Straight Outta Compton: Production, Costume, Hair Design

ANDREA JACKSON (Dreamgirls, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) was brought aboard the production as the head of the hair department. She oversaw the custom-made wigs that established the looks for Jackson, Mitchell and Giamatti. While Jackson and Mitchell rocked the Jheri curl, the slick, curly-styled Afro favored by many African-Americans during the 1980s, Giamatti donned a greying pompadour wig to complete his look.

Wardrobe would be the next step in reinforcing the look for all of the characters. They were in capable hands with Jones, who served as costume designer on the long-running FX series Sons of Anarchy and whose aesthetic borrows heavily from the urban street culture that gave rise to N.W.A. Still, she did copious research, including studying archival stills and video, querying close friends and reading diehard N.W.A fan blogs. Knowing that a rabid fan base still thrives, she wanted to make sure her design choices were as realistic as possible as she helped to visualize the rags to riches story of the world’s most dangerous group.

Key to her approach was maintaining the authentic look of the period while keeping a modern vibe. Luckily, she only had to look as far as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, whose current fashion choices still reflect their connections to the streets. “N.W.A’s strong lyrics spoke for how badass they were, and their straightforward style did the same,” she says. “Simplicity was the key element. They didn’t need to be flashy. East Coast styles tended to be more labeldriven and ostentatious, and I wanted to really illustrate the difference.”

Not immune to the perks of fame themselves, N.W.A would soon wear their gold rope chains and link bracelets, which Jones added to the mix. Still, one caveat remained: The street wear they favored reigned supreme.

The costume designer’s go-to footwear and clothing for the principal cast were Nike Air Force Ones and Cortezes, Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, and Dickies pants and shirts. She added just the right amount of Levi’s, ProClub T-shirts, Pendleton shorts and zip-up track jackets—as well as an abundance of L.A. Raiders gear. She also had to outfit supporting cast and background actors in ’80s and ’90s attire without channeling the cheesy looks for which the era is sometimes known.

A separate wardrobe trailer was brought in to house thousands of pieces of clothing for the hundreds of background actors used for filming. “The good thing is the 1980s and 1990s are back in fashion,” laughs Jones. “I went into a store and saw an entire wall of acid-wash, high-waisted skinny jeans, and all they had in their jewelry case were bamboo earrings.  It was amazing. That helped with dressing the background girls. A few would show up looking like they came straight from an ’80s music video, and I would just tweak it a little. Luckily, for the rest, we had a truck full of ’80s and ’90s awesomeness that we purchased.”

Production designer Valentino was tasked with visualizing the rags-to-riches aspect of the material.  Whether re-creating 1980s Compton—from both modest family homes and crack houses to stages at venues such as Doo To’s and Skateland—or reimagining the pinnacle-of-fame excess of mansions in wealthy enclaves elsewhere in L.A., the accomplished designer had myriad looks to accomplish.

Only a handful of scenes would be filmed on soundstages, as the filmmakers wanted to take full advantage of their Los Angeles-based production and film at other practical locations throughout the San Fernando Valley, downtown and West L.A. Some of the more ambitious work for Valentino included preproduction for scenes involving the 1992 L.A. riots.

While the scenes were actually filmed in one day, they took weeks of preparation. Valentino discusses what was needed to pull off this recreation of a historic time in L.A.: “The biggest challenge was to try and create an environment that worked for the storytelling, while staying true to the tremendous amount of historical documentation. The city of Los Angeles stands as its own character in the film; the texture and tone of this particular set needed to capture the community’s feelings of rage, confusion and protest. We needed to have a focused sensitivity to the material, as well as a strong and coordinated commitment to execution. We could not afford to get any aspect of it wrong.”

The scenes were filmed along a four-block stretch of Laurel Canyon Boulevard in northern San Fernando Valley, where existing buildings retained the look of the period. Gray’s crew designed storefronts that were burned out with broken glass and allowed for many overturned vehicles. Hundreds of background actors were shouting,

“No justice, no peace!” while others playing looters ran amuck and store owners armed with shotguns held their ground on rooftops. Fire trucks, manned by actual L.A. firefighters, sped through the scene to attend to a controlled fire created by the special effects department.

Passersby gathered at the blocked-off areas and were mesmerized by what they were witnessing. The one aspect of filming that the crew and cast could not deny were the dramatic parallels between the violent clashes, pointed arrests and harassment of the young black men of the mid-’80s and the modern-day deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement around the U.S. All were in the hearts and minds of the production as the team re-created violent encounters that inspired much of N.W.A’s music.

Even as production began in South Central locations from Compton to Leimert Park and Crenshaw Boulevard, faces from a past life returned to see their history played out on screen. Once of the biggest tests for the entire production was creating art based on real people who each may have remembered the past differently.

They needn’t have worried, though. A number of their old friends—including Jimmy Iovine, Lonzo Williams, The D.O.C., L.A. Law and DJ Speed—who are featured in supporting roles in the film, stopped by the set and were stunned by their onscreen doppelgangers. Many remarked how they were transported back in time…not just by how the sets looked, but also by the energy and vibe of those early shows and encounters.

For the past several years, Compton has been looking ahead to a rebirth of sorts under the guidance of new leadership, both within the political infrastructure and outside of it. However hard it is to shake the stigma of violence and drugs that plagued the small community, it also has the strong legacy of native sons N.W.A, which looms strong and proud among its citizens.