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 Straight Outta Compton - An Interview With Producer Bill Straus 
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I understand discrimination. I really do. As an adult with a serious disability, I understand what it's like to be wheeling through a local shopping mall and realize that someone is staring at me just because I'm different.

I understand being turned down for jobs because of my disability. I understand what it's like to be turned down for dates because of my disability. I understand avoidant eyes, fear, discomfort, and stereotypes.

I've dealt with these things my whole life.

This? Nah, I don't get it. As I was watching a promo screening for the brand new N.W.A. biopic "Straight Outta Compton," I realized that despite experiencing years of discrimination, humiliation and all kinds of rejection solely on the basis of a disability I have no clue what it means to be hated solely on the basis of the color of my skin. People may avoid me, but they don't roll up the car windows when they see me. Employers may avoid hiring me, but I don't have a clue what it's like for an employer to assume the worst possible human traits about me. Oh sure, I've been made fun of but I've never been called names that I wouldn't even begin to put in this article.

I don't get it. I really don't want to. It was only a few minutes into "Straight Outta Compton" when I started squirming that squirm created out of the knowledge that I've lived a remarkably privileged life. I started cringing as I watched scene after scene of these cops stomping first and asking questions later. I remember thinking to myself "How the hell can this possibly be true? Please tell me this crap isn't true," all the time knowing I wasn't watching some cinematic dramatization but I was watching somebody's memories brought to life while knowing they were memories shared with young Black men around the country.

It was with this almost sense of despair and anger and confusion that I began my telephone conversation with Bill Straus, an award-winning producer and one of the producers of "Straight Outta Compton." In fact, I would learn, it was Straus and his team who would gather with Tomica Wright, the widow of Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, and would eventually gain enough trust that she would finally sign off on the story being told and the music being used. We talked about that. We talked about a lot of things. I listened. Inside, I got a little angry and a little weepy. I learned quite a bit, but mostly I grieved the fact that over 25 years after N.W.A. first spit this truth we're still fighting the battle. Bill Straus is a former executive at New Line Cinema who was the first producer on "Straight Outta Compton" having had the script cross his desk while working at Circle of Confusion shortly after his New Line departure. Back in his hometown of New York City now, Straus launched the domestic sales banner BGP Film and has represented such films as "Bronx Obama," "Buzzard," "Uncertain Terms," "Young Bodies Heal Quickly" and "Through a Lens Darkly" among others. However, for now, all eyes are on "Straight Outta Compton" and we have Straus to thank for what many considered an impossible to produce motion picture.

Bill Straus, Producer of "Straight Outta Compton." Photo Courtesy of Justin Cook Public Relations

BILL STRAUS

Thanks for doing this interview with me.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Absolutely. Thank you. I'm really excited about this film and was thrilled to get the chance to talk with you. I want to dive right into things. You know, it was funny and more than a little sad. I woke up this morning and the front page headline was about this officer in Cincinnati. You've got the dual side of that situation. You've got the fact that he was, in fact, arrested. That's rare. You've also got the fact that he was almost immediately able to raise the $100,000 needed to make bail. It just made me think about this film - I mean here's a group that was talking about this stuff 25 years ago and we're still dealing with it.

BILL STRAUS

L.A.P.D. in the 80's was under Gates. Just to give you a personal window into it, I was a New York City kid. I just remember police pretty much almost let you do anything. I went to USC and I was immediately struck, and this was from a white kid at a fancy Los Angeles school, and I was immediately struck by how invasive the police were as opposed to the New York cops. Now, of course, the New York cops have gotten a bad rap now. You can't look at the Eric Garner tape and think that was anything less than appalling, but there was something about the L.A.P.D. under Daryl Gates  in the 80's that was particularly racist. I don't think I'm going out on a limb there. It was palpable. I don't know necessarily what police did in other cities or other towns, but I think for the L.A.P.D. that was the norm. The movie is, for the producers and for Universal, tapping right into the zeitgeist. I think their music was a reaction to that almost police state, especially for young Black kids in L.A. at that time. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's pretty amazing to me. I mean, if you felt it and sensed it and experienced it, then can you imagine what it felt for a young Black man?

BILL STRAUS

Yeah, I truly did. It was different. I mean, obviously, I didn't go through anything like they did. They always made me nervous, whereas I'd almost not even notice the cops on the street in New York. In L.A. to this day, you still get nervous when you see those cop cars driving behind you. It's weird. It's weird out there. Where are you based?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm in Indianapolis.

BILL STRAUS

Yeah, I can imagine there's some stuff there. I don't want to say anything, though. I think I drove through there one day maybe. I do know the history of Indiana a little bit so I can imagine it wouldn't be dissimilar.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I know that this project has been out there for quite a while. Can you talk a bit about how your involvement in it got started?

BILL STRAUS

Yeah, I was an executive at New Line Cinema. I was sort of a short-lived executive because I didn't totally see eye-to-eye with my boss. This guy named Toby Emmerich took over for this guy named Mike De Luca who was a visionary and, in my opinion, was probably the greatest modern studio executive ever. He saw things like Boogie Nights, Austin Powers and Rush Hour. I think I was more of the De Luca mold. He's also from Brooklyn where I grew up. I brought a script to Toby. It was about, I know I'm going way further back than the question by the way...

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's fine. It's great.

BILL STRAUS

It was about the earliest days in Vegas and this junkie genius card player who took Vegas by storm after being a gypsy on the Lower Eastside. Toby looked at me and was like "This is something that De Luca would have done, but I would have not made Boogie Nights."  I was like "Okay, I"m not working for the right dude here." I think he might have felt the same way about me a little bit. I ended up kind of a small fry producer working out of the offices of a company called Circle of Confusion, at that time they were known for representing the Wachowski brothers. They had just opened a West Coast division and I was working out of their offices. Now, they're known for Walking Dead. They've become known like the kings of comic books. The script was submitted to me because I had a history from my high school days of being around B-boying, what's now called hip-hop, and I've definitely always looked for films where hip-hop meets film both at New Line and the one I just described to you. John Singleton and I were friends in college kind of because I was part of that early hip-hop scene, peripherally, but still experienced it in a very real way. We were kind of like best friends. I was always around where hip-hop meets film. I think the film was submitted to me for that reason. The film was originally submitted to me before anyone. I had just started going to Sundance. I was at Sundance and I was staying with the people from Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule in the same condo. I said to my good friend there "Wow, I just got a script about N.W.A." He said "Don't waste your time." I can't substantiate any of this, but others had tried to do it. Ice Cube, apparently, had tried to do it. Jerry Heller had tried to do it. Who else? I'm forgetting someone. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard from Imagine had apparently tried to do it. The widow was not willing to give up the music rights. I heard this from other people to. I feel real weird saying this to the press, because I've never seen any submission letters or anything. My friend was like "Don't waste your time. It's impossible to get music rights."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I wondered about that. I read that it took quite a while.

BILL STRAUS

It took two years. One of the writers happened to be a documentarian and he was at Sundance this year. I was a little producer. It was submitted to me by a little agent from a little agency. To me, it's kind of remarkable where it came from. I went in there and looked at the writer and I was like "This is all good, but nobody can get to Eazy-E's widow for the music rights. I like the script, but what else you got?" He had just done a documentary about Suge Knight called Welcome to Death Row and he said "I might some people in the course of making that documentary so before we discard it let me make some calls." Then, David Engel from Circle of Confusion read it and he loved it. We started to map out a strategy to get it to Tomica. It was almost like a war room or a jigsaw puzzle or something like that. We'd send Leigh (writer Leigh Savidge) out, because he had a certain energy and he was good with people. He'd go meet with people and come back with more facts and more knowledge and more connections of people to go interview next. It was a two year process of one interview leading to the next leading to the next. All the while, we were sort of improving upon Leigh's original script and focusing it so it portrayed Eazy-E in the right way so that, in theory, when we got to Tomica it would create a reaction and she would like the script. After two years, we got the script to Tomica. She and Leigh really connected, because she really loved the script. Then, she came to our office. It was 2004 that the script was first submitted. She came to David and my's office with Leigh in 2006 and it was just kind of a remarkable moment. She's very guarded. When Eazy-E died, I think she had a lot of people coming at her and trying to get things from her. She was very guarded for the first hour, but she was there for three hours and she kind of took off her shoes. She started crying. She really opened up to us. It was soon after that she attached her name to the script. The movie that's on the screen right now doesn't so much reflect that script. It does and it doesn't. I'll get into that in a bit, but I think what we accomplished there was sort of profound. It was a big deal in terms of getting this movie made. Then, we sold it to New Line. So, we were the ones to first get the music rights and we were the ones to first sell it. New Line, of course, is my old company.

I heard that Toby didn't believe we had the rights and was like "Bullshit, yeah if they really have them sure we'll buy it." They bought it and they got it. That's 2006. So, between 2006 and 2015 it's a bit of a different story. It's one that I wasn't as privy to. New Line was like "We've got to bring in Cube and Dre." Dre took about six or seven years to bring into the fold. He was resistant for a long time. I think it was really only a couple years ago that he came into the fold. Cube came in and kind of from the moment that Cube and his partner came in, they kind of took over. Normally, it would be kind of insulting to a producer but this is a different situation because it's a story about your life. Also, Cube is a real movie producer.

There was really a point in 2011 where it could have died if it wasn't for Cube's relationship with Universal. The success of Ride Along had a lot to do with this movie getting made. What happened from 2006 when we sold it to 2012 - they still had to do the music deal with Tomica. She was attached, but that didn't mean that the deal was done. They had to do our producing deal. They had to deal Cube's producing deal. They had to do the writers' deals. There were so many deals that were getting made for the first 2-3 years that it was 3-4 years before there was another writer that was hired. That was Andrea Borloff. That must've been about 2008. It was not long after that F. Gary Gray came on. By the time that everything had come together so that New Line could make it, New Line got folded into Warner Brothers. The green light decision became Warner Brothers'. This kind of thing happens a lot. Nine years is a long time, but it's not necessarily unusual for it to take that long.

Warner Brothers, in 2012, they kept saying they were going to make it then they'd change their mind. I have this theory that maybe Aurora had something to do with it. I don't know if you're old enough to remember when Boyz n' the Hood and New Jack City came out, but there was a lot of violence. I don't know about the tone of this movie, but there's definitely the police brutality stuff. I honestly just saw it recently for the first time. That might be what Warner Brothers was thinking. I don't think they wanted that right after Batman. It was right after the Batman/Aurora shooting that they said "We're not doing this."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, they sold it to Universal?

BILL STRAUS

Universal was kind of waiting in the wings. I think Cube and Matt Alvarez really saved it. I love the movie and they were just really cool with us. We got to hang out on the set. They've been just very cool with us. I think it's because we took a hands-off approach and let them make their movie about them. It's great. I also think we had a really profound contribution. Tomica is tricky and the fact that we were originally able to bring her to the table I think was a big deal.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

When you think about it, it's easy to understand Tomica's resistance. This really is a story that could so easily be exploited.

BILL STRAUS

Yeah. Remember I said I was going to tell you a little bit more about that?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah.

BILL STRAUS

One of the great things they did...and I think it just works great in the movie. Our draft was a little bit more dramatic. It focused a little more on Eazy-E and I'm sure you know that he died of AIDS. Our draft focused more on him and a little on Jerry Heller, the manager. All of that stuff is still in the movie, but there's a lot of great stuff added about Cube and Dre that I think gives it more dimension. I'm really proud to be associated with it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I don't think I'd really thought about how hard it would be to get everyone involved in it. When I first started thinking about our conversation today, I found myself thinking about how long it had taken to come together. Do you know why Dre was resistant to it initially?

BILL STRAUS

Yeah, you know, I think he didn't like the scripts. I think he didn't like the first couple of scripts. It took Dre a long time to come around. I think the young actors are so good.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah, totally. I mean, getting Cube's son to play Cube.

BILL STRAUS

Oh my god, he's great. It's eerie. All the actors did a great job. Even some of the peripheral guys are great, like the guy plays Yella. The guy who played Ren was great. The guy who played Suge Knight was fuckin' terrifying. Paul Giamatti's at his best. It's really great. F. Gary Gray is one of those directors that I think people have been sleepin' on. They won't be sleepin' on him anymore. He's made some great movies, but I think this one's going to be a game-changer for him.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You talked about the violence. Does it make you nervous at all that the film is coming out right in this current climate?

BILL STRAUS

I don't know. I was there for the L.A. riots. I think that would be the worst case scenario of what could happen. I think I'm probably blowing it way out of proportion for what could happen, but in some ways I thought that was a good thing. I'm sure there's some who disagree with me, but I thought the L.A. riots was a good thing. It was a growing up thing, a moment when our country grew up a little. I think what could come of it could be healthy. I don't want to see people die or lose their lives or anything but, like, the French Revolution was a good thing, right?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I get your point. When you look at N.W.A. and the things they were saying as a band over 25 years ago and you realize that we're still dealing with those exact same things right here and right now. Yet, there's no question they had an impact. You may have disagreed with them, but they made you think about it. They made us talk about it. They said things that weren't being said. There were people loved it. There were people who were terrified of it.

BILL STRAUS

What's fascinating is how relevant it is now. They seemed like they were before their time. It's kind of crazy that we made this last year before Ferguson. I think we made this before Ferguson. Actually, I think Ferguson had already happened when it was getting made. I think you could go back to the Watts riots. Weren't those set off by a cop? I think that was set off by police brutality. It's not necessarily a new theme, but I think people feel like in 2015 it shouldn't be an issue anymore.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I can remember back with N.W.A. and I can think of any number of other artists who've been known for their anger or their quest for justice or boldly speaking out and it seems like we like to pigeonhole these artists. We call them angry or we seem to sort of reduce them to what gets portrayed in the media as sort of a blind rage. With N.W.A., it's impossible to not look at how these men have grown up. I mean, obviously, Eazy-E has passed on but both Dre and Cube have built incredible careers. These are obviously intelligent, thoughtful men who've built business empires and that's not something you do, at least not effectively, if you're only driven by this blind rage. These were not random angry men. These were intelligent young men who learned how to use that anger and their strong voices. To me, that's pretty incredible. I see that in Ferguson. I see young men and women who know that there's a better way and amidst that rage at injustice I see a drive to build a better community and a better way of life.

BILL STRAUS

When you see the movie, you can really kind of see who they were as teenagers and how they grew up. I think Cube and Eazy sort of had that business sense about them, but I think Dre had to take some lumps and learn it. He was an artist. All he really wanted to do was make some beats and I think he kind of expected everyone to be taking care of stuff for him. The movie goes into that a little bit. Now, Dre's more successful than I'll ever be.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

On the flip side, I've seen some comments from those who are concerned that the film glosses over certain aspects of their stories, both collectively and individually. For example, violence against women. Do you think that's a fair observation? Do you think that was an intentional choice?

BILL STRAUS

That it glosses over that? So, you read the reviews this morning?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I've read a couple reviews and commentaries. I've done a lot of work in the areas of domestic violence and violence toward women and I found myself wondering if the film would address those issues and, if so, how.

BILL STRAUS

I don't know. I thinking about the movie, I can't say it really occurred to me when I was watching it. I think if you were attuned to sexism in a way that I'm not I could see how you could not like some of it. There were a lot of concerns about misogyny in rap during this period. They did address anti-semitism a little more in the movie than misogyny. Having not seen some of the previous cuts, I wouldn't be surprised if that had been in there more. It's two hours and twenty minutes and I don't really know how much that's really what the movie's about.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That was kind of my take on it...that maybe it was an artistic choice. Please know that wasn't a trick question. It certainly is an area that I'm passionate about.

BILL STRAUS

It was a good one. I'm sure it will come up again. I think we live in a highly sensitive time, you know?

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