Drazan's mother died when he was young. He and his younger brothers went to live with his father, who worked in the family business with Drazan's grandfather. While these events are all recaptured in the film, Drazan hates to see the material typed as autobiographical. "It moves out of real life and into something else very quickly," he says.
Still, real life often intrudes. Much of the inspiration for Dee, Zach's best friend in the film, comes from Drazan's childhood buddy Doug, who was also black. In Drazan's youth, the south shore of Long Island was a melting pot, with Italians, Jews and African-Americans all living in close proximity.
"That's where the movie's really set," he says. "It's in that world where the affluent suburbs are next door to the inner city, so all the kids are thrown together."
The film bug didn't hit Drazan until he went off to college at the University of North Carolina. He spent a year doing theater workshops with inmates at a nearby prison, helping them act out dramatic experiences from their lives.
After graduating, Drazan got a job at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. He wasn't writing plays; he was selling T-shirts.
"I was totally irresponsible," he recalls. "All I did was watch films. Finally, my boss fired me. She said she was doing me a favor because I should be doing something more creative."
Drazan took the hint and went to New York University's Graduate Film School, where one of his classmates was Spike Lee. "Spike was on a different trajectory," he says with customary modesty. "He was a laser, heat-seeking missile. I was a pre-nuclear war device."
Later, when Lee made "Jungle Fever," his interracial-romance tract, Drazan made a wise decision--he refused to see it.
"Spike and I'd gone to ballgames together, we'd shared an editing bench. I knew myself well enough to know that if I saw it. . . ."
Drazan wags his head. "It would've wreaked havoc on my thought processes. Who knows what would've happened?"
Drazan had written a first draft of "Zebrahead" in 1987, setting it in the '70s, his high school years. After rethinking the script in a writer's lab at Sundance Institute, he made the story more contemporary.
To tap into today's hip-hop consciousness, Drazan hung out at several New York-area high schools, armed with a video camera. He sat in on classes, asked kids about their friendships and their families, gathering a wealth of new material.
One day, an aspiring rapper named DeShonn Castle took him aside to show off his rhymes. Impressed, Drazan took his number. Nearly two years later, ready to shoot the picture, Drazan hired him to play Dee.
Except for the adult roles, which include Ray Sharkey as Zach's dad and Candy Ann Brown as Nikki's mom, most of the featured parts are handled by newcomers. Ron Johnson, who plays Nut, is an aspiring L.A. rapper who heard about auditions on a local radio station. N'Bushe Wright, who plays Nikki, was a dancer from New York's High School for the Performing Arts.
Even the film's star, Michael Rappaport, who plays Zach, was barely scraping by as a stand-up comic. "Michael claims to have been an actor, but I don't think he'd really done much," Drazan says. "He's a big, awkward kid and the producers had their doubts--they wanted someone more classically handsome.
"But I held out for him, and I think his street-smart naivete was just right for the part."
"Zebrahead's" biggest challenge will be at the box office. In recent years, independent films have had trouble competing with major studio releases for the young urban audience, especially when studio films come armed with stars like Steven Seagal or Wesley Snipes.
To grab attention, Triumph's trailer leads with the movie's biggest drawing card--executive producer Oliver Stone--while playing up the soundtrack's hip-hop beat. The provocative tag line: "It's about change. It's about time."
Triumph Releasing chief David Saunders says the company has earmarked $2.8 million to promote the film--more than the $2.5 million it cost to make. Much of the marketing money has gone into a major sneak-screening campaign geared to build word of mouth in high school and college circles.
"We spent a lot more money than we'd normally spend," Saunders says. "But I think the film really taps into kids' consciousness. And when you do that, word spreads incredibly fast. Kids know when a movie's for real."
Unfortunately, the soundtrack album, which should be out at least a month ahead of the film to build awareness, still hasn't hit the record stores. Saunders says it's due any day, but its delay is making Drazan nervous.
Noting that both Triumph and RuffHouse Records are Sony-owned subsidiaries, Drazan laments: "I guess this is one time when the fabled Sony synergy hasn't happened."
Drazan and a reporter are lingering over lunch, sipping coffee, when a tall black man in a dashiki enters the restaurant. He comes over to check out these two white guys--curious, very formal, perhaps a little chilly.