November 3, 2002


    Opening on Friday, “8 Mile,” the highly anticipated new film from “Wonder Boys” and “L.A. Confidential” director Curtis Hanson, is one of the most conflicted movies about the music world since “Sid and Nancy” in 1986.

    One the one hand, like Alex Cox’s look at the Sex Pistols and the English punk explosion of 1976, Hanson’s immersion in Detroit’s inner-city hardcore hip-hop scene circa 1995 is an electrifying examination of the artistry of rap and the milieu that produces it. It’s powered by an obvious love of the music, and it achieves a striking verisimilitude in recreating the specific time and place.

    On the other hand, the heart of the story is essentially a tired show-business cliché: a poor and troubled young underdog (Jimmy Smith, Jr., a.k.a. “Bunny Rabbit,” portrayed by the controversial shock-rapper Eminem) is determined to “make it to the big time” (shades of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”). It’s not unlike any of the “Rocky” movies, but with rapping substituting for boxing.

    At one point, Smith’s equally ambitious wannabe-model girlfriend—Brittany Murphy’s Alex—actually turns to him and declares with utter earnestness, “I just [ITAL] know [ITAL] you’re gonna be great!” [ITAL] Ugh. [ITAL]

    There is also the problem of the film—which is a thinly veiled retelling of Eminem’s own story—freely rewriting history to the point of propaganda, with the obvious intention of turning the sometimes homophobic and misogynistic bad-boy rapper into a sweeter, more lovable character who (cue the violins) “just happens to be misunderstood.”

    As usual, Eminem rejected most interview requests to support the film. But I spoke with director Hanson and raised many of these issues during a frank and revealing conversation a week before the film’s release.

    Q. I’m curious, Curtis, about why you decided to make a hip-hop film after “Wonder Boys.” What drew you to this subject matter?

    A. I don’t consider it a, quote, “hip-hop” film.

    Q. Well, I say that in the best way: I think it’s one of the first films to actually capture the artistry of the music. The scenes in that smoky club do for hip-hop what I think “Sid and Nancy” did for the punk explosion, in terms of capturing the energy behind the music.

    A. Well, now you’re talking. In other words, I wouldn’t call “Sid and Nancy” a “punk film.” When you think of a, quote, “hip-hop movie,” you tend to think of movies that in one way or another either simulate the violence of hip-hop—the guns and drugs—or just exploit hip-hop as a groove thing in the comic movies. Whereas this picture, on the one hand, it’s a story of a group of young people trying to figure out how to lead their lives in a city that could be any city in America when the conventional or traditional sign posts that might guide them are either gone or are illegible. And specifically it’s also about one character who’s got all this emotion that he doesn’t really know what to do with, and he finds a way of channeling it into his art.

    It’s interesting, when you mention “Sid and Nancy,” which I find so apt in its own way, when I do a picture, I tend to have a little film festival with my collaborators when they come on board. The idea is to get them to know each other and have something to talk about, but also to give them some insight. Not show them something that I want to imitate, but maybe give them some insight into the thematic material. Had I thought of “Sid and Nancy,” I would have shown it. One of the pictures that I did show, which might be illuminating, was “Hoop Dreams,” which is again about characters with a dream and a hope. Our movie could have been about basketball, but it happens that their thing is hip-hop. In another era, it might have been boxing, and I also showed “Raging Bull.”

    One of the things that really fascinated me about the potential of this material was to go into this whole thing of freestyle [rap] battling, which I knew about but had never seen. I loved the notion of these people using words as weapons instead of fists, especially when you know about our failed school systems and all that. The fact that they’re rhyming the words and doing it to a beat and doing it under time pressure and improvising… I mean, the dexterity of it is just so impressive. At a certain point somebody said to me, “This seems so completely different than anything you’ve done.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute, ‘Wonder Boys’ was all about characters who loved words. Characters who exist in a different class.”

    Q. As a Baby Boomer, you’re not a member of the hip-hop generation. Were you a fan of the music before starting this film?

    A. I knew hip-hop, but not in any way was I an aficionado. I knew Eminem and the broad-strokes people—Tupac [Shakur] and Biggie [Smalls]. There were things I liked and things I didn’t like. It really interested me culturally, though, and the reaction to it over the last decade, the way in which it stirred so many of the things that were reminiscent of what rock ‘n’ roll stirred—fear and negativity and the intent to ignore it or write it off as something that was noise or something that would go away quickly. In the development, after I got the original script that Brian Grazer developed and then committed to do it, my number-one thing was to try and be truthful to the world that this movie would take an audience into. As I started exploring that world, the first thing that I came to the conclusion of was that this movie had to be moved from the present to the past. And even though 1995 is not very long ago in real years, in hip-hop and pop culture, it’s a long time ago.

    The whole idea of the character being white and exploring this world that he has a voice in obviously is better in 1995 in that time when hip-hop was already big but had not exploded across our entire culture. And I also loved the fact that while our characters were battling and using words to battle, on the national scene, on the airwaves and on disc, you had the east coast/west coast battle in the personas of Tupac and Biggie, and for people who knew, you knew that this time was about to change forever as words were replaced by guns.

    Q. Did Grazer write the script with Eminem in mind? Because this movie will be perceived for better or worse as “the Eminem story.”

    A. It’s an interesting thing: The idea was not about Eminem. Grazer first wanted to develop a script in that world, then he hit on Eminem as the guy. Scott Silver, the writer was hired to [re-]write the script, his goal was to attempt to be truthful to that world, and it is the world from which Eminem comes, so naturally there are places where it overlaps his life. I mean, it all takes place in a week, so it isn’t like a biography. But it certainly overlaps his life and it overlaps the lives of anybody else that came from that world, though nobody came from it in quite the way that he did.

    Q. The thing that I liked about best about the movie is the verisimilitude of that world. But as a critic, I find Eminem to be a troubling figure. Yes, he is undeniably talented. But it’s disappointing how little he does with his music on an artistic level, beyond cheap shock and easy sensationalism.

    A. I have two answers for that. First of all, I love that you used the word “verisimilitude.” The first question that faced me in terms of deciding whether or not to make this movie was, “Could the script be further developed to deal with all these themes in a really interesting way?” And then number two, “Could Eminem play the part and be sufficiently good that he could carry a movie in which he’s in literally every scene?” The interesting thing is that the answer to both questions came out of getting to know him and Detroit. The original script, while it said Detroit, was very vague. But the more I spent time in Detroit, the more I talked with him about the world he came from, and the more committed I became that this movie had to be done in Detroit.

    Q. You really got Detroit right. I spent a lot of time there researching a book, and the things that struck me about the city were the racial divide—the movie’s title comes from 8 Mile Road, which separates “white” Detroit from the “black” inner-city—and the sort of self-deprecating but defiant attitude that both races share: “Yeah, this place is a hellhole, but we’re damn proud of it!”

    A. You got it! You got it in spades! While we were shooting, naturally, the political types were all worried: “Everywhere you’re going looks s----y, why don’t you show the Renaissance Center?” But what I found interesting was the life experience of the people in Detroit: Yes it’s grim, and yes it’s discouraging in certain ways, but the people have such spirit that it’s incredibly inspiring. I tried to capture that as the spirit of the movie, because I think it is really uplifting. And I think that the racial thing in Detroit, again, is really interesting and thought-provoking. Aside from being a “black city,” there was almost an absence of attitude [about race] that we all found really welcoming. As [the character] Future says [to Eminem] at the beginning of the movie, “They’re not laughing at you ’cause you’re wack, they’re laughing ’cause you’re white with a mike. But once they hear you, it won’t matter what color you are.” To me, that is such a positive statement: This is not about black against white, but it’s about people who are all of the same class.

    Q. However, other parts of the movie play as revisionism. Jimmy Iovine, the head of Eminem’s record company, couldn’t have scripted a better scene to redeem him in the public view than the scene where he rushes to the defense of a gay co-worker. In fact, if you listen to Eminem’s lyrics, he has been guilty of saying some horrible things about gay people. Fans talk about his lyrical skills, but as a critic, I long for him to write about something real and important instead of hurling easy and hateful insults.

    A. I completely agree with you. When people start comparing him to Dylan or whatever, I go, “Well, wait a minute: He needs to expand beyond his personal thing.” But, in his defense, the little that he does is more than anybody else in the pop scene is doing, and my hope is—and this is personal, because I like him—that he will evolve into a wider worldview.

    Eminem for me is unimportant. What was important to me was Marshall Mathers, the actor, in my movie, and could he play the part. At the beginning, a lot of people went, “Wait a minute, what are you doing hooking up with this guy?” My feeling was, “If he can play this part, then the audience will invest in him and then Eminem and Slim Shady will be irrelevant.” And truthfully, I think my having that attitude was the beginning of the foundation of trust between the two of us. Because at the time that I was checking him out, he was clearly checking me out, too. I made it very clear to him that my interest in telling the story was not based on having Eminem in it. Eminem was a question mark to me, and he liked that, because he also made it clear to me that he had no interest in being in “an Eminem movie,” a two-hour video where he would just kind of cruise along being Slim Shady. He wanted to play a part in a really good movie. That’s what I satisfied myself with–that and the fact that I also needed to know would he apply himself with the same dedication to this that he applies obviously to his music.

    Q. As someone who’s a judge of good acting, could Eminem have played a completely different role, like one of the characters in “Wonder Boys”? Because the great debate in pop music is how much of what we see in public is this character Eminem, how much is his alter ego Slim Shady, and how much is the “real” Marshall Mathers.

    A. Well, that’s a legitimate question, if one is saying, “What is his potential future as an actor?” To me, he really delivers in this movie, and I hope it will be acknowledged that he does. At the same time, though, I’m well aware that through the history of movies, many of the best actors were underrated at the time because people thought, “Oh, they’re just playing themselves.” Versatility is not necessarily the key to what I think of as great movie acting. Playing yourself—or appearing to play yourself, appearing to have no technique—is in fact the hardest thing to do, and it gives the audience the strongest emotional connection. John Wayne for instance does that. Humphrey Bogart does that; Clint Eastwood does that. Does it matter that if they try to do something to show versatility, maybe they’re not as adept at it as, let’s say, Olivier was? To me that doesn’t matter. I think asking Marshall to play somebody from a completely different class, like when you compare him to the Robert Downey, Jr. role in “Wonder Boys”—well, Downey couldn’t play Jimmy Rabbit. But if somebody today was making a remake of “The Great Escape,” and you were dealing with P.O.W.’s from various places in America, [Eminem] could definitely be one of those guys. He doesn’t have to rap to do his thing.

    Q. But Eminem has created such a larger than life persona, it eclipses his art. I’m sure it’s going to be problem when this movie is judged, just like it is when his music is judged.

    A. I don’t know. We’ve had a couple of screenings now, and one of them was in New York, and I attended and afterwards did a Q&A. One of the women there stood up and as part of her question she said, “I have to tell you first, I hate everything about Eminem. I didn’t want to see this movie, but I found him absolutely captivating. My kids are going to be so stunned when I tell them that I loved this movie.” And I said, “Maybe you shouldn’t tell them, because it may turn them off!”

    All I can say is, in terms of holding the screen, that ability is not my creation; that’s God-given. Neither I nor any director can give that to somebody.

    Q. Well, no one ever said Eminem is not charismatic. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have the vice-president’s wife attacking him.

    A. There you go! What I can do with him or any actor is put a frame around it and help people see it better. But the other thing I found in spending time with him is that I liked him, and had I not liked him, I wouldn’t have wanted to go down this road with him. One of the things that actually appealed to me about this movie is that there was a director named Don Siegel of whom I was a great fan, and he was one of my sponsors when I joined the Director’s Guild a long time ago. He directed Elvis in one of his first movies, “Flaming Star.” When I heard Eminem was doing this, I thought, “That’s kind of a cool tip of the hat to Don.” But on a more serious level, I as a movie fan have always wondered what would have happened if Elvis Presley, instead of following Col. Parker’s wishes, would have really given his all to acting? Elvis could have been really good, and just on a personal level, it might well have changed his entire life if he’d gotten into something that he could have developed and improved at as he’d gotten older. Imagine if he was starring opposite Barbara Streisand in “A Star Is Born.”

    Q. I gather that at one point, the movie was originally a bit like Prince’s “Purple Rain,” with half a dozen original Eminem songs and some animated Slim Shady sequences. Those are gone now, there’s just the freestyle rap battling, and the new Eminem track “Lose Yourself” over the closing credits.

    A. I don’t know of another movie where you actually see a character struggling to write, to find his voice, hear fragments of what he’s composing, and at the end of the movie hear the full-blown version of it. The song that he wrote at the end of the movie, I had the miraculous one-two combination of Bob Dylan [contributing to the soundtrack] on “Wonder Boys,” and now Eminem on this, and he worked on that song for months while we were shooting this movie, because it was very difficult for him. His whole thing is writing about his life and writing his character, and what I wanted him to do was write a song that Jimmy would have written. Ultimately what he did was both. He wrote about Jimmy in the third person, and then he turns it around to himself, which is perfect for the end titles. It carries us in to a whole other thing.

    One last thing in terms of music that you might be interested in is the battling. None of that was scripted. Through the rehearsal process, six weeks and then through the course of shooting, Eminem and I talked about what the [raps] needed to do to move the story along and to speak to the character, including defending the gay guy. And then what happened was Marshall wrote all of those lyrics, and his opponents wrote theirs. We also employed a well-known freestyler named Craig G., and I would give him specifics and he would construct some lyrics and I would give them to the other actors to work on them, and then Marshall threw in his two cents as well.

    My goal was to very much thread a needle—on the one hand to make a movie that hip-hop fans found entertaining, and at the same time tell it in such a way so truthfully that that woman, someone who dislikes hip-hop, might come out not necessarily a fan of it, but understanding it and the emotion that gave voice to it. If something speaks artfully of an emotional truth, that truth will connect with people and transcend the borders from which it came.