By Scott Stenholm - Editorial Producer, Larry King Now
In 1988, N.W.A released their first studio album, Straight Outta Compton. The album shined a light on life in South Los Angeles. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren became truth tellers for a segment of society that had been segregated for generations by economic strife, community infighting, and police harassment that was often laced with racism.
N.W.A were misrepresented as "thugs" and "gang members" who incited violence through their music. In reality, the group was putting out art that is as timely today as it was then. N.W.A's music served as a soundtrack (of sorts) during the 1992 L.A. riots. Years of their community's stress over poverty, a lack of opportunity, and a city and police force that often cast aside the rights of their community boiled over following the acquittal of several white LAPD officers who were videotaped savagely beating a black man. Today, N.W.A's "Fuck The Police" seems just as relevant considering the current sentiment in American cities like Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson, Mo.
Surprisingly, the epic tale of N.W.A - a group that included modern-day entertainment heavyweights like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre - took over a decade to make its way to the big screen. Following a screening of the film, Larry King Now spoke with Bill Straus, one of the film's producers, who played an essential role in the early development of the project.
(Photo credit: Getty Images)
Larry King Now: This is a relative unknown cast. These are not household names, yet. They really shined and embodied the characters they were playing.
Bill Straus: Absolutely, yeah... I mean the guy who played Suge Knight [R.Marcos Taylor]-- amazing.
LKN: Yeah even the guy who played Tupac [Marcc Rose].
Straus: Look-alikes, that guy was a look- alike.
As a producer, what were some of the bigger challenges of the shoot?
Straus: My real contribution in this film was from about 2004 to 2007. I was the producer that [the idea] was originally submitted to...my story is really about that whole process...I wouldn’t say my story is parallel to like some of the darker or later aspects and the money, financial aspects of Jerry Heller (N.W.A's manager).
I said to one of [the people I worked for at the time], “Wow look at this, this could be a really cool movie.” I can always vision the anticipation and the effect and feeling around it right now --and he said, 'yeah that's great but don’t waste your time.' He told me that they had tried to do it...none of this had been substantiated but he mentioned some big producers, like Imagine apparently had tried to do it, Ron Howard...you know some of the people very involved with the group had tried to do it. Then N.W.A tried to do it and the widow to Easy-E [Tomika Woods Wright] would not give them the music rights. She was just very guarded... a lot of people tried to take advantage of her, like she thought a lot of people were trying to take advantage of Easy’s legacy. And a little bit of that is actually in the movie.
I went to David Engel...and he immediately got the gravity of the film... And eventually we got to one of Tomika’s best friends and she gave it to Tomika and she loved the script. She kind of became fast friends with me and the writer... By the end of it she became very emotional...she’s crying, she’s really opening up about [Easy's death]... A few weeks later we had the rights and with her blessing we took it out to the studios and tried to build this from there. But the studio didn’t believe that we actually had the music rights... They wanted Dre to come in on that day that we sold it as well. But Dre didn’t come in until about two years ago when it went to Universal.
Did Dre's involvement push things along?
Straus: We drew out Tamika’s character a little bit more, much more... You know the Dre story and the Cube story -- it wasn’t like what is it now. I think it's better this way. I think the movie is better than the script that we ended up getting. It’s now sort of all three of their stories. It's more than the Eazy-E story, you know. It really added much more dimension to it by bringing out all three of their stories.
It’s more digestible for modern audiences. Dre and Cube are all so well known today, even to younger kids that would be going to see this movie, compared to Eazy. So I can understand why if they weren’t touched on on a grander scale I can see how people might be left wanting more.
Straus: Yeah, you know that’s a really good point and I’m gonna have to incorporate when I talk about it now. I was talking to kids at NYU and I was talking to, I don’t know, forty kids at NYU and I was like, “Oh I’m doing an N.W.A movie..." and I got blank faces... I think it’s really profound what we did. Because we made, we realized this project. That’s sort of one of the points that we are trying to get out there.
There were a couple things that really stood out to me. One was that it wasn’t a movie that was just trying to be "cool". The characters were very humanized. It wasn’t about the image of the characters so much as what they really were like and there was also a really good mix of humor and drama and heart. Even suspense at times. You kind of felt like you were on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster - in the best way possible. I didn’t expect going into this movie thinking I was going to laugh often.
Straus: Yeah, me too.
Was that the way it was originally when the script was made or did that sort of develop over time?
Straus: No, I think it developed as soon as Dre got involved and I think that is another reason why their contribution is really important because I think what’s really special about the first hour-and-a-half of the film. The sense of comradery and I feel like a lot of people can kind of go back to their days in high school and college and relate to a group of people who were all friends and have that sense of fun.
It made you really feel for them when they were being harassed by the police. When you originally started working on this project over 11 years ago there wasn’t nearly as much talk about police overreach and misconduct and the racial divide between the police and the inner city as there is today. We’ve seen what’s happened in Ferguson and Baltimore and, in a sense, this movie is very timely.
Straus: Yes...what we are seeing now is that there are a lot of police forces out there that are the way the LAPD used to [be]. In some way these filmmakers were lucky, but the country’s not lucky...so I feel weird and bad saying that. But it’ll be interesting to see the reaction to the movie.
I have to ask about the Suge Knight situation that went down on set. He’s accused of a murder that took place on - or just off - the Straight Outta Compton set. What’s your comment on that?
Straus: The whole thing is unfortunate. I just think the whole thing is unfortunate.
Straight Outta Compton is out now in wide release.
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