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Selling Out Was the Deal Breaker

USC grad Rick Famuyiwa feels lucky to be in demand again after his star quickly rose and fell in Hollywood.

July 11, 1999|DAVID WEDDLE | David Weddle is the author of "If They Move . . . Kill Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah," published by Grove Press. He profiled Rick Famuyiwa for the L.A. Times Magazine in March 1997

Rick Famuyiwa steps into the marble-lined entryway of Pangaea, a restaurant on the first floor of the Hotel Nikko on La Cienega Boulevard. A couple of patrons glance up from their breakfast plates; the 6-foot-4 26-year-old is a quietly commanding presence. Famuyiwa scans the room uncertainly, then forges ahead, past leather booths filled with executives in crisp business suits.

He slides into the booth, pushes back the brim of his black baseball cap, picks up the menu and looks over the breakfast items. They start at $9 for pancakes and work their way up to a "Japanese Breakfast," which includes grilled fish, poached eggs and dried seaweed, for $24. Famuyiwa shakes his head and smiles.

"Three years ago, if you told me I would be sitting here today at the whatever restaurant talking to the Los Angeles Times about my first feature film, I would have had you committed. Of course, this is exactly what I set out to do, but when it actually happens it's weird, because you prepare yourself to be disappointed.

"To have it happen, just as you envisioned in your wildest fantasies, is just incredible. I feel extremely lucky."

The film is "The Wood," which Famuyiwa wrote and directed for MTV Films and Paramount Pictures; it opens Friday on more than 1,000 screens nationwide, and Paramount's sending him on a nine-city tour to promote it. If the movie's reception meets MTV and Paramount's high expectations, Famuyiwa will inevitably be portrayed as an overnight success story, another USC film school whiz kid--a la George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and John Singleton--who scored a hit movie at a major studio before the ink on his diploma had dried.

But in the three years since he graduated from USC, Famuyiwa has already ridden the Hollywood roller coaster from hot property to yesterday's news and back again, and developed a healthy wariness for the seductive but dangerous embrace of what Jack Kerouac called "the bitch-goddess" of success.

Four years ago, Famuyiwa made a 12-minute film titled "Blacktop Lingo" as his senior project for USC's film school. "Lingo" was an audacious, hilarious and poignant slice-of-life portrait of the characters who congregate around a public basketball court in Inglewood. The film had a powerful ring of truth because Famuyiwa had grown up there and spent countless hours playing ball on its public courts.

The movie caught the eye of Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute, and she selected it to be screened at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.

"Lingo" stirred up a flurry of attention, including a Los Angeles Times Magazine profile, and Famuyiwa quickly landed an agent. Over the next two years he attended dozens of meetings with development executives at most of Hollywood's major production companies. Everyone was eager to shake hands with an obviously talented young black filmmaker. But when Rick gave them screenplays or pitched them story ideas that, like "Lingo," focused on facets of middle-class, African American life rarely glimpsed in mainstream Hollywood movies, the executives sank into a glazed-eyed torpor.

"They just weren't interested in dramas that raised racial issues," Famuyiwa says.

Instead, the suits suggested he come up with something "broader" and "more accessible"--say something in the vein of "House Party" or "Booty Call." Little by little, he made adjustments and compromises and tried to create stories that might interest them.

Finally, one afternoon in the winter of 1996, Famuyiwa found himself sitting in the office of a development executive, pitching a story about "Willie Popcorn," a modern-day Don Quixote obsessed with the "blaxploitation" stars of the '70s. In the middle of his pitch, Famuyiwa suddenly thought to himself: "What am I doing?" He had started out to make movies that would redefine the way blacks were portrayed, and now here he was pitching an absurd, cliche-ridden yarn he didn't even want to make.

"It's insidious how Hollywood warps your values without you even realizing that it's happening to you," Famuyiwa says. "You get a little whiff of success and it whets your appetite, and before you know it you're going right down the road they've laid out for you. And you justify it. You say, 'Well, you know, if I just fudge a little bit on this one, then maybe it'll buy me the opportunity to do my own kind of film next time.'

"Then when that pitch doesn't sell, you say to yourself, 'Well, maybe I'll go a little further this time. It's only one script.' And the next thing you know you're completely lost."


But Famuyiwa was determined to find himself again. He stopped taking meetings and sat down and began writing a new script, one that felt more real. He called it "The Wood." It was about his own life--what it was like to go to high school in Inglewood in the '80s and the close friendships he formed with two other boys as he made the awkward transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

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