Set on the night of the historic 2008 Presidential election, Big Words follows three friends who were once members of a promising hip-hop group and are now dealing with the challenges of being in their late 30s. As the indie drama nears its July 19 release through AFFRM’s Array label, I spoke with writer-director Neil Drumming about his intentions with the movie, his influences, and his outlook on filmmaking.
JT: Your film is like a coming-of-age tale for adults, told through the lens of hip-hop. Where’d the story come from?
ND: I’m a hip-hop head, I grew up with it. So I’ve always loved the music.
JT: Did you rap growing up?
ND: Yeah, I still write the occasional rhyme. In college I was in a crew. My brother makes beats and I’ve rhymed over his beats. But as a journalist I wrote about it a lot so I got to meet a lot of the guys who were successful at it, whereas I just dabbled. I realized their proximity to me isn’t that much different. Q-Tip is from Jamaica [Queens], he’s from my neighborhood. So is 50 Cent. And I became fascinated with the notion of being a grown man in hip-hop, because people often talk about hip-hop as if it’s youth music only. But now a lot of people are like 40, 45. There’s a lot of grown men in hip-hop.
JT: You set the movie during the 2008 election where President Obama was elected. Voter turnout was huge in that election, especially for black folks, but there are characters in your film that don’t vote. What’s behind that?
ND: I was really trying to describe three very self absorbed men who were caught up in their own lives and just couldn’t see the bigger picture around them. I have no political agenda whatsoever with this film. The only reason I use that backdrop is because it seemed like the entire city was feeling particularly optimistic and thinking about the future in a positive way, so it was the best way to contrast these men who are not thinking that way, who are thinking about themselves and are caught up in negativity. I often say this and it’s become a cliché, but there’s a lot of movies about self absorbed white men and I just figured it’s about time to make a movie about self absorbed black men.
JT: I’ve heard you were actually working as a journalist at Entertainment Weekly when you were writing Big Words. What made you decide to make a film, and to make this film now?
ND: I finished the first draft in ’09 and the idea had been percolating for a while. My career has been in journalism but I went to USC film school. So I’ve always been interested in film, but after college I didn’t pursue it frankly because it was sort of intimidating. Then I got into entertainment journalism. When I was working at Entertainment Weekly I was interviewing filmmakers and actors and after a while I was kind of exhausted with talking about these people or writing about something that I wanted to do. It reminded me that I had always dreamed that I could do it myself. So I guess my proximity to the film and television world woke that desire in me.
JT: How was it for you to move back into filmmaking after spending time as a journalist?
ND: The advantage was that I had some discipline as a writer. Writing in journalism teaches you to be very comfortable taking criticism, being edited, and rewriting. The second advantage was probably my proximity to film. I got to be on a lot of sets and meet a lot of actors and filmmakers, and that’s something that most people who go to film school don’t actually get, to meet Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Will Smith, even Brett Ratner. All of these people I actually got to meet and watch. I spent 16 hours on the set of Rush Hour 3, and maybe that’s not anybody’s favorite movie but it was fairly educational. And that was as a journalist, not as a filmmaker. Ava DuVernay who’s distributing my movie will tell you the same thing.
JT: Right, as a film publicist.
ND: Yes, she got a lot of onset time that most filmmakers don’t get. It’s a weird thing. You sort of get this benefit and you may not really know what the value of it is at the time, but if you eventually want to make movies, suddenly a lot of that knowledge comes back to you.
JT: Now that you’ve had a chance to direct, is that the plan from here on out?
ND: Yeah, I fell in love with it. I know that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and it’s not so much about “I want to safeguard my work and make sure that everything comes out the way that I wrote it.” It’s just that I really enjoyed it. There’s a sort of lone wolf mentality to writing, but working on a movie with 30 people around you is rewarding in such a different way. I just really enjoyed the people, being able to count on people that were qualified, receiving input, and having my work be improved by the involvement of others. I got the bug.
“As opposed to coming up with something fantastic and trying to sell it to a studio, now all you have to do is get people to believe what you believe…”
JT: You’ve mentioned elsewhere, movies like High Fidelity, Sideways, and The Big Chill as influences. Are you hoping your film will connect with the same kind of audience as those films?
ND: I always mention The Big Chill, but I don’t relate to that movie aesthetically. I wasn’t raised during that time, I’m not a big Motown fan, I’m not a baby boomer. But when I saw the movie at the right age, as I was entering my mid-30s, it resonated with me. It’s the same thing with Sideways. I just watched it again recently and it almost makes me cry because I relate to it as a grown man. So you could say the audience is black middle-aged, middle-class people, grown-up hip-hop fans. But what it really is, is people who are growing up and struggling to reconcile themselves with their youth. Big Words is very much a test for me to see whether people can appreciate the aesthetics of it, get beyond that, and relate to it. People of any background. I tried to write a movie that is universal as far as the themes of growing up and dealing with your youth, your dreams, the things that you did and didn’t accomplish.
I interviewed [The Wire creator] David Simon once. I asked him why he thought it took people so long to catch on or why they didn’t watch The Wire the way they watched The Sopranos. And I hoped he would say something like it wasn’t promoted correctly or it was too dense, but what he said was that people don’t want to see that many black people on television. That was his immediate response. I’m hoping that will not always be the case and that people will look beyond that [with Big Words] and relate to what’s more universal, but you just never know. You hope for the best.
JT: Now that Big Words has screened at film festivals to positive reviews and it’s being distributed, has that led to any new opportunities?
ND: To be really honest, no. I have no idea what it’s going to mean to people or what kind of opportunities will come. I don’t even have representation. I’d like some. But I don’t feel much different than before I made the movie other than the fact that I’m proud of it, I guess because we haven’t technically opened yet. But hopefully things will change after that.
JT: What are you working on next?
ND: I just completed a screenplay that’s sort of a quirky, sci-fi romance. Think something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m a big fan of LA Story which is magical realism, Adjustment Bureau, even The Wiz. So I’ve written something that has that quirkiness to it that’s a little bit of an adventure and romance with a black woman as the lead. I just finished the screenplay and my producer [Matthew Smith] and I are sending it around to get people attached. My dream would be to be in pre-production by the end of the year. It’s set in Queens. Big Words is set in Brooklyn, which is great because I live in Brooklyn, but I’m originally from Queens so I have an amazing appreciation and love affair with my borough. I’d love to focus on the weird obtuse beauty of that borough.
JT: We’re seeing a lot of that quirky or atypical style from black filmmakers now, a lot more films breaking the mold.
ND: I think that now that you can make your own films, even though the budget’s gonna be limited, it makes us more brave in terms of the kinds of projects we’re willing to approach. We get to do the things we always dreamed about. As opposed to coming up with something fantastic and trying to sell it to a studio, now all you have to do is get people to believe what you believe and hopefully you can put together a project. The script that I just wrote, I wouldn’t try to pitch it to a studio, certainly not with a black lead. They would look at me like I was crazy. But I believe the audience exists and if I can get the funding for it I can make it, and hopefully it’ll turn out the right way.
Big Words opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 19. The film is also touring other cities throughout the summer. Find dates and cities HERE.