“So what can I tell you?”
A day after the Detroit premiere of Curtis Hanson’s “8 Mile” the director appears full of energy and, even though he has to endure a day’s interrogation from local reporters, is eager to discuss his new release. But why shouldn’t he be? The screening could not have gone any better, eliciting loud applause and laughter from the hometown crowd. For a filmmaker who fought to shoot the film on location in the trailer parks, back alleys and abandoned homes of the Detroit area, it must feel pretty good to know that despite all the controversy and bad rumors in the press “8 Mile” is a success, an opinion notably held by the citizens it portrays.
“I felt great in a couple of ways,” Hanson recalls his experience of the night before. “That audience is the audience of this movie and by that I don’t mean the audience that would be most interested in this movie but they are the audience that in a way have the perspective to be the most uniquely judgmental of the movie. And one of my main goals was to try and represent in a truthful way Detroit 1995.”
Hanson went to great lengths to obtain the studio’s approval for shooting in the film-shy world of Detroit. Like many other directors, Hanson could have easily skipped over the border to Canada where filming comes much cheaper due to the money exchange and tax rebates.
“The typical way you do it is you go to some city, let’s say Detroit, shoot a few days and then go to Toronto and shoot the rest of the movie and pretend that you’re in Detroit the whole time.” The Academy Award winner adds, “Honesty was my concern.”
Hanson’s love of American cities combined with his producing partner Brian Grazer’s long time endeavor to make a so-called hip-hop film made their union a perfect one for each other and the city of Detroit as well.
Hanson looks over his career, noting, “I’m somebody who’s interested in American cities and I try to do stories that allow me to be as specific in exploring those cities as possible. In ‘L.A. Confidential,’ it’s obvious because the title of the movie is ‘L.A. Confidential,’ but it’s the same thing in ‘Wonder Boys’ with Pittsburgh and the same thing with ‘8 Mile’ in Detroit.”
The two co-producers were originally not sure if Detroit was the right setting for the film because of the danger of putting an already touted “Eminem movie” in his city of birth. In the end, however, the costs of the city were overshadowed by benefits of it over the alternatives. “The problems and difficulties that one confronts in Detroit exist in all of our major cities but in Detroit they are very dramatic and they are very visual; everything about the story just felt better to tell it here in Detroit.”
Still, the general public cannot help but expect a biopic of the inflammatory rapper. Yet Eminem does not play himself in the film, instead portraying Jimmy Smith Jr., a Slim Shady-like white rapper growing up in the black-dominated world of Detroit hip-hop. Hanson responds to those uninformed viewers: “The intent was to try and create a truthful portrait of the world in which this story takes place. Now, that world is the same world which Eminem the recording artist also emerged so naturally there are places where the two overlap in the movie and his life, and that was actually one of the things that I confronted when making the decision of what city to set the story in because the story could take place in any American city and it would still overlap with his life.
“But ultimately I felt that Detroit was such the right place to set this story and so I tried, once I made that decision, to incorporate as much of Detroit into the script as possible.”
This included the changing of the original title, which went through several alterations before filming even began. Hanson finally decided on the title “8 Mile” after a long discussion with Eminem on the film’s themes.
“Clearly in Detroit, (8 Mile Road) has a very specific meaning: City limits, dividing line between city and suburbs and in the hip-hop worlds, it’s kind of a dividing line between what’s real and authentic, and over here (north of 8 Mile) what’s phony.”
With the deletion of the “road” from the title, it takes on a more universal meaning. Hanson explains, “We all have our own borders; those dividing lines that keep us from being who we want to be and, in some cases, even where we want to be. And to me, that’s part of the human condition; it never changes.”
The decision to film in Detroit came long after another difficult decision, the casting of Eminem in his major film debut, or as Hanson points even his “minor film debut.”
Screenwriter Scott Silver spent some time with Eminem before writing the script, but Hanson had not met the then up-and-coming rapper before they spent six weeks of rehearsal time together. Hanson credits co-producer Grazer for the foresight to envision the popularity Eminem would amass so quickly. However, Hanson wasn’t drawn to the project for the rapper’s fame, but rather the challenge of working with the first-time actor in a moving story of a young man looking for direction in his life.
“I didn’t really worry truthfully about the ‘whole Eminem’ of it all, I knew him as an artist, I knew he was incredibly gifted with words, I knew he was controversial.” Hanson continues, “My question to myself was, ‘Would he be able to deliver a performance that felt sufficiently emotionally truthful, to carry this movie?’ And I felt that if he could, the audience would go with this character and forget about Eminem. And to me, he’s Marshall Mathers; he’s an actor in this movie and that’s how I came to know him, that’s how I worked with him and frankly that’s what made him feel that he could trust me. He knew I wasn’t there to cash in on Eminem. In fact he was a question mark as far as I was concerned. And I think that made him trust me, because as he stated he had no interest in being in an Eminem movie, what one could call a vanity project. He wanted to be an actor in a really good movie.”
Also helping Hanson make “8 Mile” another one of the “good movies” in his storied career was a dream cast. Hanson found actresses to fill the two lead female roles by recruiting an old friend and talking to an actress he wanted to work with for years.
Hanson directed Kim Basinger to an Oscar in his “L.A. Confidential,” so when he needed someone to play Jimmy’s mother, Stephanie, he knew exactly who to turn to. “I wanted that character to be perceived as someone who was a bit lost and struggling to find her way, and I knew that Kim could invest that character with humanity because one of the remarkable things about her, as beautiful as she is, and in my mind there is nobody more beautiful, nonetheless the beauty is not a barrier as it often is with actresses.”
Actress Brittany Murphy, of “Clueless” fame, has been on Hanson’s most wanted list for years and with “8 Mile,” the two finally unite. He proclaims, “Brittany is exceptional.”
Murphy first caught Hanson’s eye years ago when she appeared on Broadway and he has followed her career ever since. Murphy appears as Alex, an aspiring model who inspires Jimmy with her dedication to “getting out.” Hanson says, “I felt that she could bring a quality to that character of Alex, someone who has no talent but has ambition and direction, more direction than most of the other characters.”
In the film, Jimmy’s crew knows he has the talent to make a name for himself as a rapper but Jimmy first has to get over a case of stage fright he develops during the freestyle rap battles that highlight the film. As Hanson discusses, the battles function as more than just a foreground for Jimmy to show off.
“What I found specifically fascinating in regard to the hip-hop aspect of this movie was the freestyle battling. The fact that these characters loved words and used them so unbelievably skillfully; to think that they can do it to a beat, rhyme and under pressure and be funny. You know it’s amazing what they do, the dexterity of it and I loved the idea of them using words instead of fists, instead of weapons.”
This message was so important to Hanson that it seeped into every aspect of the filming process, from camerawork to setting. “For me and my team, my cameraman especially, the metaphor was boxing and we tried to stage those battles like a boxing match, with the violence of the words instead of fists. That was one of the other things that was really appealing about setting the story in 1995. While our characters were battling, on the national scene, over the radio air waves and on records, you had the East Coast-West Coast battle going on with Tupac (Shakur) and Biggie (Smalls) most notably, and a few months later the words were replaced with guns with tragic results.”
With today’s release of “8 Mile” a chapter has closed in Hanson’s life, but he admits to growing to love Detroit during his time here and also fondly talks of his friendship and professional relationship with Eminem.
Hanson recalls, “At the end of (production), (Eminem) said ‘Never again, I would never do that again.'” But the director also stresses the work ethic of the first- time actor, “He really poured himself into the process of this movie and put his whole life on hold and it was hard. It was a very lengthy and difficult process for him, as it is for every actor, but he was going into it not knowing the drill.”
Hanson expects, “After some time goes by and his performance is received the way I hope it would be, he’ll look back on it and it will be a little bit like childbirth. He’ll forget the pain and remember the gratifying results.”