There are never any sure bets in Hollywood, especially when it comes to biopics about game-changing, history-making people. If you can think about all the horrible biopics we’ve seen in recent years, you can imagine the level of anxiety that must have surrounded the major theater release of Straight Outta Compton in August. Not just from the people who made the film, but from the fans who wanted so badly for this film to be epic.
Now a month after its release, we can celebrate on many levels. Not only is Straight Outta Compton a certified box office hit with three weeks at #1 and over $180 million grossed so far worldwide, making it the highest grossing music biopic of all time. But most importantly, the majority of NWA fans and film critics alike have given this movie the word of mouth that ensures classic status.
When I interviewed SOC producer Bill Straus recently, I was as reluctant to rush the interview out as I was to review the movie. I needed to read every bit of love and criticism on the film first, and absorb all the emotions and nostalgic vibes that flowed through me after seeing it. This is a film that is bigger than Hip Hop. It is a truly inspiring story of young men who were born into what could have been the American nightmare, yet achieved the American dream despite all odds.
But the one thing this film needed to be a true masterpiece was the music of NWA, and Bill Straus played a major role in bringing that to the table. Read on as Straus, who is now a film sales agent, speaks on the long journey to get all the right elements together from day one.
As a producer, how important was it for you to make sure everything was authentic as it could be? Who do you credit for getting things correct?
Bill Straus: I think you’ve got to credit F. Gary Gray, and I’m sure [Ice] Cube and [Dr.] Dre… and the music supervisor played a role as well. But a lot of that stuff was on point. My involvement really was less with the making of the movie, and more early stages where the movie was sort of realized from the beginning. I don’t want to sit here and pretend like I’m the one responsible for how good the movie is. To some extent I think there is a very real argument that they couldn’t have done it without me, I don’t even think it’s an argument.
People who know who were around at the beginning know, but I loved the movie and I think they did a phenomenal job. It was really F. Gary Gray, Cube, and Dre driving the boat creatively along with [cinematographer Matthew Libatique. I was very excited to see my name on it after I saw it.
When it comes time for you to put your own money or effort into a film, what is a part of the criteria that is important to you?
BS: To give you some background, I started as a writer, then studio executive, then a producer, and now I’m a sales agent. It’s unusual that I’ve done so many things. Now on the indie film side, I’m in New York and really in the mix with the young new gritty Brooklyn-y filmmakers, which I love being in. But there was a time when I first got involved in this when I was in the Hollywood studio world when I was in L.A.
Now what I do is go to film festivals, and I represent films at all the big North American film festivals from Toronto to Sundance, to SXSW to Tribeca. For me it always starts with a really talented director, and I’m really interested in finding the guys who are F. Gary Gray when he made Friday. That’s kinda where I’m at these days, finding guys at the very beginning of their career.
Really most of my day now is finding those films and selling them to the different independent distributors. My thing is I’m super boutique, I’m super territorial, I don’t do too many films. Most sales agents take on a lot of films, I don’t take on a lot. My claim to fame with Compton is it got submitted to me. This incarnation of the NWA story – because there were many that people tried – starts by getting submitted to me, and I think it was submitted to me for a reason. Not just for the old school, New York background or some of the stuff I was trying to do at New Line. I was always kinda in that fusion of Hip Hop and film. I think people thought I did smart stuff, and that I could do something that was street and elevated.
This is one of the great Hip Hop films ever made, and that’s what I always strive for. I think that’s consistent in the stuff with sales even. I’m attracted to what I believe to be greatness. I’m also not above a really dumb, but really funny comedy. I love dumb comedies too.
At what point as a producer do you look at your finished work say “This is a perfect thing”? Do you have harsh critiques over your own product?
BS: Having been on the studio side for awhile, it’s a typical battle between the producers/director and the studio about the running time, and [Straight Outta Compton]did come in initially much longer. That’s not unusual. Maybe at some point you’ll see the Director’s Cut on a DVD. I never thought to myself “this is too long” – I could have sat there for another 20 or 30 minutes.
My involvement with the movie is mostly from 2004 to 2006 and then more peripherally from 2006 to 2011, and then really not so involved at all other than having my name on the movie. However what I did was profound, and I don’t think it would ever happen without me and a couple of other people that I was working with. I don’t want to act like I was part of the process of the actually making of the film at Universal. I did hang out on set. They were really cool to me. They flew me out for the premiere and are treating me really good and I’m really happy my name is on the movie. My name deserves to be on the movie, but the actual making of the film.
Tell us about your journey in the early stages.
BS: I was a new producer and just left New Line and was working with a company called Circle of Confusion. They were a management production Company. At the time they were known for representing the Wachowski Brothers. The Matrix had recently come out. This was like their new West Coast division that they just opened. It was me and three other young manager/producers guys who were working out of there. The film was submitted to me by a very young manager from a small agency. He sent me the script that was written by two documentarians who are not writers from within the Hollywood systems by any means, and I read it and thought it was great.
Then I went to Sundance just a couple of weeks later, and I was staying with all of the people with Spike Lee’s company 40 Acres and a Mule. I said to my good friend at 40 Acres “Look, I just got this really interesting script about NWA.” And he said, “Ah man don’t waste your time. We tried to do that, everybody’s tried to do that. The widow Tomica will not give up the rights.” I don’t have the substantiated fact wise but what I heard through the grapevine that people like Cube, Jerry Heller, Imagine Entertainment, and Spike all tried to get the rights from Tomica and no one was able to.
So I had lunch with the writer, who happened to be at Sundance because he was a documentarian, and I said “Look, this is all well and good. I like the script, but I think it’s a non-starter. That’s what I’m hearing.” The writer said, “Well look I just did this movie about Suge Knight called Welcome to Death Row, and I met some people who might be able to get us some people who might be able to get us to some people who can get us to Tomica.”
It was at that point that I went to David Engel at Circle and said “What do you think? Should we do this?” He was into it and I think it’s a story within itself, especially if it becomes a great American film like you’re saying. We had like a war room. Like who leads to Madeline, who is the engineer to Alonzo. to blah blah blah to Tomica. For two years, Leigh [Savidge] would go out and met with people, and he would do these exhaustive interviews and then he would come back, we would go over the notes, add the noted to the script, and we just kept refining and getting closer and closer to her.
This took two years and [Tomica] was like the white whale from Moby Dick. She was like this untouchable thing. I think after Eazy died she inherited a lot of money, and a lot of people come at her. So she was very guarded with people and distrustful. From 2004-2015 we’d seen her change allegiances a few times. There’s a reason for it, and I think it’s because a lot of people try to take advantage of her. What we did is we got the script to where we knew she would be receptive to it based on the treatment of Eazy.
Probably a year and a half into it, we got her the script and she freaking loved it. And then it was the process of her and Leigh kind of bonding and then she came into our office after two years and she was very guarded at first. For the first hour, it was was hard to break down the walls, but it ended up being a three hour meeting. She took off her shoes, she cried, it was like we were old friends by the end of it.
Sometime later, we took the script to the New Line studio, my old company. I was very instrumental in the sale. I heard through the grapevine that when they told the president there that we had a script with NWA’s music rights along with Tomica attached, he was like “bullshit!” He didn’t believe it. He came from out of the music business, so he said “But if they really do, get it.” And that was 2006.
From 2006-2010, the day they bought it they said, “We gotta bring in Cube and Dre to make the movie.” Dre took a long time to come into the fold. He didn’t really come into the fold until a couple of years ago, but Cube was on it immediately and from that point he and his partner Matt Alvarez became the alpha producers. Normally that’s kinda fucked up, because the guys who do all the work that we did should enjoy that position on a film. This was a case where there were two rare things. One, the movie was about them, but the rare [second]thing was they happened to be prominent Hollywood film producers who knew more about film producing than we did.
For my part, I’m really glad the way the whole thing ended up working out because I was able to move back [to New York]and get into what I’m doing now which I really like. I’m over the moon about the whole freaking thing. They did an amazing job.
How were the scenes between Eazy and Jerry Heller interpreted when really it was just the two of them in the room, and no one really is ever going to know exactly what was said?
BS: Well, Leigh and Alan [Wenkus] extensively interviewed Heller. The difference between what the movie is and what it became was the script that we sold was much more focused on Eazy, and in particular the Eazy/Jerry relationship. I think it’s much better with the way they made it about the three of them. There’s a lot of stuff in there that was never in the original script. In particular, the Eazy stuff has remained fairly constant with the earlier script. All the stuff added by Dre and Cube wasn’t in there before. I’m sure Eazy told them a lot of it too though.
What is your ultimate goal for this film?
BS: I think I want it to be this really memorable film. Of course I want it to make money and win awards, but I want it to be a seminal film, like all the great movies that people remember for their lives. For me those movies are like Rocky, Goodfellas, Menace II Society, Boyz N the Hood…movies that have become part of the popular conscious, not just over the span of that year, but that span decades. That’s what I want for it. I don’t think I’m far off in thinking that’s possible. I think it’s probably gonna be on my epitaph, so I want it to be important. I want it to be a contribution to the cultural quilt.
Follow Bill Straus on Twitter @StrausBill