Interview: Neil Drumming of Big Words
For years, Neil Drumming was a successful journalist, most notably writing for Entertainment Weekly. Now, he’s jumped to the world of film. Set in Brooklyn on the night of Barack Obama’s first election, Drumming’s directorial debut, Big Words, is about three former friends (they were in a semi-successful hip-hop group in the ’90s but had a falling-out) who are so caught up in the “old days” that they can’t focus on the present and the future. I chatted with Neil during the Frameline Film Festival back in June about the process of making the film, not wanting to cast rappers, not having a political agenda, whether nostalgia is a bad thing or not, and more.
Big Words is on tour now and plays tonight at the Houston Museum of African-American Culture.
For more dates and information, visit affrm.com/big-words
Let’s talk a bit about your background. You worked at Entertainment Weekly…
Yeah, I did that for six years, and it reminded me of why I went to film school. I went to film school at USC, but I never pursued film after I graduated.
Intimidation. Fear. I didn’t have any money. I was in California—I’m from New York—and I didn’t have a good support structure there. I had my friends, but they were just potheads who rapped, and I didn’t make friends with film school kids. My personality just didn’t work out that way. When I graduated I had a film school degree in writing, but I had no way of making a movie. I ended up moving back to the east coast. I lived in D.C., which is where I got my start in writing. I got back to New York and I worked for Blaze, worked for Vibe, worked at CMJ for a while, then I worked at Entertainment Weekly.
I was covering music, and then I went to film. I was covering film and I met a lot of people—Will Smith, a lot of directors—doing interviews, you know, doing the job. It reminded me of why I went to film school. I thought, “I don’t want to talk to other people about their work. I want to do my own work.”
You got the itch.
Yeah. In 2008 I quit the job and started writing screenplays. It’s difficult to get a movie made, to get a screenplay bought or produced—everybody knows that. I’m not going to whine about it. I took the indie route. We got financing—by financing I mean me and my friends, our parents and our wives and shit (laughs).
The impetus to make Big Words independently was…you know, it had been optioned once by another indie producer. What really happened was I worked on a much bigger screenplay with a big producer, and that project was frustrating. I thought what I had in the movie was pretty commercial, but I was pushed to keep making it more commercial. In the end, the reason it just failed is that the producer gave up on the notion of it. “This kind of thing doesn’t work in the market.” That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear as an artist. I don’t think about the market that much. I think about what I think is good, and hopefully the audience will find me.
No disrespect to this producer. I’m still in contact with her. The thing is, when you’re making a movie for 12 million dollars or up, you have to start thinking about the market. I understand where she was coming from. But, for me…I like the notion of spending less and having more freedom.
Big Words was a script I’d had for a long time, and my producer (who was working on the big project with me) said, “I’ve always loved that script.” Finally, we said, “Let’s try to make it.” We had an up-and-coming, hot young video director (who you probably know) attached, but that didn’t work out. Even though we didn’t end too amicably, he was one of the people who said to me, “You want too much control over this movie. You should probably make it yourself.” I didn’t want to hear that.
You didn’t want to direct?
No. I went to film school for writing. The Big Words script is probably my favorite thing I’ve written in my entire life. I love it to death. I wrote it, and it started circulating. The response was amazing. When I got my actors, that was it. I contacted Dorian (Missick) and he was always onboard. He loved the movie. Gbenga (Akinnagbe) is a friend of mine. I asked Jean Grae…
It’s so cool that Jean Grae is in the movie. Perfect.
It’s funny; I never wanted rappers playing rappers [in the movie.] I wanted the best actors I could get to play these guys.
You were afraid they wouldn’t be able to pull it off?
I think Mos (Def) is a great actor. It’s just…maybe they’d take it too personally. The characters in the movie are flawed; they’re not great people. I didn’t want anybody who was taking it so personally that they couldn’t bring it across in their performance. I don’t think most rappers are as good at acting as…actors (laughs). Dorian, Gbenga, Darien (Sills-Evans)—those guys are actors. That’s their job. They’re not dividing their time between that and something else.
A big theme in the movie is nostalgia and how people get caught up in it, like a trap. Do you think nostalgia is a bad thing?
No, I just think that in hip-hop it’s a funny thing. People see the movie, come up to me and say, “Whatever happened to the Golden Age, man? That’s what hip-hop is about!” I love that period, but if you think about it realistically, that’s the minority of the time. When people were talking about that positivity shit, that was like, three years. Hip-hop is, like, 35 years old. The Golden Era isn’t “what hip-hop is about.” It’s just a small part of it. De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest—that was five years, max.
I needed De La as a kid. That’s why there’s such a big thing about De La in the movie, because it’s personal for me. Public Enemy was too angry for me. I had too many white friends to listen to Public Enemy. That shit scared me. LL Cool J was dope, but he was too macho. Kool G Rap was too gangsta. When De La came out, I thought, “These are weird dudes like me.”
I’m really nostalgic, but I don’t want to force that shit on anybody else. The movie’s not about saying, “This shit’s better than this.” All I’m saying is, people had a period in their life that meant something to them, and sometimes it’s really hard to let it go. The Big Chill was a big influence on Big Words. High Fidelity, too. Movies about a time in your life that meant something to you.
Hip-hop is a young man’s game. It’s a straight man’s game. It’s a man’s game. You touch on all this in the movie.
As I got older, I started to think about all this. What if I’m married or I’m gay, and I love this music, but I’m listening to it in a different era now, because I’m older. I’ve realized that a lot of those things that are in the music are in conflict with who I am as a person. I wrestle with this with the character James. How do you rectify something that’s in your bones (hip-hop) with who you are now when they don’t necessarily go together? I didn’t want to tackle it with too heavy a hand, but it was something I was thinking about for years. I say this all the time—out of all the rappers that have grown up, how have none of them come out? There are no gay rappers. It’s just a ridiculous notion. I thought about what it would be like to grow up in this hip-hop thing and come out as an older man.
Big Words originally had four characters in the group. The fourth guy was gay. He was sort of the backdrop for everyone meeting up. When I rewrote the script, I decided I wanted less people because it would cost less money. I still wanted to approach the notion of one of them being gay. There was another character, a straight man named James; he was married and was contemplating leaving his wife. Gay or straight, that feeling of wanting something else could apply to anyone, so I combined those two characters. It scared the shit out of me to do it, but I did it. I handed the script to Matt (Keene Smith, producer), and he was like, “You’re crazy! It’s a gay movie now!” I was like, “Well, no it’s not. It’s about three guys!”
Is the “chinky-eyed” scene taken from real life? [In the scene, Malik says he gets “chinky-eyed” when he smokes weed, and Malik’s friend and his Asian girlfriend get offended.]
Yeah. I wasn’t there, but every single one of my friends was there for it. I was on a business trip, and I got the story from five different people. It had happened years ago, but I wrote it into the script. The guy who actually did say that just saw the movie and said, “I can’t believe you actually put that in…” My producer, Matt’s wife is Filipino. We talked a lot about that scene. He was like, “I don’t know, man…”
I said, “Look—the movie’s called Big Words. Part of the subtext is that there are words that have a serious impact.” The fact that she reacts to that word, but no one reacts to “nigger” the whole movie…It’s just something I wanted to say. It’s just interesting to me that some of us accept certain words that should have the same impact as others.
You touch on a lot of weighty subjects in the movie, but you just touch on them. You’re not heavy-handed.
I don’t like things that are heavy-handed. I set the film in one day because I’m a firm believer that a lot of films have too much change. Like, a person who hates someone will come around by the end of two hours. That’s ridiculous. I don’t think people change much at all. I figured, if I set this movie in one day, the subtle differences in them at the end of the day would be more interesting than if they had some sort of revelation, which none of them do.
I like that they don’t arrive at a big epiphany at the end. I almost saw it coming, but it never happened, which is great.
You know how I knew who I didn’t want working on the movie? Anyone who asked me, “Why don’t they get back together?”
Yeah, like they expect the guys to end up rhyming in the middle of the street in a cipher.
If that’s the ending you want, go see Brown Sugar or some shit! (laughs)
[Neil went on to talk about why the movie makes no big political statements, despite it taking place on the night Barack Obama was elected president.]
I’ll be honest with you, part of it is fear. Sometimes you don’t know exactly how you feel about stuff. I don’t always want to make a statement. I skip the whole agenda thing. I don’t really have an agenda. I’m not even a very political person. A lot of people in Q&A’s will ask me how I feel about Obama, and I’m like, “The movie isn’t about Obama at all!” People ask me specifically, “If you don’t have an agenda, what is the reason you set it against the election?” I don’t think people like the answer, but the answer is this: I wanted to make a movie about self-absorbed black guys. I figured the biggest thing to put them dimensionally opposed to would be the one time when they felt like everybody in the city was on the same team. Everybody was optimistic. These guys are not nihilistic, but they’re in a very negative personal head space. It’s just a contrast.
It’s just a device.
Right. I think people want there to be more to it than that, but I really don’t have an agenda. It’s barely in the movie at all. On that actual night, I didn’t even leave my house.
The film isn’t about the election, it’s not a gay movie, it’s not a hip-hop movie. Like you said, it’s about guys who can’t let go. Is it a difficult sell?
Yeah, it is. We’re not actually selling it—we’re just showing it to people now—but to get people to appreciate it, I describe it in terms of other movies like that. The Big Chill is not a Motown movie, but it’s an homage to that time period. Dazed and Confused is not a rock ‘n roll movie per sé—it’s a coming-of-age movie. Big Chill is about baby boomers, right? I don’t necessarily relate to baby boomers on a superficial level, but when I see that movie, I understand it and relate to it on a personal level. The Big Chill, Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti are all specific about their references. Sometimes, the more specific you are about your reference points, the more universal it’ll be.