Roundtable: Hollywood Powerbrokers Edition

In a special roundtable discussion, host Farai Chideya talks with entertainment industry insiders about the power, influence and respect of American players in Hollywood. Guest are casting director Monica Swann; TV and film writer-producer John Ridley; and independent filmmaker Erika Conner.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Entertainment-based film and television are the most widely followed forms of media in the world. Today in a special Roundtable discussion we take a look at the influence, power and respect that African-Americans have in Hollywood, from development to funding.

Our guests here with me at our NPR West studios are casting director Monica Swann, who has worked on films including Roll Bounce and television shows including The Parkers and All of Us; plus TV and film writer/producer John Ridley. He wrote the screenplay for Three Kings, wrote and directed episodes of The Barbershop series and is a novelist as well. We also have independent filmmaker Erika Conner, who co-produced the film Idlewild. She's at NPR affiliate Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Welcome to you all.

Ms. ERIKA CONNER (Independent Filmmaker): Hello.

Ms. MONICA SWANN (Casting Director): Thank you.

Mr. JOHN RIDLEY (Writer and Director): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Erika, let me start with you. How did you get your start in this business?

Ms. ERIKA CONNER (Independent Filmmaker): Well, I have to first say thank you to a gentleman by the name - a great director by the name of John Singleton. My background was really broadcast journalism, and so I started my career in publications at Vibe magazine, and I met John Singleton maybe, like, at a Vibe music seminar or something we were having. At the time he was developing Shaft for a remake. And we got into this long conversation and didn't see him for quite a while, and I left and worked for New York channel 1, actually.

CHIDEYA: That's a very well-respected local news channel.

Ms. CONNER: Yes it is, in New York, yes. And our discussion was Rosewood at the time. And, you know, John was very like oh, you know, this is too painful to talk about. I don't want to have this interview. He says, tell the camera guy to turn the cameras off and let's you and I just talk. And through that conversation, John really encouraged me and saw something in me that I just never could have foreshadowed. He said you're in the wrong business. He said you need to come to Hollywood, there's no young black people behind the scenes. Everybody that comes out wants to be in front of the camera, and you've got an opinion, you've got a voice. Like, come out to Hollywood. And I thought it was like the greatest pick-up line. I was like what?

So I took a risk and I made a phone call, and he made it happen. He opened up doors for me, and thus Idlewild.

CHIDEYA: Idlewild, of course, with Andre Benjamin and Big Boi…

Ms. CONNER: Big Boi of Outkast.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. I actually was there at NABJ, the black journalist convention, when you screened it for some of the members, and it sounded like you constantly had to negotiate your way into higher budgets for the film.

Ms. CONNER: Oh yeah. You know, they were getting nervous about the budget, you know. But then they would see dailies and realize, like, wait a minute. This is avant-garde. This is art. This is something that's completely different. Like, maybe we'll invest into it.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to get more to the point of what you do as a producer, but first I want to talk to our other guests. John Ridley, who you mentioned, was, you know, working with you on this project that you were trying to develop with John Singleton. You're a pinch-hitter. You do film, television, novels. How do you keep up…?

Mr. RIDLEY: Hieroglyphics.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. How do you keep up the pace? I mean that's a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIDLEY: You know, I love to write. I tell people that my job and my hobby are the same thing, so, you know, when other people are out whatever, golfing or bowling or whatever it is they do, I like to write. So for me, I'll work on a movie or a TV show during the day and then I'll work on a novel or a graphic novel or what have you in the evening.

So for me it's just relaxing what I like to do. I never get tired of writing. I'm probably writing actually less than I did about 10 or 12 years ago when I started, but fortunately more of the stuff that I write gets made or gets produced or things like that. So it seems like I'm doing a lot, but a lot of it is just…

CHIDEYA: Oh, you are too modest.

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, you know, but…

CHIDEYA: I think that people just need to go to IMDb.com.

Ms. CONNER: Yeah, and check him out.

Mr. RIDLEY: But if you love to do what you're doing, and you're fortunate enough that people want to make it or produce it or publish it or what have you, then, you know, you just acquire a lot of credits over time. And I'm not trying to diminish that, I'm very thankful for it, but part of it is because I love to do what I do.

CHIDEYA: And, Monica, you are also someone who has got to be a multi-tasker. You are working or have worked on so many things that you had to some of them at once. What do you do as a casting director or a casting agent, and how do you juggle multiple projects?

Ms. SWANN: A good staff is how you juggle multiple projects.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWANN: But basically I try to bring to life what the writers like John write and to get as close to their vision as possible with actors, you know, people who can actually speak for them and make it come alive. And it's usually a compromise somewhat. Sometimes we hit things perfectly, but usually it's a compromise. In casting it, you get as close to it as possible.

I'm the one who brings in the actors who give the voice to the written page, and I narrow down the selection before it comes to the producers and the director.

CHIDEYA: So people probably are constantly sending you head shots and following you around and baking you cookies and…

Ms. SWANN: Yeah. You'd be surprised at the places where I get offered head shots.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: In L.A., I guess that could be anywhere. So, you know, we heard from Erika what, like, the ah-ha moment was that got her on her path, this meeting with John Singleton. What about you? What was the moment where you said I can do this?

Ms. SWANN: Well, I've been in it for quite a while now, and I actually got a summer job at a studio when I was in high school. And I was always a media kid, but I never wanted to be an actress. But I had an affinity with actors and was constantly watching films and television. And when I was working at the studio one summer - I worked there several summers through school and then in college - I ran into a casting director who hired me that summer and mentored me subsequently: Joe D'Agusta, who had been the VP of talent for just about every major studio at one time or another.

So he took me under his wing and trained me. And after college I went back to work with him, and he became head of talent for MGM for a while, so I went there. And then I also later was mentored by Reuben Cannon, who is now a producer and still does some casting.

So that's where I started, and that was when I finally figured out, okay, this is what I can do and this is where I fit in with the actors. I don't want to be before the camera, but I know talent when I see it and I know how to identify good performances. So I was able to, under the tutelage of those men, hone this and develop it.

CHIDEYA: John, you're someone who, in your writing, doesn't necessarily write only African-American characters or only for an African-American audience. Has that helped or hurt your career, do you think?

Mr. RIDLEY: You know, it's - ultimately, I think it helped my career. It was interesting - is that when I started in television many, many years ago, it was largely thanks to guys like John Singleton. There was sort of this growing consensus with the people who ran Hollywood that oh, there's actually a market for movies by black people for black people and, you know, they'll go and they'll see it. You know, there's a marketplace here. So in television, there started being shows like, you know, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper and things like that. The Martin show came out at the same time.

And so there was an opportunity for a lot of new black talent to work in television and movies. But at the same time there was this little bit of ghettoization. You know, you have some really talented people who were saying really interesting things about black people, be it in an urban environment or wherever, but there was also sort of this rush to imitate that, where you had a lot of people who maybe weren't as in touch with the black environment or just wanted to do something that felt black, which is like let's just do this. And it didn't really say anything, and it didn't really I think speak to us as much as it was trying to make a buck.

So for me it was sort of navigating and saying what is interesting and what actually says something or what is funny; and also trying to be a business man, what is going to help my career and what are the kinds of things I should maybe stay away from and not be part of that because people will look back on that and go, well, that wasn't very good. That wasn't a good career move.

So for me it was going sort of moment to moment. I did work on shows like Martin and Fresh Prince that I think were quality and funny shows, and it was trying to get a place - you know, for me I finally sort of corner was I worked on a show with John Wells called Trinity, a very short-lived drama, but it was about an Irish-American family in New York. I mean there was no black people in it whatsoever. And ironically, you know, when I did that there were a lot of executives who finally said oh, well, this guy can write anything.

And so for me then it became about well now I really want to do shows that really showcase black people because I think I can say whatever I want to say in any environment. So then I went on to do a show like Platinum, where it was very much black in the music and environment, but very much a family show and a show about business and things like that.

So Hollywood, it's very hard to sort of navigate all these things. But I think, you know, in answer to your question: Yes, ultimately trying to navigate it and navigating it in a way where I tried to do some black shows, tried to avoid some black shows and ultimately wanted to do - in particular I'm talking about television - black shows has very much helped me in Hollywood.

CHIDEYA: Erika, you - in Idlewild you did a film with an all-black cast and with, you know, some really amazing flourishes with the music and the dance and things like that. What happens next for someone like you who has done a high-profile project like this who is an African-American woman?

Are you concerned to any degree that you're going to face a tough road getting subsequent - you know, because there's kind of sometimes a higher bar set for people who have broken through who are African-American but, you know, who want to move on to that next project. Are you concerned…

Ms. CONNER: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: …that you haven't even, you know, really broken through the glass ceiling yet?

Ms. CONNER: Oh, absolutely. I mean it's definitely been a thought. But I think what keeps me safe is, and just particularly for me, what keeps me safe is that I sort of move in that same direction, and not in a musical way, but move in that same direction where it's art, it's creative. I mean the phone calls that are coming in, I don't want to go above the bar, where I'm at right now, because I feel safe in that zone. And I feel like there's a niche there, and it's a safe niche for me.

CHIDEYA: And, Monica, what are you planning on working on next, and how far in advance do you go forward and try to plan your projects?

Ms. SWANN: Well, as much as I'd love to plan them in advance, it doesn't always happen that way in this business. Things come, you know, almost randomly. I'll get a call from someone because funding has just suddenly come together and they're ready to move forward very quickly. Or I may get a phone call, and this happens very often, from producers whom I've worked with or know and it's like I have a meeting with an exec on, today or tomorrow. I need a list, because my project will get a green light if I have the right names…

Ms. CONNER: On the list.

Ms. SWANN: …you know, of people, the right list of people who can do this. And because it's something that I'm doing constantly, I tend to be aware of who's where and who's available and who's looking for various things. So I can put something together very, very quickly. And sometimes I'm given a lot of notice, where someone may come and they're still working on a script and they'll give me an outline or a synopsis. And it's, you know, very cast-contingent, but it has to be the right person. So it may be months ahead, or a year ahead, you know, and so I'll start working with it.

I'm looking to do more features, which I've been doing more of for the past few years. And both independents and studio films, and that's the direction that I want to go in more. I've done a lot of television; I'm still doing television. As you said, I do the series All of Us. And I've cast probably I think about 25 to 30 series over the past few years. So I - usually like several at a time.

So though that continues to be challenging and I do still enjoy it, I think I can express more creativity in casting in feature work.

Mr. RIDLEY: You know, I just want to throw in this. Monica is one of the people you have to honestly, someone like me in Hollywood, you have to bow down to. Because, first of all, just, you know, a lot of things flow through the front of the camera. And getting the talent and getting them in the door, and, you know, you look at the people who really drive things, it's the talent.

Monica has said, you know, having an eye for talent. I'm not, you know, trying to say anything about executives. A lot of times they don't necessarily have eyes and ears for talent, and you've really got to insist upon this person is talented, this person is really talented. That's what someone like Monica does. So for all of us…

Ms. SWANN: Thank you.

Mr. RIDLEY: …for many reasons, thank you, Monica.

Ms. CONNER: Yeah. Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, I just want to ask directly for all of you, do you think - we saw some back-to-back Oscar wins for African-Americans recently. That's about who's in front of the camera. People like Jamie Foxx. But behind the scenes are things getting better or worse for African-American talent who are writers, producers, directors, casting agents? Monica, I'll start with you.

Ms. SWANN: I don't think things are getting worse. I just wish that they would get better faster…

Ms. CONNER: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SWANN: …and more consistently. Because I have seen things change. But just seeing how other things in our society change and move forward with knowledge as people are less ignorant, you know, of the world around us, I think that the integration of minorities behind the scenes in projects should be a lot further along and a lot greater than it is.

I'd still like to see more of us in the room when you go in on shows, and not just because you have to staff a black show with black writers. But I'd like to see more opportunities there and I'd like to see more of us on non-black shows. There, you know, there are a few of us who are moving, and you're the perfect example, John, of that. And I'd just like to see those opportunities open up more for us, because I believe the talent is there.

CHIDEYA: John, what about you? I mean what do you see in the writing world?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, I agree with Monica's assessment in general about Hollywood. It's definitely better than it was, you know, 13 years ago when I started. But when you look at the amount of entertainment that's also out there now…

Ms. SWANN: Yes.

Mr. RIDLEY: …I mean 13 years ago there were still four networks. Now you have all these cable networks and everything. And you look at, you know, the number of really prominent black actors who can make a project go. You know, you have Will Smith and you have Denzel Washington. You know, Jamie Foxx, as talented as he is, you know, had two movies that didn't do so well. You know, he had Stealth and Miami Vice.

And let me tell you, it's not a black or white thing. You look at Tom Cruise. You know, a couple of missteps…

Ms. SWANN: Exactly.

Mr. RIDLEY: …and people shake their head a little.

CHIDEYA: A couple?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, you know, I mean here's the thing. He still makes a lot of money.

Ms. SWANN: Right.

Mr. RIDLEY: But based on how much he costs, is it worth it? You know, so these things about power and who can do what, it's all very tentative. You know. It just changes like the price of gasoline. One minute we're getting killed, now it's $59 for a barrel of gasoline and we're happy again. But, you know, hey, two years ago it was $40. So you look at behind the scenes, are there more black television shows on? Yes there are. But they're all on Sunday nights on the CW.

Ms. SWANN: Right.

Mr. RIDLEY: Is that right or is that good? Should we see more black shows all over the dial? You know, you look at Grey's Anatomy, a show created by a black woman, written by a black woman. That's fantastic. But is there a trickle-down effect?

Ms. SWANN: Right.

Mr. RIDLEY: You know, how many shows that are being pitched this year are being pitched by black writers or are being looked at seriously as multicultural shows? I can tell you, having just going through the pitch season, not many of them.

CHIDEYA: What about you, Erika?

Ms. CONNER: Well, I mean I share the same sentiments, exactly what John is saying, and particularly what Monica is saying from the casting point of view. Because as a producer you do sort of walk into a room and you are kind of a casting director, because you're pitching a vision. You're pitching talent.

And the hardest part for me is that to walk into a room and not see my peers in the room, someone that will say I get it, I understand it. You know what I mean? It's really about not being afraid and just really allowing real talent and educated talent to come through, because we're there. We're here.

CHIDEYA: Well, Erika, Monica and John, thank you so much.

Mr. RIDLEY: Thank you.

Ms. SWANN: Thank you.

Ms. CONNER: Thank you.

Mr. RIDLEY: Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: Erika Conner co-produced the film Idlewild. She's at NPR affiliate Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. And with me at our NPR West studios we've had Monica Swann, who is a casting agent and director who's worked on films, including Roll Bounce. And film writer, producer and director John Ridley.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, a camp that teaches young businesspeople a lesson in commerce through hip-hop, and the history of an African man who, caged like an animal, became one of his country's biggest amusement part attractions.

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