues, jazz, soul music and rock and roll on the regular.
My dream cast for a musical would include Sun Ra, Bootsy Collins, the Wu Tang Clan, Beyoncé, and Drake.
Kid n’ Play, the stars of your first film House Party, were really known as rap artists from New York. Were you familiar with their music prior to making this movie?
RH: Yes, I saw their videos, and thought they had the right vibe and attitude for the film. And I was right.
You have a producer credit on the House Party 2 sequel. Did you have involvement with any aspects of the film? I’m sure you developed a rapport with Kid n’ Play so they must have wanted you back for the sequel. How did you tell them “No.”?
RH: I had no involvement with the sequel. The studio wanted to pay me the same amount for the sequel as they did for the first one. Since I had huge offers from every studio in town, that made no sense to me. The studio felt they had the formula, somehow forgetting in the development process I usually did the opposite of their notes. The sequels made enough to justify making more, but they never matched the box office or respect of the original. But since they were based on my original film, I got checks off all of them.
I remember seeing Kid who somehow was at one of the previews for Boomerang, and the look of shock and pride on his face. Like he was surprised I could make a movie on that level, and happy that I had a career beyond House Party.
This happens a lot in Hollywood; folks are happy to declare you dead. At least the haters do. After a while, your friends get it. A little while back Dwayne McDuffie told me “I never worry about you. You’re like Batman, you always win”.
The Boomerang soundtrack was a very successful album. How involved were you with the soundtrack and the film score?
RH: I’m always very involved in the music of my projects. I can’t play anything but the stereo, but enjoy music a great deal. I had two great collaborators. Marcus Miller for the score, and LA and Babyface for the songs.
This was my second movie with Marcus. Before shooting, I played him Wynton Marsalis’ Hot House Flowers and a lot of Burt Bacharach, like Dionne Warwick singing “Promises Promises” so he could hear what I was hearing. Of course, the final score is nothing like that. But he got the feeling of scope that I meant.
With LA and Face, it was just crazy. I remember watching a rough cut of the film and during the scene when Halle confronts Eddie and she slaps him and yells “Love should have brought your ass home last night!” LA leans over and says “That’s a great song title”. That song broke Toni Braxton, who was an unknown signed to their label. I liked her on the demos so much I said we should use her.
After directing and producing films like House Party and Boomerang, you shifted to executive producing the film Bebe’s Kids starring the late comedian Robin Harris. Did you enjoy taking a more hands-off role as the executive producer?
RH: I wasn’t hands off. I wrote the script, supervised the voice recording sessions and gave notes on the cuts as they came in. It was tough, because I was in New York shooting Boomerang while they were finishing the film so I couldn’t fix everything I wanted. But most of what bugs me about the movie is my fault. I didn’t understand family entertainment yet because I didn’t have kids. But I still run into folks who grew up on the movie and love it.
Pre-Sopranos, you and your brother Warrington Hudlin created the Twilight Zone -inspired Cosmic Slop for HBO. How involved was the network with what you were creating? Did you have total freedom? How did you go about selecting talent i.e. actors, directors, writers, etc. to work on the show?
RH: HBO is a very creative-friendly network. Because they don’t have advertisers, they like noisy, bold shows. If there was any trepidation, it was from Black employees at HBO, who were nervous about the “Space Traders” episode, in which aliens offer the United States renewable energy, mineral wealth and a clean environment in return for all their Black people. The Black HBO employees were concerned the story would give White people ideas…as if we could come up with something that we had not already been subjected to in the past four hundred years.
The show came about after I read Derrick Bell’s book Faces at The Bottom of The Well. I thought there were a lot of short stories like this floating around and maybe doing a modern day Twilight Zone about cutting-edge political issues would be cool. I wanted to do one, my brother wanted to do one, and I just called my friends…novelist Trey Ellis and comic book maestro Kyle Baker…to help out. I picked Kevin Sullivan to direct one because he seemed like a pro, and he was.
Later Quentin Tarantino got in my ass because he thought Space Traders should have been a movie, not a TV show segment.
A popular debate in Black barbershops is, “Which film is better, Coming to America or Boomerang?” Were you a fan of Coming to America? As a viewer, which film would you want to see a sequel for?
RH: Coming to America is a classic, one of Eddie’s best. It’s scary to think how often I do the “Sexual Chocolate” exit gesture. I’d like to see sequels for both. As a Black Panther fan and writer, exploring his country with his family would be great. Like a Babar book with people.
Of course, I’ve thought a lot about a Boomerang sequel, and it would be awesome. But I doubt the pieces will ever come together to do a true sequel. But I’ll use those ideas elsewhere.
Is it true that after Boomerang Eddie Murphy asked you to direct Vampire in Brooklyn?
RH: He was developing the movie while we were shooting Boomerang. There was talk about that, and talk about a haunted house movie for Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell – this was before their show together. Eddie knew I was a big Michael Wright fan, so he was thinking about having him play the lead in Vampire in Brooklyn. Later he decided to do it himself. There wasn’t a script yet for either, but neither of them sounded as good as An American Werewolf in London, my favorite horror comedy film.
Boomerang was a groundbreaking film in terms of depicting a large Black ensemble cast in a romantic comedy. How did the Black Hollywood community react to Boomerang? Were there any known actors who expressed disappointment about not being included in the film?
RH: I was always frustrated that most of Eddie’s films didn’t have casts who were on his level. So they lived and died on him. I wanted to surround him with the best. And the best all came out to audition. We saw everybody. I don’t know if anyone was mad. Well, I know one person, but that’s all water under the bridge now.
Is the Black Hollywood community a clique within a clique?
RH: Funny, I was just at an Oscar party for Precious. I had never seen so many Oscar winners in one spot: Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker…and then there was Chris Rock, John Singleton, Lenny Kravitz, Tyrese, Debbie Allen, Paula Patton, Robert Townsend and of course Lee Daniels. It was a heavy room. But it was a lovely room with folks sharing information, giving advice, and of course talking shit. Given how competitive the whole industry is, I think Black Hollywood is pretty healthy.
Your next few films The Great White Hype, The Ladies Man and Serving Sara were not as commercially successful as House Party or Boomerang. Do you know when a project isn’t working?
RH: There’s no way to predict how much money a movie will make. And of course, “commercially successful” can be a subjective term as well. But I can make something the best movie it can be. And that starts with me. If I am passionate, the movie tends to work better. So I now make fewer films because I can’t fake passion.
Your graphic novel Birth of a Nation, co-written by Aaron McGruder and illustrated by Kyle Baker, was a hilarious and thought-provoking piece of work. You’ve also gone on to executive produce McGruder’s The Boondocks animated series. How did the two of you meet and begin working together?
RH: Through our mutual lawyer. He hadn’t even graduated from college yet. Our attorney knew I knew a lot about comic books and comic strips and could help him a lot. I sent him scripts, taught him story structure, deal making, introduced him to actors, writers, artists, producers. Got him a publicist who made him famous. Helped write the first couple of years of the strip and developed the TV series. He basically lived at my house for several years. He went from living in his parent’s basement to having a TV show from working with me.
Do you feel that the appearance of Don Cheadle as War Machine in the upcoming Iron Man 2 will open the door for more Black comic book characters seeing their way to film, now that the relationship between Hollywood and graphic novels is reaching a fever pitch?
RH: Well, it’s certain to be a success so it will help…to some degree. But it’s not like Blade didn’t prove that point already. And Will Smith did it again with Hancock. Doesn’t matter. If there’s a star that a studio is really excited about, a super hero role will be considered. What I don’t see is Black unknown actors getting those opportunities the way their White counterparts do.
Did you get to say all that you wanted to about the Black Panther in your run on the Marvel comic? Is there a DC Comics character that you would like to sink your teeth into?
RH: All I wanted to say? Never! But given that I originally signed up for a six issue mini-series, I got to say a lot. I married Black Panther and Storm, which was a Really Big Deal. There had never been a high-profile love story with Black characters in comics before. Ever. Isn’t that weird?
I wanted to have Panther, Luke Cage and Blade do a team up, but most importantly, have the kind of conversations I thought Black characters would have with each other, but had never been seen before. I did that too. I’m good with what I achieved.
As for DC, I love the Milestone characters, but it’s really tough doing books in continuity these days at either Marvel or DC. Too much coordination with broader editorial mandates that can lead to some great stories, but it’s tough to devote that much time if it’s not your main gig. I’m concentrating on graphic novels right now, and will eventually do some original characters.
I’ll save the more in-depth questions about your tenure at BET for another interview but I wanted to ask, what did you encounter in that position that was totally unexpected?
RH: I’m coming up on the 20 anniversary of my first movie, so I’ve been blessed to have worked in the business for a long time. But understanding the intricacies of the film, television and DVD business from a buyer’s position is a whole other thing. Now I’m a better producer and director because I understand the problems of the studio, and the network.
Did your phone blow up from industry people once you took over the BET gig? Was there anyone who reached out to you that was a complete surprise?
RH: Well, there were people excited to see BET doing original production, there were people who wanted to work with me, and there were people who needed convincing. Some projects were just too big for the network. One of them was a mini-series that went on to be one of this year’s Oscar contenders.
The latest graphic novel project you’ve written for Marvel Comics is “Flags of Our Fathers” which hits stores in April. In the story, you feature the first meeting of comic book icons Captain America and the Black Panther during World War Two. What was the genesis of the idea?
RH: Denys and I said it’s a crime that we’ve never done a comic together, so the idea of doing a Black Panther/Cap book popped up. We talked about documenting their relationship through the years, and it ended up focusing on their first meeting, and really fleshing out that story.
Was your approach to historical accuracy closer to HBO’s Band of Brothers or Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds?
RH: Denys is doing mad research for the art, which looks incredible. But my research was basically a lifetime of reading Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. Quentin actually invited me to see a rough cut of Inglorious Basterds shortly after I started the project and it was a real inspiration to me.
Were there strict guidelines from Marvel that you had to follow for writing these two characters?
RH: Well, there was definite attention paid to the depiction of Captain America with the movie coming up, but it wasn’t a problem. I am a big Captain America fan. He represents the best of the American Spirit, and that’s a big part of the storyline. Until I went to President Obama’s inauguration, the only time I felt patriotic was reading those old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Captain America stories.
The project is drawn by acclaimed illustrator Denys Cowan, who is also a friend of yours. How was it working together for the first time on a graphic novel project? Did he involve you in the storytelling process by showing you layouts and designs, or did you only see the artwork after it was completed?
RH: It was great working with Denys because he would send me rough layouts, and I got to put my two cents in. Conversely, I would run plot stuff by him so he could weigh in on that as well. It’s a real partnership. This project is the first of several books we’re doing together.
What’s next for Reginald Hudlin?
RH: Well, after taking time off, I thought about what I really wanted to do. Movies? TV? Comics? Another executive gig? Then I realized I didn’t have to choose. So quietly, methodically, I’m doing it all.
For more of Reginald Hudlin, please visit www.hudlinentertainment.com
Click here for a preview of Flags of Our Fathers by Reginald Hudlin and Marvel Comics. In stores April 7th, 2010.