Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the man who showed us what a real house party and pajama jammy jam were like.
The man who helped turn Eddie Murphy into a romantic lead, a writer, director, producer who’s worked in TV film award shows, documentaries, comic books, and produced the Oscar nominated Django Unchained. Yes, it’s Reginald Hudlin. Mr. Evans film education began at Harvard despite the fact that the elite Ivy League institution wasn’t particularly interested in having their students create mainstream films.
Reginald Hudlin: Harvard is kind of embarrassed to have any arts programs at all. So they have the thing called visual and environmental studies. And it’s like honors only you have to have a certain GPA, even be in the program.
And it’s multidisciplinary. So you study film, photography, graphic arts, architecture – it’s actually a really good program. Right. But they really just did documentary film. Like Ross McElwee was like, my favorite professor, and he makes really interesting documentaries that you should see. And I said, I want to make a fiction film.
And they were all, no no no. In my whole our whole year, we were kind of rebels. Like, my same year with Johnathan Mostow who did Breakdown and U-571, you know, it was a bunch of us. We all eventually kind of made our way to Hollywood. And I think they changed the rules and make sure that would never happen again.
That was that was a bad batch of Hollywood hacks instead of suffering for their art. What was that about?
So but, yeah, I did a short film of House Party and like a 20 minute thesis. I mean, I get the idea.
I mean, make a Shrek movie that I can see.
And I look I can tell a story of why his classmate, Jonathan Mostow went on to direct you U-571, Terminator 3, and the terrific Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown.
Eric Conner: Reginald Hudlin clearly had the talent to also succeed in this industry. He just needed to be in the room where it happened.
Reginald Hudlin: I wrote a script that I worked in advertising, I taught. Whatever kind of job you give me access to equipment so I could just keep making little things. And then She’s Gotta Have It came out. And certainly there was a window of opportunity. And I went to a party at Nelson George’s house. So everyone was there, like Russell Simmons was there. He was getting ready to make Tup at 11. I was like, oh, please, let me direct Tup at 11. Was like some kid from Harvard. Beat it. What do you know about hip hop? And then. And then Spike was there. And then I got this script for the Otis Redding story. I don’t want to do it, but I told em they should call you. Yes, I called them on Sunday. I had no idea what I was doing. So they called me back and said, we don’t wanna do the Otis Redding story. But we did double the Janet Jackson and The Time except The Time they had big hit records. And you’re both like, well, who are either of them? And that was my first professional job, like writing that script, which went nowhere. But I made enough money from writing that script to buy a computer. And on that computer, I wrote the spec script for House Party as a feature, and I was prepared to make it independently. And then an exec at new line called and said, I saw your little short. And do you have a movie? Yes, I do.
Yeah. I mean, opportunity is a cubic millimeter that does this (gestures), right?
So when that happens, do you feel you’re ready to jump through or I’ve got to put my sneakers on? Window open.
Oh, I’m in my drawers? Window closed. I sleep with your clothes on – there’s the window!
Eric Conner: This successive house party led to Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy, Ladies Man, countless TV projects and becoming president of entertainment for BET. And then a few years ago, Quentin Tarantino made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Reginald Hudlin: I’ve been friends for a long time and I mean over 15 years. And when you’re friends with Quentin, you’re talking about movies. Big surprise.
And one night he was at the Oscar Party. We got on the topic of slave films, and I expressed how I hate it, pretty much all of it.
And they were all movies about being victims. And for me, there was only one great movie about slavery.
It was called Spartacus.
Clip: Spartacus. I’m Spartacus.
Reginald Hudlin: And until there was a movie like that about the American experience, I just wasn’t interested.
And we kind of kept going back forth, back and forth. And I said, look, I get it.
And those movies you’re mentioning, they were made with the best intentions in the world, but from my personal satisfaction, I rather see Fred Williamson and The Legend of Nigger Charlie. And that’s not a movie anyone in this room has seen. I said, you know the truth, that I can’t remember frame of the The Legend of Nigger Charlie. They could try. So when I was a kid. So when it came out in the theater. But I remember how it made me feel. Made me feel great. And I just thought, well, why can’t I feel like that? So that was just a conversation. You know, we have them all the time.
And, you know, again, one of the nice things about being a friend of Quentin is you get invited to the editing room to see the movie when it’s still ninety nine but not a hundred percent finished or get to read his new script. So he calls me last April and says, hey, it’s a publication day party, you know, having a bunch of friends over come by, get the new script. Great.
So come over and I see friends and he hands me the script and goes, you plant the seed.
This is the tree.
So I then went home, read the script and kept calling, calling, you read it, you read it, . Yeah. What do you think. I really love it. Really. I really love it. You have notes. Yeah, I have notes. So we like talked with all my notes. Yes. All those are good notes. Thank you. Glad to help. Can’t wait to see the movie. Oh no, no, no, no. This one we’re we’re you know, we’re doing this one together really at this point.
I was like Yeah, right. I know.
I talked to Stacy Sher. Everyone thinks a great idea for you to be on board. So three days later, we’re meeting with studios and a week after that, we were in Louisiana scouting locations of that.
Eric Conner: Quentin apparently, has the fastest green lights in all of Hollywood. When Mr. Tarantino decides he’s going to do a movie, it happens. Though he collaborates really well, his writing remains a solo journey.
Reginald Hudlin: Quentin just writes alone, and the only person who is aware of the screenplay being developed was Pilar Savone of all of the three producers, because she you know, she works with Quentin all the time. Stacey And I did not know we were going to be involved until the night of that party. But, you know, so we read it and we loved it. And then, you know, we would just talk about it. We would talk about the content of the script endlessly. You know, he and I had long conversations talking with the actors and, you know, you know, Quentin says, you know, he writes a novel and then he adapts as a novel every day. You know that you deal with the reality of the location. And like, you know, do you get a new idea? Is that impractical or shall we merge it? And he also shoots in what he calls the emotional order, which is not quite continuity order, but who he likes to shoot key scenes in a certain way. So he can decide where he needs more or less as he makes those nips and tucks every day. Absolutely. He’s the maestro on the set. You know, he’s the boss, but he’s very sensitive and listens to his actors and to everyone on the set.
He’s he’s taking input from everyone and processing it, you know, in his own way.
Eric Conner: Even though Reginald Hudlin has known him for years and collaborated closely with him on Django, he still is not quite sure how his friend comes up with his remarkable ideas.
Reginald Hudlin: He’s a genius, and the genius is never more evident than his writing. We don’t talk. This is still a lot about the technical side of his writing. Other than, you know, he’s a self educated guy. All right. I mean, he dropped out. I don’t know at what point. But there’s certainly no college degree going on. But he’s smarter than almost anyone I know.
And he has read so much and seen so much and written so much. He has written books of film criticism on his favorite authors that just sit there.
They are not published. He just writes them as an exercise. So he understands craft thoroughly. He knows it so well. He knows when to abide by the rules and he knows when to break the rules.
And it’s all done with full knowledge of the one thing I do know is that he doesn’t work from an outline. He comes up with themes and ideas and characters like he wrote the opening scene of this film. You know, where Schultze rides up and, you know, and encounters the chain gang.
Clip: My good man. Did you simply get carried away with you? Dramatic gesture or you point to your weapon at me with lethal intention.
Last chance, fancy pants, very well.
Reginald Hudlin: And when he wrote that first scene, he knew he had to write the rest of the movie to find out what happened next. And that’s what’s amazing about him, is that he is master filmmaker and audience at the same time. Of all the magic tricks of Quentin Tarantino. To me, that is one of the greatest, that he’d never loses sight of that, because sometimes as we get caught up in whatever our technical craft tricks, we lose sight of the end goal, which is to rock the house. And he never does it. And, you know, he’s ruthless about never taking the easy way out. And that’s one of the reasons why the shoot out happened, because originally, you know, he was gonna get swarmed and knocked out and wake up. Hanging upside down. And he just thought, that’s kind of cheesy.
And when he was rehearsing the scene, Jamie said he has a well, what would you do?
Oh, you know, my man just died. I would go to him. Oh, you wouldn’t go to your wife cause, you know. You know, Jamie’s really big on protecting the love story aspect of the film, which is the heart of the film, is it? No, not in this moment. In this moment.
It’s about me and my best friend. And he said, really?
And that was really like the [snaps fingers]. Now I have to rethink everything. And, you know, and rethink everything means like, well, what would you do then? You would take his guy and you would do this. And you would. And but, you know, could you really get out? No, you couldn’t really get. I mean, you know, so he just played it through and he was not scared of throwing everything up in the air.
He’s always willing to surrender himself to the organic moment.
Eric Conner: In order to find these organic moments. Quentin Tarantino works tirelessly with his performers, all of whom are willing to give sweat, tears in blood for their performances in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio that last part turned out to be literal.
Reginald Hudlin: I wasn’t literally on the set when it happened, but it absolutely did happen. He had done the scene a hundred million times and that time the glass was a little off and his hand slam was a little more and it went down and it disintegrated the glass. I mean, he literally was like a magic trick. Like, poof. And all the teeny shards just went into his hand.
Clip: Now lay your palms flat on the table top! If you lift those palms off that turtle shell table top, Mr. Butch is gonna let loose with both barrels of that sawed off!
Reginald Hudlin: And I talked to him after it. I was like, So what were you thinking? And he was like, oh, I messed up. And then he was like, well, I just going to keep going to it. And then it was like, am I bleeding? Yeah, I’m bleeding.
I mean, he’s still doing the scene. He’s killing it. He’s got it. And then he goes, well, do I play it because I’m a ham? And he’s like. And then he started playing the blood.
And then he finished the take and the actors were just like in awe, you know, kind of like this split feeling of we want to applaud and we want to get you to a hospital.
And you can see when you look at the take later.
The actors are like, oh, right. And we took him to the hospital and came back. And because the blood was a pretty extreme thing, Quentin wasn’t sure if he wanted to play the blood or not. So from that point on, he shot everything both ways.
Eric Conner: With bloody hand, without bloody bloody hand, only deepened DiCaprio’s performance. It was a thrilling, dramatic moment for the audience. But when you’re trying to produce these blood soaked, organic moments of inspiration, it’s not so easy. But when making movies. Sometimes it’s necessary.
Reginald Hudlin: You know, it’s challenging because when he comes in and goes, you know, this scene is wrong.
I’m going to shut down for a day and let’s think about it. OK?
And then the next day comes back. You know what I need? I think we need to I think I need every stuntman, every, every stuntman. OK. Let’s get every stuntman man here. And that became the big shoot out scene that you saw that was not in that script.
Fortunately, at this point, my career, I’ve been at every point in the circle. I’ve been a writer and a director and a producer and an executive. I ran a network for several years. So a big part of it is literally understanding the other person’s problems, you know, because if you’re a jerk and you’re like, hey, man, we’re just doing our thing, you just got to deal with it.
Oh, you’re being a jerk.
So you have to say this is why this is going to work, how and how we’re going to manage it financially.
You know, you had to provide sanity in in a fundamentally insane business, you have to say there is sanity and reason going on here. We are not unreasonable people and everything we’re doing. I’ll be an unconventional is towards success. And we we want you to buy into our reasoning. And that’s today. I mean, look, a couple of times in my career, I’ve had eight hundred pound gorillas. I mean, when I directed the movie with Eddie Murphy, where it’s just like you said, you can’t have a helicopter. All right. OK.
So I was talking with Eddie when describing the scene, I didn’t have a helicopter. But it’s OK. We have this new idea. And I know you said you want a helicopter. Yeah, Eddie but it’s fine. I got a whole new ideas better. And he goes. Get him on the phone, OK. So the helicopter. And then what happens? Just because he’s just like, no, you you see if that’s what you originally wanted. You should have it. And, you know, Quentin is a guy with final cut. Quentin, a guy with one of the best track records in Hollywood. He’s just made nothing but hits. And he is ruthless in protecting his vision because he knows his artistic vision is what made all that other stuff happen. At the same time, he’s very aware of being a partner. And, you know, like he can’t just leave his partner’s high and dry. They are writing very large checks to make this happen. So our job is to facilitate that relationship and send those messages.
The fact is, when you’re a jerk – like in life, right, – when you are a jerk and you have all the leverage, then there’s those who were waiting for the window of opportunity.
Hey, you’re no longer in so high. You are close enough to stab.
Eric Conner: One collaborator who is close enough for the director to stab her to be a shoulder to cry on is the editor. And ever since his first movie, Quentin Tarantino had relied on the wonderful Sally Menke to his movies, to life. Unfortunately, she passed away before Django, forcing him to find another editor he would trust with his newest baby.
Reginald Hudlin: Well, I was the you know, losing Sally was a huge blow for us on every level. I mean, she was a wonderful human being. And, you know, you just look forward to being with her.
She was an extraordinary person, an extraordinary editor, deeply respected throughout the industry and a key key key part of his team.
So, you know, there was a lot of concern about, oh, hey, well, now what? What does that mean? So when he chose Fred, you know, everyone felt great. But I especially felt great because Fred was an assistant editor on Kill Bill. And that’s where we became friends because he’d be around. He seemed really cool. And then after, you know, a screening, kids pulled me aside and we’d have a comic book conversation. Again, you know, this is back when if you read comic books, you had to be in the closet about it. So, you know, you’re, you’re cool with Dennis? Yeah.
And so it’s like, oh, we share this secret important thing. So Fred and I were always really cool and I knew that Fred was ready for it. And, you know, Fred had gone on to become editor himself from one of the one of the two editors on the last Fast and Furious movie. And I had been building a great reputation. So there was a lot of, you know, concern because we had a very tight post-production schedule at to finish the movie in seven weeks. One hundred and thirty days worth of footage to be cut down in seven weeks.
And, you know, the challenge of now is getting a coherent story. But tone, tone, tone, tone. The biggest challenge in this film. Right. How to not shortchange the shocking nature of slavery. Right. To not undersell the horrors of the institution. At the same time, to make it a film that was watchable, even entertaining. Right. So it was a very short amount of time to do very delicate work. And Fred accomplished it. So, you know, an amazing, amazing piece of work.
Eric Conner: Fred Raskin’s accomplishments are all the more amazing considering the scope of this project, cutting even the lowest budget film in that timeframe is tough. But add the grandeur of Django and its many locations, and it is borderline miraculous.
Reginald Hudlin: Candyland we built interior and exterior what we went scouting and, you know, Don Johnson’s mansion we found. I think it may have been the first.
They had what’s called Plantation Road. They have all these preserved plantations and they’re all like a half hour from each other. So we went there and we just loved it right away. Like the double stairwell was just crazy. Ridiculous. This is perfect. Lincoln’s back yard.
So we’re just looking around and we’re trying to figure out how many different scenes from the movie could we shoot at one location without having to move. So we went to the back of the plantation, which was just huge sugar cane fields. And we were looking and looking around and I said, Quentin, look at that road, which is this big red dirt road that just went on, you know, into infinity. Isn’t that the road to Candyland?
And he said it is. And we said, well, let’s just build a mansion back here. Wow. And we knew we had to build it because we’re going to blow it up. Yeah.
Right? So you couldn’t use this real one. So we built the exterior there.
And then on soundstages in New Orleans, we built the interior. And we didn’t blow up the interiors. But by the last month, they were literally just drenched in blood. I was just like this huge – like working in a Jackson Pollock painting every day. I mean, there was no digital blood ever. All the blood you see is Tarantino red.
He has his own blood color. And you know, the same guys who do Walking Dead those are his effects guys. And almost all the effects are private so he just does blood just kept piling up, piling up. So you just were walking.
Eric Conner: When Django Unchained was released, the copious amounts of bloody carnage do not pose anywhere near as much controversy as the film’s language.
Reginald Hudlin: The language is strong, but for me, the linguistic violence is the least shocking, provocative things in the film. I mean, when the whole oh, my God, you we’ve kind of the number of times you say the word n*gger in the film, I’m like, did you see the movie?
Did you see the movie? That’s the first thing you want to talk about. You didn’t see a man get eaten by a dog.
Really? I don’t get that. That wouldn’t be the first thing I want to talk about.
But as I was saying earlier, the issue is you have to tell the truth about the subject.
You know, I mean, there are a lot of films about the Holocaust, which is good because I believe in what the Jewish community says, that we should never forget, that they should never forget this horror and they should draw strength from it and the world should never forget. So we can remember what we as human beings, what we’re all capable of doing. And slavery is a Holocaust. And shooting on a plantation is no different from shooting at Auschwitz. All right. So you have to be true to the horror of what you’re doing at the same time if you make this powerful statement that nobody wants to see if it’s a bad time at the movies – I mean, because at the end of the day, people work all week.
They work real jobs. So if you’re working at a car factory in Detroit – Okay – And you’ve got a day off and you’re going to spend thirty dollars on tickets plus popcorn, plus get a babysitter and all that stuff. Like you’re not paying to see the bad time you’re going to go see Taken 2.
I’m not knocking Taken 2 to a big on Takens.
So I’m saying at the end of the day, you have to make a movie that people want to see, especially if you’re trying to send a message. Right. So if those are your two goals, then everything else is execution
Eric Conner: For Reginald Hudlin, Django was one of the most special projects he ever worked on, even before its critical and box office success, thanks in no small part to how Quentin Tarantino would run his set.
Reginald Hudlin: He’s a big family guy. He loves shooting movies. His joy at what he does every day is radiant. And if you don’t feel that, say – I mean, you’ve got to be a Grinch not to have that kind of spirit. So you just, you know, every hundred reels, that’s a shot – you know, on the weekends, we convert one the soundstages to a screening room. He brings movies from his collection and we watch and we discuss. One of the best rules he has – and you guys can try this yourselves – it’s a it’s a bold move. There’s no electronics allowed on set. No phones, no laptops, no tablets, nothing.
Because his thing is like you don’t need to check your Facebook status in between takes.
We’re here to work. Let’s work. And it’s a withdrawal for a few days. And then you really have a great time because you’re focused on your job. And as one actress said in the film, I made friends on the set that never happened.
Talk to people.
So part of it. I mean, that keeps the spirit together. And the spirit is really key. You know, people need to feel that they’re doing something special and unique and different and that this is a unique experience.
And the other is to keep your eye on the ball. What is the movie? And a lot of times we would talk about that, you know, quit. And I would just go, really? Is is this the movie? Is this what’s important? You know, and we would talk about it sometimes. The answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Cause he can go down any rabbit hole and make it really entertaining. Right. But you’ll never get done. So you have to do is keep going back to finding the heart of the story.
And also, like you said, that’s a conversation. We all need checks and balances and that’s where the team comes in.
One of the saddest things about this movie, almost being over is that I have to go back to the real world because Quentin Land is spectacular. It’s this purely creative environment. It’s literally playing in the sandbox at the highest level of craftsmanship. You know, you’re on the set there. No studio executives there. There’s nothing. And anything goes as long as it makes the movie better.
Eric Conner: Like Reginald Hudlin, Tarantino is very much his own man and definitely has his own voice, which Mr. Hudlin encouraged our students to strive for as well in order to launch. Our own careers.
Reginald Hudlin: Tell the story that you want to tell as opposed to, you know, this is what’s commercial and this is what’s hot and now that kind of thing or what my friends like. What is your story from deep in your soul? Because you know what? This could be the last thing you ever make. This is your first movie. Could be your last movie. So, like, this is it. You make this movie and then you’re driving a taxi for the rest of your life. So like this is your epitaph for the twenty third century. And the second thing is, and this may be slightly contradictory to the first statement, is make the movie that isn’t being made, meaning that, you know, there’s so many copycats and kind of audition reels for Hollywood. And, you know, I’ve always for better, for worse, tried to zig when others have zagged. Right. You know, like, you know, when I first started making movies, you know, I was like, you know, Spike was doing his thing and John was doing his thing. And I was say, wow, I don’t want to make that kind of movie. I want to make like I want to make risky business.
And, you know, and from that impulse came house party, you know, so there’s an audience for everything. Right. So question is, where do you fit into the universe of things and what makes the audience want to see your movie versus everything else? A. It’s got to be from your heart because I feel like that sincerity and that integrity resonates through the screen, even through whatever flaws you may have in your filmmaking. They’ll feel you and make a movie that no one else is making. So you’re different. By your very nature.
Eric Conner: And just as important in helping to launch a career, remember to be nice.
You know, people talk about how short life is. Life is not short. Life is long. Life is really, really long.
And here’s the thing about life. People don’t die fast enough.
Like those people you don’t like. They’re still around. I’ve been in this business 20 years. Those mean so many of those people are still here.
So you have to conduct yourself with that knowledge because so many people didn’t. And like, I see them paying the price. And like, I’m always thinking to my parents for home training. Right. Just be a decent, reasonable, well-behaved person. It will really, really save you in ways you cannot imagine.
Eric Conner: With House Party and Boomerang, Reginald Hudlin helped usher in modern black cinema that managed to be both representational and universal.
Reginald Hudlin: To this day, I can still quote both those movies to death. And with Django Unchained, he has only continued on this path. We want to thank Mr. Hudlin for speaking with our students in the middle of his Oscar campaign season.
Eric Conner: And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter , c0-moderated by me Eric Conner. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&As check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.